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How religions establish and change their beliefs:

Part 2:

How religions establish and changing beliefs.
Past Christian changes. Personal obligations.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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How religions establish and change beliefs:

Religious beliefs differ among faith groups and have changed over time. Over the last two centuries a great deal of religious change has concentrated on:


Human slavery.


The role(s), status and rights of women in the home, religious organizations, and the rest of society;


Equal rights for religious minorities,


Equal rights for sexual minorities like gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals, including the right for same-sex couples to marry

Beliefs and policies are often established at the religious, denominational, congregational and individual level on the basis of four factors:


What do the scriptures say, as interpreted by the group or individual?


What have the faith group's historical policies been?


What does one's personal experience say?


What does reason and scientific knowledge tell us?

Conservative wings of religions tend to more heavily weigh the first two factors; the liberal and progressive wings tend to give more importance to the last two factors.

Too often, these four factors lead to conclusions that are in conflict. Often more liberal and more conservative members within a single congregation or denomination will use these criteria and come to opposing conclusions about the teachings of the Bible and God's will.

Unfortunately, many religions and faith groups do not have mechanisms to handle change well without angry debate, and occasionally even schism.

This section describes how religious groups have handled or are handling change and disagreements. Most essays linked to this section's menu deal with three examples of changes -- relating to human slavery, the status of women, and the rights of homosexuals and bisexuals. We hope to add material on changes among faith groups in their teachings and policies on transsexuality in the future as they become clarified. These four moral and ethical conflicts in North America represent a major focus of religious activity over the past two centuries. They are interesting to study because:


The first -- human slavery and its offshoot racism -- is largely settled (although the negative effects of slavery and racism will be with us for generations into the future);


The second -- status of women -- is partly settled; the main institutions that continue to heavily discriminate against women are conservative faith groups and -- to a limited extent -- the military.


The third -- equal rights for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals -- is in full swing;


The fourth - elimination of discrimination of people on the basis of gender identity -- is just surfacing.

Hopefully, study of conflicts and religious changes in the past, will help us understand present-day conflicts; they may help us predict the probable outcome. One rule of thumb is that whenever the conflict is between limited rights or equal rights for a group, the latter position always wins. Slavery was ended. Women were given the vote. Interracial marriages were legalized. Racial segregation and Jim Crow laws were greatly reduced. Women are gaining equality, Same-gender sexual behavior is no longer considered a crime. Same-sex marriage is expanding, etc.

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How Christianity has changed in the past:

In early 2007, The Rev'd Elizabeth Kaeton of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul's in Chatham, NJ wrote an open letter to her fellow Anglicans. She was motivated by the gradually unfolding schism within the worldwide Anglican Communion over whether to include or exclude persons with a homosexual orientation as members with full privileges. Part of her letter notes the progress that the Christian church has made in the past in many areas. She chose three examples:

"For centuries, the church's teaching about the shape of the world was that it was flat, in accordance with what was written in scripture, despite scientific evidence that it was not. People were excommunicated – not to mention tortured, and tried, and sent to jail, and murdered for disagreeing with the official church 'standard' of teaching."

"For centuries, the church's teaching about seizure disorder was that it was demon possession, in accordance with what was written in scripture, despite scientific evidence that it was not. People were excommunicated – not to mention tortured and locked in asylums because the outward manifestation of their lives were contrary to the official church 'standard' of teaching."

"For centuries, the church's teaching about left handedness was that it was a sign of evil, in accordance with what was written in scripture, despite scientific evidence that it was not. People were excommunicated – not to mention tortured and shunned and exiled because the outward manifestation of their lives were contrary to the official church 'standard' of teaching. (My beloved can tell you stories that will raise the hair on the back of your necks about the abuse she and others suffered in Roman Catholic elementary schools because of their left handedness)." 1

We can look at these three conflicts and be somewhat amused at how church leaders were so out of touch from reality in the distant past. We often lose sight of how harmful this gap between reality and church teaching was to the churches' victims at the time. It is even more difficult to see where present-day gaps are creating and injuring victims today.

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Personal obligations regarding change:

One of the most important themes in Christian writings -- both canonical and extra-canonical -- is the Golden Rule. Some examples:

bullet "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12, King James Version.

bullet "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31, King James Version.

bullet "...and don't do what you hate...", Gospel of Thomas 6. The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that were widely accepted among various groups of early Christians, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures.

This commandment to treat other people fairly and decently is called the Ethic of Reciprocity. It is found in all of the major world religions, in secular systems of ethics, and in philosophical systems.

Applying the Golden Rule is relatively easy when a consensus exists about what comprises fair and decent treatment of other people. But, too often, Christianity and other religions are divided over how to properly treat women and various minorities.

WARNING: The remainder of this essay contains personal opinions.

The author of this essay suggests that it everyone has an obligation to study carefully all viewpoints about the treatment of women and minorities. We should thoughtfully and prayerfully determine which is the honorable and decent path forward. As Elizabeth Kaeton wrote above on the shape of the earth, the causes of epilepsy, and left handedness, religious groups have often taken the wrong path. Their batting average when applying biblical principles to everyday life has been abysmal. We may have to make the difficult decision to reject our own denomination's teachings in favor of a higher standard of morality. Our conscience may even prod us to actively advocate for change within our religious and political institutions.

Elizabeth Kaeton suggests how Christians should respond to the current controversy over lesbian/gay/bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) rights. She appears to have determined on the basis of her personal experiences and the findings of human sexuality researchers that the historical position of the Anglican Communion on LGBT rights has been wrong. Other sincere, devout, intelligent Christians may reach the opposite conclusion. Either way, her final point below seems to be a valid one. As appliers and promoters of the Golden Rule, Christians and followers of other religions, etc. need to be very certain that the traditional policies of their denominations are valid before continuing to accept them. Since the Golden Rule is present in all world religions and non-religious ethical systems, everyone has an obligation to be certain that we are promoting the correct position.

Kaeton writes:

"As we have learned from the evils of slavery, racism, sexism and the ignorance which once taught that the world is flat, people who have seizure disorders are possessed of demons, and left handed people are the scribes of Satan: when the dignity of any human being is compromised or insulted, a mortal wound is created in the Body of Christ."

"I think our Baptismal Covenant has something to say about 'the dignity of every human being,' as does the Outline of Faith (commonly called The Catechism). Who will take responsibility for the damage that is done while a deficient standard is upheld and promulgated in the church? Knowing what we know about the irrationality of prejudice, who could claim innocence? Knowing what we know about LGBT people and social sciences and lived experience, why isn't the church's 'standard of teaching' being challenged -– if not absolutely rejected? And, what price are we willing to pay for the damage done to the Sacred Body of Christ while we wait?"

"If nothing else, these questions underscore what I see as the need for a Season of Discernment, Study and Prayer so that we are very, very clear what it is we are being asked to do." 1

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above menu. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. John Shelby Spong, "A second look at the first of the five fundamentals: The inerrant Bible," "A New Christianity for a New World" subscription service, 2006-APR-04.

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Copyright © 2006 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-MAY-29
Enlarged: 2007-APR-05
Latest update: 2012-JUN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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