Religion, progress, and other weighty matters

Inspired by this post and its comments on Harry’s blog.

My reaction takes two forms. One, I’m not at all convinced of religion’s being a symptom of “progress” or lack of it, simply because my social anthropological training has convinced me of what Rik and Eloise have theorized — that religious activity, as much as any other social manifestation, is fundamental to human life. Anthropologically speaking, “religion” refers to far more than any one system of belief; rather, it’s a set of behaviours that are a mixture of belief and action and every society and every group of people — even those who style themselves “unbelievers” — manifest them. Religion is as fundamental to society as family, as economic organization, as political activity. Its manifestation varies widely — from atheism (which is its own belief system) to fundamentalism. Our lives are composed of so many variables and chances, even with science at hand, that most people fill in the gaps with philosophies that govern their actions, whether that philosophy be more articulated or less. As Malinowski observed, science is simply a better form of magic; both they work in exactly the same way from the point of view of anthropology (trial and error, hypothesis and experimentation, the getting rid of theories and practices that don’t work/fit your theories and the holding on to theories and practices that do.)

What I think may be true is that there are different sorts of religious expression. One is more “C of E”, as you put it, more laissez-faire, more doubt-filled, more wishy-washy. This seems fine when people believe that the material world is meeting their needs, when certainty and comfort is around them. But the other, which we see expressed in fundamentalism, comes into play when life seems uncertain. Right now, for the first time in a long time, Britain and the USA are both caught up in a war that doesn’t seem to have an end, that doesn’t seem to have a controllable enemy, and that threatens the stability of life at home. This should not be new to the UK; after all, the war of Irish independence was similar in all but one respect. The current difference I read as one of race, not of religion, with one main difference. When the IRA was bombing London, terror was a fact of big-city British life. The big difference between that twentieth-century terror and this twenty-first century one was that the bombers of the past blew themselves up by accident; these blow themselves up on purpose. That fact is uncontrollable and frightening.

The reason young men do this is superficially a religious one. However, it’s not much different from the reason young men of colour kill one another in the USA and the Caribbean; it’s the continuation of the psychological destruction of a whole set of people that began in colonial domination and continues far more subtly today. Frantz Fanon‘s theories of the psychological damage done by the extended oppression of whole societies — that violence from the top breeds violence at the bottom — are more than relevant today, even with direct colonialism apparently gone. That Fanon did his work in North Africa — Algeria, to be exact — may not be incidental to their current aptness.

For me, politics far more than religion — the politics of governance and the politics of hegemonic ideologies — are at fault.

5 thoughts on “Religion, progress, and other weighty matters

  1. OK, I’ve been thinking about this as I packed, and this is where I have my main problem with what you’re saying:

    “The reason young men do this is superficially a religious one.”

    Everything about their actions and words suggests that the reason is deeply and sincerely religious. Certainly I agree that if the political background was different, these things wouldn’t be happening. But maybe if the religious background was different they wouldn’t be happening either.

    It doesn’t seem clear to me that the politics is fundamental and the religion superficial. On the contrary, it is the mix of religion and politics which seems to be especially poisonous.

  2. Fair enough. This is a chicken-egg question, I imagine. I think I probably agree with your last paragraph, having thoght it over — and with Rik in his last post over at your place.

    I do think, though, that if the politics were different fundamentalist belief might not flourish as much.

  3. I’ve recently been mulling over Gottfried Benn’s claim that
    “The fact is that in my view the West is doomed not at all by the totalitarian systems or the crimes of the SS, not even by its material impoverishment or the Gottwalds and Molotovs, but by the abject surrender of its intelligentsia to political concepts. The zoon politikon, that Greek blunder, that Balkan notion — that is the germ of our impending doom.”
    While I don’t agree with Benn that anyone is doomed by the turn to the political, I do wonder if politics is become the lens through which people/intellectuals-in-general/Westerners see the world at the moment. The relevance of this here might be that talk of religion deflects attention from a political view (i.e. the view which accords most fruitfully with the prevailing intellectual climate); and possibly removes events from the discourse most likely to offer practical solutions. To put it another way, when avowed atheists talk about religion’s culpability in causeing wars, they remove causation from the sphere that they approve (e.g. rationalism, humanism) and place it in another (religion) – then the problems which result in wars can be ascribed to – almost identified with – a ‘bad’ system of thinking and talking, leaving the chosen sphere unadulterated. I can see the attraction of doing so, but I don’t know that the causes of wars etc can be eliminated by eliminating categories of thinking – when wars occur, we think about them according to the tenor of our times – today, either in terms of politics, or, by scorning the preoccupations of our ancestors, religion.
    I hope it’s clear I’m not attacking Harry or anyone here – I’m not even saying that their analysis of religion isn’t correct. It’s just that the choice of a particular discourse to explain events, whether ‘religion’, ‘politics’, ‘rationalism’, may ultimately say more about us and our intellectual ways of being than about events themselves.

  4. See I believe the attraction of Muslim fundamentalism to young men (and women) now is much the same as the attraction of communism to young Russians at the turn of the century: it provides a set of ideals and a future to people who are marginalised by the society they live in. If you are a young Algerian living in the suburbs of Paris, or a second generation Pakistani living in Leeds, both places where youth unemployment (especially for Arabic men) is extremely high, Islam offers something that isn’t being provided by mainstream society: a place and a sense of value.

    Radicalism has always prospered in poor, isolated (sometimes to the point of becoming ghettos) communities. I’m convinced that at the moment, much of the time, fundamentalism is a symptom not a cause of the racial and religious problems affecting Western society.

    Making a fuss and trying to stamp out the fundamentalists isn’t going to help because the problems aren’t rooted in religion, they come from a lack of opportunity, be that education or work-related, and unless these failings are resolved, the ‘Islamic problem’ can only get worse.

    Of course, I could be wrong, and this is an entirely European analysis, but it’s what seems to be happening.


  5. I think you’re probably both right, as far as that goes.

    My general take on all this is that humans are, well, human. Of course, depending on your fundamental assumptions about life, the universe and everything, that means different things, but I hope that it always means that humans are imperfect.

    And I don’t believe in progress because I don’t believe that humans have changed fundamentally one iota over the centuries. Societies have, yes, in what they permit humans to do and what they prohibit. These days the kinds of punishment inflicted upon ordinary offenders by the state/municipality/township/fiefdom in the past are catalogued as deviant, but they still exist. And “civilized” nations have no problem in inflicting such punishment — or in arranging to have such punishment inflicted — upon people they define as “enemies”. Humans are still dehumanizing other humans; the only thing that has changed is that we have made up laws that say what’s “humane” and what isn’t.

    And so they’re all red herrings to my mind. No matter what lens we use, humans are humans and capable, for whatever reason, and under whatever philosophy that governs them, of acts of great cruelty and acts of great kindness. Original sin? Divine spark? In my philosophy, yes. But the fact remains, and it warrants an accounting.

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