Secularizing Religion


When we think of a religion in the modern sense, we tend to break it down to a set of dogmatic beliefs and occasional rituals that emanate from a holy scripture. While this is correct, this embodies only the lowest common denominator of what any religion entails. This definition relegates religion to merely a set of enumerable creedal statements that are actualized maybe once a week. Traditionally, this was not what a religion was. Religions were a complete way of life that touched upon all aspects of the human conditions. But in modern times, most religions are shells of their former selves, having been secularized by the backdrop of western culture and internal movements within the faith.

Most religions provide mean to life. Meaning permeates all actions, stories, texts and beliefs of the faith. And since most religions claim to be complete ways of living, they in turn provide meanings to all aspects of life. For example in traditional Judaism every Hebraic letter has a sacred value. Hindu pundits wear markings on their foreheads during holy occasions. In Islam, the way you greet a person might be different if the person if of your faith. And collectively, because these subtleties touch on all aspects of life, everything an adherent does holds significance, from the way he eats, slepts, interacts with a person of the opposite gender or even uses the bathroom. While the doctrinal beliefs are important, people did not learn them in such an explicitly spelled out manor. They were just another part of the system of life the religion entailed, to be absorbed and experienced, not taught in a classroom on a chalk-board.

The spread of western culture has proven corrosive to religious traditions. Sacred clothes, languages, law and poetry have been replaced with a suit and tie, English, democracy and sitcoms, respectively. Religions are not conveyed in the traditional manor of an unbroken chain from teacher to student, but are studied in exactly the same fashion as any empirical science, such as in a classroom or through independent self-study. By its nature, this approach not only negates the possibility of guided personal experience of the transcendent, it rigidifies a religion from a lifestyle to a dry list of beliefs and practices. And most distasteful to the layman, minor discrepancies or disagreements are not overlooked in the backdrop of the overwhelming concurrence, but become battle grounds that fuel religious conflict and creates divisions.

What about the dogmatic beliefs? Have they too been compromised? Yes and no. While pure acceptance has been replaced with skepticism and condescension by their own adherents, of all aspects of religion this one has proven the most resilient. Even people who are completely immersed in a secular lifestyle have managed to maintain a token attachment to their creed. One possible reason is that immaterial beliefs that have no practical application in one’s daily life can remain dormant and thus unchallenged. This contrasts with, say, wearing a tefillin which is conspicuous and subject to question.

In the realm of philosophy, all philosophies are ultimately based on untested axioms upon which the rules of logic are applied to arrive at conclusions. Traditionally, the religious philosophers held their own axioms to be true. For example, one of the names of God, Haqq, is the root-word for the Arabic word for reality. The implication is that if God is not the central axiom of your view of the world, your understanding of reality is delusional. But, secular thought replaced this axiom and ones like it with a purely materialistic view of the world, which presupposes that there is no such thing as the supernatural. Even those who believe in God but who were born in such a culture articulate axioms that are antithetical to their own beliefs.

What is causing this shift towards the secularization of religion? It is a combination of both internal and external forces. First is the aforementioned spread of western secular culture. Its vanguard is the New Atheist movement that aggressively challenges the last vestiges of dormant, un-actualized belief. External factors are self-evident. But internal factors require a bit more elaboration.

Nearly all major religions form factions in unbalanced archetypal manors, with one emphasizing mysticism and spirituality (experience-based) and the other focusing on theology and law (text-based). Those upon the spiritual path are less willing to adapt to pervasive western secular culture. But their opposites are more willing to package the religion in the clothes of westernization for the sake of a perceived greater good. This leads to a flashy and attractive manifestation of the religion, which can be more easily conveyed in a “class-room” environment. Therefore, the theological and legal focusing archetype gains prominence amongst the common adherent. By its nature, it focuses on actions and outward manifestations of the religion, while de-emphasizing experience and meaning. Religion becomes dry beliefs and dry actions. Hence the secularization.

Examples in the Abrahamic faiths include modern Jews, who emphasize the Halakha (Jewish law) or their racial identity, but de-emphasize Kabbalah (mysticism). Some even rationalize their atheism by arguing that their disbelief in God does not violate the first commandment because rejecting God is not taking a false god. Protestant Christianity is the secularized version of Catholicism. It rids itself of Catholic tradition and history, replacing it with a scripture-only approach, Sola Scriptura. Islam’s Salafi movement de-emphasizes 1400 years of Islamic tradition, and reduces Islam to simplistic interpretations of the Qur’an and prophetic traditions. In my opinion, all of these are shells of their former selves, yet are able to capture the masses by appealing to what they want: unquestioned support for the state of Israel, theatric mega-church services, and beautiful recitations of the Qur’an and religious poetry on Jihad.

So, what does this all mean? Interpret it as you wish, but here’s what I take:

From the perspective of the believers, this has happened so gradually that what they perceive to be the normative manifestation of their faith is but a shell of its former self, masquerading as the same faith that was revealed to the original holy recipient. Feeling threatened, the adherents intensify their religious zeal, strongly clinging to what remains of the outward. But what they cling to is a secularized version of the faith. Their emphasis on merely dry actions leads to religiosity, which in turn causes them to be rejected by the masses and provides fuel for the New Atheists.

“Faith wears out in the heart of any one of you just as clothes wear out, so ask God to renew the faith in your hearts.”

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