The primary purpose of this paper is to investigate the role of religion in public life in the United States from a broad perspective of human spirituality not through the eyes of any particular religion. Religion is rooted in a Latin world meaning a belief biding the spiritual nature of man to a supernatural being, as involving a feeling of dependence and responsibility, together with the feelings and practices that flow from such belief. I must acknowledge a priori that this writing is based on a very well received book by a best selling author, Houston Smith entitled Why Religion Matters, it is kind of enhanced summary of this book.
Because religion challenges the prevailing worldview, it has lost its respectability in the public today. Often when you ask people about their religion, some would answer that they are not religious but spiritual. What is good about religion is spirituality and what is good about spirituality is that it is a human attribute not institutionalized yet.
We live in a society in which freedom of expression is guaranteed. We are able to read, write, and express our opinion without fear of reprisal. There is a great deal of resources at our disposal enabling us to obtain the tools of research expeditiously. It would be our obligation to take advantage of this great opportunity and to study the views of the western religious scholars about the place of religion in the age of modernity and scientific worldview. Understandably, people may have their own prejudice about some religions especially after the events of September 11, but we can overcome that through quality research and impartial presentations and move forward. As American Muslims, we are faced with some tough challenges here in the United States concerning our religion. We should clarify what our religion really is and how it should be practiced in a modern democratic country like the United States and how its teachings can be adapted to suit the needs and the requirements of the modern societies. We need also to assume a clear position with regard to some key issues such as violence, bigotry, and intolerance under the name of religion
America is a nation of highly religious citizens and Americans seems to have retained their spiritual life “Full 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, 85 percent in heaven and 82 percent in miracles, according to the latest FOX News poll. Though belief in God has remained at about the same level, belief in the devil has increased slightly over the last few years — from 63 percent in 1997 to 71 percent today” (2004).
Such information, however, should not be viewed as an indication of the status of religion in public life. When it comes to public life, this nation pretends that religion does not really matter. We are not supposed to let our religious believes interfere with our public life. We do not want our faith to be the source of every decision we have to make. We prosecute the teachers who teach religion in public schools. We prevent let students from praying at school. Government takes anything even tenuously related to religion out of public domain. Paradoxically, we believe in something so devotedly, however, we are not supposed to even reveal it in public. They say if Nigeria is the most religious country in the world (ICM poll for BBC) and Sweden the least (Time Magazine Aug 23, 2007), then, United States like the country of Nigeria being ruled by Swedes.
We are led to believe that those people who take their religion seriously are unorthodox, and often resort to irrational behavior to press their causes. This view especially has been prevalent after the recent massively publicized events in Middle east, India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia and the September 11 and recent resurgent of religious fanaticism. People in United States seem to distance themselves from the religions whose practices fall outside the mainstream and outside the dominant American spiritual life. Such practices are considered unacceptable, unfair, or immoral in this society. They include, but not limited to, polygamy, gender discrimination, bigotry, despotism, cruel and unusual punishment, etc. The commanding culture, the political as well as the legal system of the United States treat the religion as if it is not seriously important, thus creating an impression that those who believe in religion devotedly do not matter. They are not ordinary people and something is wrong with them. Therefore, it is better to avoid them. Where did such ideas come from? Who taught us that religion is not important? What happened to religion that once served as a decisive force earlier in American life and the life of many other countries? During the decades of 50s and 60s, for example, religion played a more effective role in antiwar movements and, of course, the key impetus behind civil war. Religion that was so important that the U. S. Constitution was amended to protect the freedom of religion.
To begin with, our distrust of religion can be explained by the notion that evils have been committed under the name of religion throughout the history of human being even to this day. Exploitation of religion has occurred frequently with deadly results. Especially in recent years, we have been inundated by negative images such as: car bums, blown-up building, suicide, hijacking, swift retribution, harsh and inhumane punishments all being blamed on religion. Even if such perceptions are inaccurate and one-sided, it is the alliance between political power and religion that results in horrible acts being committed, not the religion per se. It is religion backed by a imprudent government that creates the means and the power to oppress, to suppress, and to censor. Suffering from centuries of devastating experience under the dominance of the church, modern countries like the United States decided to break the association between religion and the authority long time ago, and rightfully so. With that came the popularity of the notion that religion must be kept in its proper private place and its proper perspective. Consequently, what we see in industrialized world of today is what seems the trivialization of religion and its absence from pubic life.
Massive modernization of the world earlier in late 19th and early 20th centuries has been accompanied by alienation of religion and the spiritual debility. Scientific view of the world has made it awkward to speak of humanities as being objective, forcing us to view them as subjective and merely the projection of people’s inner life. To better understand this phenomenon, we need to look back, far back, and examine the history of human being. From the beginning, the human beings have been faced with a few fundamental, inescapable, problems that they have to deal with. The need for food, the need for shelter, and the need for companionship, and more importantly, the need to find their place in this world and relate themselves to the scheme of things, that led them to religion. Religious sense has originated from a few questions that are very much interrelated, the fundamental questions that human beings have asked themselves from the beginning.
What is the origin of life? How did our ancestors get here? What is the purpose of our life? Is there another life after death? These questions are the determining substance of what makes human beings human. Man is the only living creature who thinks and whose rationality leads him to ask ultimate question like these, questions to which there are no scientific answers yet. It is the encroachment of such questions into our consciousness that tells us most precisely what kind of creature we are. Constrained by our finitude, we have not been able to provide satisfactory answers to these questions, a somber reality that we have to live with up to now. However, we have not softened our determination to find answers to these questions.
Although, we may not be able to find answers to these questions, or find it out of our human intellectual capacity to deal with such issues, we advance toward them as we progress in every aspects of our intellectual life. The fact that we may not be able to find ultimate answers to those questions should not force us to become discouraged and to give up. We should take every step within our means to find answers to those questions. We can learn from our predecessors who pondered on these questions before us and especially from the old enduring religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Historically, the society’s approach in dealing with these issues has been dependent on the institutions and the system according to which the society was structured. We can understand the nature of these problems, and their solutions better by investigating them in the context of three periods in human history:
* Traditional period
* Modern period
Undoubtedly, the way human beings have dealt with these problems has improved as they moved from one period to another during the course of human history. In other words, they have tried to discover ways to find better solutions to the life’s inevitable problems.
Traditional period, from the beginning of recorded history to the rise of science and modernity. Traditional view, of course, was simple and reflection of primitive life. It suffered from lack of supplicated word vision. People’s vision and responsibility was limited to family and immediate community. Their main concerns were to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to dress the naked, to take care of the orphans. The responsibilities ended there. Lack of communication was the primary reason why people were not aware of other people’s problems and needs. Institutions, however injustice in today’s standards, were built into the system and were considered God-given and unalterable law of nature, like male domination and the indisputable power of religion.
Modernity changed all that attitudes. Progressive technologies that have facilitated travelling, communication, interactions, trade challenged the established institutions. Those institutions were not considered as natural laws any more leading to gradual removal of inequity, more equalization and justice. People came to realize that such institutions were not the law of nature. They can be criticized, changed, and removed if deemed appropriate. Modernity challenged the divine rights of kings, religious leaders, and dictators. It set out to build societies based on liberty, equality, organization, and brotherhood. Modernity challenged and in many cases retired, the traditional view of the world including the crucial issue of six days of creation.
Modernity should be given credit for improving our view of the nature and laying out foundations for scientific understandings of the world. Major life-changing discoveries occurred during this period that took over the traditional period and continued up to the first half of 20th century. The scientific methods, namely controlled experiments, that began to emerge during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, added proof to generic science.
Contemporary philosophers tell us that scientists are in a better position – than are the philosophers - to see the whole world. On the other hand, the emergence of postmodernism, assumes that metaphysical world is beyond human comprehension. During early centuries, human beings relied on revelation, divine sources, for knowledge, wisdom, and guidance. Then in late 16th century, that was replaced by scientific methods that paved the way toward scientific worldview.Subsequent strength of the scientific worldview pushed the traditional view to the sideline. Accordingly, the scientific worldview, scientific cosmology – general science and philosophy of universe - and the study of physical universe emerged. With that came the popularity of the view that only science can and should handle all there exist, not religions. True hypothesis could be tested and validated by scientific methods. Thus, factual relationships can be separated from subjective ones and the positive claims could be separated from normative statements.
People have been drawn to modernity and have not dare to question the validity of scientific cosmology so successful that has been able to save human lives through life –saving discoveries, to send a man to the moon, and to eliminate the barriers of time and distance through high tech computer and the Internet?
Modernity’s Big Picture was materialism with the knowledge that even if there are immaterial things; however, they depend on matter. The arrival of modern science has changed our world so dramatically that our ancestors could not have remotely envisioned. It has changed our worldview.
Religion’s harsh, and often irrational, responses to modernity and progressive changes have led the individuals to consider religion as an obstacle to modernity, thus, creating a notion that progress of rationality entails abandonment of religion. In other words, societies cannot advance without shielding it from influence of religion, secularization. Secularization has worked well so far the western societies.
Postmodernism, from the first half of 20th century to the present time. No breakthrough discoveries, only improvement in the existing ones, refinement over what was achieved in modern period. Major discoveries with permanent effect on human life, like discovery of penicillin, were made during modern era. The nature of discoveries that has taken place during post-modernity is life enhancing not life saving. Postmodernism must be given credit for its attention to social justice which I think was due to the colonial guilt. Issues related to social justice are being recognized and addressed more earnestly today that any time before. Feminist movements, equal opportunity acts, and the restitution to black Americans in the United States for the past inequity done to their ancestors are some examples of such issues. Neither modernism nor postmodernism addressed the metaphysical problems adequately. It should be mentioned also that, the traditionalists did not handle them better.
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