How modernity undermines religion

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can survive only in closed societies and modern communication is slicing to shreds the veils that once protected these outdated beliefs and exposing them as the relics of antiquity they are.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.


  1. says

    I’ve spent time in Saudi and, despite all the wahhabi sectarianism, it’s modernizing quickly. One of the clients I was working with is a large retailer and they’re maneuvering pretty hard to get women into their work-force. That may seem like an absurdly backwards concern, but it’s happening and when it does, it will kick change into overdrive. More importantly, the people there – are people, and they think and are smart enough to pick and choose what they want about the modern world. Which, in the case of Saudi, is “most of it.” If there’s a religion-inspired blockage there it’s probably got more to do with justifying extreme inequality and lack of social mobility than anything else, though everyone I met professes strong religious faith.

    It was really surreal, though, to have a conversation with an adult male, in 2011, about workplace issues keeping the men from losing their minds and stampeding out of control in the presence of women. This was a serious conversation and, of course, I tried to be the voice of modernity by saying, “once the women are able to reject that kind of behavior, and are supported in doing so by the rest of society, that behavior will come under extreme pressure to change, and it will change faster than you imagine.”

  2. badgersdaughter says

    Marcus, I am pleased to report that modernity is taking hold even in bastions of Islamic masculinity like oilfield engineering in the Middle East. It is slow, but there are anecdotes like mine. I’m a woman working in IT support in the US, but the people I assist are all over the world. My name can be taken as male or female (outside the US, mostly male, in fact). One engineer in Abu Dhabi had been working with me on a support issue for several days when he happened to discover that I (horrors) am not a fellow lord of the universe. He refused to work with me, and flew right off the handle raging that he had been “tricked”. I apologized to him “if I had misrepresented myself”, and copied his manager (another Islamic engineer, but one I knew well). After a few days I received a very kind letter from the manager apologizing for the subordinate’s behavior, and informing me that since the man wasn’t able to work with me, the company was unable to work with him any longer.

    I also accidentally got a maintenance worker at that facility fired because I joked to the facility manager (another local man) about guys in the Middle East bugging me for my phone number and e-mail address (an occupational hazard for businesswomen traveling in the region). The manager asked me very seriously if anyone at the facility had approached me, and I said, “Oh, yeah, this one guy, but he really didn’t bother me at all.” The manager then sat me down and explained carefully that he knew I wasn’t bothered, but that there was no way he was going to allow that sort of treatment of women to happen on his watch, and I was to notify him of the slightest breach of decorum thereafter.

    That isn’t to say that these reform attempts are common in the UAE, let alone Saudi Arabia, but I’m sure that the reforms are going to be spread there mostly by the people with control over the money, which means international business.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I think there were some and that is the source of regret expressed by the author of the article. But the point is that for all the lip service to Islam paid by one of its supposedly most fierce defenders, they are willing to ditch it when other interests take precedence.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I am glad to hear that people supported you in your dealings with the others. While globalization has its problems, one benefit is that it usually results in more positive social attitudes spreading.

  5. says

    One downside of globalization, though – when I was in Saudi one of my hosts told me rather pointedly that if I wanted a Saudi wife, I could have my pick of elgible, educated young women in spite of the fact that I’m an atheist. Apparently there are a lot of women who’d do pretty much anything to get out of there.

    Saudi Arabia is building itself a really interesting intellect-bomb. Education there is free if you’re a citizen, and they have very good schools. So they have lots of well-educated women who can’t join the work-force – lots of doctorates going to waste. Apparently the current monarchy is aware of the issue and is trying to figure out how to get them into the work-force; this will cause huge change. For one thing, it’ll mean women operating motor vehicles and travelling around unescorted. There are a lot of traditions that are going to get hammered to dust in the process of these changes.

  6. Didaktylos says

    And once they’re in the workforce, they’ll start to have money of their own. And those who have the means to pay the piper tend to want at least a share in calling the tune …

  7. Jared A says


    I don’t want to put this on the same scale as mass murder, but one of the impacts of the initial invasion of Iraq was that the art museums in Baghdad were looted. I was told that something on the order of a million artifacts were lost. Probably some have gone into private collection, but so many were just destroyed. Then as the civil war dragged historical buildings throughout the country have been damaged by explosives and gunfire.

  8. BCat70 says


    Paris Hilton as a symbol of modernity.

    Not Bradngela, Kari Byron, Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Branson, Jodi Foster….

    Paris Fucking Hilton


  9. Mano Singham says

    Don’t say that you weren’t warned. This is just another sign that the end of the world is on the 21st.

  10. says

    Should be titled, A religious view will replace a religious view…sorry but faith is a part of human nature, it is inescapable. No matter how hard one tries or how much one studies, the limits of human nature require faith for any type of belief, and a huge amount of it, a jump off a cliff no matter what direction one steps…some cliffs are just taken with eyes shut and others with eyes open…

    And please don’t play the science card…I love science, but science and our abilities with our five senses are simply not adequate to presume the types of assumptions that are obviously changing our cultures as they are duped into another prideful “aha we got it!”. There is a void that must be filled with something, or for teh Buddhist “nothing” although that is still kinda sought, but still no matter what teh view the void is filled with something if any belief is to be held… absolutely pure and LIVED out agnosticism is the only one who is truly “modern” in this sense…

    Off the top my head opinions, and as always just because words are written down,does not mean they are final or non-negotiable…I do the same thing when reading online and don’t like it, gives no one wiggle room to have a conversation and make mistakes to learn more as criticized. We read with such contractual and letter of law attitudes and eyes.

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