Modern religion

Secularists have long hoped that modernization would work against religion, or at least the more mindless varieties of religion. As we did better in fulfilling human needs, there would be less that religious belief would compensate for. In modern societies with multiple overlapping social roles and fragmented identities, religions as complete ways of life would seem less compelling. Scientific explanations would substitute for invocations of supernatural forces.

It isn’t happening, with the exception of Western Europe. People are certainly becoming religious in different ways — modernization is transforming religion — but in the main, not in a liberal, secular direction. In Islam and Christianity (and I supect other major traditions as well), there is a trend toward individualism and therapeutic religion. But this typically comes together with naive fundamentalism. The individual faith-experience and the feeling of being born again takes precedence. And this works against the intellectual, high-culture traditions sustained within religions as well as against secularization of belief. Modernization often replaces traditional religiosity, where religion is just an unquestioned part of social reality, with fundamentalisms that insist on making commitments of faith explicit. But this development does not favor intellectual elites and their institutions. Right-wing religious populisms attract large constituencies.

We are not necessarily moving toward a world where rationality has a more prominent role. Faith-based and ideological commitments very often seem to have the upper hand. I don’t know if this is so bad for individual nonbelievers — we’re used to life as a small minority. And interestingly, even fundamentalists these days invariably feel like a persecuted minority, as a small group of true believers afloat in a hostile overall culture that is at best indifferent to their deeply held moral convictions. To a certain extent, that perception is accurate — fundamentalisms cannot plausibly hope to control much more than a narrowly religious sphere of life these days. But still, this is a sort of cultural environment that is not good for institutions, such as science, that secularists have typically cared about.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University