Friday, April 1, 2011

Modernism and Religion

I have finally finished reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), a good popular introduction to comparative religion. I have posted several times in this blog about various chapters in that book before, and now is the time for the last one.

Momen writes about the insights of Wilfred Cantwell Smith on the study of religion:

What we now call the religions of the world were [...] not always seen thus. [...] In the pre-modern world, religion was not a separate part of life that could be analysed as an entity. Rather, it was intergral to living; it was the way that people saw the world. Since what we now call the religious view of the world was the way that people saw the world, it was, in a sense, invisible, part of the basic assumptions that people made about life and the world about them. These assumptions were so basic that they were not a subject for discussion, they were accepted as 'given', forming an inherent and seamless part of people's reality. What the modern world has done is to separate this part of human life and call it religion.

[...] The use of the word 'religion' itself, in its sense of differentiating the different religions of the world, is a new usage. In earlier times its meaning was closer to the present use of the word 'piety'.
(P. 475.)

The 'religiosi' were monks or hermits in the past, but everyone (except perhaps some very rare individuals) seems to have lived within the conceptual world of religion simply because there was no alternative. People usually just accept their traditions as the way things have always been done, even if those traditions are really just a generation or two old. They go by their daily lives without bothering to think too much. They perform the usual rituals, because that's just what they've been accustomed to doing.

Each religion is now seen as one of a number of competing religions, and even these must struggle for people's loyalty with a large number of modern ideologies and worldviews.

[...] Religion has lost its claim to be the exclusive viewpoint from which people see the world.
(P. 476.)

Knowledge of the scientific worldview, and the awareness of the sheer plurality of religions and different worldviews (no longer just in some distant countries, but even in one's own) makes it impossible for people pretty much anywhere to simply implicitly assume that their traditional religious worldview is true. They force people to recognize the fact that others don't believe what they believe. Especially in the West, knowledge of historical religions, such as the polytheisms of Antiquity, forces people to acknowledge that as the ancient religions are discarded as false, so can theirs. Science is pushing all gods out or its worldview, and at least educated people accept the superiority of science as a truth seeking method. One can only hope people will also learn to think scientifically (critically), and eventually to discard the last vestiges of religion. This, of course, is what intellectuals have for a long time thought would occur very soon.

Towards the middle of the twentieth century, the outlook seemed bleak for religion. Many scientists and sociologists were prepared to foretell its demise, either over a few generations or over the next few centuries. (P. 484.)

The response to the advancement of "Western" Christian and then secularized culture has been a problem for other cultures it has come to contact with:

The arrival of the Western powers in most parts of the world during the nineteenth century brought with it severe problems for the religions of those places. The technological and political superiority of the West appeared to lay down an unanswerable challenge to the established religions of other parts of the world. (P. 490.)

For the present, the clash of the "two cultures", that of the "West" with that of the Islamic culture, is of present concern:

For the Middle-Eastern Muslim in the nineteenth century, this dilemma could be expressed thus: if the religion of Islam is the true religion of God, why has God allowed the Muslim nations to fall so far behind the Western, Christian nations? One partial solution to the dilemma appears to be a wholesale adoption of modernity so as to close the gap. It is, in particular, modern technology that is imported -- this being something that does not inherently challenge the religious worldview. But along with modern technology comes modern education, to enable people to use the technology. Thus, gradually, there arrive otehr modern concepts such as democracy and individual rights. These are much more challenging to traditional society, its structures and, ultimately, its religious foundations. (P. 490.)

The teaching of the scientific way of thinking itself is inherently dangerous to the traditional worldview because in its progressivism it is so contrary to the religious, conservative way of thinking. It teaches the student to not be dogmatic, to not accept anything without proper justification. This is detrimental to religious faith more than anything else. It is no wonder that the religious (especially the fundamentalists) want to take use of all the fruits of science and technology, without accepting source of those innovations, the science itself. They try to retain their superstitious worldviews by refusing to accept the scientific worldview, but how long can they resist? Perhaps their verbal and sometimes physical violence is actually caused by their desperation in the face of certain extinction?

But there is also the recent resurgence (or death growl?) of fundamentalism, even in the West. The US is the leading country in Western religiosity. In fact, it is a strange exception to the general development of secularization. Americans are surprisingly religious, while Europeans and other "Westerners" tend to be almost non-religious, and certainly becoming less religious. As explained in a great article in Free Inquiry (or was it Skeptical Inquirer?) some years ago, this is probably due to such social differences as the lack of real social security in the US, combined with a highly competitive and individualistic culture. These leave the individual rather helpless and at the mercy of fate, compared to the situation in European welfarestates, for example. When nothing else can be done, the resorting to religious wishful thinking is understandable.

The trend could be changed by the failure of the welfarestate systems under the pressure of global economic powers, climate change, and other events and things uncontrollable by the people in European and other countries. It could spell disaster for us. Religion could rise to power again, at the worst possible time, resulting in the destruction of all the good things we have achieved, such as (more or less) secular states that (more or less) uphold humanrights, provide high quality education for the masses, and support the progress of science. It is possible that mankind, and science with it, will perish in the near future. To avoid this, we must actively seek ways to educate each other, and to find rational solutions to our problems.

Religion has a strong hold of American politics not only because of the lack of social security, but also because the powerful use of the media by religious individuals and organizations:

In 1960,the Federal Communications Commission, the government organ that controls broadcasting in the United States, issued a ruling that meant that local radio and television station owners could charge for religious broadcasting and still have it count towards their public interest broadcasting commitments. The mainstream churches, who had until then dominated the media, refused to purchase broadcasting time. The evangelical movements enthusiastically picked up the vacant slots. From that time onwards, it has been evangelists who have dominated religious broadcasting in the United States.

[...] By the 1980s, the televangelists were building churches and universities and funding such projects as theme parks with the money being raised by their broadcasts. In addition, several televangelists began to move into the political arena. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority supported both of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns and were credited with delivering a large block of votes to him.
(P. 521.)

And as anyone reading this (if anyone is actually reading this), things have only gotten worse since the 1980s in the US.