The resilience of religion

For several decades in the last century, it was taken for granted that secularism was an important component of modernity.

May 20, 2024

An Indian man walks past a wall mural of India's social reformer and architect of its constitution B.R. Ambedkar in Tirupati district of Andhra Pradesh state on May 13. (Photo: R.Satish Babu / AFP)

For several decades in the last century, it was taken for granted that secularism was an important component of modernity. This was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the Constituent Assembly declaring in 1950
India a “secular republic” and not a “Hindu rashtra” (nation).

How society existed yesterday…
Traditionally, most societies have had a dominant religion, which enormously helped create a unified ethos and a focused polity. Thus, Christian Europe united in obedience to the Pope, even while the cult of the saints flourished.

Similarly, the Indian subcontinent venerated the Mother Goddess under various names – the term “Hinduism” only comes in with the British – and proliferated in a variety of castes.

Tensions arose when a given society suffered an invasion, and “new gods” replaced the older deities. Thus, Christian Europe resisted the incursions of Muslim Arabs and Turks as aggressively as Arabs and Turks resisted the Crusades, which sought to carve a Christian kingdom in West Asia.

However, external threats were not the only reason. Internal issues like ignorance, priestly corruption, and superstition created their own disquiet. A scientific temper might displace the old cultic practices and cause power equations to shift.

For example, in 16th-17th-century Europe, the Copernican Revolution, the Wars of Religion, and the Peace of Westphalia undermined the authority of the Catholic Church. That was when men began to desire a “reformed” religion instead of the old stagnant faith.

The beginnings of secularism (Latin. speculum, “this world”) lie here. Governance slowly shed its religious moorings and took a scientific, rationalist form, the beginnings of what we call ‘modernity.’

…and their form today

However, the scholar Jose Casanova surveys the roles that religions play today in the public sphere of many societies and makes some surprising discoveries. The relationship between religion and modernity needs to be reconsidered.

The modern secular approach, both in the West and in many Asian societies like Turkiye and India, long believed that public life should be secular and religious belief should be privatized.

However, during the 1980s, religious traditions worldwide, from Islamic fundamentalism to Catholic liberation theology, began making their way, often forcefully, out of the private sphere and into public life, causing the "de-privatization" of religion in contemporary life.

No longer content merely to administer pastoral care to individual souls, religious institutions are challenging dominant political and social forces, raising questions about the claims of entities such as nations and markets to be "value-neutral," and straining the traditional connections of private and public morality.

This leads one to ask, what role does religion play in constructing the modern world?

The traditional answer
For decades, the answer to the above question was a definite ‘no.’ Religion was seen as an obscurantist vestige of a pre-scientific age, its role in public life increasingly curtailed and given over to courts of law, and its influence relegated to primitive peoples, unlettered groups, children and women.

Modern societies and nation-states aspired to be scientifically based and technologically advanced.

It has taken two world wars, a profligate ‘space race’, and the destruction of vast areas of the earth to realize how short-sighted and foolish such a view has been.

The Western European model was that public life would be resolutely secular, religiously neutral, if not hostile to all forms of religion. The State took the roles of education and welfare, as well as the more important tasks of controlling the economy and guiding the nation.

It did not take long to see the government’s incompetence and gross corruption in many of these areas.

However adversely one may feel about religious groups, they are usually led by idealism and self-sacrifice, which are notably absent from state functionaries. Education (schools, colleges) and welfare (hospitals, orphanages) demonstrate this quite clearly, even if macro-politics is more ambiguous about religion’s role.

This leads me to say that probably the most significant ‘change-maker’ in the modern world is not the stock market, electronic technology, government machinations, or the groundswell of social revolution. It is religion.

Throughout human history, religion – no matter what its form – has shown itself as the most satisfying form of human endeavor. Crushed and persecuted it might be, it has always bounced back.

The modern reality
Why is this so? Let’s look at two phenomena that have impacted the role of religion in modern society: rampant migration and the omnipresent role of technology.

Migration in search of work is the child of colonialism. It was the regular colonial practice to transplant millions of laborers within countries and from one country to another to work in different plantations.

It was also colonial practice to import millions of menial workers into the mother country to do work that the native-born refused to do. Decades later, the migrants have settlements of their own, with churches, temples, mosques, and gurdwaras in the host country and their own form of cultic worship.

Migrants indeed create new patterns of religious behavior wherever they settle. This means that no country is a “pure” country anymore because migration has irrevocably mixed populations. Interracial and inter-caste marriages are the fastest-growing phenomenon in such societies, despite resistance from those in power. Migration has made the stranger a brother — or at the very least a brother-in-law!

It is true that today certain groups still fantasize about a “promised land” given to them by God, or a punya bhoomi (holy land) meant for their exclusive use and safekeeping. Still, less and less is such an argument acceptable to modern men and women.

These arguments rest on religious premises deriving from monolithic societies. But modern societies are increasingly pluralistic and have no shared values from a common religious source, for almost all societies today have several religious traditions.

The second significant influence is the omnipresence of technology, which has made life easier for thousands of ordinary people. However, media technology has impacted religion as well, transforming traditional parishes into electronic churches with sophisticated sound systems and televised pastoral outreach. No major religion is free from this.

This has meant that mass conversions, persecutions, and ghettos are a thing of the past. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that these have ceased altogether — we know that they haven’t — but that all modern societies that accept pluralism of belief and values as practical ways of living together need to strive to make these not just aspirations but sustainable goals.

For, too many individuals and societies live in a past of their own making.

Pope Paul VI was prescient enough in the 1960s to state, “Dialogue is the new way of being Church.” This applies not just to the church and organized religion but also to society itself. When men and women of different belief systems can talk to each other, work together, and accept each other’s diversity without rancor, then something has changed.

What has changed is the human element in religion.

The new element in religion
Religion is no longer about cultic worship, pilgrimages, and shrines; it is about respect and care for each human being, her well-being, and the development of each individual’s full potential. The “works of mercy” take precedence over cultic worship and devotion.

In such a religion, there is no place for curses and incantations, for hostility and hatred of the “other.” There may not even be time for the worship of the transcendent deity, for such a religion is of the saeculum, this world: it is concerned with the peace and prosperity of all, and with saving this planet.

Is there a place for such resilience in religion, not just for individuals but for societies as well?

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