Saturday, September 10, 2005

Religion and Civilization

This discussion is not about the validity of religion, but about the consequences of religion. If you want to understand the futility of arguing the validity of religion a good place to start is the PBS series, The Question of God. Or on the subject of religious wars throughout history, the Penn State site on Holy Wars and the Western Cultural Tradition.

A New Modern Era

It is somewhat uncanny that the first George W. Bush presidency intersected with the events of 9/11/2001. For the previous several decades religion in America was ever present but relatively uncontroversial and threats from external religious sources were not taken with any degree of seriousness, although many incidents should have awakened the American public and its government.

Essentially all American presidents have claimed some form of religion, it being a necessity to become an American president. But, George W. Bush was unique in his claim of being born again in the Christian faith and not only embracing it, but promoting it as a star in his resume for the position he sought. Indeed, in a presidential town meeting he cited Jesus Christ as the philosopher who most influenced his life. To the religious in America this must have seemed like a gift from God, finally having a candidate to support that identified with their deep seated religious beliefs.

His performance in office showed that he was no pretender to religion. His championing of social issues based in religion, his black and white identification of good and evil, his support of faith based government initiatives, and his strong identification of religion with patriotism and American exceptionalism proved he was the genuine article.

So along comes 9/11, an attack on primarily Christian America from Islamic extremists, justifying their actions on the basis of the Quran, and the interference of the West in their practice of Islam.

And the rest is history.

The War on Terror

The administration was quick to assure Americans that the subsequent wars were not wars on Islam but a war on terror, since the West is a civilization of countries made up of many religions, whereas Islam likes to think of itself as the true world religion existing in many countries.

But we are not fighting terrorists from the IRA, the white supremacist movement, communist guerilla groups, or an other form of terrorism than that perpetrated by Islamic extremists. So it is really a war on Islamic extremism.

Religious Extremism and Changes in American Attitudes

Religious extremism comes in many stripes. We have our own home grown religious extremists like Pat Robertson, accepted as a legitimate candidate for president, indeed winning the Iowa caucuses in a recent primary election, and now advocating the assassination of a Latin American president and praying for the death of Supreme Court justices so they can be replaced with people more to his liking.

And of course we have al Qaeda, with megalomaniacal leadership primarily based in politics rather than religion, but supported by a wide swath of religious sympathizers to their cause in the Islamic street.

In both these cases we have people whose beliefs dominate their actions. The people they approve to lead are not selected for their secular qualities but for their positions on upholding religious beliefs on a myriad of social issues.

There is no doubt that America has rich religious traditions, and that over the years the country may have strayed from them since we approved the constitution. But, we also had a tradition of slavery, of women being subservient to men, of championing the rights of those immigrating from abroad over those who originated here, etc. In all of these cases we have put these traditions behind us in favor of what seemed a better path for a nation whose advance in knowledge and understanding had changed our perspective. Indeed, our countries of origin abroad have moved in the same direction, some much further than our own.

Since the start of the Bush administration and the events of 9/11 we seem to have moved back in the direction of greater religious involvement and outspokeness, even to the extent of integrating religion more in the public arena, education, and government. The theory of evolution is now being put on a par with faith based “intelligent design” concepts. Re-restricting abortions, increasing animosity toward unusual sexual orientation, introducing prayer back into the classroom, and increasing the presence of religious symbols in the public square all seen be in the ascendant. This has caused a backlash among the secular community where they may soon become less tolerant of the privileges offered religious practice in the form of tax breaks on religious property and deductions for religious contributions. Since the majority of Americans have some form of religious affiliation or personal dedication, secular people fear a tyranny of the majority could develop.

Meanwhile, our new pride in American exceptionalism and patriotism, now extended to preemptive military actions, has caused concern among our long standing allies and a changed view of Americans around the world. It is difficult to identify the degree to which these changes are due to our change in diplomacy or to renewed pride in religion, American exceptionalism or patriotism, but the reelection of George W. Bush seems to indicate to those abroad that the American people and not just the administration support the changes. This has compounded our conflict with the views of other nations.

Religious Belief and Freedom of Action

When people base their decisions on religious tradition, or in the extreme, on the dictates of the literal interpretation of ancient writings, they have less freedom of action in adapting to changes in population, culture, and scientific and intellectual advancement. This is apparent from examination of the degree and rapidity of change in rural and urban environments. Where people experience less change, less contact with others of different cultures and attitudes, and less opportunity for learning or advancement, cultural traditions seem to be sustained over a longer period. Urban areas tend to be concentrated on the coasts or at the intersection of natural terrain where traffic is greatest. What we are now calling red and blue states are really red and blue areas, urban areas being more blue and rural areas being more red. Rural areas remain more steeped in religious tradition and urban areas more secular, although many traditions and habits are sustained for multiple generations in the migration to urban areas.

Urban areas are growing, while rural areas are shrinking. But new exurban areas are now developing where primarily successful urban people are migrating to previously rural areas and carrying the urban attitudes along with them. The question that arises is whether religious traditions can be sustained over generations, and this depends on the degree to which religion is a learned behavior or whether it is something inherent in the human psyche. The experience in other, older countries seems to indicate that less developed countries are more religious and vice versa.

If we retreat to earlier and more fundamental religious traditions we will have less freedom to adapt to changing circumstances, since we will be guided in our actions by the restrictions and limitations of our religion. It appears clear that the western enlightenment was a major factor in our advancement at a more rapid rate than Islamic countries that once dominated the world. Is religious extremism likely to become more virulent in our society as it has become in Islamic society? Are we more likely to succeed in our struggle against Islamic extremism by becoming more religious in our own society? These are questions that will determine our future as a country.

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