If religion were to fizzle out

Chris Hedges’s column today, “After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck With Nietzsche” claims that mainstream Christian and Jewish religion is in decline, and that the kind of secular options that might replace religion are nothing to be enthusiastic about.

I think he underestimates the resilience of religion—particularly the right wing, magical-thinking, enthusiastic forms of religion he does not have much use for. It looks like conservative Christianity and Islam will continue to go strong, ensuring that the worst of monotheism will always be with us.

Still, if Hedges is right that the more moderate forms of monotheistic religiosity are in decline, it is worth asking whether this is a good thing. Nonbelievers tend to think so; usually I have little sympathy for the empty “sophistication” of liberal theologies. But socially liberal decline might not be so good a thing. I suspect Hedges may be right in that we don’t have a serious secular alternative to put in place. Secular thought has certainly proved incapable of putting up much resistance to neoliberal madness.

Oh well, with any luck civilization will collapse and all this will be moot. If I’m really lucky, civilization will collapse only after I’m dead.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16718427136116646031 Keith Augustine

    Oh well, with any luck civilization will collapse and all this will be moot.

    Ironic that you say this; just yesterday Bill McKibben was on C-SPAN claiming that we've already passed the tipping point as far as CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are concerned. In the Q&A; session he noted that his first chapter of Eaarth deals with what life will be like 30 years from now if we keep doing things they way we are doing them.

    Synchronicity? :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16718427136116646031 Keith Augustine

    The video and transcript is here:

    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/293009-1

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    Is there some flaw in Zuckerman's reasoning?

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/paul07/paul07_index.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    D: "Is there some flaw in Zuckerman's reasoning? "

    Not a flaw so much as dependence on a bunch of assumptions that may not hold in the long term.

    Their argument assumes that modern life has features that erode organized religiosity. This is plausible enough. It assumes that modernization, including economic growth and social differentiation, will continue in "less developed" areas and that it will hold its own in the already developed world. I doubt this, since we are, among other difficulties, facing environmental collapse.

    It also assumes that organized religions will not come up with variants that are successful in reproducing themselves in modern circumstances. This is also questionable. It seems partially true for the Christian family of religions, but much less so for Islam. Also, it discounts demographic arguments for the persistence and growth of religion a bit too easily. Some sects of conservative religions enjoy a considerable reproductive advantage. In the long term those are the ones which may come to dominate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    Why do we need *anything* to replace religion once it's gone? That's always confused me. There are many people living without religion or a religious substitute in their lives. Religion doesn't need to leave a hole that must be filled with something else. Just like an extracted tooth the hole heals and the pain goes away.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17421420520561905420 YamaZaru

    I like alot of Hedges stuff but he also frustrates the hell outta me. He's seriously mischaracterizing religion and ethics in antiquity- I mean, really, the universalist Christianity that murdered Hypatia, burnt the library at Alexandria and ground out critical inquiry in Europe was an advance over Epicurus?? Even 1,000 years later the great religion that Hedges says "set free the critical powers of humankind" was happy to provide justification for Charles I to enslave and exterminate the people of the New World. He must know that the cosmopolitan environment of the ancient Mediterranean showed the beginnings of some pretty good secular(ish) ethical systems. I bet they would have advanced further had not the political and economic climate of the Roman Empire turned so poisonous…

    I do share your fear about the lack of secular ethical alternatives today, though…Global capitalism has given us in the West an ultra-commodified and increasingly empty existence, along with crushing poverty in much of the rest of the world. Secular social alternatives like classical liberalism and socialism have had many of the ethical causes they championed coopted into the system and then subverted (“human rights” being a big one…) so that they are now contingent on economic expediency. Then again, it was religion both fundamentalist and liberal that played a key role in marginalizing the secular progressive alternatives in the first place- cries of “godless communism” etc. It's still playing that role today, all you have to do is chat with a Teabagger to see that…


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