In my last post — “The Right to Die and the Religious Fringe” — I decided, quite deliberately, to speak of religion as a fringe activity. In view of the large number of religious believers in Canada, and many other Western countries, this may seem to be a bit of rhetorical grandstanding, but I do not think that it is. Religion is on the fringe of life now. It has been shunted off onto a cultural siding, and that’s where it will continue to reside, because there simply is no way of providing legitimate and respectable support for religious beliefs, and, largely due to the scientific revolution that has been underway since the sixteenth century, the culture of the West, at least, but also of many other countries that are rapidly undergoing cultural change, is a knowledge culture, and no longer a culture of traditional beliefs and practices.
Religions instinctively understand that they must either be in control the culture or they will wither and die. This is why Islam and Roman Catholicism, as well as Protestant evangelicalism, are so insistent that their moral priorities be expressed in the law; for if cultures are not themselves religious cultures, where the source of meaning, purpose and social order is found in religion, then religions atrophy, they become isolated from the mainstream activities of the culture, and increasingly at odds with it. The alternative, of course, is to try to find compatibilities between religion and the culture which it can no longer direct. This expedient, while it seemed to work for awhile — liberal movements within the religions are a testimony to this partial success — is increasingly seen as merely a form of self-deception on the part of the religions, a stop-gap measure which, unless it could find a deep common source of vitality, would soon be seen to be but a temporary refuge from the storm of modernity and the progress of science and knowledge.
This fact, that we now live in a knowledge culture and not a traditional one, is very confusing, even frightening and disorienting, for many people. We still have popes and other prominent religious figures lamenting the loss of our cultural roots, and predicting moral catastrophe if we do not return to the once deeply engrained cultural traditions out of which the knowledge culture of today may have originally sprung, but which it rapidly outgrew and marginalised, but even amongst their own adherents it is only possible to maintain these cultural traditions by constant propaganda and social and political involvement, if not as well by social shaming and violence. Boko Haram in Nigeria is only one of the more violent of these movements of cultural preservation. But of course there are many others: Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, the many “pro-life” organisations of the Roman Catholic Death Cult, the many Hindu fundamentalist movements, of which the anti-Western, anti-European Mohandas K. Gandhi was emblematic, quite aside from his role as a political agitator for Indian independence, are all conservative cultural-religious movements striving to introduce elements of stasis in the very dynamic knowledge-based culture that is rapidly supervening upon practically all ancient religious traditions. A culture committed to knowledge about the world, and not just with mythological ways of understanding human nature and society, is bound to be in conflict with religious ways of understanding human life and the world in which it is lived.
One of the most obvious signs of this conflict is the way in which religious conservatism questions, denies or modifies what is being discovered about the world by science. Pope Karol Wojtyła, for instance, while publicly acknowledging evolution as the mechanism by which life has evolved on earth, quietly subverted this acknowledgement by claiming that evolution is God’s way of creation, and stating bluntly that consciousness and soul are not possible outcomes of the purely alogrithmic processes of evolution. Islam either claims — absurdly — that modern science is all anticipated in the Qu’ran, or, failing to convince, denies the acceptability of the scientific study of nature, a position held by many of the great theologians of the Christian tradition, including Augustine and Luther.
The denial of global warming, for example, is almost entirely the work of religious conservatives. Wesley J. Smith, whose blog Secondhand Smoke I had occasion to mention in my post yesterday, has a surprising number of posts on the subject of global warning, the titles of most of them beginning with the words “Global Warming Hysteria …”, and then the particular aspect of that hysteria he chooses to write about on each occasion, such as: “If the other countries jump off a cliff, it doesn’t mean we should,” or, “Skepticism is not anti-science,” or, “No, Texas drought not climate change.” There are in fact multiple search pages with articles of the same nature.
And then, over at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science you can read the hard-hitting article by Sean Faircloth, “Girls Beaten and Raped? Or The Catholic Church? Who are the victims?“, which takes the Roman Catholic Church to task for its position on contraception and abortion and the sex-trafficking of girls. (Which reminds me that Nichola D. Kristof has an eye-opening and disturbing account of the sale and of girls as young as 6 to brothels in Cambodia which he calls “The Modern Face of Slavery.”) As Faircloth says with so much moral indignation:
The Catholic hierarchy is eager to refuse these victims contraception — even now when most American Catholics support contraception. I know it sounds harsh, but the policy of the Catholic hierarchy results in a harsh reality so let’s repeat it: The Catholic hierarchy want to refuse contraception to a rape victim, sometimes someone beaten then raped, sometimes a woman or girl who can’t speak English. And no abortions, not even after a rape.
We have already seen evidence of the Roman Catholic Church’s inhuman stand on abortion in the cases of the 9-year-old Brazilian girl whose mother and the medical staff who participated in her abortion of twins won them an excommunication from the church, and the Phoenix Arizona nun who was excommunicated because she approved the abortion of a woman whose pregnancy would have killed her and the foetus in her womb. This kind of moral idiocy marginalises an institution more surely than all the beliefs without rational foundation which it holds in defiance of lack of evidence and evidence to the contrary.
The same kind of divorce from reality is evident amongst Muslims as well. In a piece in HuffPo yesterday, the Muslim commentator Qasim Rashid, in an article entitled “The Second Coming: Is He Here Yet?” writes about “the end of the world as we knew it,” and tells us that the solution is simple:
A solution exists–restore governmental, economic, and religious morality, be steadfast and patiently persevere. Perhaps nothing short of Divine intervention and sincere repentance can inspire such change.
But this just shows how marginal religion really is. There is not a chance in the world that religious morality is going to be restored, unless it is done by force. And as for ’governmental and economic morality,’ just what might he mean by their restoration? He tells us that:
The increasing worldwide upheaval is because man is at a state of loss precisely because of his misdeeds. A powerful convergence of forces, Divine and man-made, are starting to drive at a broad movement for unprecedented modern change. And our success or failure as a human civilization depends on whether we turn to Divine guidance during this change.
Not a word — mind you! — about the opposition of Islam (or Roman Catholicism) to birth control. He complains about the unequal distribution of world wealth, but does not see how this may be connected by uncontrolled population growth in some of the poorest parts of the world, a population growth fuelled, not by poverty, but by the disenfranchisement of women. Nor does Rashid, who purports to speak with authority on these things, notice that the chief culprit here is religion, his own not least.
In my view the kind of moral extremism, or plain moral ignorance, displayed by Rashid, and by the many Roman Catholic organisations set up to oppose abortion in any situation, no matter how grave its consequences for the women concerned, or to oppose assisted dying, regardless of misery or the decisions of suffering people freely made, is a sign of absolute moral bankruptcy, a moral bankruptcy so severe that nothing can now save it from itself. This is made clear by the continuing subjugation of women in Islam, even in places like Europe, the United States and Canada, where the right of women to live freely and without male control, has been fought for and largely won. It has also been made very clear by the way in which the Roman Catholic Church has handled the sexual crisis of an all male celibate priesthood. I recall years ago having a conversation with a Roman Catholic priest who had just arrived in our little town. He stopped by the rectory for a cup of coffee, and before he left he was in tears. He told of how impossible it was for him to have a friend. If he had a male friend, the implication would be drawn that he was a homosexual; and friendship with women and girls was ruled out, because he would be suspected of either child molestation or adultery. Yet few seem to notice that in terms of its own natural law ethics, celibacy is deeply unnatural for human beings, just as it would be for other animals. The response of the church to the crisis of sex abuse, however, has been to blame it on homosexuality, the modern permissive society, and sometimes on the children themselves for being sexually precocious, instead of placing the blame where it clearly belongs: in the unnatural enforced celibacy of the priesthood, and the highly emotive character of the sense of holiness clothing priestly authority.
One reason the church maintains its unbending stance on a few moral issues such as abortion and assisted dying, or why Muslims like Rashid thinks that a return to “Divine guidance” is a solution, is that this kind of moral certitude is what some people are seeking. In a culture where we are expected to make up our own minds, shape our own lives, and find meaning in life through a life lived with thoughtfulness and deliberation, some people, accustomed to the moral tyranny of church and society, gravitate towards this kind of moral certitude. That the outcome is so often disastrous — for women, for the dying, for young people who are in the process of discovering sex – moves religious leaders, not to further and deeper reflection with moral seriousness about moral positions which they take as non-negotiable, but to ever shriller and more strident condemnations of modernity, and proposed solutions which work at cross-purposes with the cultural change now underway.
This is what marginality looks like. The only thing that conceals this growing marginality is the very large public footprint that religions still possess. Modern culture may be based on a knowledge revolution, but the trappings of the old religious culture are very prominent and resistant to change. Our towns and villages are still dominated by church buildings or mosques and synagogues, empty spaces with few practical uses, often increasingly abandoned by residents, but still reminders of a time when the religion formed the very centre of culture and society, and so expressing a sense of absence to those who live around them, and an implicit condemnation of individuals’ attempts to live their lives without invisible support. Eventually, these too will disappear, and we will find other places in which to be serious on serious earth.