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Religious conflicts

How faith groups handle changes in their beliefs.
Past conflicts over interracial marriage.

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This is continued from a previous essay

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Handling conflicts in religious beliefs:

Many of the world's great religions base their beliefs upon ancient written sacred texts. For Christian denominations, this includes the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (the Old and New Testaments) in the Bible. The more conservative Christian faith groups often believe that the Bible is inerrant, as a direct result of its authors having been inspired by God to write free of error. Since the Bible's message is considered fixed for all time, and since God is believed to be unchangeable, Christian beliefs derived from the Bible are often considered equally fixed, and are taught as absolutes.

However, the historical record shows that denominations actually do change their beliefs over time.

Religious groups use various methods to change their beliefs. Sometimes, the texts which support the old beliefs:

  • Are simply ignored;

  • Are reinterpreted. Passages previously interpreted literally are now interpreted figuratively; Sometimes the reverse happens.

  • Are regarded as having been valid at the era and/or the society in which they were written, but are not meaningful for guidance for people today.

  • Are considered to be ambiguous in their original language and are retranslated into English with a different meaning.

  • Are unambiguous in their original language, but are intentionally mistranslated into English to give an ambiguous meaning. One example of this is to translate the Hebrew word for "slave" into the English word "servant" which can refer either to an employee or a slave.

Every age since Galileo has had at least one public debate with a religious component.

  • Lately, the conflicts have often been between established religious organization(s) and a secular movement which is promoting change. The latter may involve a physical science, medicine, a social science, etc.

  • Other times, the conflict is between a religion and a group attempting to obtain equal rights and protection under law. In the 20th century, this often involved conflict over discrimination on the basis of race, or gender. In the early 21st century it frequently involves equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals including the right to marry.

  • In other recent cases, the conflict has been mainly between liberal denominations and secular non-profits battling conservative faith groups as in the case of abortion access and LGBT rights.

In 1898, Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), a professor and co-founder of Cornell University, wrote a rather notorious book called  "A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom." 1 He tracked many religiously-based conflicts, and showed that they often take decades or even centuries to resolve. Although his book exhibits a heavy -- sometimes quite intense -- bias in opposition to religion, he did notice what appears to be a pattern in these conflicts. They often go through eight stages before being finally resolved:

  1. Some individuals or groups will propose a new belief system that is in conflict with established religious beliefs: For example, a belief that human slavery is immoral and should be eliminated, or that the Earth is old, or that species of animals evolved. The official religious institutions would generally ignore the claim.

  2. A growing number of people will start to disagree with church teaching.

  3. Churches issue statements which condemn the proposal, citing Biblical passages as justification for their stance.

  4. Support for the proposal continues to grow among the public.

  5. Churches issue statements pointing out that belief in the proposal would negate the entire Christian message, or at least would attack a fundamental Christian principle.

  6. Public support continues to grow.

  7. Churches begin to ignore the proposal. Sometimes, they start to ignore the Biblical passages that it once quoted in opposition to the new idea and cite different passages with the opposite message.

  8. Many decades or centuries later, churches may incorporate the proposal into their beliefs and begin to promote them as part of the Gospel message.

Thus, in the example of human slavery, many faith groups started off treating it as a normal cultural tradition. Now, centuries later, they organize with others to eliminate slavery worldwide.

Since the advent of the modernist/fundamentalist divide in Christianity, religious liberals have tended to rapidly accept scientific findings and incorporate them quickly into their theological beliefs and systems of morality. Thus, for new conflicts, White's eight step process may no longer apply to all of Christianity, but mainly to its conservative wing.

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Past conflicts over interracial marriage:

According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, many states had anti-miscegenation laws in place to ban interracial marriages:

"At one time, as many as forty-one states had such prohibitions. Virginia's law had been passed in 1691 and, after being amended several times, reached its final version in the Racial Integrity Act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly ... in ... 1924. Although every state with such a law banned marriage between a white person and an African American, some laws, including Virginia's, went further and prohibited marriage between whites and other non-white ethnic groups such as Asians and Native Americans. 2

In the 1960's, many people in different conservative Christian denominations believed that racial integration was against God's Law because it led to the "mixing of seed" -- relationships between two persons of different races that often lead to interracial marriage unless those marriages were forbidden by law. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and other fundamentalist and other evangelical denominations mounted boycotts against restaurants, hotels, and other companies serving the general public if they served people of all races equally.

We highlight the actions of the SBC because:

  • It was originally founded in the 19th century due to a north/south schism in the original national Baptist church over the issue of human slavery which the SBC supported at the time.

  • It remains the largest Protestant denomination in the United States today.

  • It remains one of the most active faith groups opposing social and legal change in gender-related topics such as same-sex marriage and equal rights for transgender persons and transsexuals.

Circa 1959, laws in 16 contiguous states in the American southeast prohibited persons of different races from marrying. Judge Leon Bazile was a trial judge at the Circuit Court of Caroline County, VA. He heard arguments in the case "Loving v. Virginia " which involved the marriage of a white man to a biracial (white and Native American) woman. They had been married in Washington DC where interracial marriages were legal. But they moved back to Virginia and were arrested in their home. In his ruling the Judge echoed a common conservative religious belief at the time. His ruling violated the principle of separation of church and state which is embedded in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Bazile wrote:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." 2

Today, his justification for a ban on interracial marriage sounds much more like a sermon one might hear in one of the rare remaining racist churches than a legal ruling heard in a court.

"Loving v. Virginia." was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967, that court ruled that the 16 state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. That decision made interracial marriages legal across the U.S.

A few decades after the US Supreme Court ended racial separation in the schools and declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, the scene is very different:

  • Support among the public for the states to allow interracial marriage rose rapidly and opposition fell.

  • Those Biblical passages which were so often cited to condemn mixed-race marriages are now largely ignored or reinterpreted.

  • Multiracial Americans now form about 2.9% of the total population, and 5.6% of those under age 18. Asian women marrying White men form the most common form of interracial dating & marriage in the United States. 3

  • Barack Obama (D) became the first openly biracial President of the United States in 2008, and was reelected in 2012.

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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. Book cover image A.D. White "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom," Prometheus Books, (Reprinted 1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Phyl Newbeck, "Loving v. Virginia (1967)" Encyclopedia Virginia, 2012-APR-03, at:
  3. "Interracial marriage in the United States, Wikipedia, as on 2013-SEP-28, at:

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More objective and nuanced books on the historical interactions between science and religion:

book cover image Ian G. Barbour, "When Science meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers or Partners?, HarperOne, (2000). Read reviews or order this book

book cover image John H. Brooke, "Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives," Cambridge University, (1991). Read reviews or order this book

book cover image Gary B. Femgren, "Science and Religion," Johns Hopkins University Press, (2013). Read reviews or order this book

book cover image John C. Polkinghome, "Science and Theology," Fortress Press, (1998). Read reviews or order this book

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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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