Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Religion Won't Go Away

In a book review of God is Back: How The Global Rise of Faith Is Changing The World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, reviewer Mark Vernon gives an excellent overview of why the U.S. is such a religious nation and, more generally, why religion has hung on in the face of modern developments in science and advance commerce:
The more modernity undermines people's sense of identity, through the leveling forces of globalization, the more they seek a distinctive identity through religious commitment. The more turbulent people's work lives become, the more appealing a stable church life can seem. The more people suffer under a harsh capitalism, the more religious organizations offer welfare and help, thereby drawing folk in.[1]
This is probably the best, pithy analysis of religion's continued influence as I've seen. I have to admit, I utterly believe it. Importantly, it gives the reason why religion survives, and what it's proper function should be in society. Also, it tacitly acknowledges that even were market forces and goods distributed equitably among all people, the desires for identity would still make religion attractive. Next, Vernon goes onto talk about how religion functions specifically in U.S. culture:
But there are certain political conditions that have aided God's return too, or rather sustained his presence, for he never really went away. Top of the list, the two authors argue, is America's constitution, and its First Amendment: "that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first part of that clause is the one that is commonly remembered, in effect, the separation of church and state. But the second part is equally important when it comes to creating the right conditions for religion to thrive. It forms what might be called a free market for religion, in which everyone can set out their stall, and moreover can do so in the public square. What America's modernity has not tried to do is force religion into the private sphere, a tendency that has characterised European reactions to belief. At the same time, though, it has ensured that there is at least a theoretical distance between religion and the exercise of political power.[1]
So when religious groups are allowed to exist, but not allowed to run each other out of the country (or worse), then this forces pluralism upon society, whereby "every day people rub up against belief systems and lifestyles different from their own."[1] I would also add that in a pluralistic, open environment, where religions have to compete with one another for advocates, the weak systems will die, and the stronger ones will morph and become even more attractive to its advocates. Of course, people's psychological profiles and regional preferences will differ, so there will always be a plurality of religions in a pluralistic socio-political environment.


[1] Mark Vernon "Why God is back", 18 May 2009 (Accessed 5 Dec. 2009)


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