The steed of this valley [of love] is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end. In this station the lover hath no thought save the Beloved, and seeketh no refuge save the Friend.
(Bahá’u'lláh: Seven Valleys+ page 8)
Towards the end of his chapter on the subject, Hamilton, in his book The Sociology of Religion, quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light captures this (page 6):
inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.
The evidence currently available suggests, for example, that the secularisation of society’s upper levels does indeed coincide with “religious obscurantism.” Hamilton (page 180) quotes a study by Luhrmann (1989) as showing how followers of witchcraft and magic in London and surrounding areas of South Eastern England are for the most part well educated, well-qualified professionals many of whom are scientifically trained and employed in such industries as computers and as research chemists!
A Road to Ruin?
Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.
(David Gascoyne: Poems 1937-1942)
On the one hand the picture within the Writings, with Bahá’u'lláh setting the tone by using words like “godlessness” and “heedlessness”, highlights how, as the light of religion fades, we find it decaying into a fanaticism, terrorism, fundamentalism, superstition or a mere market choice, surrounded by a darkening atmosphere of materialism, greed and scientism which culminates in the decadence the Guardian so forcefully depicts and condemns (World Order of Bahá’u'lláh: page 188) and concludes that at this stage we have become ’. . . . a society that must either be reborn or perish.” The evasion of the challenge that true religion presents us with comes, when looked at from a spiritual perspective, with a high price in the form of pain.
On the other hand many scholars draw no such drastic conclusions, content to detect a not too unpleasant state of intellectual freedom which might lack meaning and clear moral direction but with none of the major consequences referred to. Admittedly, while other thinkers, such as McGrath (2004) in The Twilight of Atheism, present a far less rosy picture, this is generally from a position heavily influenced by a religious perspective.
The Academic View
None the less, I feel it can be argued that thinkers, researchers and scholars outside the Bahá’í Faith and within the main tradition of the social sciences have been grappling vigorously with the phenomenon of secularisation from their own perspective, and the fruits of their work do enrich our understanding even when some of them clearly do not share a sense that it is a destructive process. Their emphasis on data as a corrective to unbridled intuition is a healthy one, though this must not be allowed to lead to the all too frequent conclusion that what cannot be empirically proven is by the absence of that type of evidence proved wrong.
Even the agnostic and atheist majority amongst them recognise that there has been a price paid for the decline of religion, though they disagree amongst themselves greatly as to the value of what has been lost. There is also an increasingly detectable trend for academic writers to explore the values of religion to both the individual and to society. Some of these writers I have discussed in previous posts.
Rupert Sheldrake is one such writer. He is a scientist who has risked his credibiliity and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.
In his excellent book The Science Delusion, he lists ten unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8). These include: everything is essentially mechanical, all matter is unconscious, nature is purposeless and evolution has no goal or direction, minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains, and mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Jonathan Haidt is another who writes in the same vein. He finds, for example, that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (The Righteous Mind: page 256) and the findings indicated that just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes. He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.): ’the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.’ This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’ The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.): ‘. . . rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized.’
For now perhaps it’s sufficient to close this list with a brief mention of Roy Baumeister and Ron Tierney who have trawled the scientific literature and found numerous examples of how religion benefits society and the individual. (I am not blind to the dark side of faith and have discussed it at some length – see my posts on Conviction for example.)
‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’
I don’t think I can end this post without making some further reference to the work of Charles Taylor, whom I mentioned in the previous post. I cannot claim to have read him thoroughly or carefully as yet but dipping in and out of his book A Secular Age has convinced me I must make the monumental effort of reading through all 776 pages at some point. To give a sense of why I feel he is saying things worthy of careful note, I’ll quote briefly from a short section (Number 16 of his 19th Chapter ‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’: pages 726-727).
He feels that there are a number of dilemmas which both faith and exclusive humanism have to deal with:
These demands include: finding the moral sources which can enable us to live up to our very strong universal commitments to human rights and well-being; and finding how to avoid the turn to violence which returns uncannily and often unnoticed in the “higher” forms of life which have supposedly set it aside definitively.
Both positions are shakily maintained:
The more one reflects, the more the easy certainties of either “spin”, transcendental or immanentist, are undermined.
There are strong pressures towards the latter: ‘the present fractured expressionist culture . . . seems very inhospitable to belief.’ However, he feels the pressure to believe has not completely vanished.
. . . . the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief.
He describes the secular age as ‘deeply cross-pressured.’
So, where do I stand? Secularisation, however positively you see it, comes at a price. So, of course, does religion. Defining what that price is, exactly, is the tricky part. That’s the task that we all must perform if we are to act responsibly. It’s also possibly not a once and for all decision, involving as it does the question whether or not to believe in a God of some kind. And if we don’t believe in a God, what do we read into this reality? If we do believe in God, what kind of god do we believe in? For my part, I find it harder to imagine that we can solve the problems that confront us without a belief in a higher being: such a belief will, I admit, only work if our sense of this higher being widens the compass of our compassion to include all life without exception and raises our sense of justice to its loftiest possible level.
The choices we make in this respect are likely to be constantly tested. The only things we cannot afford to do are pretend it does not matter or that we are not choosing. Ignoring the problem is a choice. These choices will shape the world our children thrive or die in.