Modernity and Religion: A Clash of Worldviews

May 25, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

arm-wrestlingThe 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.

Michael Bogart

A Synopsis of Religious Modernism

May 1, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

modernismModernism is the term often used for the Twentieth-Century movement, which sought a break with the traditional ideas, norms and styles of Western Civilization, and adopted innovative ways for understanding the world and human living. The term “modernism” had its specific connotations for art, music and the general world-view of the times, but in the area of religion, modernism has attempted to examine and re-define traditional belief-systems in light of contemporary values and trends. Modernism’s view of traditional religion (including the traditional understanding of Christianity) is that it is incompatible with the modern age for the following reasons:

The Vastness of the Cosmos. Argument: If a personal God exists, why would that God be concerned about a single, rather insignificant planet, such as earth? Religion, therefore, is only the human aspiration for meaning and infinity in the desperate hope that we are more than organisms on a speck in the hugeness of the universe.

Many who raise this objection probably take an atheistic or agnostic religious position, though some might opt for Deism or Pantheism.

Science has Discredited Religion. Argument: Scientific methodology offers explanations for natural phenomena which primitive people explained religiously. For example, thunder was seen by early humans as a deity beating lightning bolts his hammer, but science shows that it is caused by complex electrical processes in the atmosphere. Early man saw the harvest cycle as being related to the sexual relations of the gods. Now we know about rainfall, soil chemistry, and modern agricultural methods.

Therefore, science and technology have replaced the need for supernatural explanations. Assuming that the Cosmos is essentially a product of natural generation, nature is therefore a vast machine. Human beings are a part of that machinery, having been produced by it.

Religion can be explained psychologically. Modernism tended to explain the human religious impulse in light of naturalistic causes. Some possible modernistic explanations for the universal human religious impulse included:

Religion as a social glue. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) saw religion as a tool, which enabled society to function harmoniously. In his view, religion provides stability through a definite moral code, which becomes formalized into law. Religion also validates authority structures, which can discourage anti-social behavior.

Religion as a tool of oppression. Karl Marx (1818-1883) called religion “the opiate of the people.” He saw it as keeping people relatively content in their place (or at least afraid to rock the boat), keeping them pacified with promises of a better life hereafter and the threats of judgment. In this view, the upper classes use religion to maintain their control and manipulate the masses.

Religion as neurosis. In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that religion could be explained psychologically. Freud believed that religious belief is an expression of certain deep psychological needs, such as the fear resulting from not being able to control nature. Religion assures people that someone is in control and might be persuaded to protect and guide through the uncertainties of existence. Freud saw belief in God as providing some social and psychological benefits, but felt that its downside was to keep people in an infantile state. Mature, well-adjusted people should have no need for God or religion.

Religion as a remedy for social frustration. In society, biological urges must be limited in order to achieve stability. But the repression of natural drives causes mental and emotional distress, so religion serves the function of lending authority social norms which impose morality, promising rewards to the compliant and punishments for the non-compliant.

Conclusion and Application: The adoption of a modernistic viewpoint in Western Civilization during the early Twentieth Century had the effect of forcing a choice upon most religious groups to either hold fast to traditional ways of understanding faith or adapting religion to the new point of view. In Christianity, Modernism brought about splits in almost all groups of Protestants and serious strains in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Issues such as the nature and role of the Bible, the authority of the Church and its traditions, the role of science in determining truth and the relationship of believers with culture were major battlegrounds in the conflict.

In the Twenty-first Century, Modernism is increasingly being supplanted by Postmodern views of reality and culture. Though its views of truth are at significant odds with developing Postmodern concepts, Modernism played a decisive role in the departure from centuries of tradition which had engendered and nourished the West. With the ascendancy of the Postmodern focus on relativity and individuality, the Modernist confidence in science, technology, education and mass society seem to be on the decline. The challenge for the church is to shift the focus of its apologetics and theology from countering modernism’s critique of Christianity and its alternative worldview to understanding and interacting with the new and largely unexplored challenge of Postmodern thought and culture.

Michael Bogart