In 1844, Karl Marx made his famous observation that religion was a palliative illusion which humanity would soon outgrow, once the working classes of all lands became the masters of their own destiny:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.i
Marx’s critique may be read as the culmination of nearly three centuries of growing secularization in European society. Behind him and leading on to him stand thinkers like Schleiermacher, Jefferson, Paine, and Voltaire, all of whom were engaged in the quest for a rational, idealist and ethical religion shorn of the supernatural, the magical and the superstitious. By the Eighteenth century it could be said that while religion itself was still a strong component of social life in Europe, it was a far cry from what it had been in the Middle Ages, when an unassailably totalitarian church practiced absolute thought control over the entire population. It was during the Renaissance (14th to 16th Century) that a secular space slowly emerged, gaining a further boost from the Reformation of the early 16th century. Following the Roman Catholic Church’s last major attempt to reassert control through its indictment of Galileo for heresy in 1610, there was simply no stopping the juggernaut of secularization. The Enlightenment movement of the 18th Century soon laid the foundations for modern nation states, democracies and constitutional governments. Religion was eventually confined to the private and personal realm while separation of church and state became one of the most cherished principles of modern secular democracies. By the middle of the 20th Century, religion itself was on the wane all over Europe as evidenced by steep declines in church attendance. The situation in many parts of Europe today remains pretty much the same, barring the surge in religiosity among immigrants from Islamic countries and religious revival in some eastern European nations that freed themselves from Soviet hegemony in 1989, particularly, staunchly Catholic Poland.
When we turn our attention to other parts of the world, however, it becomes evident that Marx’s prophecy about the eventual decline of religion has simply failed to come true. All over the developing world and in many regions of developed nations such as the United States and Canada, religion is alive and well and positively growing. In the developing world, the two religions that have witnessed the most significant increases in the number of adherents have been Christianity (of the Pentecostal or Evangelical variety) and Islam (primarily of the Saudi-sponsored conservative, Wahhabi variety). In Communist China, evangelical Christianity is winning large numbers of converts every year, most of whom congregate not in churches but in homes. The rise of these “house churches” is a sociological phenomenon without precedent in that part of the world.
This new hunger for religion in spite of increasing modernization and globalization still awaits comprehensive theorization. In what follows, I wish to briefly present a few personal reflections in the hope that they may stimulate further debate and discussion.
It now appears that the intellectuals who embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment overemphasized the centrality of reason as a driving force in human behaviour. Marxist theoreticians too were being reductionist when they explained the wellsprings of human action and motivation as largely a matter of economics. There are many more complexities and nuances at play here which such explanatory frames leave out of the reckoning. It appears that religion meets psychological and social needs that are unaddressed even by material well being.
A relevant illustration of this is the increasing religious revivalism among second generation Muslim immigrants in Britain and the United States. Coming from fairly comfortable homes, many youngsters among them increasingly embrace a more intense and visibly Islamic religiosity as a badge of assertive identity which helps them stand out against the largely secular lifestyles of contemporary multicultural Britain and America. Among many such immigrant families – and this includes both Hindus and Muslims in Britain and the United States– the fear of assimilation into the easygoing secularism of Western culture, with its privileging of individualism over family and communitarian values, leads to an even higher emphasis on religious observance than is the norm back in their countries of origin.
As globalization advances and as societies increasingly face the risk of being reduced to economies, it looks like capitalism, ironically, is well on the way to accomplishing the central tenet of Marxist philosophy – the claim that only a materialist conception of the meaning of existence can explain reality. The reassertion of ethno-religious identities in many parts of the world can, to a significant extent, be explained by nervousness in the face of the rapid encroachment by scientific, technocratic and commercial worldviews of spaces that had hitherto been constituted by non-rational, “transcendent” paradigms of life and its meaning.
Benedict Anderson’s famous definition of nations as “imagined communities” could very well be applied to religious identities. A religious community can quite effectively be defined as a group of people who gather around a story, revelation, teaching, or vision that radiates meaning and coherence for their lives. Religions often work by equipping adherents with a set of “eternal”, “transcendent” referents with which they can assess and evaluate the uneven and unpredictable flux of everyday existence. It is only natural then that much of the content of these referents is generated not so much by empiricism and rationalism as by imagination and idealism. A good deal of it, when viewed through the lens of modern science, can only be described as “mythological”. Nevertheless, paradoxical though this may seem, many people, even some who have had a modern scientific education, find it necessary for their psychological well-being to hold on to such a worldview alongside their acceptance of scientific explanations for most things. They do this because of what they see as the tangible benefits of such a choice. According to the psychologist Jerome Brunner,
“in the mythologically instructed community there is a corpus of images and models that provide the pattern to which the individual may aspire, a range of metaphoric identity.”ii
One must add to this psychological fulfillment the many other tangible and even material benefits that flow from the sense of belonging to a distinct community. These range from inspiration, encouragement, and affirmation at the spiritual/ psychological end of the spectrum to things like emergency financial assistance, medical care and disaster relief at the material end. It is to these factors then that we are compelled to attribute the remarkable resilience of religion even in the teeth of modernity and scientific progress.
Under the broad protective umbrella of religious freedom and tolerance that only the modern secular state can offer, most people are able to tap into the beneficial aspects of religion without dreading its potential for punitive oppressiveness, which was so much a part of many religious structures in the pre-secular era and which continues to prevail in theocratic regimes even today. Despite the ugly recrudescence of militant religious fundamentalism in some parts of the world today, modern democracies would do well to hold on to their commitment to protecting the pluralist ethos of their respective societies and to be especially proactive when it comes to the rights of vulnerable religious minorities within them. History bears witness to the fact that there is no other recipe for building peaceful and creative societies.
iMarx, Karl, “Toward the Critique of Hegel’s Theory of Right”, Marx & Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis. S. Feuer (New York: Anchor Books, 1959) p .263
iiBruner, Jerome.S. “Myth and Identity”, Daedalus Vol. 88, No. 2, Myth and Mythmaking (Spring, 1959), p. 349