Tuesday, 12 August 2014

RELIGIOUS POPULARITY IN A SECULAR WORLD


In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead”. This was centuries after Isaac Newton had declared that it is possible to look inside the mind of God by discovering the laws of the universe, and just two decades after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Nietzsche’s philosophical, sociological and political observation was made at a time that the Western World had placed all of its confidence in science and technology providing solutions for problems the world was facing. If human beings can discover the laws of the universe, then they are able to manipulate the universe, their environment through science to better serve them.

Did the European middle class really need God when material life had become increasingly comfortable and science and technology seem to provide all of the answers free of superstition that only focused on sin, guilt and persecution? What was really the church offering to the middle class that saw no use for Christian morality in a capitalist world where individualism and the rationalist assumptions of the Enlightenment triumphed? A segment of society began to place Christianity rooted in spiritualism and collectivism in the realm of morality and away from the mainstream that it held during the Middle Ages.  

No matter what Nietzsche proclaimed and regardless of the evolving value system of the Western middle class in the age of materialism, the vast majority of the people maintained their religious identity, mostly because tradition and ritual rather than adherence of understanding of doctrine kept them attached. Recent public opinion polls in the US, EU and the rest of the world indicate God still lives inside peoples’ minds where the need to believe remains very strong – and I am not referring just to individuals with substance addiction or emotional problems. 

This is indeed amazing, considering modern man has no sense of religious collectivism as do traditional societies in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is even more amazing considering the institutionalization of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, increasing scientific evidence of how life began and evolved on our planet after various collisions with asteroids and meteors, and new knowledge of how the universe began based on the work of the CERN laboratory’s confirmation of "The God Particle," the theoretical Higgs boson - the mechanism that provided mass to objects that helps to explain scientifically the existence of everything.

The Big Bang theory aside, CERN’s affirmation of the “God Particle” notwithstanding, this has changed absolutely nothing among believers who have become even more defensive and insist that the other share their belief. It is as though the salvation of the believer hinges on the other accepting the same faith. Even if the other is of the same faith, let us say Muslim, unless s/he is Sunni but a Shiite, then there is a desire to distance if not mortally combat the person of the different sect. The same holds true with the various Christian and Jewish sects. While I have never met an atheist or a scientist who tried to convince me that I must accept her/his view of the cosmos, I have met many religious and politically-religious people who are offended that I do not share their views, let alone challenge those views by bringing up the ugly subject of science. This raises the question whether there is something biological in human beings about the need to believe in a higher power, or is the matter purely environmental. 

In January 2014, Science Daily reported that researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Auburn University studied brain networks of religious and non-religious people, and concluded that brain interactions were indeed different. Researchers concluded there is a biological basis for religion in societies. Isolated tribes around the world developed religious beliefs independently of external influences long before civilization’s emergence. Rather than strict biology that helps to explain the need to believe in God, some researchers believe socio-biology provides a more complete picture. Human beings are mystified when they cannot explain something empirically, so they turn to mythological and supernatural explanations and manufacture emotionally satisfying explanations within the cultural mainstream and the established belief system about the cosmos, linking the natural world to supernatural beliefs.

Whether sociobiology, biology, or strictly environmental conditioning, the reality is that the majority of the people on our planet have a need to believe beyond that which science can prove through mathematics, empirical verification, and reason. The problem with the biology and sociobiology theories is that according to current global public opinion polls, it is difficult to explain why only 14% of Chinese feel there is a need to believe in God, while 75% link morality to belief in God. Interestingly enough, in secular Japan just 42% of those identifying themselves as religious link morality to God. 

In these two Asian countries we have very clear evidence of socio-cultural and political conditioning that has to do with the nature of religion lacking belief in a Supreme Being as with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but a categorical conviction that theism and morality are intertwined. It is entirely possible that a science-based cosmology that does not offer purpose is deficient as far as most people are concerned. In the absence of a holistic approach or a scientific theory of “everything”, people will turn to religion no matter how convincing the new empirical evidence of how life on earth was created. Moreover, the ritualistic nature of religion from ancient times to the present appears to provoke a strong response, whereas there is no ritualistic aspect to a cosmology based on math and physics.

As one may expect, there is an immense difference between religious identity in China and Italy, just as there is a difference in religious identity in 12th century Italy and religious identity today in the same country. This is indicative of the dynamic nature of religion, of evolving society and human nature. Taking into account the dynamic nature of this evolutionary process, the only constant is belief in a higher power expressed through ritual in a religious institution, and the emotional satisfaction derived from the supernatural which cannot be understood scientifically. 

In a secularized world, religion as an integral part of culture that has itself been secularized and subjected to materialism, the culture of atomism, and privatization of self (far removed from the religious collectivism and communitarianism of pre-Industrial society), thus reflecting the dominant trend in the modern political economy under whose umbrella religious institutions exist serving social and political purpose. Even if it totally hollow and merely for PR purposes, public declaration of religious conviction afford the self-professed religious individual a sense of respectability in society. Similar declarations of atheism invite skepticism if not condemnation and ostracism from social circles even in secular societies that have constitutional church/state separation. It is of no benefit to an atheist to place her/his lack of belief in God front and center of her/his professional and social life when the majority do not share a similar belief system. By contrast, proclamation of religious identity is a sign of social responsibility, proper ethical conduct, “trust and assurance”, and a host of other socially and politically-acceptable assumptions that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of religious identity and the individual’s personal integrity.

Religious identity has undergone immense changes over the centuries, and people do not see the issue of Free Will vs. God’s Will the same today as they did in the 10th century. Beyond the “will to power” vs. God’s will as a choice before modern humans, there is the issue of broader realms that include how religion is used to address human rights, genocide, crimes against humanity, child labor, human trafficking, official corruption that permeates institutionalized religion, women’s rights, official corruption, mass poverty, and social justice. Does belief in God, theism, help or hinder the task of solving human problems listed above? Do religious people simply commercialize social problems listed above or do they simply immerse themselves in the illusion that they are actually doing “God’s work on earth”? 

Without delving into Ludwig Feuerbach’s thesis of religion as a projection of anthropomorphic projectionism, that is, human projecting an image of their own nature without its limitations onto an infinite higher Being, and without analyzing Paul Tillich’s “ambiguities of theism” of a God that was a reflection of people’s self-destructive tendencies as manifested in global wars of the 20th century, there is the practical question of how much comfort people take in belief in God. No doubt such a God and institutionalized religion surrounding Him may be the opium of the people, but do people choose this particular opium because it offers the illusion of everlasting happiness never found in this life, or is it just fear of death and perpetual anxiety and absurdity of life that drives people toward religion in the age of space exploration? If Nietzsche had not declared “God is dead”, someone else would have to do it after Feuerbach, Marx, and Darwin in the scientific age when humans were eager to deny they were mere objects and that the only power with absolute control over all life was God. How can this be when man was making such rapid discoveries in pharmacology and medine?

Various public opinion polls indicate that the world’s population expression religious belief/affiliation at percentages ranging from the upper 50s to the upper 70s. The same polls indicate a comparable belief in the supernatural, astrology. Regardless of the role religion has played throughout history in society, some positive, a great deal negative that includes blessing if not promoting wars, in the early 21st century, between half and two-third of the population see religion’s role as positive in society. This is largely because people tend not to question religion and its choices, even when it advocates hostilities between different faiths, as was the case between Catholics and Muslims during the Crusades or between Christian fundamentalists and Muslims in the last four decades. An integral part of culture and civilization, religion has led not just clergy and politicians but even scholars to conclude that we have clash of civilizations with religious differences at the root. Religious differences are the pretext for clashes, concealing today as they did during the Crusades imperialist goals on the part of those that undertake military solutions to political differences.

Religion is a significant factor in voting patterns, ideology about public policy, and political careers. But pervasive evidence also exists for changes that many observers see as religious decline: declining membership, particularly among liberal/mainline Protestant denominations, and declining participation in religious services and traditional forms of piety like prayer and Bible reading. Even in a secular and hedonistic society like the US, religion remains an agent of socialization impressing norms not just through churches and religious schools, but even through the judicial system and mainstream politics.

Religious propagandists have always used dogma for political purposes to engender conformity among the docile masses, often targeting political leaders, prominent business people, authors, and celebrities for demonization. Although theology and politics may be separate and distinct, religion and the clergy have never been separate and distinct from politics in any society Oriental or Western. Not just in traditional societies, but especially in the US where Christian fundamentalism rages on with the advent of the Tea Party Republicans, cultural conservatives rush to the conclusion that the world must turn its back on humanist thinking and secularism. 

The paradoxical thinking here is that the same right wing Christian propagandists on talk radio, TV evangelists and in their churches preach more about hatred than they do about love, more about accepting one’s fate as a poor person than they do about changing the institutional structure to bring greater upward socioeconomic mobility. Given the declining prospects for upward socioeconomic mobility for the children of the middle class and workers in the last three decades in the Western World, cultural and political conservatives are turning to religion to help them forge the popular base for political parties that were responsible in the first place for society’s economic problems. 
 
Statistics about people’s religious convictions may not mean much because a percentage of those claiming to be Jewish or Christians of various denominations are agnostic or they rarely give a second thought to God’s existence. Just as many Enlightenment thinkers depicted God a clockmaker who wound up the universe like a clock and let it operate on Newtonian laws, many in today’s world have a similar view of an aloof God uninvolved in human affairs.  Even among those that may have a strong opinion on God’s existence, church participation statistics indicate a casual conviction toward the institution. 

Although religious conviction rises with the lower classes, low-educated segments of the population, elderly and women, there is also a sharp divide between North and South US, north and South Europe, northwest Europe that has a very low level of popular support for religion, with Denmark leading the group. That the US has a level of religious participation higher than Catholic Southern Europe – Portugal, Spain, and Italy – is indicative of larger attendance by minorities in the US and mostly south and rural areas that tend to have lower income group concentrations. There are polls indicating religious adherence in the US and Ireland have been dropping in the last decade or so, and the Catholic Church has been complaining about drop in church attendance. Nevertheless, the same people never attending services, having little to do with the doctrines, values and culture of the faith of their choice claim to be religious.  

Even in the US that declares a much higher percentage of religious identity than northwest Europe, the public opinion polling statistics to the question of how important is religion reveal that the percentage of those answering not very has gone from 12 in 1992 to 22 in 2013. The percentages church or synagogue membership is an even more interesting statistic, revealing that in 1992 70% declared membership, while in 2013 just 59%, a figure that corresponds with those declaring religion to be very important for them, and also those believing religion can answer society’s questions and it ought to have a greater role. In short, all the statistics broken down actually indicate that religious identity hovers in the mid 50s in the US, while raw public opinion numbers would have that percentage at three fourths of the population. Understandably, Americans sense of religious identity rose sharply during the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York City, but that was an ephemeral crisis and it really represented an exception to the rule that has been a rise in acceptance of secular thinking and a declining interest in religion. 

With the usual caveat about opinion polls and their accuracy, there are polls indicating that 59% of the world's population considers itself religious, 23% not religious, and 13% atheists. (see Global Index of Religion and Atheism). Is this poll more accurate than another showing 80% of the world’ population indicates some belief in religion of God?  But even those who declare religious in Europe categorically reject the link between morality and belief in God by a two-to-one margin.

It has been proved empirically that clinging to faith is as much a political statement as anything else. One of the most surprising cases is that Israel. A country that has not really decided the serious political issue if it is secular or religious state, Israel shows that only half of the population attends synagogues, a percentage comparable to religious participation we find in very secular and humanist Holland. The paradox here is that Israel’s very existence is justified on the Jewish faith issue that is inexorably linked to identity of nation and individual.

An individual declares their conservative leanings by stating belief in God/religion, regardless of any sort of religious commitment, but with a political conviction in mind. Considering that religious conviction is socioeconomically, culturally, politically based, the poorer the more religious. After all, the material world is not as generous to the marginal social groups who turn to religion not just for hope from despair, but also because the church becomes the social and cultural center of their lives.

To what degree do opinion polls reflect any degree of accuracy when an individual who has never attended services but remembers from his parents that he is Lutheran claims to be religious, but in reality is a non-practicing Lutheran?  There are other polls indicating that 59% of the world's population considers itself religious, 23% not religious, and 13% atheists. (see Global Index of Religion and Atheism). Is this poll more accurate?  There are polls indicating religious adherence in the US and Ireland have been dropping in the last decade or so, and the Catholic Church has been complaining about drop in church attendance. Nevertheless, the same people never attending services, having little to do with the doctrines, values and culture of the faith of their choice claim to be religious.

As much as I sympathize with those clinging to religion for their own inner serenity and spiritual comfort, I am at the same time alarmed by the small percentage of fundamentalist groups, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim driven by dogmatism as their core thinking and value system. Therefore, even if it were true that there is a rise, which I am very skeptical because of the nature of public opinion polling on a world scale, is this necessarily a good thing for society? How have religions contributed to peace in society throughout history? How did religions stop Israeli bombs from killing Palestinian children? How do we explain half of the Israelis that do not attend services but proclaim a religious identity for which they are willing to die in a remarkable sacrifice for their faith intertwined with their country? How do we explain fanatic Muslims beheading Muslims of a different sect and celebrating the event as though the prophet Mohammad who preached brotherhood and peace would approve?

Paradox has always been an integral part of religion, and anyone trying to apply reason is lost as Religion and Rationality by Terence Penelhum points out. When science fiction writers, presumably fascinated with science, technology on which our future rests, revert to religion and the supernatural, one must wonder if indeed the limitations of the human mind compel it to default everything to a higher power and leave it at that, at least for the immediate future. Sharing a fascination for things unseen, science and religion will continue to compete for the minds of humans that feel more comfortable with the irrational rather than the cold hard sceintific findings lacking any mystery to them. 

After all, religion provides a simple dichotomous explanation of good and evil in the world that anyone can grasp. By contrast, science makes good and evil very complex. It is a medical, social, poltical, and cultural issue than a religious one. Finally, while religion explains the existence of everything by arguing this is proof of God's existence - the argument from design - science asks people to conceive of a self-contained universe, a self-created, self-operated universe in which all creation is the result of complex convergence that are accidents based on the laws of the universe. Ihis means that humans are without intrinsic purpose other than perpetuating our species and our world, how emotionally satisfying is it to the majority craving purpose for their existence?

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