Internal Consistency of Belief and Practice

Bryan Wilson

What also came to be realized was that religions were by no means always internally consistent. Even in relatively small, tribal societies there are often rites and myths of considerable complexity which often fail to constitute one consistent, internally integrated and coherent system. Religion undergoes change, and accretion occurs in both myth and ritual as a society experiences contact with neighbouring or invading peoples. Different rites and beliefs may attach to different situations and exigencies (e.g. to induce rain; to ensure fertility of crops, animals and women; to provide protection; to cement alliances; for initiations for age-groups, etc.). All such activities are directed towards supernatural agencies (however defined) and they are recognized by scholars as religious. The codes of religious belief and practice in technically more advanced societies are generally more elaborately articulated, and display greater internal coherence and stability, but even in advanced systems, elements of diversity persist. No theological system or schematization of beliefs pertaining to the supernatural, in any of the world’s great religions, is wholly coherent. There are always unexplained residues, and sometimes open contradictions. In most if not all societies there persist among the general populace remnants of earlier religious orientations such as folk religious elements. Superseded religious systems often leave their deposits on those which displace them. Thus, the practices of making votive offerings and organizing shrine processions characteristic of the pagan cults in the Roman Empire found their way into Christian performances, just as various earlier middle eastern myths had their echo in Christian teaching. In Roman times, pagan deities became lightly transmogrified as Christian saints, and, more recently, a similar process has occurred in Latin America. Apart from these extraneous elements persisting from folk religion, the sacred scriptures of all the major religions manifest internal contradictions and inconsistencies. In the nature of religion, there are often ambiguities: religious language does not purport to be clinically scientific; it seeks to be poetic, evocative and at times emotive, rather than narrowly cognitive. Such language can often be re-interpreted, taken literally, allegorically, figuratively, or symbolically, thus producing divergent responses. These and other sources, particularly as religious specialists have sought to reconcile religious dicta with empirical evidence, have given rise to differences among these scholars who have, at times, embraced opposed interpretative schemes and exegetical principles, which have sometimes fed different traditions even within what is broadly acknowledged to be orthodoxy. These issues, then, constitute one source of religiosity diversity: another arises from deliberate dissent.

Back to Psychology of Religion

Site map

Site index