Why is it that religious people are often resistant to, or slow to get behind social movements?

 Why is it that religious people are often resistant to, or slow to get behind various social movements? 

This is a question that leaves some of my non-religious family and friends shaking their heads. Why are so many religious people so stubborn? 

I think the main reason comes down to the foundations for ethics. 

Where does the average non-religious person get their ethics from? I'm not talking about a university trained ethicist (The branch of philosophy dealing with ethics). I'm talking about the average person on the street. I think their foundations usually come from family, friends, and the media they consume- What news outlets they watch/read, what TV shows they watch, The music they listen to, the books they read, and what their friends think is likely where the foundation of their ethics rest. This can be an uncomfortable realization. As people who value individualism, we don't like thinking that our minds are so malleable. 

In Western culture, the general values we tend to learn from family, friends, and mainstream media are things like a desire for fairness, the protection of minorities and the vulnerable, and the expression of individual freedom to choose (democracy, education, job, sexuality, who we marry, if we marry, if we have children, etc).  Another more specific example would be the separation of religion from public institutions (like public schools). We have an assumption of the secular when it comes to public matters (Religion is meant for private personal time and is not meant to bleed into the public square). There are more values than just these. We could make quite a lengthy list. Many, if not most, of these values would overlap with the values of dedicated religious people of the West. Though, there are vigorous points of contrast.  

If asked why individuals should be free to choose, or why fairness should matter, or why minorities should be protected you are likely to get a look that says, "why would you ask such a dumb question?" That's a good sign that you have hit an axiom. An axiom is a foundational assumption. Everyone makes assumptions about reality. For example, I'm assuming that my whole life hasn't been a dream. I'm assuming I am awake right now, and I think that is a reasonable assumption to make. I can't prove it to myself because I could explain any "proof" as being part of my dream. We usually feel our axioms are beyond our need to prove them. We are rarely asked to do so, probably because most of the people we are around share these axioms even if we disagree about they way they manifest. For example, we may both value "fairness", but we might disagree about what is fair in a particular instance. But our disagreement isn't about the value of fairness itself.     

Dedicated religious people similarly have axiomatic assumptions that are based on relationships and media. The body of believers they interact with, the teaching of their leaders, the holy books (and other books) they read all contribute to a worldview with certain assumptions about what the world is like and therefore what is right and wrong, better, worse, and best. 

The traditions that inform a religious worldview tend towards the past. Religious people tend to look to examples from the past to imitate. For example, Christians will often look to Jesus and the Apostles (or other saints) as authoritative examples to follow. The New Testament is believed to contain the teaching of the Apostles. So the axiomatic assumptions of dedicated religious people tend towards an idealized past. 

I'm not saying that all religious people are in agreement on these things. There are definitely religious people whose progressive ideas are very much in step with the most progressive in our society.  Sometimes certain Christians will try to encourage other Christians into some change that is more in keeping with the progressive values of the society. They will often use the label of being "prophetic" to promote these ideas, but even this can be a bit self-defeating as the prophets were usually the ones calling their society back to the words of Scripture from which they had wandered.       

The modern West has been experimenting with social change for quite some time and the rate of change seems to have quickened. We are happy to see slavery end (which was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, and is still practiced in some places). We saw the women's suffrage movement, which fought for voting rights for women. There was the civil rights movement, which was led by people like The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and worked to end racial segregation in the United States. There was the hippie movement that experimented with sexual exploration, recreational drugs, and eastern spirituality. The Stonewall riots were part of a movement to grant homosexuals the right to openly express their sexuality. We are now seeing a transsexual movement, which is fighting for society to recognize gender as being broader than "male" and "female" and not fixed (meaning people can change their gender on the basis of how they are feeling- even day to day). We also see a "right to die" movement that promotes the practice of euthanasia.         

Religion's leaning towards tradition (which makes it slow to change) can be a frustration for some who want change to happen quickly. Some will say that "justice delayed is justice denied". Though, the religious have often come to a place of being encouraged by these changes, eventually. William Wilberforce (an evangelical Christian), who worked to end slavery in the British Empire is now a Christian hero. I went to church in Toronto with a granddaughter of Nellie McClung, who fought for women's rights as a Christian social activist. She is celebrated by Canadian Christians.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often quoted in the sermons of Christian preachers, and used the language of the Bible to inspire those he led to non-violent resistance. So, while the church can be slow to adopt certain changes, they also are willing to place those who work for the changes that are later accepted in a high place of honour. 

It is also important to remember that not all change is good. The eugenics movement, for example, was a movement that took the evolution of the human species seriously and sought to make the gene pool more healthy by removing "undesired" elements. Sometimes this was understood as a way of shaping a society by controlling who was born into that society, or who was permitted to live and reproduce in that society. This might be achieved, for example, by the forced sterilization of certain individuals who were not deemed fit to be parents or who were believed to be likely to give birth to unhealthy or handicapped children.     

Margaret Sanger (Planned Parenthood founder), used the principles of eugenics as a motivation for promoting abortion and birth control.  Abortion and birth control were a means of improving the quality of a society by preventing the births of certain "unfit" groups of people whose birth rate might outplace the birthrate of the "fit" or desirable of the society. This was particularly important in a democracy where the "undesirable" part of the population could soon outvote the "desirable".  She was particularly interested in promoting Planned Parenthood among poorer African Americans. (I should say that there were some African Americans who supported Sanger and saw her plan as helping make their communities healthier rather than exterminating them, so I don't want to overstate the case. Read more here.)      

The Nazis brought the ideas of eugenics to their extreme expression in their attempt to exterminate those they thought to be undesirable in their population, while they also sought to breed a population with "Aryan" traits. 

I'm not saying that religious people are innocent when it comes to this particular movement. In fact, it was a certain kind of Christian academic that found a way to make Jesus' Jewishness not relevant which may have helped to pave the way for the "other-ing" of the German Jews by the Nazis. 

My point here is to say that it may be important in our society to have people who wish to move more slowly, or who resist certain societal changes. 

It is relatively easy for modern non-religious Western people to change their foundations for morality. It can change as quickly as the television shows they watch, and the friends they talk to. But for Christians and other religious people their foundations don't shift that quickly and that might be a good thing for society. Society might not be as flexible as we think it is. It may be a house of cards, and we might be a gust of wind away from watching it all fall down.  


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