Friday, November 03, 2023

The Evolution of Religious Pluralism Refutes Integralist Orthodoxy and Supports Lockean Liberal Christianity

I have long argued that the desire for religious understanding is one of the twenty natural desires of our evolved human nature.  If the good is the desirable, then we can judge the goodness of a social order by how well it secures the conditions for human beings to pursue the satisfaction of those natural desires.  The Catholic integralists will say that a Catholic integralist regime is the best social order because it enforces belief in the one true religion and thus satisfies the natural desire for religious understanding.  But are mistaken because they fail to see that the evolved natural desire for religious understanding is pluralistic in that human beings disagree in what they believe to be the true religious experience of the transcendent world.  

In a new book--All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism--Kevin Vallier has developed this point as the fundamental weakness in integralism:  since religious pluralism is natural to human beings, integralism's attempt to suppress religious pluralism contradicts human nature.  Vallier acknowledges but does not develop Robin Dunbar's evolutionary explanation of this natural religious pluralism.  Neither Vallier nor Dunbar see how this evolutionary science of religious pluralism support's John Locke's liberal theology of Christianity--that since "everyone is orthodox to themselves," there is no set of universal doctrines binding on all Christians; and therefore, there is no orthodoxy strictly speaking that can be properly enforced by government.  

For this reason, a Lockean liberal social order that secures religious liberty is the best regime for promoting the pluralistic pursuit of religious happiness.  It does this by creating a marketplace of religion in which churches compete for customers, and those churches that best satisfy the desire for religious experience increase their share of the market.


Vallier begins by developing what he regards as the two strongest arguments favoring integralism.  But then he counters this with three arguments that refute integralism.  The three arguments against integralism are all rooted in the problem of natural religious pluralism.  Vallier does not see, however, that the problem of pluralism also subverts his two arguments favoring integralism.

The two arguments in support of integralism are the history argument and the symmetry argument.  The history argument is that for many centuries the practice of the Catholic Church has been to strive for a coercive political authority in enforcing Catholic orthodoxy, and the traditional teaching of the Church in authoritative Church documents has supported this practice.  But that history is a history of the Church's attempts to suppress religious pluralism by coercively punishing heretics, apostates, and schismatics.  Far from favoring integralism, this is a history of integralism's failure to achieve any stable agreement on the truth of the Church's view of orthodoxy.

Beginning in the early history of the Christian Church, there have been constant battles with one group of heretics after another.  For example, between AD 150 (with the Marcionist schism) and 1054 (with the Great Schism that separated the Latin Church in the West from the Greek Orthodox Church in the East), there were at least twenty-two major schisms in Christianity.

The Church Councils that met during the first five centuries of Christianity were called to rule against the numerous heresies that sprang up, many of which had to do with how to understand the place of Jesus Christ in the Trinity.  The first Council of Nicaea in 325 ruled against Arianism--the anti-Trinitarianism of Arius, an Alexandrian priest, who believed that while Jesus was the Son of God, he was not equal to God.  The Council of Ephesus in 431 ruled against Nestorianism--the teaching of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, that the incarnate Christ had two separate natures--one divine and the other human--and that Mary was only the mother of the human Jesus, and thus not the Mother of God.  The Council of Chalcedon in 451 ruled against the view of the Coptic Churches that Christ had only one divine nature (monophysitism) and in favor of the view that Christ had two distinct natures, one divine and one human, but united in one person (dyophysitism).  The Coptic Churches continue today in North Africa, the Near East, and Ethiopia.

This persistence of religious pluralism weakens not only the history argument for integralism but also the symmetry argument.  What Vallier calls the symmetry argument is that governments should promote not only the natural goods of human life but also the supernatural goods such as salvation.  Governments should treat these goods symmetrically.  

But Vallier does not see how religious pluralism denies that these goods are symmetrical, because while human beings can agree on the general character of the natural goods, they cannot agree on the doctrines necessary for securing the supernatural goods.

Vallier does see how religious pluralism sustains his three arguments against integralism--the transition argument, the stability argument, and the justice argument.  The transition argument is that Catholic Integralism is infeasible because there is no realistic way to transform modern liberal societies that are religiously pluralistic into integralist societies that coercively enforce Catholic orthodoxy.

The stability argument is that even if a Catholic integralist order could be established, it would be so unstable because of religious pluralism that it would quickly collapse.

The justice argument is that while the integralists rightly recognize the injustice of forced baptism as a denial of religious liberty, they do not see the injustice of denying the liberty of baptized Christians to dissent from the doctrines of the Catholic Church.  Because of the natural human propensity to religious pluralism, any attempt to enforce Catholic orthodoxy in a large community must engage in unjust coercion. 

Vallier summarizes these three arguments against Catholic integralism in one sentence: "You can't get there, you can't stay there, and it's unfair" (226).

For an integralist social order to be feasible, stable, and just, Vallier suggests, grace would have to limit or overpower pluralism, but there is no reason to believe that could ever happen.  In the New Testament, "grace" is the translation for the Greek word charis, which denotes a divine influence upon the heart or what Vallier calls "God's unmerited aid" or "divine favor"--God's gift of faith through which Christians are guided by the Holy Spirit to see the truth of divine revelation, which could never be understood by natural human reason without the divine inspiration of faith (Vallier 2023:  49, 174).  If all, or at least most, people in a society were divinely infused with a faith that would enlighten their minds to embrace the same set of Catholic doctrines about what is necessary for salvation, this would be an integralist social order that would be feasible, stable, and just.  

This is not attainable, Vallier argues, because grace cannot limit pluralism.  On the contrary, grace promotes pluralism, because "heresy first arises from highly observant Christians who receive God's grace" (Vallier 2023: 188-98).   For example, in 1415, Jan Hus, a Catholic priest who sought to reform the Church, was condemned by the Council of Constance to be burned at the stake for heresy.  He sang hymns as he was burned to death.  Hus was a charismatic priest who inspired his followers in Bohemia to defeat five consecutive papal crusades against them from 1420 to 1431--the Hussite Wars.  Hus and the Hussites were intensely pious Christians.  Similarly, Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers were all intensely pious.  Thus does the mystical experience of grace--of being divinely inspired with an experience of the transcendent--often move Christians to dissent from Catholic orthodoxy.


Vallier points to Robin Dunbar--in his How Religion Evolved--as possibly providing the best explanation for religious pluralism as arising from the evolution of religious experience (Vallier 2023: 1, 176).  Dunbar distinguishes between two broad kinds of religion.  The oldest religions that arose in the human evolutionary prehistoric state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are what Dunbar calls "shamanic" or "immersive" religions based on mystical experiences of the transcendent and charismatic shamans.  The newer religions that arose over the past 3,000 years are "doctrinal" religions based on formal ritual practices and theological belief systems.  Dunbar argues that in the doctrinal religions, "beneath the surface veneer of doctrinal rectitude lurks an ancient foundation of pagan mystical religion."  And consequently, the doctrinal religions are always threatened by a constant welling up of cults and sects fired by individual mystical experiences and the religious entrepreneurship of charismatic leaders (1-11, 26, 48, 243-44, 261-62).

I have written about the evolution of religion from the earliest animist mysticism to the later doctrinal theistic religions.  Dunbar distinguishes four or five phases in this evolutionary history that correspond to the expanding population of religious groups (256-61).  I have commented on Dunbar's "social brain hypothesis" as he presented it at the Mont Pelerin Society conference on evolution and liberty in the Galapagos in 2013.  In his evolutionary history of religion, Dunbar applies that idea to explain the natural propensity to religious pluralism.  

In the earliest period of human evolution, humans in very small hunter-gatherer bands of 100-200 individuals living in dispersed camps of 35-50 developed informal animistic religions. They did not have any gods as such, but they did imagine the natural world to be animated by spirits; and they believed that this world of spirits could be experienced through trance.  This animistic religion did not enforce any morality, but it did bind people together in their small bands through their shared religious experience of a transcendent spirit world.  These first human beings had larger brains with more neurons in the cerebral cortex than their primate ancestors.  This gave them a uniquely human mental capacity for symbolic imagination that allowed them to imagine spirit beings with minds similar to theirs.

In the second phase of religion, there arose religious specialists who practiced healing and divination through their special access to the spirit world.  Some of these charismatic shamans would attract followers who wanted to benefit from their special ability to intervene with the spirit world.

In the third phase of this evolution of religion, about 10,000 years ago, as human beings settled into permanent agrarian settlements, the size of their communities exceeded 300-400 individuals.  At this point, they had more formal religions with local gods, and formalized rituals with priests and temples, which provided some top-down collective control over communities that had become too large for social coordination through face-to-face relationships of reciprocal exchange.

In the fourth phase, about 4,000 years ago, societies became much larger with the establishment of the first city-states and empires.  Religion became even more formal and professional in the enforcement of formal ritual practices and theological doctrines.  Religious believers had some sense of belonging to the same religious community, but this membership was not based on any personal knowledge of the other members.

Finally, about 2,500 years ago, in what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, there arose the first monotheistic religions with "Moralizing High Gods" that enforce a doctrinal moral cosmology; and in some cases, with eternal rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

These modern doctrinal religions--including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism--have become global in scale with many millions of members around the world.  This creates a fundamental problem for the doctrinal religions, Dunbar observes, because if human beings have an evolved psychic disposition to live in small, intimate groups rather than large, impersonal groups, the large doctrinal religions will always have to fight against the religious fragmentation into cults and sects led by charismatic entrepreneurs and animated by personal mystical experience of the transcendent.  All forms of religious integralism have had to try--without much success--to coercively suppress this natural religious pluralism (243-64).


John Locke saw the futility and cruelty of the attempts by both Catholic and Protestant integralists to suppress Christian religious pluralism.  His solution to this problem was to propose a reform of Christian theology that would support religious liberty and toleration of religious pluralism.  To do this, he had to reject the traditional understanding of orthodoxy as a particular set of doctrines that was absolutely necessary for salvation.  Instead of this, Locke argued, "everyone was orthodox to themselves," in that everyone must believe in whatever they decided was necessary for them to believe to be saved, but with the understanding that they might be wrong, and that others must be free to believe other doctrines that seemed orthodox to them.  Recently, John Colman has explained this in his new book--Everyone Orthodox to Themselves: John Locke and His American Students on Religion and Liberal Society.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke claimed that the preaching of Jesus and His apostles in the New Testament made it clear that salvation required believing in only one doctrine--that Jesus is the Messiah.  This one doctrine was simple and clear enough to be understood by everyone, even the great multitude of uneducated and illiterate people to whom the gospel was directed.  

There are many other doctrines in the Bible that are so hard to understand, perhaps even beyond ordinary human understanding, that there have been endless controversies over their meaning, which has produced conflict among Christians about what set of doctrines should count as orthodoxy.  But once one sees that these disputed doctrines are not absolutely necessary for salvation, then one can say that as long as they believe that Jesus was the Messiah, we can allow Christians to decide for themselves whether they need to believe those other doctrines that have been debated.

This will allow us to say, as Locke did in the opening of his Letter Concerning Toleration, that "toleration is the chief characteristic mark of the true church," and that all Christians should be free to decide what is orthodox for themselves.


This Lockean liberal regime of toleration and religious liberty creates a marketplace of Christianity in which churches compete for members.  Even before the full opening up of that marketplace in the modern liberal regimes, there has always been a somewhat restricted marketplace of religion.  For example, the Protestant Reformation can be seen as a successful penetration of a religious market dominated by a monopoly firm--the Catholic Church.  The Catholic reaction in the Counter-Reformation continued the competitive process with doctrinal and organizational innovations to make the Catholic Church more competitive (Ekelund, Hebert, and Tollison 2006).

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark (2014) have shown how the history of religion in the United States can be understood as a free market economy of religion based on the Lockean principle of religious voluntarism.  Churches in America have competed for adherents by evolving to satisfy the changing demands of religious consumers.

In all of this, we see the cultural evolution of the Christian churches to serve the natural desire for religious understanding in the pluralistic pursuit of religious happiness.


Colman, John. 2023. Everyone Orthodox to Themselves: John Locke and His American Students on Religion and Liberal Society.  Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Dunbar, Robin. 2022. How Religion Evolved, and How It Endures.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Ekelund, Robert B., Jr., Robert F. Hebert, and Robert D. Tollison. 2006.  The Marketplace of Christianity.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark.  2014.  The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.

Vallier, Kevin.  2023.  All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.


Roger Sweeny said...

I think there's a logical problem here. You say that humans have a "natural desire for religious understanding". But that is a desire to find something that is true, something you can rely on. If other people can be right, if everyone has their own version of the truth, if it is potentially millions "orthodox to themselves", then your belief is not understanding. It is just one hypothesis among a potentially infinite number.

No physicist would say that people's desire for physical understanding can be satisfied by believing that energy is not conserved or that objects can have a curved trajectory without some force acting on them. These are untruths, they are heresies. And a good physicist will try to suppress them. Maybe not by legally censoring books but certainly by keeping such heresy out of school curriculums.

Physicists need not compel others to orthodoxy because there are no significant consequences if lots of people are wrong. But bad religious beliefs can have serious consequences. As a practical matter, they may lead to bad laws or behavior that hurts those who truly understand. At a higher plane, they may corrupt others into misunderstanding, keep others from seeing the truth, and corrupt those who hold them. If you truly care about your fellow man, you don't want them corrupted.

Roger Sweeny said...

Well, sure, you and I don't see any need for the dyophysite Christians to persecute the monophysite Christians. But if I am a dyophysite Christian who believes that the monophysites are going to spend eternity in hell rather than heaven and that, even worse, they are going to cause others to not accept the true faith--which will lead those poor benighted souls to suffer the same fate--then social justice demands that they be persecuted.

We think the black/white income gap is terrible. It's nothing compared with the spend eternity in heaven/spend eternity in hell gap.

Roger Sweeny said...

We good 21st century liberals believe that the only way you can get true knowledge of the world is through science. And we know that science cannot tell us "whether the incarnate Christ has one divine nature (monophysitism) or two distinct natures--divine and human--but united in one person (dyophysitism)." Hell, science can't even tell us if Jesus actually existed. But if you believe that true knowledge can come from faith, or from prayer, or from listening to the "still small voice", well, then, of course you can answer that question.