I posted a piece the other day asking, given the continuing trend towards less religiosity in the modern developed world, how you would (not that we would want to) reverse that trend towards greater societal religiosity. Here are a number of thoughtful comments amongst many:
I have been toying with a hypothesis on how to differentiate liberalism and conservatism, and to the degree that I feel it could offer an answer here, I thought it appropriate to roll it out for criticism.
My study in Anthropology (before I changed my major anyway) has left me with a belief that small communities (well under 100 people in general) are fairly self-regulating. Close interpersonal relationships and a clear sense of interdependence make reciprocity the rule of the land: you don’t reciprocate and you are shunned; do it enough or egregiously and you are exiled; and unless you can convince another community to take you in (a tough challenge for someone who was kicked out of their own group), exile is all but a death sentence for an individual. This system is enough to keep small groups stable and successful for generation after generation.
Now take the invention and spread of agriculture, and the massively populated (and densely packed) communities that it produces. The old system doesn’t work anymore, there are few interpersonal relationships and almost no sense of personal interdependence. How does such a society perpetuate successfully generation after generation? The aggregate of answers to that question are referred to, collectively, as conservatism. It is about internal stability (rule of law, tradition, clear and usually rigid social hierarchy) and communal strength (protection from outside threat); and without it, society will implode, break up into smaller factions, or be conquered.
Take that stable society that has succeeded for generations, and ask the next logical question: “how do we make this society more livable for the majority of its people?” The collective answer to this, is liberalism. It is about fairness, freedom, and personal safety and empowerment; and without it, society is oppressive or even tyrannical. I’m starting to think that it can be summed up as, “Conservatism is necessary to make society strong, but only liberalism can make society good.”
This view lends itself to analysis, as far as I can tell. Say you want an example of societies that have swung too far in either direction: too conservative means it is strong, militant, and tyrannical (e.g., North Korea); too liberal means it is idealistic but unstable (e.g., the Bolsheviks). As far as the question in this post, the sense seems to be that religion thrives in conservatism and fades in liberalism. So the obvious answer to the question of what would give religion the advantage is more conservatism; and the answer to why society would respond with more conservative policies is a sudden drop in strength, security, or stability. That is, when the needs of society demand conservative policy, and leave less or little room for liberal progress, religion will almost certainly blossom.
C Peterson –
I think we should be clear that when we talk about religion in this context, we are referring primarily to Christianity. That is the religion that lies in the history of the developed world, and that’s the religion that we’re at risk of returning to. Religion, more generally, may not go away. Religion, more generally, could even see growth. But if society remains fairly healthy, there’s no reason to think that religion would be Christianity. I imagine that any religion that thrives in a modern, healthy society would look more like casual Buddhism- rather deistic, lacking scripture, lacking formal doctrine, lacking central leadership or control.
Christianity is a religion that will thrive in a damaged society. It depends upon people who are missing important things in their lives, and feel they have no chance of getting those things. Christianity is the religion of the poor, the oppressed, the disaffected. It has nothing to offer happy people. So for it to make a comeback? Our current societies would need to collapse. We see hints of that happening, especially in the U.S. I think it’s a real possibility. Civilization is probably far more fragile than most people want to believe. The combination of economic inequality and the physical stresses created by climate change may be sufficient to knock things down. If that happens, it could provide a great opportunity for Christianity to take over again, with its false hope of a better life after this one. And, of course, its structural system which lends itself very well to being used as a political tool to control the masses.
not least the growth of (scientific) understanding of the world and information available to the general publicI’m actually convinced this is the least reason for it, given that belief in pseudoscience appears to be gaining ground.
What’s really happening is that people are fundamentally decent and don’t want to hurt others, and they’re associating Christianity with indecency and Donald Trump. And that’s turning a lot of people away from it. It’s not improvements in education, it’s not an increase in available information (if anything, much of that information is false or biased), and it’s not a growth of scientific understanding, since much of the progress science makes anymore is counter-intuitive to our daily experiences and flies in the face of “common sense.” And that’s without mentioning the neo-liberal mantra of, “the only good science is science that turns an immediate profit,” which, along with “publish or perish” driving outrageous headers to get media attention and therefore that sweet research money, is making more people skeptical of science as an institution.
Frankly, I’m worried. I think this turn away from faiths that are organized and structured and traditional will see a spike in destructive cults as people who never lost the drive for that community go looking for something to fill that hole and fall into traps.
Martin Zeichner –
What would it take for organized, hierarchical religious institutions to regain the upper hand? Assuming that they ever did have the upper hand in the first place. I’m not sure that it helps to make alarmist statements one way or the other.The answers that religion provides to questions of behavioral morality appear, in many cases, to be old, outdated ones. This seems to make a kind of sense. The questions are old. So it seems to follow that the answers would be old; even if the traditional answers to traditional questions are problematic.
For religion to fade away completely, there would have to be a trend that takes at least as long to dismantle as it took to build. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of years. Possibly as long as one to two million years. Right now, we are seeing history as a series of centuries; at best, millennia. If rationality, as a subset of irrationality, took millennia to evolve, how long would it take for analytical thinking to completely displace irrational thinking? Is it even desirable for this to happen?
It might be worthwhile to examine the question of, “What role does religion play in people’s lives?” Also; “How does rational thought create a substitute for this role?” As such, it might be worth considering organized, hierarchical religion as a set of memes that has its own persistence.
It appears to me that organized, hierarchical religion has evolved to allow some people to accumulate power over other people. This might even be the appeal of religion. In the process of evolving to accommodate this desire for power, religion competes with other ways of accumulating power; politics, enterprise, money, to name a few.
Obviously, communication technology plays a part in the process of the ascent and the decline of religious institutions. What part? Really, all it takes is for people to talk to each other and compare experiences in order to see the holes in the logic of religion. Technology can serve to speed up or slow down the process, depending on who is using it. But I don’t think that the process can be completely stopped.
In order for religion to be on the decline, as it seems to be at the present time, it must have been on the ascendant at one time. This seems to me to be a fairly obvious observation. It has happened before and it will undoubtedly happen again.
In western Europe, which is obviously not the entire world, religion has undergone an ebb and flow. Right now it seems to be ebbing, at least from some people’s point of view.. There is backlash, but that doesn’t mean that religion is flowing overall. It also doesn’t mean that the current trend is the long term trend. All that we really have is a worm’s eye view. We have to look past the prejudices of our wishful thinking and also that of those that like to think differently.
A popular conception is that the decline of the advanced technology of the Ancient Romans led to the rise of Christianity. This might have some truth, despite it being a vast oversimplification of history. Be that as it may, It seems to me that humanity has recently, in the twentieth century, come close to self destruction. It’s a bit early to breath a sigh of relief that we avoided a world-wide apocalypse. We may yet destroy ourselves in the process of trying to save ourselves.
It’s interesting that religion is losing ground in the US, given the general lack of security people have there. In fact it’s interesting that religion has lost ground in a number of countries I have experience with given that neoliberal policies in the last 30 years or so have diminished people’s security. It makes me question a little the idea that security is responsible for religion wasting away. I guess at least in Britain there is still the NHS, so people aren’t going to go bankrupt they get sick. But it seems to me that in Britain as in NZ, job security has certainly diminished. And apparently 1/2 a million people in my country do not have basic food security. Which is egregious, but it seems that even centre-left parties these days have accepted neoliberal economic theory. Just as organisations like the World Bank have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work. Interesting times.
Phil Rimmer –
The biggest threat to increasing secularisation, education and a broad moral authorship is the failure to stem the new rise of the kleptocrats. Their ability to drain disproportionate wealth, the failure of society to assert its right to our collective success, will have folk fall back into that mind and moral numbing sense of (and actual) scarcity.
The poor deliver from their numbers a sufficient supply of both biddable victims and frame-able scapegoats. The former rich in democratic power, the latter rich in nothing despite their alleged crimes.
Robust dogmatic religion, is the perfect tool for the manipulative; far simpler than much political dogma; far more direct in calling out moral judgement and condemnation.
If we fail to alert our children to the threat of kleptocrats, to encourage a political re-engagement, we could be set back centuries morally.
Luke Breuer –
If a religious group were to be profoundly less hypocritical than everyone else†, yet materially productive and helpful to people in various ways, I think that’d catch people’s attention. If such a group were to start speaking truth to power, that might go interesting places. I could even imagine such a group doing superior science to those who are not quite as dedicated to always resolving interpersonal conflicts with minimal drama, especially if credit for work done and discoveries made were allocated less individualistically than is current practice in the West. A much larger baseline of knowledge and resources and know-how could also be made freely available, so less effort is duplicated.
What would make the above group ‘religious’? I have some ideas, but I’ll stop there for now.
† But not via Twitter’s method, whereby it doesn’t publish its detailed moderation rules so you cannot tell if there is profound bias in their moderation. Contrast this to Facebook, which published detailed moderation guidelines after Zuckerberg went to Washington.
Thanks to the many other excellent commenters. Food for thought.
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