The Evolution of Christianity & Religion

Continuing with our theme of cultural evolution and the long arc of the moral universe, we turn to the subject of the evolution of Christianity, Religion, and Christian thought. For insight we go to another progressive figure who long has been forgotten by many: British historian Henry Thomas Buckle, who arguably was the first scientific analyzer of social evolution. Like the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Buckle is an individual who Progressive Christianity can look toward in re-discovering its heritage.

The following passage on immortality comes from The Essays of Henry Thomas Buckle circa 1863 (unlikely to be found at your local library, unfortunately). Here  Buckle talks not just of immortality but the necessary evolution of religion and religious creeds.

One thing I would repeat, because I honestly believe it to be of the deepest importance. Most earnestly would I again urge upon those who cherish the doctrine of immortality, not to defend it by arguments which have a basis smaller than the doctrine itself. I long to see the glorious tenet rescued for the jurisdiction of the narrow and sectarian theology, which foolishly ascribing to a single religion the possession of all truth, proclaims other religions to be false, and debases the most magnificent topics by contracting them with the horizon of its own little vision.

Every creed which has existed long, and has played a great part in our history, contains a large amount of truth, or else it would not have retained its hold upon the human mind. To suppose, however, that any one of them contains the whole truth is to suppose that as soon as a creed was enunciated the limits of inspiration were reached, and the power of inspiration exhausted.

For such a supposition we have no warrant. On the contrary, the history of mankind, if compared in long periods, shows a very slow, but still a clearly marked, improvement in the character of successive creeds; so that if we reason from the analogy of the past, we have a right to hope that the improvement will continue, and that subsequent religious creeds will surpass ours.

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Using the word religion in its ordinary sense, we find that religious opinions depend on an immense variety of circumstances which are constantly shifting. Hence it is that whatever rests merely upon these opinions has in it something transient and mutable. Those of us who take a distant and comprehensive view are thus filled with dismay when we see a doctrine like the immortality of the soul defended on such transient grounds.

These advocates imperil their own cause; they make the fundamental depend on the casual; they support what is permanent by what is ephemeral; and with their books, their dogmas, their traditions, their rituals, their records, and their other perishable contrivances, they seek to prove what was known to the world before it existed, and what, if these transient things were to die away, would still be known, and would remain the common heritage of the human species, and the consolation of myriads yet unborn.*


*A few small edits were made to Buckle’s text to make it more easily read and understood by contemporary readers.