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Religious conflicts


Conflicts within and between religions.
Conflicts between science & religion.
A current conflict examined: same-sex marriage.

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Who is involved with religious conflicts?

At any given era, there have been conflicts in religious beliefs at many different levels. For example:

  1. Among sects, denominations, or traditions within a single religion. This is particularly present within religious like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam whose beliefs are each derived from a sacred text like the Torah, Bible and Qur'an.

    For example, the Bible is composed of the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament), perhaps the Apocrypha, and the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament). Many religious liberals believe that its content was written over an interval of about a millennium (circa 900 BCE to 150 CE). Many religious conservatives believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five book of the Hebrew Scriptures) and that the books in the Christian Scriptures were written during the first century CE; they believe that the Bible was written over an interval that was a few centuries longer.

    The Bible consists of 1,189 chapters and over 31,000 verses. 1 Many topics are covered in multiple places in the Bible with different emphases. What is written was often affected by the authors' own culture. How people interpret these passages today is often affected by the readers' own culture.

    The books are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Often words in the original language have multiple shades of meaning, leaving translation into English subject to the judgment of the translators.

    None of the original autograph copies -- those actually written by the author -- survived. All we have are copies of copies of copies.... Many errors have crept in.

    Countless apparent conflicts exist in the Bible that theologians have attempted to resolve. Often a theologian will harmonize a group of passages by considering one of them to be literally true, while interpreted the conflicting passages figuratively. Needless to say, different theologians will select a different passage to be interpreted literally, and will reach different conclusions.

    Unfortunately, the end result is that many religious leaders will refer to "what the Bible says" when they are really referring to "their interpretation of what the Bible says." One striking example of this is found in three places in the Bible that describe an unforgivable sin. We have found 38 interpretations of exactly what this sin is: all are different. We could have continued searching and probably found dozens more. Within a single faith group, there is often a single interpretation; within all of Christianity, there are often dozens of conflicting interpretations.

  2. Among different religions: Jewish beliefs and practices are based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Christian beliefs and practices are largely based on the reported words of Yeshua ben Nazareth (Jesus Christ) and Paul in the Christian Scriptures, and interpreted as fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. Muslim beliefs and practices are largely based on the Qur'an, and the Hadith -- the sayings and actions of God's prophet, Muhammad. Each of these books was written in a different historical setting and culture.

    There are many differences between the historical development of Christianity and Islam. Christianity has gone through the Reformation and the Enlightenment which have profound changed the religion and has developed a deep concern for human freedom and individual human rights. Islam has evolved much more slowly. Thus their messages deviate from each other greatly.

  3. Between faith groups and the findings of science: During 1997, Stephen Jay Gould -- a self-described Jewish Agnostic -- published a famous essay titled "Non-overlapping Magisteria." Speaking as a scientist, he wrote about "NOMA:"

    "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven. 2

    Unfortunately, the two magesteriae of science and religion do overlap in practice. 3 This occurs with topics that both science and religious regard as their own exclusive "territory." Some past and present conflicts between the magesteriae include:

    • The existence of human slavery -- and later of racial segregation in the U.S. -- was often justified party on the basis of the story of Noah in the Bible. Because of an undefined indiscretion by his son Ham, Noah allegedly cursed Ham's son Canaan and all of Canaan's descendents to be slaves. For no obvious reason, Ham was believed to be black. Thus, most Christians once regarded the enslavement of Africans as fulfilling God's intent.

    • Many religious conservatives believe that the creation stories in Genesis are literally true, and that the earth and rest of the universe was created by God 6 to 10 millennia ago. Scientists have concluded that the universe sprang into existence some 13.8 billion years ago, and that the earth coalesced about 4.5 billion years ago.

    • Many religious conservatives believe that God created different species of animals. A near consensus of biologists believe that the Theory of Evolution is accurate and that all present species of plant and animal life on earth evolved from a single life form billions of years ago.

    • Many religious conservatives define homosexuality in terms of behavior, and regard it as a chosen and changeable lifestyle, abnormal, unnatural, inherently sinful, intrinsically disordered, and hated by God. Older adults within conservative faith groups are generally strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Their conclusions are based on the approximately six "clobber" passages" in the Bible. A near consensus of mental health professionals define homosexuality in terms of the gender to whom a person is sexually attracted, and regard it as an unchosen and fixed sexual orientation, normal and natural for a minority of persons, and morally neutral. They are generally in favor of marriage equality. Their conclusions are based on research into homosexuality which started in the 1950's by the late Evelyn Hooker.

The NOMA concept may have been dealt a fatal blow with the publishing of Sam Harris' book "The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values." 4 The book review states:

"Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people -- from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists -- agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.

In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our 'culture wars,' Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation."4

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One example: Attainment of marriage equality: In progress:

Although this section is intended to deal with religious conflicts that have been settled in the past, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a good conflict to study because marriage equality is a well known conflict that is happening now across the entire U.S. The eventual attainment of marriage equality seems to be a sure thing. 72% of American adults were found to considered it inevitable in a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center.

Change occurs slowly within religious groups. Typically, members of liberal and progressive denominations, secularists, and other NOTA (those NOT Affiliated with a faith group) are the first to change. This is followed by mainline faith groups, and eventually by more conservative denominations. Attitudes towards homosexuality is a good example; they have been in rapid change for about six decades in North America:

  • Prior to 1950: Homosexuality was regarded as a mental disorder by mental health professionals. This resulted from studies by researchers who mistakenly assumed that LGBT's who were either in prison or were involved with therapy were typical of the entire LGBT community. Most Americans considered homosexuality to be a sexual perversion

  • The 1950's': Evelyn Hooker conducted the first scientific study of a random selection of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. She matched two groups of volunteers on the basis of IQ, age, and educational attainment. They were given three standard psychological tests. She concluded that to have a minority sexual orientation was not a mental illness.

  • 1969: James Stol (1936-1994) a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was the first ordained minister of a major religious denomination in North America to come out of the closet and be public with his ordination. He revealed his sexual orientation at a conference of about 100 college-aged Unitarians in Colorado Springs. 5,6

  • 1973: About two decades after Hooker's study, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. In 1973, the American Psychological Association also declared that it was not a disorder.

  • 1984: The UUA was the first major religious denomination in North America to support clergy in conducting Services of Union for the recognition of same-sex relationships. The UUA had its roots in liberal Christianity but by this time had become largely a post-Christian faith group. 5

  • 1988: Delegates to the United Church of Canada, a mainline/progressive Christian denomination, authorized the ordination of gays and lesbians.

  • 1991: Three same-sex couples in Hawaii launched a lawsuit seeking marriage licenses from the state. It was unsuccessful.

  • 2004: Same-sex couples in Massachusetts were able to marry as a result of an action by the state legislature under a court order.

  • 2005: Same-sex couples across Canada were able to marry, with the exception of tiny Prince Edward Island; they claimed that they only knew how to marry opposite-sex couples. Threat of a lawsuit quickly motivated them to find out.

  • 2009: The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, USA adopted a resolution allowing individual bishops to choose whether or not to allow the blessing (but not the marriages) of same-sex unions. 7

  • 2011/2012: National polls regularly showed a plurality of American adults favored making same-sex marriage (SSM) available. Pew Research found that 73% of NOTAs (those NOT Affiliated with a faith group), 53% of White mainline Protestants. 52% of Roman Catholics, 35% of Black Protestants, and 19% of White evangelical Protestants favor marriage equality.

  • Mid 2013: Marriage equality had been attained by 13 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. About one third of the American population had access to SSMs without leaving their state.

  • 2013-MAY: Prediction by Nate Silver, a statistician at the New York Times. He predicted that a plurality of adults in 44 states will favor marriage equality by the year 2020. The exceptions will be: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

  • 2013-OCT-06: Predictions by the webmaster of this site: For what it is worth, I am also willing to go out on a limb. I predict that:
    • By the end of 2013: The Supreme Court of New Mexico will legalize SSM. Legislatures in Illinois and Hawaii will legalize SSM. The legislature of New Jersey will override the veto of Governor Chris Christie (R), and legalize SSM.

    • By the end of 2014, perhaps one to three additional states will legalize SSM through voter plebiscites, action by their legislature, or lawsuits in state court.

    • By 2018, national polls will regularly indicate that in excess of 60% of American adults will support SSM. A near majority of Americans will live in states where loving, committed same-sex couples will be able to marry.

    • In 2020, a lawsuit in federal court -- probably one that originated in a state that has a constitutional ban on SSM -- will reach the U.S. Supreme Court. That court will issue a ruling legalizing SSM across the country, similar to its action in 1967 to legalize interracial marriage.

      It would be interesting if they timed the release of their ruling to be on 2020-JUN-26, exactly 7 years after their famous Windsor v. United States ruling that overturned Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and exactly 17 years after the equally famous Lawrence v. Texas ruling that decriminalize private same-gender sexual behavior between adult couples in the U.S. If all three happened on JUN-26, then that date would be an excellent candidate for an annual national celebration of equal rights for the LGBT community.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Matt Keller, "How many chapters and verses in the Bible?," Deaf Missions, at:
  2. S.J. Gould, "Non-overlapping Magisteria,"Stephen Jay Gould Archive, at:
  3. A.D. White "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom." Thoemmes Press, (Reprinted 1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. book cover image Sam Harris, "The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values." Free Press, (Reprinted 2011). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. "Unitarian Universalism and LGBT topics," Wikipedia, as at 2013-MAY-19, at:
  6. Mark Oppenheimer, "Haunted man of the cloth and pioneer of gay rights," New York Times, 2010-SEP-18, at:
  7. "Blessing of same-sex unions in Christian churches," Wikipedia, as at 2013-AUG-28, at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-OCT-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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