Religion in the Modern World

As you who read my blogs regularly would have ascertained, (both of you) I am not a religious person in the conventional sense of the word. I am however deeply spiritual. My spiritual needs, just like those of most people, demand attention.

If our spiritual needs are so demanding let us just spend a moment trying to understand their nature.

I have defined our spiritual needs in the past as merely the need for a sense of meaning in our lives. I suspect I derived that notion from Viktor Frankl. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. He wrote an influential book Man’s Search for Meaning which drew on his experience of trying to tend to those incarcerated in the Concentration Camps of World War ll. He observed how those people who had a sense of purpose in their lives were more resilient and more likely to survive the appalling treatment of their captors.

In our little book, The Myth of Nine to Five, the good Dr Phil and I related that humankind has three principal sets of needs, viz:

  • Physical needs,
  • Social needs, and
  • Spiritual needs.

Whilst the first two sets of needs are common in most animals, the last category, our spiritual needs, are uniquely human needs and arise from our consciousness. Perhaps because a narrowness of perspective, encouraged by tradition, and not knowing any other way, many of us seek to meet such needs through conventional religious pursuits.

In a previous essay I explained that whilst traditional religious beliefs were on the decline in the developed West, elsewhere religion continues to play a strong and often growing role.

In trying to understand this phenomenon researchers have discovered that the experience of growing up in less secure societies will predispose us more to taking on religious practices. On the other hand those born into more secure societies are far less likely to align with a religion.

It seems obvious that those who are not troubled on a continuing basis with existential angst have less need for religious convictions.

But there is another trend that might cause concern. Over time the birth rates in postindustrial societies have reduced. Thus we have the dual impact that whilst the richer societies are becoming more secular they have largely static, and in some cases, reducing populations.

On the other hand poorer societies are not only more religious, they have increasing populations. Indeed their higher fertility rates are a significant factor in their poor economic outcomes. The traditional religions practised in these poorer countries have a number of common factors. They seek to:

  • maintain the strength of the family,
  • encourage people to have more children,
  • encourage women to stay at home and raise the children,
  • forbid abortion, divorce and anything that interferes with high rates of reproduction.

Of course, some of these aspirations are positive, but overall they have a negative impact on a society’s ability to progress economically.

Peter Watson in his book The Age of Atheists wrote:

“It should be no surprise then that these two interlinked trends mean that rich nations are becoming more secular, but the world, as a whole, is becoming more religious.”

Indeed Watson argues that religion can be best understood as a sociological rather than a theological phenomenon. One might therefore argue that the “success” of religion is a by-product of the “failure” of some countries to modernise. Or even more concerningly, the “success” of religion might serve to inhibit economic development.

Now, unfortunately, combined with the burgeoning growth of religions in underdeveloped countries, we are also witnessing an increase of religious intolerance. As we are coming to see, religious intolerance is a global security risk, not just a personal or community tragedy.

Yale based theologian Miroslav Volf writes:

Recent reports on the freedom of religion and respect for religious differences consistently note “negative trends” that “cut across national and regional boundaries”. Here is a sampling of the findings:

  • 46% of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high levels of social hostility involving religion.
  • Almost 75% of the world’s roughly 7 billion people live in countries with high levels of government restriction of freedom of religion.
  • In nearly 33% of countries, individuals were assaulted or displaced from their homes in retaliation for specific religious activities considered offensive or threatening to the majority religion, including preaching and other forms of religious expression.
  • In 30% of countries, religion related terrorist groups were active in recruiting or fundraising.

What seems obvious is that religions are under attack in part because they themselves attack, because the intolerant attitudes and practices that each religion often inspires keep the spiral of animosity toward all religions turning.

The problem of religious intolerance might be better understood if we didn’t subscribe it so much as a characteristic of religion, but as a characteristic of humanity.

Human nature seems to imprint itself indelibly on the manifestations of these various belief systems. How religions are acted out in the world rely more on the nature of the adherents, their circumstances and history than the dogma of their beliefs.

Whilst we decry its lack in many parts of the world, religious tolerance has been a relative latecomer to Western society.  Well into the eighteenth century the church and the state were compelling uniformity of belief throughout Europe.

Even though today, adherents of the world religions and secularists alike promote the notion of religious freedom, the notion of freedom of religious practice has only been recognised in recent times. This has largely been as a legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which in article eighteen states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Many states do not exemplify such religious freedom.

It is said that our modern liberal stance regarding religious tolerance emanated from seventeenth century English philosopher, John Locke. It is claimed that the most influential Western text regarding religious tolerance is Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). The principal motivation of Locke’s writing was to instil tolerance among rival versions of Christianity including limiting the power of the state to intervene in promoting a particular form of religion. It is not hard to extend his logic to encourage tolerance between all religions.

Locke’s enlightened point of view is founded on a number of relatively simple beliefs.

Prior to Locke there was a belief that in order to keep the peace, the citizenry needed uniform beliefs and if necessary it was acceptable for the state to enforce that uniformity of belief. In contrast to the prevalent view, Locke expected the peace of the commonwealth not to come from a uniformity of belief and practice but from the confidence of the citizen in the state to protect both their civil interests and their right to choose and abide by their religious convictions.

He argued that the principal tenet of Christianity is love of neighbour. As a result, no matter whatever other virtues a Christian may have, they could not be deemed to be Christian without demonstrating such love. Practical manifestations of this love would be seen as “charity, meekness, and goodwill in general to all mankind, even to those who are not Christians.”

In contrast with the position put by St Augustine, who laid down his principles over a millennia before Locke, Locke disagreed that coercion could ever legitimately be used by Christians to persuade others to join their faith. He said it was implausible that the “inflictions of torments and exercise of all manner of cruelties” could ever be an expression of love.

Locke proclaimed that:

True and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.

Locke highlighted individual sovereignty, insisting that it is unacceptable to abdicate the basic course of one’s life to another human being. It is such liberal thinking that has given us religious freedom and promoted religious tolerance.

As we saw above, in the historical scheme of things religious freedom is a relatively recent development. What’s more, as Volf pointed out, it is far from universal.

Today, religion is at a crossroads.

It is facing three interactive trends.

Firstly there is the impact of economic development. This tends to result in fewer people taking up traditional religious beliefs and increases the likelihood of religious tolerance.

Secondly, as we saw earlier, third world countries have higher fertility rates overall. This results in growing numbers of religious adherents in traditional societies where coercion and intolerance are rife.

Thirdly we have the migration of third world populations into Western countries which has the tendency to counter the liberal tendencies of developed countries.

It is likely that if the rate of economic development of third world countries is slowed, religious attitudes more broadly would become less tolerant and more fundamentalist with threats to the freedoms we have come to know in the last few centuries.