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World Religion Final Paper Essay
World, Religion, Final Paper, Essay
Your assignment is to review the reading and writing we have done this semester and to answer two basic questions.
Another way of framing the question is to ask in world religion:
Yet another way of framing the question is to ask:
You have a lot of flexibility in how you compose this final essay. What I am looking for is your ability to take what you have learned this semester and put it into words. I want you to tell me how and why religion gets used to limit the rights people should have, and how and why religion gets used to help people to enjoy better basic human rights.
This should take the form of a clear, well developed essay using proper rules for quotation and citation. Length should be between two and four pages double spaced.
To help compose this assignment, you should read the following text which was circulated earlier in the semester.
Supernatural vs. Natural Ways of Thinking
(See Chapter 1 in your Book)
The two key concepts we will discuss here are Rationalism and Supernaturalism. First though, let’s review a little bit of what we said earlier about the connection between religion and culture. We want to keep this connection in mind the whole time we study world religions.
Each religion has physical/cultural exterior and a metaphysical/spiritual interior. If you visit a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, you will find that most of the people spend most of their time and effort dealing with the physical/cultural exterior, or the surface of whatever is going on. There will always be some people who will wish to explore and experience their religion on a deeper level. These are the folks who will participate in more of the special events that are held.
These are the people who are looking to grow in faith and to delve deeper into the spiritual interior of their beliefs. Often these are the people who wish to challenge the status quo and to reach out to people who would be traditionally excluded from their culture group. One of the funny things about organized religion is that the spiritual interior of the faith often teaches us to let go of our attachments to the cultural exterior.
This is why prophets are seldom welcome among their own people. (See Mark 6:4) Prophets call people to let go of their attachments to the cultural status quo and so they usually get in trouble with the authorities. When we study the spiritual interior of any religion we begin to glimpse the ways all these religions hold certain ideas in common.
This leads us to embrace secularism. For our purposes here, secularism is defined as the belief that religious ideas need to be held in balance over against other realities. Secular society is based on the idea that no one religion should be seen as superior to any of the others. People of all religions, as well as people of no religion should be respected equally and afforded basic human rights.
This ideal of secularism is one of the founding concepts on which our system of government is based here in the United States. The countries of Western Europe have adopted similar principles of secularism as well. Thomas Jefferson established this as the separation of church and state and enshrined it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In human history, secularism is a modern concept, so it belongs under the heading of modernity.
The opposite of secularism is religious fundamentalism. Our definition of religious fundamentalism is the desire to reject certain key aspects of modernity in order to return to a pre-modern world view. Clearly we need to define a bunch of other concepts before we can understand this one, so let’s look at modernity.
Modernity is a synonym for modernism and it refers to the idea that rationalism and technology can solve our problems and answer the big questions for us. It will work best though if we start out by understanding pre-modernism and supernaturalism, then we can come back to these definitions.
In the old world, the world before technology, everything around us was controlled supernaturally. People had not developed systems by which the natural world could be understood. Science did not exist and so we had no logical or critical way of understanding cause and effect. In this time in human history angels or demons, good or bad spirits did everything.
This time in history is known as the pre-modern era. It is hard to set a specific date for this because modernism, technology, rationalism, and science came to take hold in different places at different times. There are still plenty of places in the world today where pre-modern world views hold sway.
Modernism or Modernity (both words mean the same thing) spread outward from Western Europe along with the process known as colonialism starting in the late 1700’s. This transformation is also known as enlightenment thinking. This time in history is called “the Enlightenment.” Traditional religious world views changed as people began to rely more on the power of observation, measurement, and the critical analysis of events occurring around them.
For all religions this created what your textbook calls “The Encounter with Modernity.” There is a section on this in just about every chapter. This encounter took the form of a crisis as modern, rational ways of thinking do not necessarily respect the authority of pre-modern religious traditions.
Rationalism can be defined here as the belief in the power of reason, observation, deduction, and logic. Modernism/modernity is basically faith in rationalism, or faith in technology. Because science deals with a rational approach to cause and effect, science has led to the rapid development of all sorts of technology. Science leads us to make things because it shows us how certain conditions will always produce the same results, making things work predictably.
The history of the 20th century is all about advances in technology, starting in the early 1900’s with the development of the automobile, the airplane, and radio, then moving through advances in nuclear energy, medicine, and the development of computers, on to the development of the internet near the end of the last century.
Throughout all of these processes science and rationalism have given us new ways of exploring and controlling the world around us. From travel to communications, from medicine to military weapons, modernism offered us an increasing ability to control the world around us. This has led people in secular society to place increasing faith in the power of technology. Faith in technology has in turn posed a threat to many forms of organized religion.
Supernaturalism is the old way of thinking where angels and demons, benevolent spirits and evil spirits, ghosts, gods, and demi-gods controlled everything in our lives. Vestiges of these old ways of thinking run deep within our awareness. People say “Bless you!” when someone sneezes because it was once believed that a sneeze was a way the body had of ejecting a demon or evil spirit. It was once believed that many forms of disease were caused by supernatural, evil spirits. It was once believed that bad weather was caused by an angry God. It was once believed that wars were lost not because of inferior military tactics but because God took the other side.
In religion, many people tend to idealize this time in history and to look back upon it as if it was better than these modern, technology dependent times. People like to look back on “the good old days” when life was safe and simple and religion held authority in everyone’s life. The problem with this way of thinking is that it is a total illusion.
The “good old days” were not really so good for many people. Various forms of social justice such as gender and racial equality were unheard of. People enslaved one another with the full support of religious authorities. People who threatened the religious status quo were often met with extreme and terrible violence.
Religious authorities could only pretend to control natural events, and people tended to be hostile toward outsiders or people who believed differently from themselves. The desire to reject certain key aspects of modernity in favor of a return to a pre-modern world view is known as religious fundamentalism. This is the next concept we will discuss.
First though we need to look at what a powerful concept this is. Take a look at the results of our quick survey on the increase or decrease in violence in civil society. We can actually measure violence. As we do so, it is clear that violence of all sorts has declined tremendously with the advance of secular society.
The best source to back up this claim is The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This book is on reserve at our Library here at ECC and it can be borrowed from other libraries via interlibrary loan. See http://www.stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-of-our-nature
Pinker’s Book is essential for understanding how secular society has brought about a steady increase in concern for human rights and a steady decline in violence.
Religious fundamentalists can be Muslim or Hindu, Christian or Jewish. The point of fundamentalism is to desire to reject certain key aspects of modernity (such as secular society) in favor of a return to a pre-modern world view.
As an example of this way of thinking we can look at the Texas mega-church led by Kenneth Copeland and his daughter Terri Copeland. Their church suffered an outbreak of Measles after years of promoting the avoidance of vaccines in favor of faith healing. See the article at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/08/24/measles-outbreak-traces-to-vaccine-refusing-megachurch/
The problem with avoiding vaccines is that vaccination has been proven over and over to work in favor of reducing the incidence of disease with a minimum of adverse side effects. Look for example at the near eradication of Polio following the introduction of the Salk vaccine. Vaccines work but religious fundamentalists advocate the return to a world before vaccines. Look for example at recent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on health care workers distributing polio vaccines in Pakistan and in Nigeria.
For a source see http://www.healthmap.org/site/diseasedaily/article/least-nine-polio-workers-killed-nigeria-21113What do you think about the decline in violence? Many of our religious leaders, pastors, etc. teach that this world is just getting worse and worse and will continue to do so until Jesus comes back to rapture all the good people up to heaven, leaving all the bad people behind to perish in tribulation.
Pinker’s statistical approach to proving the decline of violence runs directly contrary to this teaching. If we believe the world is in fact growing worse and worse, then what point in history would we like to return to? Think about it. If I could send you back to a “better time” when would that time be? Would we like to go back to 1950? 1900? 1800? 1700?
If we frame the question this way it becomes clear that most of us would not want to go back at all. I actually lived in the 1960’s and 1970’s and I can tell you there is NO WAY I would go back. The “good old” days were just not that good.
Now we go on to Pre-modernism, Modernism, and Post-modernism.
We have already discussed pre-modernism. This is the word we use to describe a world view shaped by supernaturalism. In the pre-modern world there was no rational or critical understanding of the reasons why things happened. The whole world was at the mercy of a network of divine and semi-divine beings, some were good, some were bad, and these forces brought about all forms of good and bad luck.
An example of this way of thinking can be found in the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:12 “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Bible, NT Eph. 6:12 RSV) In this scripture the Apostle is referring to a hierarchy of spiritual beings who control the lives of human beings, or “flesh and blood”.
The world of “flesh and blood” is completely subject to spiritual beings. These spiritual beings are arranged in a complex hierarchy consisting of principalities, powers, and world rulers. Paul is using very technical language here in reference to the demonology of his day. Another aspect of the pre-modern world is intense tribalism.
Tribalism refers to the belief that one’s own tribe, or “kind” of people has superiority over others as well as enjoying the favor and special benefits of God. This attitude of tribalism can be illustrated by I Peter 2:9. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” (Bible, NT I Peter 2:9 RSV) For years in the pre-modern era people took these words literally and believed firmly in the superiority of their own people and in the rule of supernatural forces.
As history progressed, rationalism and modernity began to emerge in Western Civilization. The benefits of enlightenment thinking, or rationalism became immediately apparent as new forms of technology were developed. In the 1700’s this new technology took the form of ships, instruments of navigation, and weapons.
These new technologies worked together with the political consolidation of power in Western Europe. The countries of England, Spain, France, Holland, Portugal, and Germany began to explore and colonize the rest of the world. This led to the process known as colonialism which we will discuss in the next section.
By the late 1800’s the emergence of new technologies just took off. These new discoveries were accompanied by new advances in thinking about humanity and our place in the world. Charles Darwin developed the theory of natural selection. Sigmund Freud developed new ways of understanding the human mind.
Charles Lyell figured out how to study the earth and how to accurately determine its age. Countless other scientists and scholars began to build the modern academic disciplines which would change the world. Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease and the basics of public health.
As these discoveries progressed, the quality of life steadily improved in the Western world. Violence declined, people started living longer, more productive lives, and they had more leisure time. This in turn gave rise to an attitude or a belief that technology could save us from any problems we might face. This belief is what we are talking about when we use the word “modernism.”
People in the Western world had a vision of the future as a place of paradise and endless wonder. A good example of this is provided by the original series “Star Trek” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmn4FXXnIc4
Another great example of modernism in action is the cartoon series ”The Jetsons”. See
In Star Trek rationalism and technology always combined to solve whatever crisis the crew of the Starship Enterprise might be facing. The whole point of modernism is the belief that rationalism and technology are sufficient to solve all our problems. The idea is that materialism will take us where we need to go.
Several problems limit the world-saving potential of modernism. First, technology is not equally shared among human kind. People in Western Europe and the United States have managed to help themselves to an unfair share of the resources supporting technology and innovation.
Vast sections of our world have not received the benefits of modernity. Even within our own cities, the uneven distribution of wealth has allowed some populations to prosper and other populations to do without many of the benefits of technology. So the first problem with modernity is that the benefits of technology are not fairly distributed.
The second problem with modernity is that as happy as we may be with all our technology, the time comes for us all when we need to face our own mortality. We get sick, we get old, and we die. When this happens we face the realization that all our technology has done nothing to help us answer the big questions. We still don’t know where we came from, why we are here, or where we are going when we leave this place.
The third problem with modernity is that our technology can lead us in some terrible directions. We saw this with the use of poison gas in World War I, with the Nazi use of technology to support the death factories of the Holocaust, and with the use of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II.
Modernity works just fine to solve all of our problems as long as we are rich, young, and healthy. If we are poor, elderly, or sick, all of a sudden we see the complete failure of technology to deliver the promises of salvation.
This leads us to a key conceptual statement. Pay attention here because this is one of the most important statements we will make in this class.
When modernity fails, we face a choice, either to return to a pre-modern world view or to push forward to discover a new narrative.
The return to a pre-modern world view is religious fundamentalism. This is where we want to have an ideal and romantic view of the world before technology and we want to go back to those times. Fundamentalism is characterized by
The problem fundamentalists run into is that there are other people out there who also hold fundamental views. In pre-modern society these groups met each other with extreme violence. This is where sectarian strife or religious war comes from.
From the perspective of critical thinking, or rationalism, the fundamentalist world view just does not work. It leads to factionalism, sectarian conflict, and all sorts of violent behavior.
In situations of extreme poverty and social chaos, fundamentalist perspectives can become amazingly popular. Examples of extremist fundamentalist organizations include:
When we study religion in these areas we need to remember that the dreadful extremism we are witnessing came about because modernity and colonialism brought no benefits to these people at all. As the beneficiaries of modernity we can’t understand why these people want to return to the Middle Ages, but for them this time in history appears to be a time when their social needs were met.
In some places, underlying attitudes of religious fundamentalism are capitalized on by local politicians to elect governments which adhere to principles of ridged religious nationalism. Religious nationalism is the belief that one’s nation is THE nation favored by the almighty.
Religious nationalism is a larger, more socially and politically complex form of tribalism. Examples of this abound in the area surrounding the Indus River along the border between India and Pakistan. See http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jammu_and_Kashmir
Here in the United States, religious fundamentalism tends to take shape in churches where people feel threatened by the changes going on around them. These changes include the forces of globalization, diversity, and demographic change. When our communities feel overwhelmed by social change, our preachers sometimes lift up a message of apocalyptic, end times warnings and a call to return to some ideal moment in the past when these stresses were not happening.
Being ever willing to capitalize on insecurity and social unrest, politicians often use these situations to promote their own agendas of social/cultural superiority, distrust of government, and dislike for secular society.
As stated above, fundamentalist attitudes are often a social dead end because, in general, human history just does not go backwards. One thing that is certain about social change is that it will continue. We may want to go back but we can’t.
This brings us to the need for a new religious narrative. The search for a new narrative is called post-modernism. The idea of a social grand narrative was first published by Jean-Francois Lyotard. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Francois_Lyotard
See also page 27 in your book.
Lyotard pointed out that in pre-modern society we all followed the same grand narrative, or metanarrative. We all believed in the same basic myths. This was because we all belonged to the same culture. People who belonged to other cultures were either our enemies (infidels) or they were our cultural inferiors (savages.) Dealing with these others, who did not ascribe to our grand narrative was a simple matter of either hostility of domination. We either went to war with them or we colonized them.
As modernity progressed, so did secular society. Along the way the failures of modernity became increasingly obvious. People felt that they had been let down by the promises of technology, materialism, and a lifestyle of consumption. This crisis led many back to religious fundamentalism, but others pressed forward, changing their religious narrative ever so slightly to account for a more diverse, secular society. Let me give you some examples.
The Bible clearly supports the holding of slaves as part of God’s order for society. Look for example at Exodus 21:20. “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two (after being beaten) the owner is not to be punished for the slave is his property.” (Bible, OT Exodus 21:20 SAH translation)
The Bible maintains that women should be submissive to women and should not be in leadership positions within the church. For this we can look at I Timothy 2:11 “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” (Bible NT I Timothy 2:11 RSV)
In postmodern Christianity we can change our narrative ever so slightly in order to leave these pre-modern ways of thinking behind. Changing our narrative means we focus our agenda using those scriptures which are relevant to the questions we face today and ignoring the rest. Scriptures which are not relevant to the situations we face today are simply ignored.
Socially, we settled the question of slavery in the United States following the Civil War. We settled questions of social segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Questions about the rights of women were settled when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 giving women the right to vote.
In the old days of pre-modernism we all held to the same story, or grand narrative. In today’s world we need to admit that we do not all hold the same religious beliefs, but that’s OK! I have my religious narrative which works for me and you have your religious narrative which works for you. We use the word micro-narrative to describe these smaller, more personal and diverse narratives.
If you are interested in further investigation into postmodern Christianity I have posted two documents here which I drafted for the Presbyterian Church regarding these changes to our collective narrative. I present them here (On Moodle) only as examples of postmodernism. These are “What is truth?” and “How should the scriptures be used to address complex social issues?”
Postmodernism is a way people of faith have of holding on to their faith through the changes of modern times and adapting their faith as they move forward in an increasingly secular, diverse, and technology driven society.
Now let’s go back and review an important statement made above.
When modernity fails, we face a choice, either to return to a pre-modern world view or to push forward to discover a new narrative.
An attitude of pure modernism/modernity will fail everyone eventually. It only works for those of us who are young, healthy, and wealthy, and none of us stay that way forever!
The return to a pre-modern world view is a very popular form of faith known as religious fundamentalism.
The push forward toward a new narrative or micro-narrative is known as post-modernism.
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