Matter Religion

Religion is a social construct – here are six ways it changes

Ordinary people like you and I can change religion. This is because religion needs followers to survive, and these are the ways it adjusts to fulfill that need.

DISCLAIMER: This post contains content that may be objectionable. It represents the personal observations of the author and is mainly purposed for competitive debate education. It should not be taken as professional advice.

If you’ve heard about the Pope’s controversial statements or new rules being issued in Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law, you might notice that religion actually follows social progress. It always changes, though sometimes quite slowly.

But you might not know that it’s not only the Pope or the people at the top of the religious hierarchy that can change religion. Politics can change religion. Ordinary people like you and I can change religion. This is because religion needs followers to survive. Today we’re going to discuss how organised religion changes to fulfill that need.

1. Religious authorities’ interpretations: Pope Francis and homosexuality

Image from Pixabay

Pope Francis is known for softening the Catholic Church’s stance against homosexuality. He said in 2013, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge?” Since then, he’s made several other statements about same-sex relationships that made ripples in the Catholic world.

Here are some of those ripple effects. In May 2014, a top-ranking Italian bishop said that the church should listen to same-sex marriage arguments. A few weeks later, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, said he “didn’t know” whether Jesus would oppose gay marriage. In early September, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan approved the St. Patrick Day Parade Committee’s decision to allow a gay group to march in the 2015 parade under their own banner.

Although the Pope’s following statements in the next years have been going back and forth on supporting homosexuality, it can be noted that this still improved Catholics’ views on homosexuality in general.

2. Religious councils: The Second Vatican Council

Religious leaders from all around the world would sometimes gather to discuss major issues. In response to major global trends, they may see a necessity to implement sweeping changes.

A historical example of this is Vatican II, which was a council called by Pope John XXIII “to bring the church up to date”. 260,000 bishops from all around the world met in Rome for three years on and off. Some of the enormous set of beliefs it changed allowed Catholics to pray with other Christian denominations, encouraged friendship with other non-Christian faiths, and opened the door for languages besides Latin to be used during Mass. This especially reduced anti-Semitism.

Surprisingly, this also attributed to the development of liberation theology, the Latin American movement that sought to aid the poor as a religious duty and criticised existing socioeconomic structures in the 1970s.

3. Lobbying: sex reassignment surgery in Iran

Iran is also the only Muslim country in the Persian Gulf region that gives transgender citizens the right to have their gender identity recognized by the law. In fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran not only allows sex reassignment, but also subsidizes it. How did this happen?

Maryam Khatoon Molkara was a trans woman fired from her job, forcibly injected with male hormones and put in a psychiatric institution during the 1979 revolution. But thanks to her high-level contacts among Iran’s influential clerics, she was able to get released.

She then worked with several religious leaders to advocate for trans rights and eventually managed to wrangle a meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time. In 1986, Khamenei passed a fatwa declaring gender-confirmation surgery and hormone-replacement therapy religiously acceptable medical procedures. Trans people were no longer discussed as or thought of as deviants, but as having a medical illness (gender identity disorder) with a cure (sex reassignment surgery).

4. Grassroots protests: Women to Drive movement

Image from Daily Beast

The #Women2Drive movement was a campaign started by Saudi Arabian women from the 1990s. 28 years of resistance finally bore fruit, when in June 2018, King Salman officially lifted the ban for women to drive. Here’s a rough summary of how the movement evolved.

The first major protest took place on November 6th 1990, when 47 women drove through the capital city of Riyadh. In 2007, a petition that gathered over 1000 signatures was presented to the government. Around the time of the Arab Spring, the movement started a Facebook campaign, using the Internet to encourage more women to drive. After more years of disobedience and protest, the government finally caved in.

“Women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman once said in 2016, suggesting that the topic was not about Islam but about cultural norms. If this could be true for women driving, it could also be true for a lot of other religious rules. As long as the community is ready to accept change, religion may follow.

5. Religious schisms: changes in local places of worship

A religious schism occurs when a single religious body divides and becomes two separate religious bodies. Catholicism and Christianity as well as Sunni and Shia are possible examples of schisms. However, it’s quite unlikely that such major schisms would happen any time soon, so it’d be more important to look at this at a smaller scale.

On a micro-scale, local communities can see their religions split into multiple places of worship with different beliefs. When one grows more relevant than the other, it could result in an overall progression or regression in the course of decades. Even if it doesn’t bring a significant impact, the existence of multiple options allows people to find one that is most suitable to them.

In the Cambridge IV 2016 Grand Final debate, with the motion This House prefers a world in which Islam is structured around a strong, central governing authorityMubarrat Wassey (Opposition Whip) said: “Some villages don’t have hospitals but will have multiple mosques, because people stand up in opposition to the local imam who says something they don’t agree with. But even if you have singular mosques in local areas, often local elders discuss whether or not they agree with the kind of interpretations that the local imams have, and whether or not to elect the person out or in.”

6. Politics: Sudan’s criminal law reforms

Image from Harvard Law Today

The least organic way religion changes is by force, from legal orders passed by incumbent governments. In some cases, the interpretation and execution of religious laws can be swiftly changed with politics. This is arguably the fastest and most impactful way of achieving progress, as laws passed by the government have power over laws passed by religious authorities.

An example of this is Sudan’s changes in criminal law in 2020, after the ousting of Omar al-Bashir. “We [will] drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan,” Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari said. After more than 30 years of Islamist rule, Sudan has outlined wide-reaching reforms. Among other things, it scrapped the apostasy law, public flogging, and female genital mutilation.

  • This House prefers a world without organised religion
  • This House prefers a world in which Islam is structured around a strong, central governing authority (e.g. The Pope in Catholicism)
  • This House believes that the pope should be elected by all members of the Catholic Church
  • This House believes that it is in the interest of dominant organised religions for their leaders to declare more progressive interpretations of traditional dogma
  • This House believes that true women’s liberation cannot coexist with organised religion
  • This House supports the full separation of religious and political activities in Muslim-majority states

Further reading

The information in this article is a compilation of several sources, which are listed below. We recommend you read them for further understanding of the topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *