Religion And The Alternatives Of Modernity and Post-Modernity

Religion And The Alternatives Of Modernity and Post-Modernity August 3, 2009

Via Uncertain Principles, a recent article tries to draw inferences about effects of different college majors on students’ attitudes towards religion and religious practices.   The authors of the study purport to show that study in humanities has a more adverse effect on religious belief than scientific studies:

The Michigan scholars who wrote the study — Miles S. Kimball, Colter M. Mitchell, Arland D. Thornton and Linda C. Young-Demarco — write that they were interested to see whether a scientific mindset would discourage religiosity, or whether postmodern ideas associated with the humanities and some other fields would.

“Our results are thus consistent with the overall theoretical framework guiding this research. We believe that there are important differences among the college majors in world views and overall philosophies of life….,” they write. “[O]ur results suggest that postmodernism, rather than science, is the bête noir — the strongest antagonist — of religiosity.”

I don’t buy the whole “post-modernist” explanation for different attitudes towards religion in the humanities.  Outside of literature departments I do not see what is especially postmodern about the rest of the humanities or the social sciences or why the specifically post-modernist-deconstructionist elements of the humanities and social sciences would be any more or less likely to draw people away from religion than the modernist-Enlightenment elements would.

In my experience, there are many religious people who glom onto the irrationalism and relativism of post-modernism as a means to justify their own irrationalism and relativism (“the modern project of indubitable truth is just another form of faith”  “the rationalists are no more rational than explicitly faith-based thinkers”  “the aporias in knowledge in general make us rediscover the wisdom of negative theology”  “post-modernism has shown that all thinking occurs in communal narrative contexts, so there is nothing wrong with accepting the barriers of our particular religion’s narrative and worldview”  “post-modernism helps us overcome modernism’s faith in the inherent goodness of humans and inevitable progress of secular history, thereby reaffirming Christian beliefs in Original Sin and the need for a supernatural salvation”, etc., etc.)

On the other hand of course, post-modern criticisms of meta-narratives and absolutes threaten those Christians who want to claim that their truths are part of a unique and absolutely truthful revelation of God who both wrote an authoritative book and who writes a narrative of His deeds and purposes in history.  And post-modern deconstructive approaches to texts would totally undermine inerrantist and literalist interpretations of the Bible—unless one were to twist deconstruction’s search for that which the text marginalizes and what it does not realize it is saying into some version of revelation in which deconstruction helps us decode God’s true meanings that he hid from obvious sight (comparable to code-breaking approaches to hermeneutics like I have heard some old rabbinic schools of thought practice.)

On the other hand, much contemporary religious rhetoric of “absolute truth” and related attacks on atheists’ supposed “lack of foundations” for truth or morality betray a modernist obsession with foundations for beliefs.  Inerrantists and literalists cling to their far-fetched theses of biblical perfection and accuracy because of a sort of Cartesian recognition that if the texts are imperfect at any point (even in tiny details), they could be undetectably reliable on any point (even in major matters).  And they recognize that it is logically inconsistent to recognize anything that is imperfect to be the handiwork of (or evidence indicating) a perfect being.  So, these sorts of concerns for epistemic foundation for absolute truth and consistency is partially what leads them to their more ridiculous attempts to cling to inerrancy theories and fundamentalism in the teeth of counter-considerations of all sorts.

And, of course, modernism is also on the other hand a great historic enemy of religion that moves people away from it by teaching them Enlightenment values such as the need to provide publicly accessible reasons for one’s views, to employ self-critical and culturally-critical standards when evaluating evidence, to question tradition, to challenge dogmatic claims to authority, to interrogate all texts with standards of scholarship and not to exempt sacred texts, etc., etc.

Religion is partially comprised by both relativistic and absolutistic tendencies.  Access to truth is made relative to participation in a community and/or its texts, rituals, and traditions.  Distinctly religious truth is not publicly defensible, but rather depends on subjective relationships of obedience to be received and might even be wholly subject to change at God’s will.  God can change or suspend a law of nature, wipe out the whole order of this world with its truths, etc.

But simultaneously religions present a total, absolute picture of the world and a God who guarantees the absolute correctness of moral standards and world order insofar as his alignment of these things is the final, correct answer about them. So, religious post-modernists and religious modernists each in their own ways interpret their faith along one of its two major axes, the irrationalistic and the absolutistic.

And whether we grant that the humanities indeed inculcate a “post-modern” mindset or whether they really are still predominantly “modernist” or whether they instead (and most likely) slip seamlessly between both attitudes at different times—neither the post-modern nor the modern attitudes themselves are inherently friendly to religion or incapable of religious appropriations.

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