The curious future of religion

The curious future of religion

I am at the heart of the United States for yet another series of talks and book signings. But I am using my spare time here for local attractions as well, in a conservative usage of the word. Thanks to my good friend Mark Scheel, an erudite author and a brilliant poet, I am discovering some manifestations of America’s passionate religiosity, which hardly makes its way to Hollywood, and thus remains largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

For example, did you know that some churches have “adoration chambers,” in which prayers are raised to God at any given moment? I had no idea. Hence I was surprised to visit the adoration chamber in a Kansas City Catholic church, where believers take turns, by signing up for fixed visiting hours throughout the week.

“The closest thing to this that I know,” I said to Mark, “is the permanent recitation of the Quran at the Sacred Chamber at Istanbul Topkapı Palace, in which remains of the Prophet Muhammad are believed to reside.” Despite the differences between religions, religiosities can look alike.

Then we visited another Catholic church, which belonged to a very conservative community that refused to accept Vatican II, the famous step taken toward a more liberal Catholic theology. It looked, in every sense of the word, quite medieval.

Yet I saw the other end of the spectrum, too. Again in Kansas City, we visited a liberal Protestant Church, in which “belief in Jesus” was the only doctrine, and everybody, including members of other faiths and various sexual orientations, was warmly welcomed.

According to Mark, those two dissimilar churches were examples of two opposite trends in global religion. “First, there is a liberal trend, one which makes its doctrine very flexible, with the hope of appealing to more and more people,” he explained. “And then there is the opposite trend, which fears this change and clings on to its doctrine as strictly as possible.”

One could see this dichotomy in the Muslim world as well, between progressive Muslims who believe that some reinterpretation of their religion is necessary cope with the modern world, and conservatives who are alarmed by this “deviation.” Things are tenser and more bitter here than in Christendom, and one reason is that many Muslims see the winds of change as a heinous plot by a foreign civilization – the West. (Christianity, in other words, has been lucky to be anchored in the winning civilization, at least for the past five centuries.)

All this means that the 21st century will see not only a tension between religions (or a “clash of civilizations”), but also tensions within religions. It is also possible that “progressives” of different faiths can get along with each other better than their coreligionists. Alas, it is even possible that conservatives of different faiths can find common ground. Orthodox Jews and ultraconservative Muslims could co-exist quite harmoniously, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not keep antagonizing them.

I am safely making these assumptions, because I know that the prophets of secularization, who asserted that religion would be wiped out by modernity, have been proven wrong. God did not prove “dead,” as Nietzsche thought that He was, and faith in Him keeps inspiring humanity. And that is why one of the greatest tasks of this century will be about channeling that inspiration toward more noble goals.