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December 27, 2009

Different aspects of religion are important for Knights and Gardeners. World religions expert Joseph Campbell often claimed that religions serve four functions for humans—and for human societies. When they function properly, religions should (1) invoke an awareness and awe of the divine—the mystical function, (2) explain how the divine has ordered the universe—the cosmological function, (3) show that human society should be ordered like a miniature version of that divinely-mandated cosmological order—the societal function, and (4) help people move through the joys and difficulties of the individual human life—the personal function.

Imagine these functions as four light bulbs mounted to a board, all in a row. For Knights, the cosmological and societal “bulbs” are most important. For Gardeners, the mystical and personal “bulbs” are most important.

Knights and Gardeners react differently to the loss of a light bulb. Knights defend or try to revive the dead bulb; Gardeners replace it.

How are light bulbs lost? From time to time, cultural, historical, or scientific changes in the world challenges one or more of a religion’s light bulbs so severely those bulbs blow out. When a bulb blows out, that means a reasonable person has trouble believing that the claims of that bulb are valid any more.

Here are two examples. The cosmological and societal bulbs in American Christianity blew out during the 20th century.

  • As science (including the theory of evolution) became the primary means Americans understood how the universe is ordered, it fatally challenged American Christianity’s cosmological (“Creationist” or “intelligent design”) claims that the universe was created in a literal seven days as depicted in Genesis.
  • Late 20th century developments like the Sexual Revolution, the birth control pill, and decisions by more Americans to delay marriage fatally challenged American Christianity’s societal taboo banning premarital sex.

Today the societal bulbs in other religions are being challenged as well. For example, the caste system—Hinduism’s societal bulb—is in decline in India.

Religions die when their mystical bulbs go out. However, the mystical bulb does not appear to be in jeopardy in any of the major world religions today.

The loss of a religion’s light bulbs does not necessarily mean the death of a religion. As Joseph Campbell also often said, just because a light bulb goes out does not mean there is no electricity.


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