Modernity and Religion: A Clash of Worldviews
The clash between modernist thought and Judeo-Christianity has produced more than a century of accusation, rebuttal and counter-accusation, with religion forced into a mostly defensive position. Modernity has asserted that religious belief is irrelevant because it is based on an outmoded and unscientific worldview. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) the famed critic and de-mythologizer of the Bible put it this way, “It is impossible to use electric (devices) and take advantage of modern medical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” This modern worldview spoken of by Bultmann and others has been responsible for a significant decline in religious belief in Western culture. Modernity’s claim that religious faith (specifically Judeo-Christianity) is no longer relevant is based on the following arguments:
1. Religion is invalid because of the vastness of the Cosmos. In other words, if a Creator exists, why would he be concerned about such an insignificant place such as earth? It is unrealistic to think that a Being of such immensity would pour so much of himself into this tiny speck in the hugeness of the universe. Modernity would say that if religion has any value, it is in its expression of the human aspiration for meaning and belonging in the larger scheme of Cosmic reality.
2. Science has demonstrated that religion is an inadequate explanation for the reality of nature. Natural phenomena, which less advanced people explained in a religious way are now known to be caused by natural forces. For example, thunder was seen by primitive people as God expressing his displeasure or showing his power, but the scientific method shows that it is caused by complex electrical processes in the atmosphere. So science and technology have replaced the need for supernatural explanations, making religion a much less necessary part of human life.
3. Human beings ought to be allowed the freedom to search for whatever personal fulfillment each may find to his or her sensibility. Religion has often been a hindrance to the quest for personal fulfillment, and should be abolished or modified so that it no longer obstructs that freedom. Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that religion was simply a tool of oppression used by the upper classes to maintain their control. He once called religion “the opiate of the people.”
4. Religion is simply a protective framework constructed to deal with the fear and uncertainty which naturally result from an unpredictable and dangerous universe. In his book, The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that religion could be explained as a psychological response to the human inability to control nature. Because they feel helpless and frustrated, people need a sense of security provided by a theoretical Protector. In other words, Freud saw religion as a form of neurosis. Freud did see belief in God as providing some social and psychological benefits, but he felt that the downside of religion was to leave people in an infantile state. Mature people, freed from neurosis, would have no need for God.
5. The best that can be said for religion is that it is a useful social “glue”. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) saw religion as a necessary institution which enabled society to function harmoniously. In the West, Judeo-Christianity has provided a certain stability by teaching and enforcing a definite moral code, which, over time, became formalized into law. It has also validated authority structures and discouraged anti-social behavior.
Let us think through each of these main objections to religious belief posed by Modernity. Do modernistic explanations really disprove religious belief?
Response 1: If a Creator exists, it would seem rather rash for human beings to attempt to predict what the Supreme Being would be likely to do. As a part of God’s creation ourselves, it would be foolish to say dogmatically that he would have little or no interest in one particular planet in his universe or about human life on that planet. So, simply because the universe is a very large place, doesn’t disprove the Judeo-Christian assertion that the Creator is profoundly interested in us.
Response 2: It is the function of science to provide technically correct explanations for natural phenomena. What may seem like mythological views of God’s activities and character in the Bible may be understood as complementary to science rather than in contradiction of it. A careful study of the Bible as ancient literature shows that biblical descriptions of God are not so much mythological as they are poetic. When God is spoken of as riding on thunder clouds, it is a picture of God’s majesty and power, rather than a technical description of the hydrological cycle. In other words, religion offers valid explanations of realities which lie beyond the physical properties of natural phenomena. Science can describe and (sometimes) predict the way in which nature is structured. It cannot evaluate the origins of nature, nor is it always in a position to answer questions about why it functions as it does. Furthermore, science cannot predict whether the laws of nature may be temporarily set aside should the Creator think fit to do so.
Response 3: Probably no informed person would want to argue the point that religion has often been used to prevent people from pursuing certain avenues of self-expression. Certainly people have used the Bible and religious tradition to deter people from all sorts of activities. Most people who have been involved in a religious community have either personally experienced or at least witnessed the harmful and manipulative use of power by religiously motivated people. For many, one such experience is more than enough to convince them that all religious warnings and moral statements are simply a type of power-play.
The true question is whether religion is serving its proper function when it attempts to use various forms of persuasion to affect people’s thinking and behavior. To answer this, we must discuss the issue of assumptions. Either God exists as Judeo-Christianity depicts him or he does not. If the Judeo-Christian view of God is not accurate, then the argument might be made that religious moralizing is an improper hindrance to human self-expression. However, even assuming that God does not exist, religion might still serve a useful function in deterring people from behaviors and activities which generations of human experience have shown to be either harmful or unproductive. On the other hand, if Judeo-Christianity gives an essentially accurate picture of God’s character and will, then a major task of religion would be to help people understand and conform to those ideals.
Response 4: It is undeniable that religion meets some very basic psychological needs. Like most other religions, Judeo-Christianity deals with fear of the future and offers a sense of peace amid life’s calamities. The fact that it does so is no argument against its validity. The truth is that if Judeo-Christianity did nothing to address those very common human experiences, it would argue strongly against its validity. Simply because religion effectively addresses deep-seated human fears and insecurities, does not mean that this is its sole function. Nor does it mean that religion is somehow false because fearful people find refuge it its assurances.
Response 5: It is also true that religion performs the function of binding people together in community. Communities teach social values, enforce a minimum standard of adherence to those values and demand respect for approved leadership. The result is a fairly stable social structure. In doing all of these things, religion plays a crucial role in society. Perhaps in non-Western cultures religion plays such a dominating role in people’s lives that its value as a social glue is outweighed by its oppressive effects. For the most part, Western societies are in no imminent danger of that scenario. Given the fragmentation of Western culture, religion’s stabilizing effects may prove of even greater value in the future (provided we don’t fall into religious conflict). Once again, the fact that religion plays such a role, is no argument against its validity.
Conclusion: While making major inroads into the influence of religion in society, Modernity has failed to convince a significant portion of Westerners to abandon religious belief and practice and its arguments have fallen short of proving religion to be either false or unnecessary. To the contrary, Judeo-Christianity has benefited from the modernist critique in that it has been forced to re-evaluate its premises and function, resulting in a renewed confidence and in a needed overhaul of its approach to society.