Friday, November 19, 2010

Religion in the Modern World

Religion in the modern world has two conflicting aspects, one the growth of science and technology which appears to marginalize religion, and the other, the spread of religion both in its original and fundamental aspects. Religion may be considered basically a belief in the existence of a Creator by whom everything that exists, seen and unseen, was created, and who is in final control of his creation. There are however various other forms of religious beliefs that exist in the world-polytheism, spirit worship and ancestor worship, to name a few. Religion in its various forms exists all over the world and has played, and continues to play a part in human life. In all cultures human beings accept and believe in a spiritual dimension to life, which is as real as the material dimension of science, and has an existence beyond it.
Religion and science were originally not considered conflicting. Religion in the modern world however, has undergone a change in attitude towards it. In the 13th century religion was regarded as a science. Thomas Aquainas argued that this was so. He posited that while some sciences dealt with what can be known by the light of natural reason, there was another science which dealt with things so far as they are known by the light of divine revelation.
“We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from principles known by the natural light of the intellect, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are also some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of optics proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles known by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as music accepts on authority the principles taught by the arithmetician, so sacred doctrine accepts the principles related by God.”[Anton 07]
            However with the growth of materialism as evidenced in the development of industry, commerce and technology, religion was pushed into the background and the type of science that proceeded “from principles known by the natural light of the intellect” [Anton 07] emerged as predominant. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution, which was one of the most important changes in the history of humanity, altering patterns of life and thought. It meant a shift from an agrarian, handicraft and labor- intensive economy to one dominated by the machine, the factory system, division of labor, a freer flow of capital and the growth of cities.
            The Industrial Revolution brought changes in the social structure. In Britain the new system of industrial production brought about by the steam engine replaced the old crafts and the craftsmen, and industrial production made people shift from the countryside to new industrial towns with consequent overcrowding squalor and degradation both in standards of living and standards of morals. At the same time industry, trade and commerce began to develop on a marked scale. The new emerging industrial society broke up the existing harmonious structure of country life into hostile groups of haves and have nots. Wordsworth wrote in 1817, “I see clearly that the principal ties which kept the different classes of the society in a vital and harmonious dependence upon each other have, within these thirty years, either being greatly impaired or wholly dissolved. Everything has been put up to market and sold for the highest price it could buy.” [Ford, volume 5, p.15] 
Together with the old social order, religion too became subordinated to the new forces of trade, commerce and industry, and it gradually began to lose ground. Not only Wordsworth, Mathew Arnold in “Dover Beach” spoke of “the sea of faith
                                     Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
                                    And naked shingles of the world”
In the late 19th century thinkers like Karl Marx, Darwin, Carlyle and Frazer further questioned religious beliefs Karl Marx rejected religion, Darwin’s theory of evolution was taken as opposing the biblical theory of creation and Frazer saw Christianity as a religion whose beliefs were no different from other religions which has existed before.               “Taken altogether, the coincidences of Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals” [Frazer, (369)]
Carlyle said in “Signs of Times” (1829), “Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heriocal, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but above all others, the Mechanical Age… Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the spiritual also” [Ford, volume 6, p.19]
            In the 20th century Science has led to an explosion of technology covering every aspect of human life such as material comfort, medicine, travel, exploration of space and lifestyles. The impact of this explosion of technology on material comfort and lifestyles made a change in human lives. New material comforts provide numerous facilities for humans. Proliferation of all sorts of consumer goods including electrical and electronic goods allows people to have a comfortable life. There are numerous goods and appliances which can help humans in their day- to-day lives. These things make people enjoy their lives in material comfort. For example a man can watch everything that happens around the world with television or download it on the internet and these things also provide entertainment.
            Another achievement of this explosion of technology is the development of medicine which made revolutionary advances. By the end of 20th century medical advance helped to increase the average person’s life expectancy by almost thirty years. As people lived longer, new medical challenges emerged. Heart disease, cancer, strokes and other conditions often associated with aging replaced infectious diseases as the leading causes of death. Physicians began to pay greater attention to preventing diseases and keeping patients healthy into an advanced age. Physicians were successful in conquering infectious through improved sanitation and use of antibiotics and vaccines. Furthermore doctors found new methods of curing people such as surgery, radiology, scans, psychoanalysis and electroconvulsive therapy. So technology gave modern man a longer life to enjoy the material comforts it provided. [Encarta 2004]  
            Another achievement of technology is the development of travel. The development of travel provided transportation services like airlines, bus companies, railroads, taxis which transport people swiftly from place to place. Furthermore the development of travel has led to space exploration which helps to discover the nature of the universe beyond earth. Science and technology has brought the universe closer to human life. All those modern achievements of technology make for a comfortable life style. The material comfort and the extension of human life which enables longer enjoyment of these comforts has made people feel that religion is redundant and that it is a historical phenomenon that has been replaced by science and technology. Secularism has been gaining ground.
            Western writers questioning the validity of religion dealt with Christianity because that was the religion in the west. However their concern was not with Christianity perse, but with belief that went beyond the material world of science and technology. The technological explosion affected western as well as Asian and African societies, and led to the marginalization of their religions too by the material wealth and lifestyles that technology provided.
            Paradoxically, the very technological advancement that has tended to marginalize religion has led to its expansion. The facilities of travel and communication through television, radio and internet, to give a few examples, and particularly the development of mass communication techniques which are a product of modern technology, has led to the spread of religion in its original and also its fundamentalist forms. Christianity which was historically brought to certain countries through conquest and colonization is, today, spreading further afield with the help of these modern technological developments. On the other hand religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam which had hither to been confined to a few countries in Asia and Africa, are now spreading westwards.
            Further, technological developments have led to the affirmation of religious beliefs and thus of religion itself. It is interesting that even Darwin’s account of evolution which was believed to have destroyed the biblical story of creation says “If it be asked why apes had not had their intellects developed to the same degree as that of man, general causes only can be assigned in answer, and it is unreasonable to expect anything more definite, considering our ignorance with respect to the successive stages of development through which each creature has passed.” [Darwin. p.465]
There are also aspects of human life innate qualities of human beings which Darwin is unable to show as being a result of evolution. He says “with respect to the origin of the parental and filial affections, which apparently lie at the base of the social instincts, we know not the steps by which they have been gained; but we may infer that it has been to a large extent through natural selection.” [Darwin.478] Darwin can only infer that these qualities were gained through natural selection. Theology however is certain that they were features derived at creation being a terrestrial manifestation of the divine relationship between God and man. Darwin also said, “The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals. The moral sense in man is the fundamental factor which separates him from the animals. It is also the factor which links him to the divine. Once more there is an area which refuses to be explained by evolution but can be explained only by a divine act of creation.” [Gen.1, 26-31]         
            Beyond that pointer, there are other scientific facts. The fingerprint, the voice scan and the retina scan, show the uniqueness of the individual in the creation of each human being.
            Frazer in Golden Bough says “if then we consider, on one hand, the essential similarity of man’s chief wants everywhere and at all times, and on the other hand, the wide difference between the means he has adopted to satisfy them in different ages, we shall perhaps be disposed to conclude that the movement of the higher thought, so far as we can trace it, has on the whole been from magic through religion to science.” [Frazer.711].Unfortunately science and technology have not been able either to marginalize or to disprove religion. On the contrary it has helped to spread religions and has in its findings supported basic religious beliefs. As Aquinas said, religion proceeds from “the light of divine revelation” [Anton 30] which he saw as a higher science.       

Works Cited

*       Anton C.P(ed) Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Acquinas, Random House, New York. (1945)
*       Darwin. The Descent of Man, Modern Library, p.465.
*       Ford, Boris. “From Blake to Byron”. The Pelican Guide to English Literature, volume 5, Penguin Books, 1957.p.15
*       Ford, Boris. “From Dickens to Hardy”. The Pelican Guide to English Literature, volume 6, Penguin Books, 1958.p.19.
*       The Bible societies. Good News Bible, Caledonian International Book Manufacturing Ltd, Glasgow, Britain.
*      Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough, Macmillan and co; limited, 1950, (369)
*       “Medicine” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe. 2004 ed.

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