The Structure of Religious Revolutions

by | Feb 24, 2021 | History

Parying | Shimenawa | The Structure of Religious RevolutionsIn 1962, Thomas Kuhn literally re-wrote the book on how we understand scientific history with his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Prior to Kuhn, the established wisdom held that science proceeds in a (more or less) steady march from observation, to hypothesis, to an experimentally confirmed theory.  Theories could be discarded, of course, when better ones came along, but the process still proceeds more or less continuously in a step-by-step fashion, at what we might term the “micro” or “retail” level. What Kuhn showed was that science proceeds in a much more discontinuous fashion, at what we could call the “macro” or “wholesale” level.  And the unit of scientific wholesaling, which he called the “paradigm” (inflicting that term forever after into our modern vocabulary), was much broader than just a single theory.  It was in essence a whole way of looking as a specific body of scientific knowledge – a comprehensive collection of definitions, assumptions, and interpretive models.  Examples of historical paradigms would include Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos, the heliocentric cosmos of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, and of course Newtonian physics, one of the greatest paradigms in the history of science. Along with each paradigm comes a specific scientific agenda – a checklist of questions – which are urgent, which are less urgent, which are not worth answering.  Interestingly, the checklist also contains questions which should not even be asked.  When I was in grad school, for instance, I used to derive great merriment from asking physics students “What happened before the big bang?” just to force them to tell me “You can’t ask that question.  It’s meaningless”.  To which I would usually reply “You know darn well it’s not meaningless.  You know exactly what I’m asking.  That’s why you are so upset.” According to Kuhn, science proceeds, then, from paradigm to paradigm, in fits and starts that bear some resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated evolution”.  A paradigm is established, and there follows a period of “normal science’ in which the agenda of the established paradigm is faithfully followed. But as experiments are performed and measurements made, certain observations turn out to be different from those predicted by the paradigm.  Initially these exceptions are patched with idiosyncratic sub-theories, designed specifically to explain the observed phenomenon while preserving the apparent integrity of the paradigm.  The epicycles (local circular oscillations about their orbit) that were added to Ptolemy’s theory are a classic example – they patched Ptolemy’s geocentric paradigm so as to retain the earth at the center of the planetary orbits. As time marches on, the weight of these inconsistencies tends to accumulate, eventually culminating in the realization by many that the paradigm has broken down – it is no longer the comprehensive explanation for observed phenomena that was originally hoped. What happens next depends on two factors – the intellectual difficulty of coming up with a new paradigm, and the availability of the necessary intellectual talent to accomplish that Herculean task.  In the early 20th century, for instance, two paradigms were needed to replace Newton’s magnificent edifice, which to this day is still called “classical physics”.  The first (relativity) occurred with remarkable rapidity and can be largely credited to a single man – Albert Einstein. The second (quantum mechanics) required the collective brainpower of several geniuses, including Einstein – Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrodinger, etc. etc.  And yet even today, I believe some scientists would agree that quantum mechanics may not have reached the level of theoretical integrity required of a paradigm – something is still missing. Kuhn made two additional important points about paradigms.  The first is that they are cyclical – as science progresses, old paradigms inevitably give way to new ones, whose destiny is to reign for a while before being replaced by yet newer paradigms.  In this respect, scientific paradigms bear some resemblance to the fate of civilizations, which rise and fall, even as the interval between one reigning civilization and another can be long or short depending on the availability of, let’s call it “civilizational talent”. jewish synagogue Toledo Spain 2 | Shimenawa | The Structure of Religious RevolutionsThe other interesting point Kuhn made was that it takes roughly the span of a generation for new paradigms to replace their predecessors.  Scientists do not flock to the new paradigm wholesale.  Some are early converts, some late.  Some never convert at all, and continue to teach their students according to the old theories.  The new paradigm does not become fully accepted until these recalcitrant professors finally retire. Well, by now I would hope you can see where I’m going with all of this – I want to investigate the degree to which Kuhn’s meta-theory applies to religious paradigms.  As we’ll see, there are significant differences.  But spotting those differences, and explaining them, can offer us powerful insights into the nature of religions themselves, and the role they play in our lives. Looking at the span of history, we see case after case where one religious paradigm emerged from another – Buddhism emerged from a Hindu (specifically Vedic) context.  Mahayana Buddhism emerged from Theravada Buddhism.  Christianity emerged from Judaism.  Protestantism emerged from Catholicism.  Sufism emerged from Islam.  And so on and so on. So far so good.  But then we come smack up against a huge difference – unlike scientific paradigms, or even civilizations, religious paradigms don’t always die out when they are superseded.  Even those which seem to have died out – the gnostic religions of the early Christian era are an example – often survive in a smaller, dedicated sub-population.  But in the main case, they continue to thrive even in the presence of new competitors.   Hinduism was not replaced by Buddhism, for example.  In fact, within the Indian subcontinent, the dominant Hindu culture pretty much re-absorbed Buddhism, which continued to thrive only as an “export product” outside the land of its birth.  Theravada Buddhism did not disappear when Mahayana Buddhism evolved.
“Retail” migration from one religion to another, which is happening all the time, doesn’t explain the emergence of totally new “wholesale” religious paradigms that capture entire segments of the population. 
Judaism continued as the faith of the Jewish people.  And Catholic Christianity was not eliminated by the Protestant Reformation.  In fact, you can make the case that meeting the challenges of the Protestant Reformation helped revitalize and renew the Catholic Church, for a few centuries at least. What are we to make of this?  Let’s start with a fundamental question we need to answer if we are going to apply Kuhn’s ideas to religion – what does it mean for a religious paradigm to break down?  And to answer this question, we need to ask a few deeper ones:  What validates a religion in the first place?  Are there religious experiments, with observations that can be judged to correspond or not to correspond to the established paradigm? Before diving in to answer these questions, let’s take a moment to notice that nearly every religion consists of three components.  The first is a set of beliefs, or doctrine –about the nature of the cosmos, the ultimate reality, and our role in it.  Even when the doctrine is as minimal as possible, such as in Theravada Buddhism, where it arguably boils down to just four axiom-like assertions, there is the implication that “this is all you need to know” about the ultimate reality and your role in it.  What the teachings don’t say is every bit as relevant as what they do say. The second component, practice, is comprised of the methods for conducting personal and communal life in light of the teachings – prayers, meditations, images, sacred artifacts to aid in prayer / meditation, and typically a set of rules to follow in everyday life. Acolytes | Shimenawa | The Structure of Religious RevolutionsThe third component is the community of adherents.  Except for the most extreme hermit, there is always some amount of practice in community, some level of encounter with others in the context of the particular religion’s doctrine and practice.  Many schools of Buddhism, for example, explicitly acknowledge the importance of community, or sangha, in placing it among the Three Jewels of their faith. The fourth component is the institution that has developed as the caretaker for the teachings, the practice, and the community.  As I have argued earlier (see “The World Doesn’t Need Another Religion”), the institution’s role with respect to the teachings, practices, and even members in its care is ambivalent – while it always purports to act in the interests of the latter, this is often not the case in actuality. With this in mind, let’s return to the question of how to validate a religious paradigm, first at the level of the individual.  All four components are relevant here – the teachings must be “believable”, within the admittedly wide latitude that believers tend to grant to postulations about the world (or worlds) beyond our sensible environment, and it must be consistent.  The practices must be effective – following them needs to take the believer at least part way in the direction promised by the religion.  And whatever promises are made about the “next world”, all religions, either implicitly or explicitly, offer the promise of a certain amount of peace – peace of mind and peace of heart – in this world. Third, the community must be at least minimally congenial to the individual’s quest for the Transcendent within this particular religious paradigm.  And finally, the institution itself must be supportive of the individual, or at least not overly antagonistic. I don’t know that anyone has ever conducted a formal experiment to determine which of these four factors has the greatest strength in validating an individual’s religious experience.  My own observations, would lead me to conclude that people rarely, if ever, leave the fold because of theoretical differences over doctrine – there are such, and they can be quite disruptive.  But they are not the norm.  Some people will migrate away due to dissatisfaction with practice and whether it brings them closer to the Transcendent.  These often migrate one way or the other across the chasm dividing Eastern from Western religions, in their search for something radically different, hoping to experience different results. In the vast majority of cases (in my experience at least), religions fail to validate for an individual due to the behavior of others – be it the community or the institution.  Anyone who has been part of a religious community for any length of time can testify to the fact that both communities and institutions can often behave in ways that are inconsistent, and sometimes radically inconsistent, with the stated values and virtues of the religion in question.  This is where the religious experiment for the individual fails – the putatively supportive ‘others’ turn out not to be supportive at all, and sometimes quite the opposite. But this “retail” migration, which is happening all the time, doesn’t explain the emergence of totally new “wholesale” religious paradigms that capture entire segments of the population.  In the mythology of the religions themselves, of course, founding events are typically attributed to the founder’s direct connection to the Transcendent in one way or another – Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree, Christ’s inborn nature as the Son of God, Mohammed’s encounter with the angel in the cave. Without taking anything away from any of these stories (one must assume a profound spiritual experience on the part of the founder – the only alternative would be stark insanity), we can also ask historically if there are some conditions which are more prone to the emergence of new religious paradigms than others, and what those conditions might look like.  Rather than jump to the answer, I will first offer a few examples for contemplation. In India, the period of around 500 BC was marked by a crisis in the old Vedic religion – the evolved folk religion of formulas and sacrifices out of which developed modern Hinduism.  The priestly caste had more or less monopolized religious practice, and the rituals had become formalisms devoid of significant experiential content for the masses of adherents.  The institution, in other words, had let the adherents down in a big way.  Out of this crisis emerged not one but three different religious paradigms to offer alternatives. The Congragation | Shimenawa | The Structure of Religious RevolutionsThe “bhakti” movement of private devotion to Krishna as the avatar of the deity Vishnu offered individuals a method of prayer, practice, and celebration that did not depend on the Vedic priests for sanction.  This paradigm survives today in groups like the Hare Krishna movement that used to be seen frequently even in the US, as its emphasis on devotional practice is quite recognizable and accessible to those raised in a Christian context. The second movement to arise from this crisis was the Vedanta movement founded by the religious genius Shankara.  Taking the implicit metaphysics of the Vedas, Shankara systematized the teachings into an abstract but rigorous metaphysics of the Atman (often translated into English as the “Self”), with an earth-bound component (jiv-Atman) and an component directly aligned with the Transcendent (param-Atman).  Meditation on these truths was the road to liberation.  Again there was no need for a priestly caste, only perhaps someone to assist you with your meditative practice. The third movement to arise from this crisis of course, was Buddhism.  The original teachings of Gautama the Buddha (as articulated in the Four Noble Truths) simply posited the existence of suffering, the desire to escape suffering, and Gautama’s prescribed method for doing so in order to reach a state of Enlightenment, where suffering would vanish.  No heavenly intercessors, and therefore no need for a priestly caste. In summary, the three new paradigms attempted to deal with the crisis of clerical abuse by obviating the need for a priestly caste – appealing directly to the head, heart, and consciousness of the individual seeker as the source of spiritual energy and the raw material out of which spiritual progress could be made. Some 400 to 500  years later, while still in India, Buddhism itself was facing a similar crisis.  Doing away with priests, the Buddha had created a “do it yourself” religion, and the masses of ordinary people found it very hard to do it themselves.  Professional religionists had re-emerged in the guise of monks who could wholeheartedly pursue the path to Enlightenment.  But they tended to disdain the quotidian problems that ordinary people were forced to wrestle with, leaving the hoi polloi in desperate need of assistance, but without either terrestrial or heavenly intercessors to assist them. Predictably, an new religious paradigm emerged, within Buddhism this time.  The new approach, Mahayana Buddhism, offered a much more complex metaphysics than Theravada, but its primary innovation was the concept of the bodhisattva – a person who advances to within a single step of Enlightenment, but then holds up to remain with us ordinary folk in order to assist us in our own advancement along the path.
The fact that doctrine, practice and community remain significant for the lives of individuals also helps to answer the question of why older religious paradigms don’t die out the way scientific paradigms do.
Here at last was help for the ordinary person.  As the Mahayana ideals spread across China, Korea and Japan, a new clerical element did emerge.  Not the detached monks in their self-sufficient monasteries, but ministers who would function more like pastors, as can be seen in the Jodo Shinshu congregations of Japan, which in the US look and function much like Christian parishes. Looking to the West, Judea in the time of Augustus Caesar was rife with sectarian conflict.  Religious parties like the Pharisees and the Sadducees held vigorous debates over arcane points of the law, all the while fleecing their supporters while they lived in high style, much as today’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers.  Enter a carpenter’s son from the working class neighborhoods of Nazareth, with His revolutionary exaltation of the law that is written in man’s heart over the laws written by the men who run the institutions. Some 1500 years later however, the pattern repeats itself, this time with the Church of Rome playing the institutional villain, as corrupt men gained the most influential spots in the Church and introduce practices like selling ecclesiastical offices and even spiritual indulgences to fund their lavish and often immoral lifestyles.  Frustration over these clerical abuses led Martin Luther to introduce a new paradigm into the Christian mix.  Not surprisingly, many of the reforms proposed by Luther focused on undercutting the role of the institution, even eliminating a priesthood altogether in favor of more restricted ministerial roles. Looking at this sequence of new paradigm formation, we are left with an inescapable conclusion – of the four components we cited earlier, it is failure of the institutional component that most frequently paves the way for new religious paradigms.  And the causes of this failure seem to re-occur with dismal frequency – greed and corruption in their private lives, accompanied by detachment and indifference to the spiritual and temporal needs of their membership.  If you think about it for a minute, the institution is the only one of the four components whose failure is capable of driving disaffection on a major scale.  Disappointment with doctrine, or practice or even the community are essentially local phenomena that may have significant impact on individual lives, but aren’t likely to have a mass impact across a wide spectrum of believers. The fact that these other three components remain significant for the lives of individuals also helps to answer the question of why older religious paradigms don’t die out the way scientific paradigms do.  It is perfectly possible for members of a religion to remain satisfied with their doctrine, practice and community, even if they are disappointed by the failure of the institution or those who lead it.  These individuals are unlikely to leave the older path, especially if they are wise enough to realize that the new path will likely over time develop institutional issues of its own, as this brief history so clearly reveals. In summary, history seems to teach us that responsibility of the birth of new religious paradigms lies squarely on the shoulders of the institutions that govern earlier established religions.  Stray too far from your responsibilities to the ordinary believers and you place your entire organization at risk for splitting apart and giving birth to new movements that may show an implacable hostility to the corrupt practices that have been tolerated. While the benefits to humanity that derive from new spiritual insights and effective practices are undeniable, one always has to wonder if the trauma resulting from successive fragmentation of a community of believers is a necessary cost for achieving these gains. 

About Mike Freiling

Mike’s interest in the connections between different cultures and their philosophies began during his year as a Luce Scholar (1977-1978) at Kyoto University, when he first learned the meaning of the shimenawa and translated the Heian Period poems of the Hyaku Nin Isshu into English. In 2020, he founded Shimenawa no Michi to leverage his experience as an investment advisor into a broader initiative to help people navigate the challenges of life, love, and the search for transcendence. Mike also holds a PhD in artificial intelligence from MIT and a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®) designation from the CFA Institute.

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