This is a talk I delivered for SUMSA a while back, thought I would upload it for those interested.
Innalhamda lillahee, nahmaduhu wa nasta’eenuhu wa nastaghfiruhu, wa na’oodhu billaahi min shuroori anfusinaa wa min sayyiaati a’maalinaa. Mainyah dihillaahu falaa mudillilahu, wa mainyudlil falaa haadiya lah.
The question we are posed with today is ‘what is the role of religion in the modern world’ but in many respects the question should have been ‘what was the role of religion in the modern world?’
Because, for all modernism’s lingering language modernity is dead.
It was bullet ridden, laying amongst poppies on French fields in 1916, and was buried at Auschwitz and under Hiroshima’s irradiated rubble.
Nietzsche’s madman lept up and cried ‘Wither is God? I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers!’ he walked, bemused into Christian houses of God and asked ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’
Yet Nietzsche’s decomposing divinity, a God killed or to be killed by Kant and Descartes and Marx, will leave children of this era confused. It is not the pungent stench of God’s decay that wafts through these hallways, God forgive the metaphor, it is that of modernity’s corpse.
So to ask ‘what is the role of religion in the modern world’ is a regression. We are not in the modern world any more, that wind has changed, and many of the irreligious, as much as the religious, are stuck with their sails in a lull.
What does the question mean, ‘what is the role of religion in the modern world’? What does it point to? To me it points overwhelmingly to the reality that the religious are still being beaten with modernity’s flopping, cold, arms. We are being bludgeoned with the dead ideologies of an epoch that has past us by. Modern and contemporary are no longer the same thing.
I will elaborate.
Modernity arose from the ‘enlightenment’ and led to a radical change in humanity’s relationship with religion. The products of the enlightenment, were weaponised, literally and metaphorically, and turned against ‘religion’ first in Europe, and then in the colonies. French guillotines; scientific execution, British gattling guns; scientific warfare, accompanied and flowed from the rise of modernity in Europe. Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ sat alongside his ‘On the different races of man’.
Modernity’s heady mix of military power, industrial produce and intellectual tools led to Empires the like of which the world had never seen. These were not merely Empires of steel and gold, but Empires of thought, and the Churches and Masajid were left gutted in their wake. The coercive aspects of the enlightenment, enshrined by Diderot who said, ‘Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’, were accompanied by the corrosive nature of modernity in relation to religious tradition, as Marx describes it ‘All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’.
On the back of guns and steel, the technological products of the Enlightenment, Christendom conquered the world, and yet that moment of triumph fell hollow as Christianity’s utility for Empire gave way to newer, more malleable justifications. From the heartland of Christianity arose a cavalcade of new world views, which sidelined the role that religion had once played. These modernisms, summed up, were united by their teleological outlook. They shared a sense of history’s onwards march, as historian Sidney Pollard summarised: ‘a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind [and] consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and this direction is towards improvement’.
The orientation of Europe thus shifted from God to new religions that promised technological utopia, for white men anyway. The reality of these religions found affirmation wherever European empire dipped its feet. The word ‘discovery’ came originally from a term which described scouting before a battle, and this etymology proved prophetic. European ‘discoveries’ were accompanied with very modern inclinations. ‘Shoot! Classify! Name! Describe!’ was one of the mantras of European expansion, not just for local flora and fauna, but those humans they discovered too.
By the mid 19th Century of the common era, European empires, and by extension modernity, extended to much of the globe. At the time many felt the story ended there. The histories and narratives of that period, right up until the First World War, often have a note of finality to them. Others have a sense of quickening tempo, a dizzying climb into the heights, as the retort in the Futurist Manifesto expresses: ‘Your objections? All right! I know them! Of course! We know just what our beautiful false intelligence affirms: “We are only the sum and the prolongation of our ancestors,” it says. Perhaps! All right! What does it matter? But we will not listen! Take care not to repeat those infamous words! Instead, lift up your head!
Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!’.
One does not find the same hope in the accounts of the colonised. And one finds that overwhelmingly the resistance to colonialism in the non-European world comes from a religious location. Muslim, Buddhist and Dharmic, as well as less prominent local religions stood alongside repurposed forms of Christianity in rejecting that European empire of ideas.
However these movements found their ultimate match in the Maxim gun and it was not ideas that felled the Mahdist revolt in Sudan or the Taiping rebellion in China.
This would change in 1914, when the dizzying upward thrust of Europe suddenly found itself amongst the mud of the Western Front. The weaponised enlightenment, formerly mostly pointed outwards, was brought viciously to bear amongst the societies that had birthed it.
The First World War, and the Second which soon followed it, loosened not only the grip that European colonial power held throughout the world, it loosened the grip of the empires of the mind that accompanied it. This was modernity’s aforementioned death, as colonialism gave way to a less blatant, if no more exploitative, neo-colonialism there appeared a clear shift in the language and ideas the defined a formerly ‘modern’ world.
This world is still characterised as much by rapid change as that which preceded it, if not more so.
Postmodernity, or as some would name it, ‘liquid modernity’, has reflected an increasingly interconnected world. Replacing the almost monolithic, progress narratives of modernity is a fractured and transient world view, no less shifting and with maybe even less stable ground upon which we can find purchase.
Yet in an era of apparent doubt, religion appears to be far from a dead practice of bygone ages. While the rhetorical orientation of the world we are told has moved away from God, many commentators have described the last half century in terms of a religious revival.
Yet in the midst of this revival we still find ourselves in debate with the likes of the New Atheists, most of them old white men speaking in modernist language. I say ‘we’ here, with a nod to my fellow panel members because I believe this is something that we share. One of the main legacies of modernity is the linking between the fruits of technology, and irreligiosity, yet anecdotally I have little doubt that only a minority of the Muslims here today are in the Arts and Humanities. Contemporary religious communities are far from bereft of practitioners of science and medicine.
What has preceded in my talk so far is a relatively conventional narrative, it describes the rise, fall and decay of modernity, and the challenges of bobbing around in its wake. However what it also describes is a particular exceptionalism that arises in the stories we tell about the past.
Here I want to diverge, and maybe challenge some of these assumptions. There are many things that are unique about this world we live in, but there are also many things that are the same. Doubt is not new, indeed in my opinion the shifting surface we stand upon is mirrored by many a moment in the past.
The world of Musa alayhis salaam was far from bereft of empire, or of doubt. Nor was the Greek speaking world into which Jesus (alayhis salaam) was birthed. What is ‘jahiliyya’ if not an age of doubt?
What even, as a secularist once told me, is the point of a statement like ‘I believe’ without its contrary? She was not wrong, for here in an age of doubt, religion provides orientation. If doubt, postmodernity’s ever shifting sands, are as a shattered mirror, qibla, direction, religion, is a compass, ever fixed ever facing towards God.
An age of doubt, a time without orientation, affirms religion’s importance. From my perspective, the transmission of religion has never been in refutation but rather in assertion. The role of religion, and by extension the religious, is in that assertion. In that spirit I believe that we have nothing to fear from this ‘modern world’ any more than any other, point in the past.
The role of religion, in this world, as in any other, is to point towards God.
As a child of the postmodern, as most of us here today are, I can speak to something of the value of that.