In his latest post, Ebonmuse writes about how, despite the claims from many of the more liberal Christians, the bible does in fact support the view of a hell. The line in this excellent post (it is Ebonmuse, what else would one expect) that got my mind going was this:
"As much as I like Slacktivist's writings, he's fallen into a common trap for religious liberals: the dangerous belief that the way we should decide what to believe about any theological topic is by figuring out what the Bible says about it - and therefore, if we want to reject any religious doctrine, we need to find an interpretation of the Bible which supports this."
While I certainly agree that this is a common intellectual failing of believers, one that shows a certain level of either naivety or pure dishonesty, I believe it points out a key feature to such religion's survival, especially in this modern day.
This is not to say that tradition, the view that religion is above reproach, laws, and the myriad other reasons for religion's stranglehold on humanity through the years are to be ignored. In fact many of these are some of the most important reasons for religion's endurance. But what I would like to take a look at is a reason that I believe has been routinely overlooked and often seen as one of religion's greatest weaknesses.
Since its beginnings, Christianity has been going through an ever increasing series of schisms. The approximate number of Christian denominations worldwide since AD 30 is 34,000 where as the number of US denominations is around 12,000 (according to the World Christian Encyclopedia published in 2001). Dear non-existent deity, no wonder they cannot agree on anything. But despite the endless bickering and in-fighting within the Christian religion, it also grants believers the ability to pick and choose. No longer must they believe the local orthodoxy, but instead can find a denomination that speaks to them. This is not even counting those that are denomination free or have a more personal religious view (wait, actually follow the bible on how one practices religion, blasphemy!).
The reason for so much diversity is primarily rooted in different interpretations of the same religious text (or surrounding religious practices). Find you don't like what your denomination says, go find another. Decide you aren't getting enough hate in your life, find a more conservative church. This allows for believers to simply move about until they find a message that they agree with instead of taking the time to actually analyze what their religion says and make up their own minds. As many non-believers or religious converts will say, reading their own holy text is one of the most often cited reasons for conversion or de-conversion. But when all your average believer must do is find someone else to tell them what their book says, why should they be bothered to take the time to do this? Why risk losing friends, a job, or a relationship by asking the tough questions when all one must do is move to another church. Yes, this can still become an issue for the more conservative or evangelical, but for your average believer, unless they are deeply rooted in that church, the repercussions will be minimal. They will certainly be less then disavowing the faith all together.
So why so many variations? Could it be that the myriad contradictions found within the bible (and all other religious texts to some extent) have allowed for this growth. If a holy text had been entirely internally consistent, then there would be no grounds for disagreement other than petty squabbling amongst believers (which in itself has been a significant source of schisms). By having a holy book that tells ten different people exactly what they want to hear as long as they look hard enough and ignore other parts, you have the makings for a religion that is far more universally acceptable. This fact is mirrored by the many denominations, as so many focus on only one of these contradictory messages and teaches it to the exclusion of all the others. This creates the makings of a much more 'personal' denomination while still having the core religion spreading. Since, in general, those of the same religion but different denominations are more likely to work together then those of differing core religions (especially when two religions are in close contact. Such division between denominations becomes far less of a liability. Often it only causes extreme derision when those denominations are hard liners who believe the other denominations are just as much of sinners (if not more) then those of other religions entirely.
With the spread of liberalism among believers, this has been especially important. Many who could not stomach the doctrine of more conservative denominations were fine simply moving to a more accepting and open one. Such options allow a person who might have been willing to leave their religion all together to simply move to a different church. Instead of having to choose between their friends of different religions, races or sexual orientations and their own denomination, they are given the option to 'move up' in the progressive world to a more forward thinking church.
All these reasons (and probably many I have overlooked) make the myriad interpretations of a single religion one of its strongest points, even if it could be argued as intellectually dishonest to a degree. Though I for one am glad for such things despite the number of de-conversions it stops. As such variations have allowed for liberalism and acceptance to creep into an area that would otherwise be stuck permanently in the past.