Religion Today

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Calamity and the Nature of Evil

Like the old Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami has caused thousands of deaths, a humanitarian crisis and a nuclear emergency. Grass-roots protests in the Arab world have caused a change of government in two countries, shootings of protestors in several more, and a civil war in Libya that has dragged world powers into military action.

While Americans are only indirectly affected by these events, the people living in these countries are suffering. Many have had their lives and their livelihoods disrupted, lost loved ones, been injured, been fired upon and lost homes and possessions.
In Christianity and many world religions, human suffering is caused by evil. Can we identify a source of evil in these events?
In Japan, the disaster was caused by natural forces. Pressure built up at the meeting place of two tectonic plates and they shifted, which then caused an earthquake, the flooding of the tsunami and massive death and destruction. There was no mind, no consciousness, no thought to cause suffering; it just happened. Can something be evil if there is no intention? If so, does that mean that nature is inherently evil? Hmmm.
Maybe this is the way to conceive it: The events of the earthquake and tsunami are evil. Their impact on humans is evil. But their cause (i.e., nature) is not evil, at least not inherently. If so, then that also means that something that can cause evil can also bring about benefits. Tectonic plate movement and its associated volcanic activity (Japan has lots of volcanoes) created the Japanese islands in the first place. That's beneficial. So a natural force, such as nature, can cause both good and evil events, but is not inherently good or evil in itself.
The damaged nuclear reactor in Japan has caused a lot of suffering. Is technology evil? Again, I think technology, whether modern or ancient technology such as an ax, is neither good nor evil in itself. Technology can bring about benefits, such as electricity or piles of wood, or it can cause evil, such as radiation poisoning or injury.
What about human causes of evil? In the Middle East, people are rebelling against their governments, trying to bring them down. Why? Have not these governments done good things like building schools, picking up the trash, and maintaining law and order? Perhaps. But these benefits are outweighed by the bad things they have done: Restriction of individual rights and freedoms, theft and bribery, and unjust arrest and abuse. The list goes on.
But in Tunisia and Egypt, for example, the people found that their governments' bad actions dwarfed the good ones. So they decided the governments in power were evil and needed to be removed. In each country, the citizens intend to establish a new, democratic government more responsive to their needs and hopes. So governments, as forms of organization, are not inherently evil. They may carry out both beneficial and evil actions. But if they carry out too many harmful acts, then any benefits they may convey come at too high a cost.
Are individual humans necessarily evil? Are people who cause harm and suffering evil by nature? On a day-to-day basis, the actions of most people average out on the good side. They love their families and look after them; they do their jobs and try to help their employers be successful; they have friends whom they help in times of need.
But what about a soldier who shoots into a crowd and kills or injures people? Or the officer or the political leader who orders the soldier to shoot? Do they not go home at night to their loving family? Do they not have friends? Do they not do good as well? At some point, whatever their intentions and other actions, do they not harm enough people and cause enough suffering that even if they are not inherently evil, they should be treated as such?
We live a world that produces few people or things that are evil by nature. Most are neutral and capable of producing both beneficial and evil actions, events or results. The world is not black and white, where we can get rid of the black and keep only the white. It is gray, and capable of producing both. We should enjoy the white but guard against the black.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Is Christianity Successful?

The question of question whether or not Christianity is successful depends on how success is measured. Why not treat the question as a horse race and ask "what is the biggest religion?"
By this approach, Christianity is way out in front. General consensus among the bean counters is that Christianity has approximately 2.1 billion members while the next largest world religion, Islam, comes in at just 1.5 billion. At 900 million, Hinduism forms the third largest religion. Estimating the number of adherents on a world scale is quite difficult, but these are fairly reliable numbers, give or take a couple hundred million.
At about a third of the world's population, Christianity constitutes the world's largest religion. That means it is the most successful, right? 
Well, it depends on the definition of Christian. To arrive at 2.1 billion, the experts included every person or group of people who self-identify as Christian. They did not make judgments beyond that about who is or who is not a Christian. So if you believe that some people who call themselves Christians are not, that they do not count (pun intended), then the number of Christians in the world will be significantly smaller.
Christianity has a history of not being inclusive. In the first few centuries, Christians created a variety of beliefs about the nature of God and Jesus. When Christianity began its official organization under Emperor Constantine and his successors in the fourth century, it began by formalizing doctrine, that is, beliefs to which members had to assent, and then declaring other beliefs to be heresies.
For example, the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century agreed that God was Three-in-One: the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Those who did not agree were deemed heretics and excluded from the Christian Church. This led to the formation of churches such as the Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox churches. These churches continue today and are included in the population count just mentioned.
Conversely, Protestant Christianity began as a rejection of Catholicism and many Protestants today still do not consider Catholics to be Christians. By this standard, then, Christianity is actually smaller than Catholicism, for if the 1.1 billion Catholics are not counted, then there are only one billion Christians left. That is also significantly fewer members than Islam, which would suggest that Christianity is not so successful.
Of the one billion non-Catholic Christians, only 600 to 700 million are Protestants. Out of these, 75 million belong to the Anglican Church, the largest organized Protestant denomination. Liberal Protestants make up about 150 million, while conservative Protestants are approximately 200 million, along with about 105 million Pentecostalists. If these last two groups make up the classification known as Evangelical Protestants, then there are just slightly more that 300 million of them, which is about 15 percent of the 2.1 billion Christians worldwide.
The following branches of Christianity make up the bulk of the remaining 300 to 400 million Christians: 110 million members of indigenous Christian churches in Africa, 90 million Russian Orthodox, 20 million Greek Orthodox, 12 million Mormons, about a million and a half members of "New Thought" churches such as Unitarianism and Christian Science, and roughly 300,000 Quakers. While Greek and Russian Orthodox adhere to Christianity's most traditional beliefs, other groups such as Quakers, Mormons and the African churches have reformulated those beliefs in various ways.
The point is this: Christianity can be considered a success at bringing souls to Christ only if an extremely broad definition of Christianity is used. Otherwise, the best that can be said is that only a bit more than half of those considered Christians by this count (i.e., Catholics) have gained salvation. The debate over who is really a Christian has a key impact on the success of God's plan for the salvation of humanity is understood. The narrower the definition of "Christian," the less successful God's plan has been.
Note: The population figures in today's column come from