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.