Has Modernization Issued New Commandments?

There is a common refrain in intellectual circles: the modern world has abandoned religiosity. Proof, supposedly, is in the sky-rocketing rates of atheism and declining church attendance. Is secularism here to stay or is religion on the rise?  HIR Staff examine this question.

Revival of the Fittest

Katie Farineau

As of three years ago, almost seventy-eight percent of the Singapore population had access to the Internet;  two years ago, statistics suggested that the Internet’s household penetration rate was over one hundred percent in the developing Asian nation, making it one of the best in the world. Curiously enough, this increased global connection wasn’t the only sociological phenomenon that enjoyed an upward trend: to the chagrin of traditional secularization theorists, Singapore prided itself in ascribing to ten major world religions, and Christianity and Islam in particular displayed massive growth during a decade of modernization.  Said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech in 2009: “Singapore is carried along by this global tide [of religious fervor]”. According to him, Buddhism has become especially popular among young people with English educations, but all religions (Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) are overflowing with new attendees. 

 The past few years saw the rise of Facebook and Twitter, as well as the eagerness of eighty-five percent of Singapore to identify with a major religion that embraced the advancement in electronics as a godsend. “It has always been the emphasis of the Church that we have to move with time and try to make full use of modern technology, and the Internet is one of them to relate with people and also to share faith in God,” explained a Singaporean Protestant leader in an interview in 2004.  In the same discussion, a Muslim imam offered the opinion that “media is very good […] when you want to try to communicate with one another, then of course, Islam places a lot of importance on the media.  As [sic] regards to technology, there’s no quarrel with the advance of technology and Islam, because Islam is always for progress.”

In 2013, Singapore is one of many countries augmenting a greater wave of Islamic and Christian religious revival, a trend that defies many predictions about the direct relationship between global connectivity and the concept of personal individualism.  Research has shown that developing nations in Asia and the Middle East are more likely to be religious than are smaller, modernized Western countries; thus, the growth of Islam and Christianity in burgeoning places such as Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as well as in volatile Middle Eastern states, is poised to tip the scales on secularization. 

Common theory holds that the encouragement of open-mindedness through technology and education leads to the curtailment of religiosity — this is not entirely bad.   However, it implies that one characteristic cannot exist without the other, and according to this new global hybridization of religion and learning, the secularization theory is inapplicable in the world’s most dynamic regions.  Take Syria as an example:  in the midst of one of the Arab region’s most violent conflicts centered around personal freedom and escape from oppression, women are utilizing one of the strongest forces within Syria, the Koran, for their own educational gain.  Older female teachers instruct their followers to memorize the Koran in order to gain a better understanding of the laws of the Shari’ a and a woman’s rights in the community and in court.  Before the beginning of the conflict, the publication Al- Hayat conducted a survey that discovered 80 schools in Damascus alone, teaching over 75,000 women.  Muhammad al-Habash, a Syrian lawmaker and Muslim leader, commented on female education in a recent publication: “[in the past], we were told that we had to leave Islam behind to find our futures…but these days, if you ask most people in Syria about their history, they will tell you, ‘My history is Islamic history.’ [Those of a] younger generation are all reading the Koran.”

The success and popularity of this newly devout demographic in Syria has potential to influence women in similar situations across the Middle East, change the gender dynamics of regional politics and education, and sow itself among the rest of the world’s Muslim population. 

The marriage of learning and technology with Islam and Christianity has propagated beyond the birthplace of the religions to other rapidly changing areas: in 2010, fundamentalists in Malaysia vocalized their (popular) view that the use of the word “Allah” should be restricted only to Muslims. Not far away, South Korea is home to Yoido Full Gospel Church, whose members number over 750,000, thought to be the largest congregation in the world.  According to a recent BBC profile, “traditional hymns and contemporary songs [are] both sung, with words projected in Korean, English and Japanese onto (again, enormous) electronic display screens…the services are recorded by TV cameras and broadcast on the internet. There [are] even 10 television cameras being directed from a control room, because services are broadcast to other churches and made available online.” In the church, ATMs are also available for the flock’s easy access to funds used to tithe to the behemoth organization.

In the same area of the world, Indonesian politicians and educators drafted a proposal in December 2012 that called for the addition of Islamic and Christian instruction to balance out scientific and mathematic curriculum in classrooms.  While Syrian women are wielding religion as a learning tool to redefine their place in the community, Indonesian officials see the non-secular path as a way to instruct youth in schools how to better behave in society. “Right now,” said the deputy minister of education and proponent of religious education, Musilar Kasim, “many students don’t have character, tolerance for others, empathy for others.”  Students would be instructed in their preferred religion, although Islam outweighs Christianity, reflecting the worldwide progress of Islam as the fastest-growing religion. 

This remarkable amalgamation of religion with the traditionally secular aspects of culture —technology, education, and social change— in developing areas of the world has too short of a history to predict where it will lead in the future.  Nevertheless, considering the growth of Christianity and Islam beyond their roots in Asia, China in particular may prove to be a host for the next combination of sacrosanct tradition and innovation.  Because of its wealth and population, this would upend classical secularization and normal religious demographics.   Regardless of how one of the world’s most powerful states may evolve in a future full of electronic advancement, the spread and change of religion have undoubtedly proved themselves to thrive best on regional adaptation, be it found in the nailing of the 99 Theses to a church door in Germany, or the sound of an Islamic prayer emanating from a laptop in Singapore.

A Securely Secular Future

Mason Barnard

The dawn of the Enlightenment was not just the dawn of a new era, but the twilight of another: that of religion—or so argued many of society’s greatest thinkers, from Comte to Marx to Freud. But today’s world is not a secular, urbanized utopia, one where science replaced belief and an adherence to societal welfare replaced an adherence to dogma. Religion continues to rule the hearts and minds of most of the world’s seven billion people. It has continues to be a rallying point for extremism, political movements, and even cultural transformations. Comte, Marx, and Freud would be so disappointed.

But they would not be wrong, exactly. Despite a wave of religious resurgence, global society still strides towards secularism—just not in the manner envisioned by the first philosophes and social scientists so many years ago. While religion remains a critical and particularly visible force throughout society, the rapid pace of development erodes the underlying influence religion once held over societal values. 

Industrialization alone doesn’t account for the downfall of religion. It is the security that industrialization brings, the stabilization of society, the reduced fear of events beyond an individual’s, or a society’s control, that announces Death’s arrival at religion’s door. Religion provides a sense of security, if not in this life, then in the next. , ”Under conditions of insecurity,” argue Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingleheart in their 2011 book:  Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, “people have a powerful need to see authority as both strong and benevolent—even in the face of the contrary.”

Thus, developed nations, in general, possess greater percentages of atheists, agnostics and others who do not identify with traditional religions. A European Union survey conducted in 2005 reported that overall, 18 percent of the EU’s members do not believe in God, a contrast to the world average of 13 percent.  Even within these regions, areas with more secular populations are statistically more stable, with lower homicide rates and higher levels of education. The same report found that among the most economically stable European nations with the highest living standards possessed the highest rates of atheism and agnosticism, (Sweden 85%, Denmark 72%) contrasting greatly with those nations lacking economic and political stability (Poland 16%, Romania 9%, Portugal 9%, Ireland, 26%). In the United States, often considered an exception to the correlation between religion and industrialization, the country’s most religious states, Louisiana and Alabama, also possess the country’s highest murder rates.

So why does this matter? Even if religious belief is based upon security, it does not prove that society is becoming increasingly secular—or does it? Recent events, be they the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 depression, the Euro crisis, or civil unrest in the Middle East, contributed to a rise in religious resurgence by destabilizing economic, political, and military security. But this religious resurrection was a reaction, not a trend. From 1998 to 2008, the number of atheists and agnostics actually increased across the United States. More important, however, is the distribution of “nonbelievers” in society. A 2001 study found a sharp contrast in age associated with secularism, with 55 percent of atheists under 35 and only 30 percent 50 or older. As the next generation replaces the previous, a new tide of secularism will start to enter the national dialogue, muffling the disproportionately loud voice of religion. 

And in some respects it already has. Today’s gay marriage debates challenge the views of most traditional religions worldwide, and they continue to garner increasing support. A decade ago, two thirds of US citizens would have balked at the thought of gay marriage. Turn the clock ten years, and over half, including the majority of Catholics, now support it. Despite protest from religious and political leaders (often one and the same), gay marriage is becoming increasingly accepted, as new community values replace religious dogma.  In 2003, the US Supreme Court ruled against any remaining sodomy laws, and in November of 2012, three states legalized gay marriage. Across the pond, Catholic-dominated France ignored the Pope’s disapproval by passing a national bill allowing gays to go to the altar. 

Such trends are not isolated to the Western world. Even in more traditional Islamic societies, secularism continues to erode the influence of religion. Islamist parties may dominate elections across the region, particularly in Egypt, but debates over religious rule have never been fiercer. During the recent political crisis, Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi met with vehement protests from his secular rivals following a power grab. In a rare and significant display of compromise for the electorally dominant Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi backed down. As economic, political and social development continues across the Middle East, a region once dominated by dictators, sectarian unrest, and socioeconomic disparity may one day glimpse a secure future on the horizon. And secularism is sure to follow. Freud would be so proud.

The dawn of the Enlightenment was not just the dawn of a new era, but the twilight of another: that of religion—or so argued many of society’s greatest thinkers, from Comte to Marx to Freud. But today’s world is not a secular, urbanized utopia, one where science replaced belief and an adherence to societal welfare replaced an adherence to dogma. Religion continues to rule the hearts and minds of most of the world’s seven billion people. It has continues to be a rallying point for extremism, political movements, and even cultural transformations. Comte, Marx, and Freud would be so disappointed.

But they would not be wrong, exactly. Despite a wave of religious resurgence, global society still strides towards secularism—just not in the manner envisioned by the first philosophes and social scientists so many years ago. While religion remains a critical and particularly visible force throughout society, the rapid pace of development erodes the underlying influence religion once held over societal values. 

Industrialization alone doesn’t account for the downfall of religion. It is the security that industrialization brings, the stabilization of society, the reduced fear of events beyond an individual’s, or a society’s control, that announces Death’s arrival at religion’s door. Religion provides a sense of security, if not in this life, then in the next. , ”Under conditions of insecurity,” argue Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingleheart in their 2011 book:  Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, “people have a powerful need to see authority as both strong and benevolent—even in the face of the contrary.”

Thus, developed nations, in general, possess greater percentages of atheists, agnostics and others who do not identify with traditional religions. A European Union survey conducted in 2005 reported that overall, 18 percent of the EU’s members do not believe in God, a contrast to the world average of 13 percent.  Even within these regions, areas with more secular populations are statistically more stable, with lower homicide rates and higher levels of education. The same report found that among the most economically stable European nations with the highest living standards possessed the highest rates of atheism and agnosticism, (Sweden 85%, Denmark 72%) contrasting greatly with those nations lacking economic and political stability (Poland 16%, Romania 9%, Portugal 9%, Ireland, 26%). In the United States, often considered an exception to the correlation between religion and industrialization, the country’s most religious states, Louisiana and Alabama, also possess the country’s highest murder rates.

So why does this matter? Even if religious belief is based upon security, it does not prove that society is becoming increasingly secular—or does it? Recent events, be they the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 depression, the Euro crisis, or civil unrest in the Middle East, contributed to a rise in religious resurgence by destabilizing economic, political, and military security. But this religious resurrection was a reaction, not a trend. From 1998 to 2008, the number of atheists and agnostics actually increased across the United States. More important, however, is the distribution of “nonbelievers” in society. A 2001 study found a sharp contrast in age associated with secularism, with 55 percent of atheists under 35 and only 30 percent 50 or older. As the next generation replaces the previous, a new tide of secularism will start to enter the national dialogue, muffling the disproportionately loud voice of religion. 

And in some respects it already has. Today’s gay marriage debates challenge the views of most traditional religions worldwide, and they continue to garner increasing support. A decade ago, two thirds of US citizens would have balked at the thought of gay marriage. Turn the clock ten years, and over half, including the majority of Catholics, now support it. Despite protest from religious and political leaders (often one and the same), gay marriage is becoming increasingly accepted, as new community values replace religious dogma.  In 2003, the US Supreme Court ruled against any remaining sodomy laws, and in November of 2012, three states legalized gay marriage. Across the pond, Catholic-dominated France ignored the Pope’s disapproval by passing a national bill allowing gays to go to the altar. 

Such trends are not isolated to the Western world. Even in more traditional Islamic societies, secularism continues to erode the influence of religion. Islamist parties may dominate elections across the region, particularly in Egypt, but debates over religious rule have never been fiercer. During the recent political crisis, Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi met with vehement protests from his secular rivals following a power grab. In a rare and significant display of compromise for the electorally dominant Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi backed down. As economic, political and social development continues across the Middle East, a region once dominated by dictators, sectarian unrest, and socioeconomic disparity may one day glimpse a secure future on the horizon. And secularism is sure to follow. Freud would be so proud.

About Author

Mason Barnard

Mason Barnard is a staff writer for the Harvard International Review. He contributes primarily to our World in Review and Global Notebook sections.

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