April 12, 2005

The transformed role of religion

Let’s put metaphysical and eschatological considerations aside for a moment, and ask a simple question: Exactly what is religion—exactly today? Exactly what function does it play in today’s world, and whose interests does it serve? To avoid unnecessary complexity, I’ll limit myself to Christianity, though, in my opinion, these ideas, with some modifications, probably apply to other religions as well.

I don’t think it is difficult to see that (a) religion today does not play the role that it played in the Middle Ages; and (b) religion today does not play the role that it played in the nineteenth century.

It is impossible to imagine the medieval period while leaving out religion. Religion was an integral element of the medieval order of things that made the continued existence of the then-existing socio-political system possible.

Religion had a much-reduced function in the nineteenth-century European society, primarily because of the social and intellectual advancements of the Enlightenment period. Society no longer depended on it for its sheer existence. Rather, it gained a supporting role, if you will. It became the comforter of the exploited masses of the Industrial Revolution, or, as Marx put it in a passage that is rarely quoted in full, and is, therefore, frequently misunderstood:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

That was religion’s function then. Today, in the Western industrial or “post-industrial” countries, religion is no longer an opiate. The poor suffering classes that needed "opiates" have largely disappeared in the rich countries. Religion is now something different. Our pain and suffering today, when they exist, are primarily of the mind. And it is our minds that search desperately for release from their new burdens. We seek release from the knowledge that, despite two centuries of rapid progress, humanity has only succeeded in turning itself into a new assortment of barbarians. Humanity has miserably failed to solve the social problem. Neighbour hates neighbour, and the human species is destroying its own environmental conditions of existence. The nineteenth-century’s physical torments have been replaced by the twenty-first-century’s mental torments. And the new torments are at least as unbearable as the old ones.

What does a person do when faced with unbearable circumstances? The person tries to regress, psychologically, to an earlier, more primitive, more idyllic, state of consciousness. In other words, the person’s mentality regresses to that of a child. Under such conditions, we reach for false values, because society has failed to provide us with real ones.

As illustrations, I will refer to two recent events with religious overtones.

In the Terri Schiavo case, a kind of mass psychosis seemed to overtake a segment of American society. Thousands of people kept insisting on treating a dead body as though it were a living human being. They were play acting, in almost exactly the same way that children do. And their play acting, while it lasted, was as real to them as children's is to them.

During the weeks before and after the Pope’s death, the whole world seemed to be in the grip of mass psychosis. Oblivious of his actual legacy of reactionary values that have brought misery and death to millions, people chose to concentrate, like children, on "his message of peace." They chose to see him as a father figure, blameless and strong.

Today, religion is the lollipop of the people.


atlien said...

I am not much of a student of Pope John Paul's history, and while I know he made certain poor decisions such as repudiating birth control and not taking a strong stand on priest child molestation, what other "reactionary" mistakes did he make that caused misery?

Marina said...

Religion is a need.
People need a means for praying. They cannot pray in a general God idea, they need all the paraphenalia of a dogma.
Religion has become a form of security. It unites people of a common culture. Its acts as a shield protecting those who need a protector.
But religion divides people, the dogmas teach them to trust what they know and mistrust other religions and subsequently hate the others.
Personally I am not religious

cYranger said...

I agree with Marina. Soul is a made up word just like god. Religion is something that must be overcome so that we may develop further as one people.

The Plumber said...

If a guy cheats on his wife, has another common-law wife and a couple of kids with her, should he be able to make life and death decisions for the woman he is actually married to? If I were Mary Schiavo, I would not want to live. If I were able, however, I would blow a hole the size of my fist through my cheating husband's head.

When was the last time a Christian called for jihad?

Not all Muslims are terrorists, but nearly all terrorists are Muslim.

Shriyash said...

haven you heard?
'Science' is the new religion.
people swear by it the world over.
and somwhow , that dosent make me happy at all.
science tried to ridicule the quest for the meaning of life, because according to science, humans are just a mathamatical anomalie.

The Plumber said...


You are right. I look at it this way: Science does a great job at explaining the way God works. Words like gravity, inertia, photosynthesis, tectonic movement, Big Bang, etc. are all words made up by humans to define some of the actions of God.

Scientists are successful in explaining everything but spirituality...so far.

When I was 13 years old I had an out-of-body experience. I have been agnostic, but spiritual, ever since.

I think that people who view God as "some guy up in the sky" are somewhat narrow-minded.

P.S. I would rather live with people who worship God and live peacefully but are occasional hypocrites, than live with people who worship at the alter of government. The former rarely do any direct harm to property. The latter have no choice.

The probligo said...

"Today, religion is the lollypop of the masses".

Hmm, is it? If you listen to the rhetoric in the examples that you gave and more; the Schiavo debacle in particular, the abortion debate, the teaching of creationism in schools, the "Ten Commandments" arguments, single sex marriage, the whole panoply of pseudo-religious restrictions, "Christian law" debates, and attempts to impose "Christian" societal mores, it becomes less a lollypop and more and more like a political manifesto.

That said, turn back to the Rennaisance and before...

What was the governmental structure then?

Ostensibly it was two headed - Monarch and Church.

The point that is so frequently overlooked is that in those times the position of Monarch was governed (puppet-master style) by the Church.

The puppet masters used ignorance (even the Monarch), superstition, fear, violent detention, even torture and murder to impose their control over the populace at large.

Don't believe me? What was the Inquisition all about? Why were the likes of Galileo ex-communicated from the Church; effectively "removed from society"? Read the history of the wars between Henry VIII and the Catholich Church not about his wives but about who was really in charge - Henry or the Cardinals. They were not wars fought with armies. They were fought with sword, dagger, dungeon and poison.

Now, having said that, let us remove back to the present day and further...

I have seen, been in close contact with a community of "Closed Bretheren"; they shunned education, being able to write one's name was sufficient, being able to read the Bible was enough, marriage outside the community was forbidden, there were no radios, television, newspapers, books...

If, for example, the Senate were controlled by a Church-dominated party; How would the US operate? What manner of laws could be expected. Extend that out to a longer time period... say 20 or 30 years... Think about the Closed Bretheren...

Do you think that a Church-dominated government would allow secular provisions to remain in the primary foundations of the State? Would the Constitution remain unchanged?

Want to take that risk?

The Plumber said...

the Probligo -

Leftists always make me smile. I laughed at Jesse Jackson when he started railing against racism like it was 1965. I chuckled when Hillary Clinton went back further in time and started screeching about wire-hanger abortions. I am getting a kick out of the leftists trying to defend a 70-year-old, bankrupt Ponzi scheme called Social Security. I am doubled up, with splitting sides as you equate modern society with one that existed a thousand years ago.

Keep livin' in the past and the GOP will dominate the future.

jennifer said...

Great questions as always. I think though you need to distinguish between religion and religiousity, faith, fanatacism and fundamentalism. I see religion as as something people practice, a ritualization of their faith or to fill a need of "faith." Religiousity though is blurry. Anything can have this assigned to it. This is why I think that people would choose to treat the "Pope's legacy" much like people chose to treat Reagan's legacy...to view it with dogmatic blinders on. There is some sort of need some people have to follow something even if, as the Monty Python film "Life of Brian" pointed out so perfectly, it is their foolishness. This is the distinction too between faith, fanatacism and fundamentalism. Are those who would be labeled or label themselves "Christian fundamentalists" TRULY practicing the bible word for word, letter for letter? Or are they like so many others picking and choosing which words catch hooks into their hearts (oh, that fishers of men thing) and which to throw back into the sea of relativity. It amuses me to no end that every single faith no matter how beautiful can be turned into a commodity, can be commodified and packaged back to you. You can buy a fish to put on your car. You can buy the same prayer beads as the Dalai Lama wears. You can buy yoga gear, yoga videos, yoga magazines and ever yoga herbs and never ever utter one chant or consider the Yamas and Niyamas upon which the physical practice of yoga is based.
I do believe faith has some merit. I believe it can bring people together and bridge the relentless disconnect and apathy that so many feel when head is divorced from heart. I wonder if the problem you're raising here isn't more one of the mass production of religiousity attached to anything that will capture or hook those so hungry for meaning in their lives. I mean haven't you met people like that? People who will argue to their last breath that you are simply going to hell for not agreeing with what sounds to you as an interesting philosophy and a really terrific marketing ploy?

I practice Zen Buddhism. The reason I do is because it is the one practice that questions EVERYTHING and that I can deal with. :)

Anyhow, I wanted to address the last comment by "The Plumber."
"Keep livin' in the past and the GOP will dominate the future."

I would like to say that while you have a good point there, I think that the lovely division between "leftists" and "Rightists" and especially between "leftists" and those who are progressive but like to criticize those who don't seem as progressive or too progressive or whatever...I think this division will also help "The GOP dominate the future" simply because unlike the left, those on the right seem a hell of a lot more willing to actually meet halfway even on points they disagree on while those on the left seem to prefer to engage in rhetorical pissing contests.

jennifer said...

One last thing...perhaps you could add the theory of commodity fetishism to your analysis as well. Case in point, where I live there is this new craze over the "secret healing energies in water" so much so that people are actually spending anywhere upwards of $50 to wear an ugly and awkward looking little plastic tube of "blessed water" with crystals floating around in it around their necks. Seeing this really made me want to go rent "Life of Brian" again. For some fantastic comic relief on the issue of religion, check out Eddie Izzard's "Circle" dvd. His whole commentary between Jesus and God and Jesus trying to bring the word to the dinosaurs is hilarious.

Al S. E. said...

To Probligo: I see your basic point that religion’s hold on today’s society may be as powerful as on that of the medieval era. Yet, as someone self-schooled in dialectical materialism, I find it difficult to go along with the reversal of the respective positions of base and superstructure that this line of thought involves. I don’t think religion has ever been an independent agent is society. Rather, it has always been somewhat of an epiphenomenon of class struggle. As society’s economic base evolves, so must religion evolve, or at least metamorphose. In the era that some intellectuals wistfully call Late Capitalism, it should not come as a surprise to encounter Late Religion. On the other hand, as you no doubt gathered, I used the “lollipop” argument only as a polemical device. I am aware that religion, even today, is much more than a pacifier, in any of the senses of the word. But I ask myself whether it is still what it was even fifty years ago. Gabriel Marcel, the Christian existentialist, insisted that heated discussions about moral values in a society are a sign that real moral values died long ago in that society. That is the sort of feeling I have had lately about the moral rhetoric coming out of the US, and not just out of the US. I think morality itself has joined the dear departed. The disputes are too shallow and superficial; they seem to move only on the surface of things, and avoid the depths as if their life depended on it. So, you see, religion can, simultaneously, be an insubstantial “lollipop” and a political agenda or manifesto—exactly when it has ceased to be religion.

Al S. E. said...

To Jen: To me, spirituality means recognizing oneself as in every way a part of the world, not just in thoery, but in practice. Individually, we are matter. Collectively, we are spirit. As things stand today, progressive politics is about the only reality that gives the world a chance to become a spiritual world. The other path is that of people like George W. Bush, who see the world as a tool for making money. I think I have already, in a way, distinguished between “religion” and “religiosity” by “putting aside” metaphysical and eschatological concerns, and concentrating on the social aspect of religion. On the other hand, religion is an extremely complex phenomenon, and therefore I would not wish to reduce it to any one thing. As I said above, one aspect of it is a kind of spirituality that is inseparable from being a progressive. The powers that be, though, don’t see things that way. Instead, they see religion and religiosity as weapons in their arsenal. If we imagine Bush and his kind mean the same things by the words “religion” and “faith” as we do, then we are lost. As for the rest, “fundamentalism” and “fanaticism” are reifications. There is no fundamentalism or fanaticism. There are only fundamentalist or fanatic individuals, and they are what they are for socioeconomic reasons. Religion itself, for that matter, is a reification, as there are almost as many religions as there are people. All religious people, and not just Christian fundamentalists, pick and choose their beliefs. As “President Bartlett” pointed out in a relatively early episode of the West Wing, if fundamentalist practice accorded with the Bible, then they would be doing things like selling their children into slavery and so on, which, presumably, they don’t. I think you are quite right that commodification is at the centre of it all. I would also add alienation, which is really what my latest post is about. As the great man said, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

Rose DesRochers said...

I am not much of a blogger and my purpose of creating one was to post my articles and I don't comment on other's blogslol. However I did read your article and I enjoyed what you had to say. I'll be reading you again :)

D-radikator said...

I see your points. I think religion has a very important place in modern society, both the organizational and spritual aspects of it. I think of religion as one of the many conduits of human spirituality that we have to express ourselves and relate to one another & our environments.

The organization of religion is important in holding governments accountable to higher principles than economics. There are 14 million catholics in Canada, albeit I don't think you'd find that many in church on Sunday. Having an organized and united understanding of spirituality among the population ensures that goverments decisions at least take these morals into account. If there were no religious organization I fear all governmental decisions would be based on economics. Organized religion, although obviously not perfect, ensures that intangibles such as values and feelings are accounted for.
Having common ethical & moral fundamentals that are rooted in a slowly evolving dogma allows us to relate to one another on levels other than economics & geography. In order to have order in our society we must agree on fundamental principles, and changing them too quickly based on modern day minute by minute polling politics would be a disaster.

Arlen said...

Religion is defined by Webster as:
belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion."

But of all the religions in the world today, only one founder died for his followers and was resurrected, thereby defeating death.

I know not whether religion is the lollipop of the people, but I do know that a personal relationship with Jesus will bring you peace. My relationship with Him is real. It's all so simple that it doesn't seem possible. But it is. John 3:16. Thank you.

Schroeder said...

I used to have a roommate who always chimed "Sports is the new opiate of the masses."

That's really true. Sports for many people has replaced the mysticism and adherence to ordered play that religion used to have.