Bahai News - Religion in Retreat

Faith in the Future 2 - Religion in Retreat

November 18, 2000

This is the second of a series of articles on "Faith in the Future". The first in the series is "The Need for Faith"

Just as it is human to plan for our children's future, in our human make-up is a sense that the world must surely be moving towards a better day.

Ancient hope-filled prophecies may have inspired and comforted God-fearing believers of the past, but are they any good to us now? An increasing number of people seem to say "no," as they give up on traditional religion in droves. Church attendance is dropping off. The influence of religious institutions on political decisions and the life of society, seems to be waning. The very idea of the Prophet crying out the Word of God, and seeing with uncommon perception into the heart and destination of history, seems to clash with modern modes of thinking. These days we prefer our understanding of things to be based on laboratory experiments, statistical surveys and careful analysis of the data. Demonstrating this attitude, a writer for a popular magazine recently went to an advertising man to ask for a statement about where New Zealanders' sense of identity is headed, because "theologians aren't known for their research departments." The cynical tend to agree with H. L. Mencken, who said "Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."

Admittedly we think differently today. Our twentieth century world is very different from human society in any previous era. A momentous process of change began to take place around the middle of the nineteenth century. The far-reaching transformation which has occurred in modern times was described by Professor Anthony Giddens, the director of the London School of Economics in the 1999 Reith Lectures on the BBC. He said:

In the mid-19th Century, a Massachusetts portrait painter, Samuel Morse, transmitted the first message, "What hath God wrought?", by electric telegraph. In so doing, he initiated a new phase in world history. Never before could a message be sent without someone going somewhere to carry it. Yet the advent of satellite communications marks every bit as dramatic a break with the past. (Anthony Giddens, Lecture 1 of the 1999 Reith Lectures, entitled "Runaway World".

Professor Giddens goes on to point out that since the first communications satellite was launched about 30 years ago, more than 200 such satellites have gone into orbit. Each one transfers a huge range of data from one side of the world to the other, in an instant.

In his recent series of five radio lectures, each one transmitted from a different country, Professor Giddens mentions many different aspects of the universal transformation which is summed up by the term "globalisation." In the closing years of the twentieth century, the transformation is picking up speed at an astonishing rate. Referring to the word "globalisation" itself, he said:

The global spread of the term is evidence of the very developments to which it refers. Every business guru talks about it. No political speech is complete without reference to it. Yet as little as 10 years ago the term was hardly used, either in the academic literature or in everyday language. It has come from nowhere to be almost everywhere. (Giddens, Lecture 1)

Driving the social, political and economic changes which have occurred in the era of globalisation has been an enormous expansion of knowledge, which has caused a radical change in the concepts we use to guide our lives. The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, writing in 1993, traces the origins of our scientific methods to early in this millennium, and states: "The search for order, the disclosure of ever greater complexity, continued to characterize the history of western science almost until the end of the millennium." (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Millennium: A History of our Last Thousand Years, London, 1996, p. 437.)

Religion has often seemed to cope badly with the "disclosure of ever greater complexity" provided by science. Scientific advances have been seen to overturn religious concepts of the creation of the world and the nature of man. A tendency of the intellectual establishment to ignore or discredit religion was already well-advanced when William James, a philosopher of last century, attempted a positive assessment of religious faith in his essay, "The Will to Believe." In presenting his case, he sketched the opposition to faith from the standpoint of science, as follows:

When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness, - then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream! Can we wonder if those bred in the rugged and manly school of science should feel like spewing such subjectivism out of their mouths? (William James, "The Will to Believe", in The World Treasury of Religious Thought, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Boston, 1990, p. 99)

This rather colourful nineteenth-century diagnosis remains an apt description of the divide between science and religion on the intellectual landscape. Science deals in hard facts; religion enters realms of mystery which none may enter except those willing to take a blind leap into the unknown. The scientific and religious ways of attaining knowledge are often seen as two completely separate camps—or even antagonistic to each other. Mathematician and philosopher William Hatcher writes: "The changes in modern-day society are being wrought primarily by a highly efficient, powerful and established science which owes little or nothing to established religion." (William S. Hatcher, "The Concept of Spirituality", in Baha'i Studies, vol 11, Ottawa 1982.)

The emergence of the Darwinian theory of evolution in the late nineteenth century seems to have marked an especially acute crisis point in the relations between religion and science. Bearing on this, a New Zealand Herald article, reporting an interview with Dr Darryl Reanney, stated:

Dr Reanney is an internationally recognised authority on the origins of life…
"For a long time science and religion have seen each other as enemies, as hostile," he said.
"But there is an emerging feeling on both sides of that great divide that religion can be enormously enriched by what science says.
"We live in a society which is undergoing a profound crisis of meaning… we do not know where to look for a convincing reason for our existence.
"In a quite profound sense we have lost our way."
Dr Reanney said that for most people the old view of the origins of man based on religion has died as the new story, based on evolution, emerged. (New Zealand Herald, 31 May 1993)

Dr Reanney's observations show that while people have rejected or forgotten the old religious stories which gave meaning to life, it is not because they have found a satisfying replacement. Modern science has brought us to the era of globalisation on the wings of instant satellite communications. It has revealed a universe of ever-greater complexity. It has overcome superstition and demonstrated the value of hard facts. Yet these achievements have been accompanied by a widespread rejection of religion, resulting in a materialistic civilisation that is computer-literate but spiritually impoverished. Indeed as dissatisfaction with the state of things deepens, there are signs that science itself is becoming distrusted. John Lennon could dream of a utopia without religion, but I can't help noticing the irony in his song Imagine:

Imagine there's no heaven
Its easy if you try;
no hell below us,
above us only sky.
Imagine all the people
living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do;
nothing to kill or die for,
and no religion too.
Imagine all the people
living life in peace.

In the outer extremes of losing our way, twentieth century humanity has made some heavy investments in substitute faiths which have grimly failed to deliver the promised goods. Dreadfully misguided idealism has fuelled all sorts of odious movements, of which Nazism and other racist political philosophies stand out among the worst. Excessive nationalism has been a major contributor to this century's warmongering. In terms of numbers of people engaged, communism has been probably the most influential modern attempt to create a new type of society, but that bold and costly experiment has now all but run out of steam. Other answers from all shades of the spectrum have been discredited.

So what better ideals can we look to for guidance? Some answers are suggested in my article on "The Power of Faith".

For further information...

The author is a follower of the Baha'i Faith. For further information about the Baha'i Faith, please visit the Baha'i World site. at www,

©Copyright 2000, John Deverell

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