Does Religion Have a Place in the 21st Century?


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February 12, 2016 20:30 EDT

A post-secular society is marked by recognition that religion is once again important.

According to a widely disseminated 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, the US is drifting away from religion. Taking the cue, Daniel Dennett, one of the four horsemen of atheism, wrote that religion has been waning for centuries, and if the trend continues, religion will disappear—at least in the West.

Dennett joins many thinkers such as Voltaire, Auguste Comte and Max Weber, who have over the course of centuries enthusiastically sounded the death knell for religion in various ways. Modernization theory and its corollary secularization thesis did much to bolster and almost cement the idea that religion and modernity are engaged in a zero sum game. For many observers and analysts, a smoking gun in the case for secularization and the death of religion is the decreasing church attendance and the rise of “nones” in the West. This incontrovertible piece of evidence, however, does not show that religion is on the wane, but that it is changing forms.

Far from kicking the bucket, religion has been thriving, changing and gaining in influence in various hues of everyday lives across the world. Religion, in other words, is here to stay. This phenomenon is discernible by looking at three interrelated aspects of how religion and religiosity are increasing, adapting and finally impacting societies across the world in a post-secular age. These facets of religion are punctuated by contradictions, upheavals and innovation that are central to understanding its transformation across the world.

Believing Without Belonging

The perils of identifying religion with a tangible structure are many. Changes in religiosity due to the impact of globalization do not lend themselves hostage to statistical measurements. Most surveys about religion go by narrow definitions and ask if respondents have been to a place of worship in the last seven days. They do not take into account the factor of “believing without belonging” (the category of “unaffiliated” is usually portrayed as irreligious or non-religious). People no longer want to be dictated the terms to their spiritual success. There is seemingly an aversion to organizing lives around central and impenetrable institutions. This aspect of religion where faith exists independent of structures and institutions led the sociologist Grace Davie to write of them as “believing nonbelongers.”

As the sociologist Nancy Ammerman writes, people are concerned about religion as ever and do find religion in everyday lives, but move away from the institutions of the church. Thus, many Christians retain their Christian affiliation, but not with other Christians as part of a large and global institution. The “nones” as a group connote that religious activity, especially in America, will increasingly take place outside the ambit of the institutional church and, therefore, the question is about its form rather than survival. Thus, the dechurched are Christians without Christian affiliation. Most of them today are not against religion per se but institutions.


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In Canada, as well, the force is with religion and belief in angels at 62%. In the United States, belief in angels is also staggeringly high. In Latin America, popular religion is also making major strides against institutional religion. Its reasons for the decline may be evident in its relationship with the dictatorial regimes of the past, especially in Argentina.

China and Russia

With the advent of the post-Cold War era, countries that sponsored atheism have come to realize that religion still packs a punch. In China and Russia, the uses of religion are not lost upon its political dispensations. Russia has increasingly drawn its support in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church, and China has gradually toned down its anti-religious stance where the fastest growing religion is Protestant Christianity. It realizes that religion may provide resources for stemming social unrest and protecting the moral fabric of the society.

In Russia, 72% of the adult population identified themselves as Orthodox Christians in 2008. In spite of the state-sponsored militant atheism for decades, religion refused to die and, today, in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church continues to exert an unparalleled influence. Article 36 of China’s constitution recognizes five official religions—Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism—but they are regulated and closely monitored. Many still fear the Chinese state apparatus of being seen as overtly religious or having a religious membership, since movements with large following or popularity such as Falun Gong are looked at suspiciously by the state and even banned.

One among the many lives of religion is its contradictory nature wherein it could be marshaled for ideological reasons as well as recruited as a conduit to the wider world. For both the Russian and Chinese governments, religion offers a toolkit for building a new society or coming to terms with the changes that ripple across the world through globalization.

Africa, meanwhile, is a fertile ground as it is expected to be the locus of religious growth and boom over the next few decades for Islam and Christianity. On the other hand, while not growing as fast as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism enjoy commitments higher than in any previous centuries. In fact, out of all the world religions, only Buddhism may not be growing.

How Religion Adapts

One obvious reason as to why religion survives is that it is adept at adaptation and is always tweaked for the local environment. It is important to note that religion is a chameleon of sorts with its dynamics, and not an immutable structure that is etched in stone forever.

According to a widely disseminated 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, the US is drifting away from religion.

However, contrary to this, world religions seek to see/depict themselves as homogeneous entities that embrace orthodoxy and consistency. But this aspect of world religions has more to do with how they wish to see themselves. Their legitimacy is premised upon permanence and past prestige. Even if these religions lay claim to being universal and espouse orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy, they are locally rooted and indulge in intrareligious diversity. Additionally, they continually interact with other religious communities (sects, denominations and religions) influencing as well as being influenced, resulting in syncretism. Thus, the local lives of the world religions matter as much as the global.

New religious movements, too, do not seek a modern birth or depict themselves as products or globalization, but see themselves as heirs or successors from bygone eras.

Any world religion, for that matter, is not monolithic, but a tissue of representations that results in confrontations and contestations across the world with other faiths as well as within itself. The result is an unending contestation in making and unmaking of practices and identities. As a consequence, world religions of today may vanish—as religions from the past have—centuries from now, and relatively insignificant and unimportant movements of today can gather steam and acquire world religiosity in the future.

With the onset of global forces and communication technologies alongside population mobility, boundaries are increasingly traversed, bringing in a diverse range of perspectives leading to a stressful situation for older religious institutions. In such a scenario, some may adapt and others may render themselves maladaptive.

Loss of Trust

A discernible macro trend across the world is the loss of trust in religious institutions and leaders. They are increasingly seen as irrelevant to the personal lives by many. A 2013 Gallup survey in the US on the honesty and ethics of clergy profession had dropped to 47%, falling below 50% for the first time since 1977 when the question was first posed.

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Religious actors have also been under stress. But they too have adapted. No longer do religious and spiritual teachers indulge in the pulpit preaching from red brick buildings. Instead, they take to satellite TV and the Internet. Every morning, hundreds of television channels across India beam astrology shows to predict the day for its followers. In the Middle East, the televangelist Amr Khaled, preaching tolerance and interfaith understanding, bypasses traditional religious leaders and political structures, reaching and influencing millions through new mediums of connectivity. These mediums also provide a voice to Muslim conservatives such as Zakir Naik, who through his Peace TV reaches a mammoth 200 million viewers across South Asia and the Middle East.

Thus, the Facebook era provides a platform for liberal as well as conservative voices leaving any unadjusted religious establishment out in the cold.

Religion as an Anchor

With the loss of faith in secular nationalism and a flurry of forces brought in by globalization, traditional structures and institutions across societies are inverted leaving many individuals rudderless in a sea of confusion and disorientation. In this vortex of forces, individuals and communities are continually assailed by myriad perspectives sowing confusion and angst. The sheer multiplicity of choices and options invoke new anxieties. In such a scenario, religion can market itself as a viable option providing a sense of certainty and stability.

In this hodgepodge of scenarios, religious anchoring in social lives can go either way. It can become a bastion of tradition and conservative forces that seek to rail against the malaise of modernity, Westernization and multicultural tendencies of the contemporary world or can sync itself well with a cosmopolitan ethos.

Many immigrants in foreign societies also use religion not to reject the norms of the host societies, but to ground themselves and find a footing. Religion can also provide resources for spiritual values by marketing a common denominator across faiths—a spiritual depth that every religion has. This is evident in the way many people across religions consider themselves as spiritual but not religious. With instantaneous communication and connectivity, many have come to realize that there is no one way of being Muslim or Christian. They can espouse identities that need not be along either/or paradigm but can coexist simultaneously.

Religious leadership also can sow ambivalence and easily marshal religion for espousing authoritarianism as evident in Saudi Arabia. But more importantly, for many, religion and its moral authority can provide resources and act as a vector of change against anti-authoritarianism as seen in Iran, Latin America, Asia, eastern Europe and Africa. Its presence is discernible in the current global surge against anti-authoritarianism too.

The Post-Secular Age

Europe’s experience with religion has been far different from that of other regions. The church got implicated in its support for authoritarian governments as well as for ratcheting up a conflict that led to the privatization of religion and an elimination of its claims in the arena of politics. But a closer look shows that this alleged demarcation between religion and politics is not rigid even in the West. It is porous and fluid. Politics in America, as well as France, show that religious discourse married to a dominant religiosity is not absent—as it is purported to be.

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In Muslim-majority countries, on the other hand, especially the Middle East, Islamist movements have been at the forefront in opposing authoritarian regimes by disseminating political discontent through the language of religion. Thus, while the vehicle of opposition to authoritarianism in the West was channeled through a secular toolkit, one forged from religion helped mount a strong opposition to authoritarianism in Muslim-majority countries.

Triggered by a loss of faith in secular nationalism along with betrayed promises, colonialism and an association of “secularism” with imperialistic intrigue and interference, many in the Arab world have turned to religion as a source of alternative locus of identity. Secularism in this sense is imbued with suspicion and looked at askance. Compounding this, the persistence of religiosity across societies has created issues for the states where a purported liberal political system nevertheless seeks to exclude religion from the political decision-making by dubbing it as irrational and a relic from the past that needs archiving.

Sensing the increasing role religion has been playing in politics as well as the public sphere, post-secularism as a term has been suggested to diagnose such a situation. A post-secular society is marked by a recognition that religion has returned, or a realization that it never actually disappeared but remained merely unnoticed. It recognizes the abiding role religion plays in society and gives credence to the idea that it is a repository of resources for community and ethical building.

More importantly, it seeks to overcome the antimony that is placed on the secular/religion. Religious and non-religious communities and individuals are thus equal in a post-secular society. The post-secular is also marked by a development where political demands are not restricted to the realms of the social and political arena, but increasingly involve cultural aspects as well.

But a rejection of secularism here is not tantamount to a rejection of democracy or religious pluralism or freedom for that matter. Tunisia’s constitution of 2014—a hard-won bargain between Islamist and secular parties—is emblematic of post-secular developments where Islam is the state religion but derives its legitimacy from the people and bestows freedom of religion and rights on all without discrimination. The question that animates Muslim societies is not whether democracy is compatible with Islam. That has been answered emphatically and affirmatively. But what form it would take is a crucial development to look forward to.

Moreover, differing versions of secularism attuned for the local environment can have distinct consequences for societies. In Turkey, with its proximity to the European Union, Western notions of secularism are imposed trying to keep Islamic influences at bay.

India, meanwhile, has seen a rekindling of Hindu chauvinism/enthusiasm. Armed with a growing confidence, the new digital generation desires a bigger role for itself and thus by extension for India in the global arena. In such a scenario, its toolkit comprises entrepreneurship, business acumen and an unqualified embrace of vikas (development). Religious pluralism and a climate of coexistence are welcome but not essential and, in fact, non-essential if seen as encumbrances in this path to development.

The older and pre-enlightenment form of religiosity allowed for a lot of diversity in the Middle East and South Asia. But with the post-enlightenment, religion can easily be linked with nationalism and ethnicity sharpening the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Whether the post-secular moment results in a toxic mixture of religion and exclusionary politics or agreeable compromises with inclusive religiosity, religion will be the central actor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Mark Skalny / Italianvideophotoagency / CHOATphotographer / Oleg Gubar / 

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