Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why do Americans believe so many different things?

The Pew Forum has put out an absolutely fascinating report about a survey they recently conducted in which they wanted to analyze how much and in what ways Americans "mix" aspects of different religions. This report has me captivated since I feel like I am reading a report about religious belief of Christians in the second century.

The argument I have been developing about second century Christians is that they were eclectic, and that gnosticism was an amalgamation of Egyptian astrology and religion, Greek mysteries and Hermetism, middle Platonic philosophy, Judaism and Christianity, with its constituents comfortable attending more than one religious house or being part of a multiple of religious bodies. It is exactly the kind of 'hybrid' that we are seeing today, and may have been seeing since the 1800s. I think it has something to do with 'internationalization', when a variety of religious traditions become available for consumption within a given culture at a given point in history.

I will be returning to this report and analyzing it carefully, and expect to post more thoughts on it. For now I just want to bring it to your attention because it is so fascinating and representative of the religion of no religion that is sweeping America.

7 comments:

Rebecca said...

By the way, congratulations on your new mayor!

Pastor Bob said...

I haven't read the whole report either but the section on astrology doesn't surprise me. Archeologists have found early synagogues and (I believe)churches with astrological signs in them. Luther is said to have believed in astrology. It certainly shows up in Shakespeare. And newspaper editors say it is the one thing that they would never leave out of the paper because too many people would complain.

I think astrology is an ongoing eclectic tradition in Western religions.

The data on reincarnation are much more interesting and telling about the effect of Eastern religions on Americans.

Don said...

Hi April, I've long thought something similar though I'm just an Internet amateur with an interest in metaphysics and religious worldviews.

Like you, I see parallels between the 18th Century BE and the period leading up to the First Century CE. Both periods involved an expanding empire that allowed diverse populations to trade ideas: the Roman Empire and the British Empire.

But I see another parallel: a new philosophical direction in both periods that dominated the thinking of the times. In the period leading up to the First Century, it was Middle Platonism. In the 18th Century, it was science.

New ideas had to be tested against the new philosophies. Out of this came Second Century "philosophical" Christianity, adapting to Middle Platonism and later the new-Platonism.

In the 19th Century, Christianity adapted again, and out of it came the Creationists and the New Atheists in the 20th Century, as well as Psychical Research, Atlantis, Theosophy. This is religion conforming to science, where ideas need to be tested against methodological naturalism.

I've often thought that the next great religion was born in the 19th Century. I'm just waiting for the New God to appear. :)

lightseeker said...

Hi Pastor Bob, here's food for thought on reincarnation, a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" sort of issue...

When I was 20 years old, I had two mystical experiences regarding how I died in 2 past lives (drowning in a sinking ship in the late 18th century - I was a young English woman, and burning in a house fire in the US south in the 1920s - I was a little black girl about 7 years old!). That was before I ever had any interest in Eastern religions. It was afterward, BECAUSE of these experiences and others, that I began to study mysticism and religion. (I was raised in the Episcopal Church and no-one in my family believed in reincarnation - it was never mentioned in my family!). The experiences came first, and they, by the grace of God, expanded my cosmological worldview and beliefs (exploded my limiting beliefs wide apart!) and set me on the path of my spiritual journey.

Edgar Cayce is a prime example of the experience (inner knowledge) coming in spite of religious upbringing that does not teach reincarnation (a Southern Baptist from Kentucky if I recall correctly), and no prior influence of Eastern religious thought. He himself was at first shocked when in his readings for others, info about past lives surfaced. It flew in the face of what he was taught to believe!

In many cases, yes, westerners may be influenced by what they learn from reading or hearing about Eastern religions and philosophy, but with cases like mine where the inner experience came prior to any external learning or influence, it makes one wonder...


I believe all religions contain kernels of truth; however, they may be expressed differently due to cultural differences and geographical barriers. Reincarnation is one of those kernels of truth.

Even the ancient Israelites believed righteous men/prophets could be reincarnated. Any soul that had been exalted to heaven or "raised up" to "walk with God" (was not sleeping in Sheol) could incarnate again. Even the Word was believed to have incarnated (as Jesus). So if the soul can be raised up to heaven in leading a righteous life as Jesus taught and led by his own example, why should that soul not have the opportunity to reincarnate in another time and space if it so desires? (God gives all souls free will.)

Are we not all expressions/Images of the One Mind of God, manifest in human flesh? And when the body dies, do we not reunite with the Godhead, as individual raindrops flowing into a vast ocean? And can we not be expressed yet again in different human bodies for new and differnet human experiences for the purpose of Spirit's learning and growth? If we believe souls are eternal, and if God recycles the entire Universe - everything from the tiniest spec of dust or organic material to entire galaxies! - in an endless cycle of death and rebirth (re-creation), why should souls also not be "recycled" as part of a divine plan for the soul's journey toward expanded consciousness?

To spend eternity in a "heaven" or "hell" seems like a childish, limited belief, not to mention a stagnant waste from an eternal, spiritual viewpoint. Even heaven might get boring for all eternity. And according to Cayce, we (souls or "entities") have even reincarnated in different planetary systems over millions of years (as different life forms and in dimensions/planes beyond our known 3 dimensions!). Yes, the soul - consiousness as an extension of God - is eternal, non-local and multi-dimensional! :-)

So which came first - external learning of reincarnation and thus acceptance of it as mere belief, or perhaps reincarnation has been the reality all along, and modern westerners (weaned on science and the "age of reason") are just catching on to it? Or finally catching up with Eastern thought -- the ancients may have been right all along...

Peace,
Lightseeker

mac said...

I submit that todays' religious followers of beliefs categorized as "New Age" are following concepts that are generally not "New" at all. Ordinary believers don't seem to comprehend that many elements of "New Age" beliefs existed long before in previous centuries and that many of these beliefs were effectively hidden or suppressed (occult) from the view of the multitudes. So now, Inquiring folk of today seem to be exploring or seeking ways to re-discover or re-connect with much of this lost and hidden knowledge. Indeed, modern religious times may begin to look like the second century again.

Steve Wiggins said...

It is my experience that many religious believers have no idea what their religion actually teaches. Our religious culture, especially in the United States, is a marketplace religion that involves shopping, trying new brands, and ending up with the one you like the best. I know Presbyterians who don't believe in predestination and Baptists who drink when the chance presents itself. In this culture a mixing of religions is inevitable.

Green Monk said...

I think some of what was criticized as being "New Age" in fact is something common and really has been active historically. People have been mixing, combining, and redefining their spiritual beliefs and practices for ages now it seems.