Saturday, November 20, 2004

Two Takes on "Whither Religion" 

RDF has clearly been reading my mind, because his Rational Discourse piece asks the same question, basically, as these two items.

These are edited to the point of butchery to get to what seems the core message of each. Note that the first is from a European and the second from a Canadian:

(via LATimes op-ed) Jonathan Sachs is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. Website: www.chiefrabbi.org.
Religion persists at the center of world concerns.

All this is hard for a European, particularly a North European, to understand. The reason is that we are heirs to a highly singular history whose origins lie in more than a century of religious and political warfare between Catholics and Protestants that began with the Reformation in 1517 and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. [snip, chop, whack]

If, in Europe, modernity meant a retreat from religious passion, the American paradox is that such passion coexists with secular politics. But in other parts of the world there has been a third trajectory, in which religion has emerged as a mass protest against failed secular nationalisms of the kind that Gamal Abdel Nasser introduced into Egypt and Saddam Hussein into Iraq. Here religion functions as a critique of modernity: mass poverty, widespread unemployment, political corruption and human rights abuse.

In such environments, religion alone seems to speak the language of human dignity and hope, and until we understand this, we will utterly fail to comprehend the strength of reaction against regimes that sought to imitate the West.

Religion didn't die. It persists as humanity's oldest, noblest attempt to endow human life with meaning. Secularization turned out to be the exception, not the rule.
There's more, but I cut off here just to make the slightly cynical point that the good rabbi's statement here is just a tad self-serving. If he comes to a different conclusion he has to throw over his job and get work digging ditches or something.

Then the Muslim take. Less history, more personal, and up on the NYT front page for a remarkably short time yesterday before vanishing to the point of taking a good deal of searching to find again:


IRSHAD MANJI Irshad Manji is the author of "The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith.''

As a young Canadian Muslim who has called for reform in Islam, I've been traveling throughout North America and Europe over the past year. Last week, I toured France and Spain. God help me.

...From Amsterdam to Barcelona to Paris to Berlin, people incredulously ask me one type of question that I'm never asked in the United States and Canada: Why does an independent-minded woman care about God? Why do you need religion at all?

[snip] To a lot of Europeans, still steeped in memories of the Catholic Church's intellectual repression, religion is an irrational force. So women who cover themselves are foolish at best and dangerous otherwise.

But there's something else going on. The mass immigration of Muslims is bringing faith back into the public realm and creating a post-Enlightenment modernity for Western Europe. This return of religion threatens secular humanism, the orthodoxy that has prevailed since the French Revolution.

[long snip] Which brings me back to the question of why I, an independent-minded woman, bother with Islam. Religion supplies a set of values, including discipline, that serve as a counterweight to the materialism of life in the West. I could have become a runaway materialist, a robotic mall rat who resorts to retail therapy in pursuit of fulfillment. I didn't. That's because religion introduces competing claims. It injects a tension that compels me to think and allows me to avoid fundamentalisms of my own.
So these are the only choices she can think of? How sad.

Note that the rabbi makes no mention of Yahweh and the Muslim says not a word about Allah. They both cast their arguments in terms of culture, really. Religion as an alternative to politics or an alternative to shopping.

Both, tragically from my point of view, use the phrase "post-Enlightenment" as if my deepest beliefs were somehow suddenly past their sell-by dates.

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