How religions change their mind

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Once upon a time, animal sacrifice was an important part of Hindu life, Catholic priests weren't celibate and visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were part of Islamic art. And soon some churches in the UK may be marrying gay couples. How do religions manage to change their mind?


In 1889, Wilford Woodruff became the fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – more commonly known as the Mormon Church.

As president, he was seen as a living prophet, someone who could receive wisdom and advice from Jesus Christ. And he was certainly in need of advice – his church was in crisis.

For 40 years, Mormons had been at loggerheads with the US Congress over the issue of polygamy, which was encouraged among male believers. The government said it was illegal, and held that religious conviction was no defence.

Woodruff and others lived a precarious life, moving around in an attempt to dodge marshals with arrest warrants for bigamy. In 1890, the government brought things to a head by moving to confiscate all of the church's assets.

It was then, Woodruff said, that Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision and showed him the future of the Mormon Church if the practice wasn't stopped – and it wasn't pretty. Although he did not renounce plural marriage, he issued a manifesto banning it.

Written By: William Kremer
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

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  1. This may be true for certain religions about certain things. However, there are things about many religions that haven’t changed in over a millennium – and given the “immortality” of digital information now – likely never will. For examples, the compulsions to pray 5 times a day and fast in Ramadhan for Muslims. I’m not talking about what some Westernized Muslims may or may not do. I’m talking about what the religion actually teaches in its books and how it is taught in religious schools everywhere. The same holds true (perhaps to a lesser degree) for other religions as well. In other words, let’s not hold our breaths waiting for major changes.

    • In reply to #1 by joost:

      This may be true for certain religions about certain things. However, there are things about many religions that haven’t changed in over a millennium – and given the “immortality” of digital information now – likely never will. For examples, the compulsions to pray 5 times a day and fast in Ramadhan…

      That is the point of the OP. Things are changing all the time regardless of what nonsense is in the scriptures. It was far game to keep slaves in both Judaism and Christianity… not so much now. Apostates where to be put to death in Christianity and Judaism according to scripture, but ya don’t see much of that now either. These things have only left the older Abrahamic faiths in the last three centuries or so. Islam has a few centuries to go before it catches up with the older bollocks.

      • In reply to #10 by Ignorant Amos:

        That is the point of the OP. Things are changing all the time regardless of what nonsense is in the scriptures. It was far game to keep slaves in both Judaism and Christianity… not so much now. Apostates where to be put to death in Christianity and Judaism according to scripture, but ya don’t see much of that now either. These things have only left the older Abrahamic faiths in the last three centuries or so. Islam has a few centuries to go before it catches up with the older bollocks.

        I’m sorry, realistically, I just don’t see the five tenets of Islam changing… ever. As long as Islam is protected by the state, it will thrive and continue to indoctrinate. There’s something about Islam that’s unlike the other religions. The month of Ramadhan is coming up soon. You won’t find an imam on the planet who will say you don’t have to fast if you don’t want to (including on any of the Web’s 10 billion pages). Over a billion Muslims worldwide will be fasting. Not because it’s some fantastic spiritual experience but largely because they believe they will be punished severely by Almighty god if they don’t.

        You might catch some Muslim friends of yours not fasting, but not a single living one will tell you with a straight face it’s actually okay (unless they have never ever been taught the religion, that is). Or they are actually a closet atheist and hoping to pull a fast one on you to get you off their back. It’s incredibly easy to spot a “Muslim” atheist. They will be slacking off on the daily prayers and fasting and WILL be noticed soon enough by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The only reason they are still alive at that point is because of their assumed adherence to the first tenet of Islam and because their brethren are hoping they will repent and get back to practising the faith. They will never truly be left alone to not pray and not fast.

  2. “These houses that are designed in the West have no gender segregation. If you’re having a Muslim-only party and then you have women who want segregation, then it is very complicated,”

    Yes, segregation exists because women want it. Religions change when it is a matter of survival, when society has moved on either intellectually or ethically in such a way that the religion has to adapt or die. This can be a very slow process and religions will fight tooth and nail to avoid changing, especially when they perceive the change to weaken their power.

  3. Religions are forced to change with the times in order to try and remain relevent. Any religion incapable of change, dies and falls to the wayside. Look at the Catholic Church. All of a sudden they make these claims such as they now accept evolution, and such. IMO, this is just a ploy by them to both gain and retain adherents. They’re trying to seem progressive.

  4. The problem all organised religions have is that once they set out their dogma, its fixed forever. If they revise it, they are openly admitting that they are just making things up as they go (and always have been). No matter what spin they give such a revision, it still remains proof they were wrong the first time, and are changing now only in order to prevent their own destruction

  5. For Muslims, the last prophet, the Prophet Muhammad, died almost 1,400 years ago. So it’s the ulama, a class of legal scholars, who rule on contentious points of Islamic or sharia law based upon a careful scrutiny of fundamental sacred texts

    Wait… who decided they’d do it that way, or who gets to be in the ulama, or who picks them, or what methods they use, or what to do when they disagree, or their pattern of conclusions correlates with geography? Either you make stuff up as you go along or you don’t. Even if you “use the book” to do it, there’s still something independent of the book going on, unless all the ulama rules are in the Koran et al. I bet they’re not.

    Radios, loudspeakers and telephones were forbidden for Muslims 100 years ago – one story relates how a Saudi king instructed a cleric to recite the Koran down the phone to another scholar to prove the invention was not corrupting

    Were they worried the words would magically get changed? What would have wrought such a magic – Satan? Does his magic only work on technology invented after the 18th century?

    at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the ulama there said that birth control was haraam, but now the use of condoms is encouraged, with state-supported condom factories and pre-marital family planning lessons.

    I doubt Allah changed His mind in the space of 34 years. I wonder what percentage of Iranian Muslims, or indeed of Muslims in general, recognize examples like these prove none of the ulama’s verdicts are really known to concord with what Allah wants. Even if Allah exists, this enterprise isn’t working. The same issue also arises in all the other religions. Jehovah wouldn’t change his mind about whether meats other than fish are OK to eat on Fridays.

    “The assumption was that anything from the West was going to undermine Islam,” says Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware.

    Did they literally have to invent everything they’d ever use? This is like some kind of self-inflicted copyright law. What makes this even weirder is it’s not as if Allah expresses in the Koran the kind of racism that would rationalize this policy. I don’t know as much about these things as Khan does; perhaps the actual concern was that anything from outside the House of Islam would undermine Islam, which would fit better, since Allah is particular in his religious demands. But even then, it’s not as if people’s convictions in the revelations of their religion are shaken by them importing international inventions.

    there is a tension between aspects of Western daily life and Muslim teachings… “One of the traditions for Muslim men is to sit and pee,” Khan says, explaining that this was thought to be the best way of preventing spillage that would defile devotees’ clothes before prayers. This is not always possible in the urinal-loving West.

    Firstly, just go in the stalls. Secondly, is a tradition really the same thing as a teaching? I mean, does the Koran actually say “you must urinate seated”?

    “These houses that are designed in the West have no gender segregation. If you’re having a Muslim-only party and then you have women who want segregation, then it is very complicated,” he says, adding that he missed three or four of his son’s birthday parties as a result.
    Can people really not just close a door? Thinking about the layout of my own house, it would be easy to arrange. I suppose the crucial criterion is, are there at least two rooms in the house in which food can be served? It’s more of a problem for those in the West with smaller homes.
    Rational ‘bias’

    By definition, a bias is irrational. Reading on, Armstrong means “a bias toward thinking a text means what it says, whether trusted or thereby critiqued”. The problem with any other way to do it is you’ve no way of telling what reading you should be having. A text used for arguments from authority should be critiqued for any interpretation to which it is susceptible.

    [Aquinas et al] would see some of the ways we talk about God as remarkably simplistic. We are reading our scriptures with a literalness which is without parallel in the history of religion, largely because of this rational bias of ours.

    I’m not sure that’s what the issue is, because other explanations abound. Let’s illustrate one with Christianity as an example. Until recently, most people couldn’t read the Bible much, because copies were rare, and the Church limited access to them, and prohibited translation of them into familiar languages. The people who had the most access were the very same people who love non-literal interpretations today – ivory tower theologians. As time passed, people had more access to the Bible, and hence more opportunity to ponder the meaning. And as this was getting into full swing, science was refuting some of these interpretations, which inspired a reactionary bent in those who held them. People are also less likely to interpret it literally if they don’t rely that much on the religion in their lives anyway, as happens when their own society is doing especially well. Islamic societies are doing better in absolute terms than they were 1,000 years ago, but back then the Islamic world was ahead of Europe in many respects, which might explain why they were less literalist than Christians were. It’s hard to think the Biblical discussion of disease is non-literal if you have no other ideas for where to get advice on dealing with the Black death. Oh, a good amount could be said about all this.

    Sometimes Muslims in multicultural societies long for scriptures to be reinterpreted, Khan says. Clerics faced with these decisions have a choice between a literal interpretation of the Koran, or attempting to look beneath the surface for a deeper message.

    It sounds to me like many people don’t agree with their own religion, but want it to meet them, rather than just admitting to themselves that they have some other way to make judgements.

    The key… is to distinguish “principles” that are immutable and “models” that are a product of the time and place the stories were told.

    That will always be an exercise in cherry picking. A holy text says “do these things, not those things”. It doesn’t say “revisit this rule in 100 years by a method of your society’s choosing”. Every time your policies change toward or away from purely what’s on the pages, you’re choosing by your own methods what you consider to be principles or models.

    There is no faithfulness to the message of Islam without evolution in our understanding

    I think Ramadan’s comment here is close-minded. A person who did exactly what the book told them to do would, in fact, be faithful to the message of Islam, whether or not people of different perspectives would also be. This remains true whether that person is alive in the 7th century or the 21st.

    the best example was the Messenger himself never beating a woman

    That doesn’t make any sense. If Mohammed never did something, that doesn’t mean it’s not OK to do it. If it’s permitted, it’s permitted.

    Karma was used to justify untouchability in classical Hinduism

    Now it does something similar in Buddhism.

    “Gandhi’s argument was: ‘You see how karma works? You treated people as untouchable on the basis of their birth, and you have also been treated as untouchables on the basis of your birth.’” In criticising Indians’ traditional interpretation of karma – and showing how they were paying for their poor treatment of untouchables – Gandhi was at the same time invoking and restating the principle of karma.

    What Gandhi was doing is saying that a policy of treating others as untouchable is bad to be on the receiving end of. That’s closer the sentiment of the golden rule than it is to a policy of treating others as untouchable. It’s therefore not a restatement of that principle of karma, but a separate principle altogether.

    “Moses, who was a humble man, says ‘Well, really you know, I’ll take it plain,’” relates Rabbi Burt Visotzky from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “And God says: ‘No – many generations from now there will be a rabbi by the name of Akiva, and he will actually derive Jewish law from the very crownlets on the letters.’” When God shows Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiva teaching, Moses is dismayed because he can’t understand anything. “Built within the Talmud itself – that repository of great law and wisdom of the rabbis – is a notion that things change but it’s still all part of revelation,” says Visotzky.

    So let me get this straight. God did tell us what changes to make later, but he hid it in things that didn’t get copied, but we by coincidence made the right decisions later anyway? That’s ridiculous. God would have just put all of his instructions in the text itself, not just half of them. He certainly wouldn’t have encoded information in a format even Moses couldn’t read.

    As well as his works on physics and astronomy Galileo wrote two tracts on the interpretation of scripture.

    But why should we care what views he, or anyone else, took on this? It’s a mug’s game, played only because all religious people believe there is a book and there are propositions such that, if the book asserts that proposition, the fact that it does justifies believing that proposition. They don’t agree on the details of that, but they all believe it, and that’s why they have to either believe the whole thing or else develop excuses. Why not just admit there are no such reliable book-proposition pairs?

    the scriptures were written to tell us how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go

    I’m sick of people telling me which half of the things the Bible talked about it intended to get right and which half it didn’t, and that it got everything it intended to talk about right. You don’t know any of this. What we do know is it’s been frequently proven wrong but never proven right.

    it is the role of scientifically trained believers to throw themselves into the muddy, difficult process of squaring the church’s teachings with the discoveries of science

    You wouldn’t have to do that if the church was right in the first place. It’s all cherry picking. Just admit the falsity of your religion makes more internal sense. In fact, avoiding such a concession is the central aim of all “interpretation” efforts. The problem isn’t that book X can’t be squared with fact Y (if indeed it can’t be); the problem is there was never a reason to trust X in the first place, so why is anyone even bothering trying to achieve such a squaring to permit them to continue in such trust?

    The question of what to believe – or who to believe – falls, in the end, to believers rather than teachers.

    So what’s the point of organized religion, then? Why not just have billions of people each believing their own religious ideas in a highly idiosyncratic manner?

    We ultimately have to make that creative effort to think for ourselves and puzzle things out for ourselves

    But there is no puzzle. The statement “all religious beliefs are false”, however much it might be resisted, automatically solves all these “problems”. If a solution to a problem is known, it’s not a puzzle; it’s an observation which may or may not have conclusive implications. You can set yourself the challenge of coming up with an alternative, and even the harder challenge of coming up with a more plausible alternative, but don’t pretend the option we already have isn’t pretty good.

    While the answer to the question of how to live might be found using scripture, it won’t be in scripture, she says, just as the ability to drive is not found in a car manual.

    So in that analogy, if the car manual tells you to cut off people in ways that cause accidents, unless they drive the same make of car as you, no-one can ever prove the car manual is stupid, but we must all make up our own minds as to whether it even meant that piece of advice literally?

    “People often think religion is easy,” says Armstrong. “In fact it requires a great deal of intellectual, spiritual and imaginative effort. It’s a struggle that never ceases.”

    But what’s the point? We have a “no problem whatsoever” alternative: it’s called not being religious.

    This article brings home the central reason religion is silly. It’s not that it has insoluble problems with it. It’s that the problems with religion are entirely of believers’ own making, and can be easily fixed by changing certain aspects of our beliefs and behaviour, but people refuse to do that. Take the Problem of Evil as an example. Just admit God isn’t perfect; it goes away. But people won’t admit that.

  6. Interesting. I think the idea of religions being timeless is a myth. Religions do change, just reluctantly and slowly. Religion is often a mirror of the society it exists in, although in modern times it’s often a generation or two behind.

    What complicates change is having old, usually ancient, versions of doctrine enshrined in scripture, leading to an industry of people who look for creative ways to reinterpret that scripture to be in accord with modern science and the modern cultural consensus.

    Then there are the fundamentalists, who consider only the old version to be right and do their best to have others adhere to it. Of course, for most scriptures, even the fundamentalist have to pick and choose their doctrines, since it usually has many contradictions and many old commandments that are not even acceptable to the most hardline conservatives in modern society.

    I think if religion survives, most it will continue changing, probably looking something like religious humanism within a century or two.

  7. From the article :

    “People often think religion is easy,” says Armstrong. “In fact it requires a great deal of intellectual, spiritual and imaginative effort. It’s a struggle that never ceases.”

    Yes indeed it must be quite a struggle for a family which has had enough children to be told by their preacher that they should go on to produce a “quiverful” . He won’t have to pay the bills, change the nappies, lose sleep, find a bigger house and all the other assorted problems of having large families. Huh ! Maybe that’s why European and American Catholics ignore their church’s teachings when it comes to birth control ? A struggle to reconcile their particular brand of hocus pocus with reality ?

    If nothing else, religion has consistently got its explanations for reality wrong. Hardly a basis for sound morality or anything else !

  8. Karen Armstrong states that “the ability to drive is not found in a car manual”. Nor is the knack of flying a modern jet to be found in some ancient heiroglyphics. If driving is a metaphor for steering a course through life, then most of us learn to navigate our way through it without a manual. Besides, when any manual has outlived its usefulness, the natural tendency would be to throw it out.

  9. An excellent article! Reading this should be mandatory before leaving high school. Perhaps it could be incorporated into the English paper for the HSC or equivalent. Students could be quizzed on the direct statements and then asked to look behind the text, to the underlying interpretations and themes. If this doesn’t give young people setting out into the world cause for thought, I don’t know what would.

  10. From source article bbc.co.uk….”People often think religion is easy,” says [Karen] Armstrong. “In fact it requires a great deal of intellectual, spiritual and imaginative effort. It’s a struggle that never ceases.”

    Well – I agree with her about “imaginative.” The rest of the article seems like a load of old cobblers.

    • In reply to #13 by Kevin Murrell:

      From source article bbc.co.uk….”People often think religion is easy,” says [Karen] Armstrong. “In fact it requires a great deal of intellectual, spiritual and imaginative effort. It’s a struggle that never ceases.”

      Well – I agree with her about “imaginative.” The rest of the article seems like a…

      Oh, I disagree! It demonstrates just how flexible the tenets are! The adherents to all religions hold onto these for grim death, and when they can’t be upheld any longer, simply switch to a better/improved interpretation of the text or casually relegate the notions to “old time ” thinking. Or else, continue to cling onto the demonstrable nonsense and call themselves fundamentalists.

  11. “People often think religion is easy,” says Armstrong. “In fact it requires a great deal of intellectual, spiritual and imaginative effort. It’s a struggle that never ceases.”

    I promise, it can.

  12. In reply to #16 by joost:

    I’m sorry, realistically, I just don’t see the five tenets of Islam changing… ever.

    The point here being that doctrine won’t change until it is necessary. Islamic doctrine is and has been changing and adapting since day one and examples of just such changes were given in the OP and that is why there are movements of liberal Muslims within Islam. I don’t see these Muslims as ‘real’ Muslims any more than I see liberal Jews as ‘real’ Jews, or liberal Christians as ‘real’ Christians, but there ya go, it is what it is.

    As long as Islam is protected by the state, it will thrive and continue to indoctrinate.

    Just like Christianity was protected by the state on pain of death to which many found out to their cost. Not now though.

    There’s something about Islam that’s unlike the other religions.

    They all said that at one time…they all died out or adapted. The point of the OP again.

    The month of Ramadhan is coming up soon. You won’t find an imam on the planet who will say you don’t have to fast if you don’t want to (including on any of the Web’s 10 billion pages).

    Perhaps not, but then that is not how it works is it? The actions of the religions adherents drive the changes, kicking and screaming in most cases.

    Over a billion Muslim worldwide will be fasting. Not because it’s some fantastic spiritual experience but largely because they believe they will be punished severely by Almighty god if they don’t.

    Many don’t really believe this to be the case and go through the actions of fasting for other reasons such as taking part in tradition or peer pressure for example. Once the tipping point is reached, even this doctrine will cease to be obligatory. It may take centuries as has been the case with other mandatory rules, but it is just a matter of time. Remember Dan Dennett’s belief in belief.

    You might catch some Muslim friends of yours not fasting,…

    I don’t have any Muslim friends.

    …but not a single living one will tell you with a straight face it’s actually okay (unless they have never ever been taught the religion, that is).

    That just isn’t the case though is it? Muslims not wanting to fast are out there and finding all sorts of reasons why they should be exempt. Once there is a consensus, the rules will be adapted to suit or the religion will struggle to survive. Check out this Muslim forum 12 Excuses why some Muslims don’t fast

    Or they are actually a closet atheist and hoping to pull a fast one on you to get you off their back. It’s incredibly easy to spot a “Muslim” atheist. They will be slacking off on the daily prayers and fasting and WILL be noticed soon enough by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

    Good luck proving that hypothesis.

    The only reason they are still alive at that point is because of their assumed adherence to the first tenet of Islam and because their brethren are hoping they will repent and get back to practising the faith. They will never truly be left alone to not pray and not fast.

    This is clearly not the case and while apostasy is punishable by death in Islam, it is far less inflicted than it once was…which demonstrates how things are changing. Heresy was once punishable by death in Christianity and I bet at the time no one could have conceived of a time when just about everyone in the faith would have been considered heretical by the standards of that time, but there ya go, things have adapted considerably and very few are put to death for Christian heresy these days. Anyone thinking it’s okay are labeled complete fuckwits by the rest of us…oh how the times have changed.

    In Ramadan fast, rule-breakers are pushed underground

    • In reply to #18 by Ignorant Amos:

      In reply to #16 by joost:

      I’m sorry, realistically, I just don’t see the five tenets of Islam changing… ever.

      The point here being that doctrine won’t change until it is necessary. Islamic doctrine is and has been changing and adapting since day one and examples of just such changes were given i…

      Let’s also not completely ignore the possibility of religions (particularly Islam) getting a lot worse in the future… like maybe jihad becoming one of the five tenets (or more likely added as the sixth).

      • In reply to #19 by joost:

        Let’s also not completely ignore the possibility of religions (particularly Islam) getting a lot worse in the future… like maybe jihad becoming one of the five tenets (or more likely added as the sixth).

        Indeed. Many religions have adopted doctrine that is evil in nature…or at least unfavorable. Christianity, originally a Jewish sect, gave us the concept of hell.

        The Catholic church has been inventing all sorts of nonsense in its 1700 years. Celibacy, indulgences, heresy, limbo, etc. and more recently the nonsense that is the immaculate conception.

        Making it up as ya go along has not always been for the best, indeed, in antiquity, it was usually for the worse.

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