In trying to be a good little boy and use my summer vacation from teaching productively in terms of my doctoral studies, over the past week and a half I’ve been reading a fair amount of theoretical literature about the sociology of religion. Part of what I have realized in the process is that there are effectively two paradigms that dominate the discussion in the field: secularization and fundamentalism.
The sad narrative goes something like this: Starting in the late 1700s a series of revolutions started to seriously weaken the political authority of churches within the western world. Priests were allowed no role in government in the United States, the power of the cardinals was demolished with the collapse of the monarchy in France, and the political authority of the papacy became a thing of the past in southern Europe in general. This led to Copernicans being allowed to come out of the closet, and other ideas that would have previously been considered dangerous heresies to develop and advance –– the most infamous being Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the mid- to late 1800s the Vatican states had collapsed entirely; Comte, Marx and Freud were each predicting the complete demise of religion as a force within society; and Nietzsche was declaring that God was already dead. A concerted effort to phase out traditional Christianity and to realize a new, “more advanced” sort of social structure started to take shape among western intellectuals.
Within Christianity some German theologians in particular started working on developing new variations on the faith which would be less at odds with these modern ideas, but rather than making Christianity more relevant this merely made it more relative: rather than putting the faith in touch with new realities these theologies had the general effect of making it harder to see how there could be any distinctively Christian message left. It sort of helped the secularists prove their point. Other Christian leaders, however, particularly in the United States, went to work with great vigor on trying to defend the traditional understandings within their various branches of Christendom as eternal and unchangeable truths. They declared that there are certain basic ideas which are absolutely essential, or fundamental, to anything which could dare to call itself “Christian”. Thus within this sort of siege mentality the social phenomenon of “Fundamentalism” was born.
Over the course of the twentieth century secularism and fundamentalism continued to do battle with each other. After starting out as a Protestant Christian reaction to modernization, variations on fundamentalism began to spring up within other religious traditions as well, most notably within Islam. Effectively those religious movements which remained “mainstream” and interactive with the modern world have become less and less relevant culturally and politically, while those who have been seen as taking a strong stand in promoting the implementation of God’s will –– sticking to “eternal truths” regardless of how unpopular they are with the mainstream –– have managed to draw significant numbers of new converts continuously. While these new, radically conservative religious movements have not been able to establish anything like the sort of power base that the Medieval Catholic Church had –– or even the sort of pull that the first generation Protestant Reformers had within central Europe –– they have progressively become the most politically significant forms of religion in the world today. Particularly intimidating in terms of world peace over the next generation are the Saudi, Pakistani and Iranian variations on Islamic fundamentalism, and the US “religious right” variations on Christian fundamentalism together with some of its radical off-chutes in developing countries.
The information revolution of the past generation has further intensified the battle between these trends. Anyone can find as much reinforcement for their extreme positions as they could hope for, 24/7 –– telling you why you should ditch all religion as nonsense, or telling you that you need to stand and fight against the global conspiracy to destroy your faith, whatever your taste may be. The question is, is there any alternative left between these two extremes?
Before taking this question further, I think it is useful to unpack one current distinction in terminology: between secularism and secularization. Secularization is a matter of sociological theory which addresses the fact that religious institutions do not have the sort of power that they did a couple of centuries ago, or even a couple of generations ago. This much is in many ways self-evident in most western societies, even in the United States. This is not necessarily an indication of a victory for a group of politically and intellectually anti-religious activists who can be referred to as “secularists.” Such activists undoubtedly exist, and have a significant audience, particularly in Europe, but they don’t really deserve much of the credit or blame for the reduced role of Christianity in, for instance, determining what hours shops will be open, or determining which children are “legitimate” these days.
What I am talking about here though is the ideological battle between secularism –– the socio-political effort to phase out religion as a factor in public life at least –– and fundamentalism –– the religious belief that the teachings of a particular faith tradition need to remain unchanged and unquestionable as a social norm, with subsequent claims over all aspects of public life. For both of these ideological movements the social realities of secularization make up the essence of the cultural environment in which they function.
So is there some viable middle ground to be found between secularism and fundamentalism then? To address this challenge we have to stop to consider what we regard as the basic point of religion is to begin with. There are a few alternatives to be considered. It seems that most secular sociologists are making a combination of two assumptions on the matter: the point of religion is either to enable social control or to secure magical help in day-to-day life, or both. On the first account it could say that a cultural assumption of a religious or biblical standard being binding in society was once useful as a means of creating cultural solidarity and mutual trust and the like; but this also had its down-sides in encouraging things like gay bashing and witch burning as accepted social practices. The second consideration puts Christianity on even footing with Shamanism: rather than worrying about pleasing God or building an ethical code for its own sake, it implies that people are worried about God sending the rains so that their crops grow. Then if they get beyond worries about this life then maybe they’ll start worrying about life after death as well, needing magical assistance in securing a favorable position for themselves there as well. As far as the basic purpose of Christianity goes I believe both of these assumptions are fundamentally wrong, but in terms of understanding portions of the social dynamics within particular societies they are worth taking seriously at least.
Knowing where you want to go is an important part of getting there. If what you really want is a safe, comfortable and controllable life in the material world, and that’s really all you want, then a secularized technological perspectives on life is probably the most effective means of getting you there. Not that prayer and use of technology are mutually exclusive. If I were to become seriously ill I would definitely use both, and I really don’t think I’m alone in that matter. But I would not substitute prayer for taking medication or whatever else a trusted medical professional would recommend on a purely materialistic basis. In many very fundamental respects we all depend on modern technology to keep our lives functioning safely and dependably. In the western world one important fruit of this technological perspective is that, unlike just a few generations ago, having a few children in each family die of disease before reaching adulthood is no longer the norm within society. Another significant effect of the technologically driven world that we live in is that I can sit here and write this in my low budget teacher’s apartment, with no significant financial backing for my ideas, and with minimal skill in using publicly available technologies I can send out this essay realistically expecting it to be read in 50-100 countries. So overall I think it’s fair to say that rather than depending on prayer as a means of magical control of our environment we can more reliably turn to technology to help and protect us in practical terms.
This deserves two important qualifications though: First, our technological approach to life can have many horrible unforeseen consequences, which we need to be watching out for continuously. We have not yet mastered the art of using our technological skills and possibilities in sustainable ways. We as humans have burned out many habitats where we have set up shop, sometimes successfully moving on to other places afterwards; sometimes dying out en masse as the result of our mistakes. The only thing that’s really changed about that dynamic over the generations is that we’ve got fewer and fewer alternative habitats to move on to when we burn out our old ones these days, and our impact on the planet as a whole is more something we need to pay attention to than in the old days. So in this respect we need to limit the faith we put in technology as we now have it, carefully insisting that it serves us and not visa-versa.
Secondly, there are many aspects of faith healing –– involving feeling a sense of purpose and in our lives and a sense of connection with forces beyond ourselves –– that really do work in terms of helping our bodies to heal at times and helping our technical operations in this world to function more efficiently. Praying really does help people to be more successful on all sorts of different levels. Regardless of your understanding of why that might be, there is really no point in trying to deny this fact. This is not to say that prayer is as effective as modern technology in terms of realizing many basic goals, but as a factor operating in conjunction with technology, or in the absence of technology, there is plenty of evidence that it really does work somehow. At a bare minimum it reinforces a sense of being loved, which any medical doctor can tell you is not something to be belittled.
In any case, on the other end of the spectrum, if the strongest possible sense of social control in society is really what you are looking for, then fundamentalism is probably the most effective way of getting there. As one old agnostic acquaintance of mine on line pointed out some years ago, “Just look at the pyramids. Religion gets s**t done.” The less you allow religion to be questioned, the more s**t it is able to get done. There are a number of more politely expressed and politically accepted variations on this theme, ranging from the writings of Nicolo Machiavelli to those of Francis Schaeffer, with the common theme that if people can be assumed to share certain religious values, you need far less authoritarian brutality to keep them in line. And when you do use authoritarian brutality, if you do so in the name of a god that everyone trusts in they are far less likely to revolt and make a (literally) bloody mess of things as a result.
Beyond that, as a matter of temperament many people do not want to live in a state of uncertainty about any more than is absolutely necessary. They want things to be cut and dry and simple; clearly understood by all as operating according to “proper principles”. If that’s the way things have to be for such people, an absolutist understanding of religious tradition is the most tried and true means of keeping things that way for them.
But such pragmatic considerations aside, these aren’t the most important aspects of religion –– or “spirituality” –– to be considered. Part of the broader perspective necessary has to do with the qualifications stated above regarding the usefulness of prayer at times, but more to the point would be the consideration of the enduring role of some traditional religious practices even in secularized societies: rites of passage, the most important of which are affectionately known as “hatching, matching and dispatching.” What is it that continues to make baby dedications, church weddings, and religious funerals –– and to a slightly lesser extent coming of age ceremonies of various sorts –– within religious settings popular even with essentially non-religious people? It could be argued that these rituals have been used as means of controlling people and bringing good luck to those participating, but neither of those explain why people want to keep doing them these days. There’s obviously something more to it than that.
These rites are means of marking out times when the overall meaning of life is most profoundly being considered and open to question –– when people are thinking about why we’re here, what it means to be human, what we might hope to accomplish in life, what meaning our lives have to others, what makes someone a “good person,” and the possibility of something more “out there” that ties all of this together. It is in its capacity to consider these matters that religion distinguishes itself from being just an expedient of politics or a crude form of control to be replaced by technology.
The essential Christian answer to these questions of the meaning of life is in what Jesus taught were the most important commandments given by Moses –– the Twin Commandment of Love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. We must first find a way of relating to the transcendental principle that gives our lives true meaning, and embrace it fully and without reservation; and once we have that established we must recognize that each of us is essentially connected with all of those around us, and we need to treat them accordingly. It is the process of developing this sort of meaning in life, not the politics or the luck improvement rituals, which is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian –– perhaps what it means to be a religious or spiritual person in general.
It must also be recognized, however, that while there is a very generalized seeking and vague awareness of the challenge of finding meaning in life, that makes particular religious rituals at different phases of life feel particularly comforting, it has always been a small minority within the population who truly “get it”. In this regard I believe that Sören Kierkegaard was on the right track –– in the generation before secularization and fundamentalism became significant social dynamics in northern Europe –– in saying that the religious mob mentality that was dominant in his time had little to do with the message of Jesus. True faith is a matter of individual connection with a power beyond ourselves, in a way that is not intended to win popularity contests. What the masses are into as means of establishing social acceptability is never going to be a matter of loving God with one’s whole being.
From Kierkegaard’s perspective then secularization is hardly to be regarded as a threat to true faith; quite the opposite. It is only when faith can be seen as a matter distinct from social respectability that it can truly have significance as a dynamic unto itself. This does not mean that Kierkegaard would have been happy about the program of secularists –– those whose political agenda includes the elimination of religious observance as part of everyday social interaction. He would have wanted God to remain important in people’s lives in ways that these folks have made it their mission in life to deny. But secularization as a progressive historical trend towards less mass religiosity within mainstream culture is something that Kierkegaard certainly would have received as very good news.
Fundamentalism would have been a greater problem for Kierkegaard. Trying to distill the essence of Christianity down to a set of doctrinal standards intended to provide a safe basis for social identity and a valid criteria for controlling and judging others is precisely what the gospel is not about. In fact this is a greater threat to the processes of learning to find meaning in our lives through loving God and truly connecting with our neighbors –– believers and non-believers alike –– than either secularization or secularism. But I believe that Kierkegaard would believe that in spite of the Fundamentalists who attempt to dominate religious dynamics these days, those who truly seek God with all their hearts will still be able to find him.
There is still something to be said for the argument that human beings have a near universal sense of spiritual craving, unfulfilled and ignored as it may be for most people. But somewhere deep down inside, almost everyone wants to find a sense of transcendental purpose and social harmony based on connecting with factors beyond themselves. In our secularized age many people turn to experiences other than religion to fulfill these longings. In this regard, while reading up on the passing of “Funky Claude” Nobs this year, I was rather struck by a quote from Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan, saying that for 40 years he’d never done a concert without Smoke on the Water because “it’s almost a spiritual experience. The song no longer belongs to us… we just accompany the crowd.”
That sounds about right actually. Rock concerts involving standard anthems enable people to experience a sense of transcendent connection with those around them in ways that few other things do these days. If religion fails to enable people to find such experiences they will seek them elsewhere… with varying degrees of commitment and success in finding what they are looking for.
I’m not really sure how important it is in the big scheme of things, but I’d sort of like to see more sociologist of religion actually get this point.