Religion in the West

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What is the concept of religion in the modern West?

Religion comes from either relegere (meaning to read or pursue together; the same root goes to legible and intelligent) or (much more likely and generally accepted) from relegare (to tie back, to bind fast); hence a religious man used to mean a monk tied by his vows; and the words ligament and ligature go back to the same root. For the Romans it meant being tied back, staying connected with ancestral customs and beliefs, a kind of loyalty; for the Christians the word would originally have meant being tied back, connected to God. However, the word used in Arabic and therefore in Islamic literature is ‘din’. In its literal usage, ‘din’ means obedience, being in debt, restoring one’s rights, adopting as a habit, forcing, calling to account, managing, rewarding or punishing, serving, lending and so on. Muslim theologians have described ‘din’ as the set of principles revealed by God through Prophets so that mankind should follow by free will in order to acquire happiness in both worlds.

The concept of religion may be viewed from two perspectives: the human or the Divine. The followers of the great world religions take religion to be God-revealed principles, values and commandments and therefore do not, in explaining the origin of religion, refer to man. By contrast, the modern Western imputes the origin of religion to man and then seeks to explain it away according to the different science of man — anthropology or sociology or psychology.

The reason why the modern Western way of thinking has developed in favor of a materialistic world-view

The still dominant attitudes among Westerners do not, unfortunately, allow them to regard Islam as a revealed religion and therefore what is understood by religion in the West is usually religion — the form into which it evolved in Christianity. The Qur’an (3.50) affirms that Jesus Christ came to restore the laws of the Torah, with the exception of making some unlawful things lawful: “And (I have come) confirming that which was before me of the Torah, and to make lawful some of that which was forbidden unto you. I come unto you with a sign from your Lord, so keep your duty to God and obey me.” It is possible to find the same in the Gospels. For example, in Matthew 5.17, Jesus declares: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (of Moses — American Bible Society) and the teachings of the Prophets. I have come not to do abolish them but to fulfil them (Gideons International) — to make their teachings come true (American Bible Society); to complete or perfect them (Bible Society, Turkish edition).” However, St Paul promoted his mission by separating the message of Jesus from its relationships and its origins in the religion and the Law of the Jews — and the Law has the same shaping and containing function for religion as the skin of a man has for his body — and thereby paved the way to the wedding of Christianity with Roman laws and rites and its development as a religion focused on the Kingdom of God in the next world, relegating nature and this world to a lesser (eventually seen as a secular) domain. That is part of the reason why the modern Western way of thinking has developed in favor of a materialistic world-view, rejecting the Divine origin of religion.

Western views of religion

According to the assumptions of modern Western thinking, humanity is in a continuous irresistible and irreversible flow or movement toward what is better. During this ‘progress’, it has gone through certain stages of intellectual and civilizational development. Among others also studying the origins of religion, anthropologists have concentrated on the theory of the evolution of religion and reached different conclusions. For Frazer (1854-1941) the origin was magic, for Taylor it was animism, for Schmidt it was original monotheism, and for others it was pre-animism, totemism, fetishism, or polytheism. Later anthropologists concentrated on rather the role of the religion in society than its origin. While social anthropologists saw religion as part of society and concentrated on field studies of particular tribes, or the analysis of myth, ritual and symbol, the cultural anthropologists saw it as a set of beliefs, rites and institutions.

In order to illustrate the differences of opinion that arise among those who, from within ignorance or other limitations, offer their definition of a matter, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, a famous Muslim Sufi of the 13th century, made this analogy: some blind persons encounter an elephant and, on touching different parts of the animal’s body, offer their partial, inept and contradictory definitions of an elephant: one finds it to be a heavy, thick column, another a hard, flexible pipe, and so on. This is what those who try to explain the origin of religion have achieved in the West. Just as the anthropologists drew different conclusions, sociologists also put forward different opinions about the origin of religion.

The sociology of religion found its leading analysts in Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920). The former stressed the social functions of religion as a stabilizing factor created by society as a means of expressing its ideals and unifying itself. Weber, more dynamic and positive about religion, saw religion’s prophetic side as an instrument for shaping and changing society and tried to work out what aspect of Western religious attitudes or culture shaped the formation of capitalism. Other sociologists focused more on particular religious groups and institutions.

The psychology of religion centers upon the individual and his or her religious experience. One of the main exponents of the psychology of religion was William James (1842-1910). He described the religion of the healthy-minded and the sick soul, the religion of the once-born and the twice-born, and the psychological basis of prayer, meditation, mysticism, and conversion. Freud, whose research was based on theories of infantile sexuality and who, despite opposition from friends, patients and medical colleagues, continued to develop these theories, emphasized the importance of childhood sexual experiences and regarded religion as necessary illusions (delusions) and projections. He also argued that dreams, like neuroses, were disguised manifestations of repressed sexual desires. More recent work in the psychology of religion has centered upon questions about how different religious people or institutions are, and upon analysis of what mature religious faith is, what the spiritual potentialities of human nature are, and what the stages are of religious development in children and adults.

The common denominator Western analysis of religion is that religion was invented by man as a result of either projecting repressed desires or weaknesses or of individual or collective efforts to systematize the beliefs and rites of particular communities. The corollary is that, as science develops, man will no longer have any need for religion and religion, which is, according to Feuerbach, a dogma contradicted by fire and life insurance policies, by railways and steam-ships, by modern military and industrial schools, by the theatres and science museums of modern society, and, according to Marx (1818-1883), is the opiate of the masses, will inevitably become a thing of the past. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) divides human history into three eras. The first era is the period of religion, when man lived a primitive life, in fear of natural events and forces, and needed to believe in a supreme being. The second era is the period of metaphysics, when man reached a considerable level of intellectual maturity. And the last era is the period of science, when there is no room (or need) for religion, because reason and science will solve all the problems of man. Some people may well continue to follow a reduced religion, comprising very basic moral and spiritual principles, in order to satisfy their emotional and spiritual needs and lead an upright life. But religion should not transgress its limits, and must not interfere in the collective, especially political, life of society. According to Ferdinand Buisson, the 19th century-French thinker, the secular approach to life will not wipe out religion altogether but will considerably diminish it, and destroy the force of its dogmas and the basis of its doctrines.

Before proceeding to criticize Western views of religion, we should give a summary of some other definitions of religion by Western thinkers or philosophers:

According to Hegel (1770-1830), religion is a certain view of the universe. Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), one of the Italian followers of Hegel, defines religion as a philosophy that is incomplete. Kant (1724-1804) deals with religion from the viewpoint of social morality and thinks that religion in practice is seeing all of our responsibilities as if Divine ordinances. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) sees religion is no more than a feeling or excitement, an emotion or noble sentiment, felt for eternity. While rejecting the social and political role of religion, Schleiermacher describes the spirit or essence of religion as an intuitive knowledge of the highest values in life and of the metaphysical dimension of existence. According to Ralph Otto, a contemporary theologian, religion is a mysterious fear combined with awe which both causes man to tremble and yet attracts him to itself. The definition of Emile Boutroux is one of the most complete: Religion is that faith and feelings demand their right besides the scientific view.

How can we criticize modern Western views of religion?

The positivistic view of religion adhered to by modern Western attitudes, directed by the dogmas of science and technology, is highly questionable. The positivist line which regards the sociological, economic, military and political level of the West as the final level mankind can attain has been severely criticized by even Western thinkers. In addition to the existentialistic tension and anxiety, Auguste Comte’s attempt, toward the end of his life — despite his view of religion as a mode of thinking or being that belongs to the second (long past) era of human history — to establish a humanistic religion shows that religion is not something to be denied or dismissed as belonging to some long past phase of human development. Also, despite the huge recent advances in science and technology, the extreme sexual freedom, the high standard of living and the high levels of education, there is a growing interest in and turning towards religion throughout the world. We have seen the emergence of new, primitive religions such as devil worship, the seeking of contentment through authentic or false supernormal phenomena such as telepathy, necromancy, sorcery and fortune-telling. Moreover, as Erich Fromm puts it, we still see the pursuit of security and guarantees for the future through increased association with insurance companies, trade unions, mighty governments, holdings and pacts. We have seen the collapse of Communist systems and return to religion in once Communist countries. All these show that the theories that religion was the product or projection or delusion of primitive men or infantile sexuality or regressed sexual desires, that people first created primitive, polytheistic religions and then evolved them into monotheism, that religion has been replaced (or contradicted) by fire and life insurances, by the reliability of railways, steam-ships, etc., and expelled from the galleries of he modern arts and sciences, etc, and that there would no longer be any need for religion, and that religion is the opium of people — have been proved false. And these events and trends also demonstrate that, whether sociological or anthropological or psychological, the studies of religion in the West are based on wrong premises.

Whereas religion is a rising value in the world and more and more people turn to it everyday, modern Western civilization is severely questioned and shows signs of inward decay, while outwardly at the peak of its dominion. Having lived through the first quarter of the century, Oswald Spengler, a famous German sociologist, prophesied the collapse of this civilization with all its skyscrapers, huge metropolises and railways and foretold that it would be an ethnographic museum. ‘Refined’ Western intellectuals and scientists such as Rene Guenon, Alexis Carrel, Max Planck, Pasternak, James Jeans and Schwartz, have argued that by means of religion humanity would live another era of happiness. Also, as stated above, the re-emergence of missionary churches in increasing numbers in Christendom and the return to Islamic values all over the Muslim world despite the stern measures taken against Islam by native governments for several decades, demonstrate that it is almost impossible to defeat religion.

 

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