In an article in this week’s New Scientist, “Losing our religion” by Graham Lawton takes a rather narrow, but quite common, view of religion as mainly determined by active membership in a traditional religion and a belief in a God, especially one that judges and punishes. (But what about Bhuddism or Taoism?)
I was very interested to learn that, on this definition, the late 20th century resurgence of religion, and especially fundamentalism, seems to have reversed in the past two decades, even in places like the US and Ireland, known for their religiosity. Is this true for Islam as well as Christianity?
We now separate religion from the rest of culture, while in earlier societies, particularly before civilisations, but also until the rise of industrial society, there was no little or no such distinction. Within each culture, there were a range of customs and beliefs that gave people a sense of identity and connection to each other and the wider world, and told them what behaviour was appropriate and inappropriate. In Lawton’s telling of it, these were arbitrary superstitions. While this might be true of some parts (human sacrifice?), overall, religions were the glue that held societies together and were highly functional, at least within if not between cultures.
Now, the dominant so-called ‘rationality’ often includes a belief that the best economic system is the market in which all are fiercely competing against each other, that the best political system is one with political parties competing against each other, that evolution is a random process of survival of the fittest. There is no sense of connection or suitable behaviour in this. The result is a global culture rife with wars, corruption, crime and destruction of the environment.
It is no wonder that many people look at the world and say “this is wrong!”. Many turn to the only alternatives they know, which are traditional religions and/or fundamentalism.
But there may be another explanation for the decline in ‘religion’ in the past two decades: a new rationality that embraces the social strengths of traditional religions, that provides a sense of connection, identity and a guide to appropriate behaviour. This can live alongside traditional religions that will come to be understood as metaphorical rather than literal.
Our communication technologies are linking us as never before, and globalism has reduced the differences between cultures. Thus we empathise with people around the world in their tragedies and oppressions. It is harder to believe that the traditional religion of your own culture applies to everyone. As our destruction of the natural world is now hitting home, a strong sense that we are all in this together is growing. More and more people are coming to see that the financial system that underpins our economy, and our political systems are dysfunctional.
Through thousands of projects and groups worldwide, it is becoming clear that appropriate behaviour includes re-inventing community for bottom-up governance, creating new enterprises for providing food, transport, energy, etc. that are based upon providing well-being for people and planet, not making money.
For many people, the hazy outlines of a new global culture is growing under the radar: locally based but globally co-ordinated, co-operative but locally autonomous, with central emphasis on the health of the natural world.
This can perhaps be summarised as the growth of a global family that looks after people and planet.