When I assert that modernity will undermine religion over time, I often get pushback from people who, while sharing my views about religion, think that I am hopelessly naïve and optimistic and that some religions are so deeply entrenched that they will never budge.
But I have good reasons for my belief. One is of course historical. Over time, the most rigid religious beliefs have either disappeared or become more tolerant of things that were once condemned as sinful or heretical. The other is that religious orthodoxy can survive only in closed societies and modern communication is slicing to shreds the veils that once protected these outdated beliefs and exposing them as the relics of antiquity they are.
This happens when people from the religious countries start traveling and living in the cities or other countries where more modern societies exist that allow for greater freedom of thought and behavior. When such people speak with those they left behind in more traditional areas, they will communicate those ideas and they catch on. When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, one could easily tell the difference between those who had grown up in urban settings from those from the rural, by the way they dressed, talked, and behaved. When I go back now, it is much harder to see any difference and the change has been entirely in one direction, from the rural styles to the urban. i.e., towards modernity.
Similarly, when one looks at post-colonial independence movements in Asia and Africa, the leaders of those movements were almost always people who had been educated abroad and brought back with them the ideas of independence, democracy, and socialism that they had acquired while away, and proceeded to spread them locally.
In the US for example, the Christian evangelical movement has been the backbone of traditionalism but even here we have seen their rock-like devotion to old values crumbling. Their opposition to legal abortion and homosexuality has been weakening so much that Richard Stearns, the head of World Vision, an evangelical international aid agency, says that “we are quickly moving toward a secular society” and that Christians should stop fighting the culture wars and shift their focus to helping people.
As this cultural shift has occurred, many Christians have reacted in frustration. We have fought to place the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and Christmas crèches outside town halls. We have sued over public prayers and crosses in state parks. One court recently weighed in on whether cheerleaders at a Texas school should be allowed to post Bible verses on their banners.
While symbols can be important, we have focused perhaps too much on them instead of the underlying reality they reflect. Instead, we need to go back to the basics of living as disciples of Christ, living missionally for Christ and demonstrating the Gospel in tangible ways within our schools, workplaces and communities. While I would be happy to see the Ten Commandments back on the courthouse wall, the fight over symbolic issues is backfiring, alienating people from the truths of the gospel rather than attracting them to it. The kind of Christianity the world responds to is the authentic “love your neighbor” kind.
When religions shift their emphasis from doctrinaire orthodoxy to social work, you know that modernity is working on them. In another article, Stearns cited a study that showed the changing perception of religion.
In 1996, 85% viewed Christians favorably. Ten years later, that approval rating had dropped to just 15%. When people were asked to describe Christians, adjectives like, judgmental, hypocritical, close-minded, insensitive, too critical and too political were most often cited.
There isn’t any question that American culture is in a transition from a dominantly Christian culture to a dominantly secular culture. We can no longer expect America society to uniformly embrace Christian values or morality.
Even Mormons are feeling the pressure and creating websites that try to soften their image about gays, realizing that its image has been seriously harmed by the money and energy they poured into defeating the attempts to allow same-sex marriage in California.
What about Islam, that seemingly most entrenched of orthodoxies? One might argue that is the real test of the modernity hypothesis. But even in Saudi Arabia, considered the most intransigent proponents of Wahhabi orthodoxy, there are signs that that country is also yielding to the pressures of modernity. As Omid Safi says:
In the same cities of Mecca and Medina, where the Wahhabi-backed Saudi state has bulldozed the historical shrines and cemeteries of the family of the Prophet, now we have the establishment of shopping malls featuring…. Paris Hilton.
So this is what it has come to. The so-called “Guardians of the two sanctuaries” bulldoze Islamic history, tear down the houses associated with the Prophet and his family, and in its place put up shopping malls by vapid symbols of the most crass capitalistic materialism the world has to offer. No wonder many are talking about the transformation of Mecca into another Las Vegas.
In looking at the uber-Capitalist, history-bulldozing practice of the Saudi/Wahhabi state, one cannot help but cry at the strange kind of Islam that now rules over the House of God and the home of the Prophet.
Modernity – you can’t stop it, even if it comes in the form of Paris Hilton.