Adaptive Pressure in Action

Even from under my rock, I've been hearing the news regarding the Pope's recent announcement that it may be time for the Catholic Church to abandon its long-held prohibition of condoms. From what I understand, his reasoning has more to do with preventing the spread of disease than with allowing his flock to better plan their parenthood, but fortuitously in this case the two purposes go hand in hand.

I'd like to sincerely extend warm congratulations to the Pope not only for taking a generally progressive humanitarian step, but also for making a very wise move in terms of ensuring the health of the religious institution — or, more aptly, the religious system — of which he is the head.

As mentioned in one of our previous discussions, adaptivity is a critical factor in the development and survival of religious ideas. Simply put, religion which can't (or won't) change to accommodate on-the-ground pressures will not be able to preserve itself. Adaptation can be especially tough on religion in an age where the notions of scientific empiricism have become prevalent. However, religion still has a few key advantages: science has yet to prove that gods absolutely do not exist (which is enough to reasonably maintain that they might, thereby preserving them as explanatory possibilities a la Proudfoot); lots of folks really want to believe despite the lack of empirical support for their religion; and, most importantly, a religious idea system doesn't have to change much to get by.

The key to adaptivity lies in understanding how changing little things helps preserve bigger things unchanged. Catholics wearing condoms won't threaten the ultimate sacred postulate of one god, the father almighty. On the other hand, maintaining the stubborn and short-sighted prohibition against birth control will continue to drive people from the Church, which is the one thing which really can threaten a religious tradition's survival. (Not that, with the innumerable variations on Christianity, their monotheistic ultimate sacred postulate is really in any danger. Even if the Catholic Church tanked completely, the high-order ideas of Christianity survive elsewhere. Adaptive diversification has already served the Christian idea system quite well.)

In the terms of systems theory which my old friend Roy Rappaport used, adaptive changes in subsystems allow higher-order levels of the whole system to remain unchanged. Such changes, in response to what I've been calling on-the-ground pressures — such as the need to practice safer sex among all peoples of the world — alleviate those pressures, which might otherwise grow into a substantial challenge to a religious tradition's continued viability. Rappaport discusses this kind of adaptive change with reference to an excellent evolutionary example: the sea-dwelling creatures which evolved into our land-walking ancestors weren't intrepid fishes who decided to grow legs to explore the frontier above sea level, but originally water-breathers faced with the vagaries of the water level in their environment. Often finding themselves high and dry where usually they swam freely, such creatures developed the ability to breathe air so they could survive out of water until the water returned. Put another way, our sea-dwelling ancestors learned to breathe air in order to be able to continue living in their watery habitat. An adaptive change in the subsystem of respiration permitted the preservation of their higher-order mode of living in water.

In light of this example, Rappaport encourages us to consider not only what such an adaptive change makes different, but what it allows to stay the same. In the case of religions, such change is always a matter of preserving the high-order components of the idea system — ultimate sacred postulates. This is precisely what we are witnessing today in the Pope's change of attitude toward condoms, though in terms of the greater Christian idea system that change, even if it becomes substantial, is relatively insignificant given the proliferation of easier-going sects which already permit contraception. Nevertheless, to witness an instance of such adaptive change in so long-lived an institution as the Catholic Church bears note as an instructive example, if naught else.

So, once again cheers to you, Pope Benedict, and here's to the safe and responsible expression of divine love.

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