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Why does religion drive so many people nuts? That’s the question that opens and closes our debate on religion and social change. On the surface the answer is obvious, at least for progressives—it’s because of the damage that’s been done by religion to the causes they hold dear: independence and equality for women, gay marriage and LGBTQ rights, peace and protection from zealots and fanatics, and safety in the face of sexual abuse. How come the ineffable being is always a bloke with a beard who privileges others who look the same as him? Religion has become the mother-lode of patriarchy, stupidity, homophobia and all things conservative.
But the opposite is also true: religion gives tremendous strength and staying power to the struggle for equality and social justice. It’s a force that makes people go to jail for their beliefs, break into nuclear weapons facilities and daub biblical slogans on the walls, found social movements that change society, organize workers to stand up for their rights, and confront dictators at the cost of their own lives. Religious groups are also the mainstays of health, education, social welfare and community-level conflict prevention in many countries. For Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and many others, religion isn’t incidental to social change, it’s pivotal—it’s the reason why they are willing to give so much to the cause.
Faced by these contradictory realities, what’s the best response for those committed to radical transformation? Ignoring, belittling or actively opposing religion all have their supporters, but active, open and critical engagement is likely to be much more effective, for at least three reasons.
First, the world is increasingly religious, and is likely to continue along this path. According to data from the Pew Center for Research on Religion, 84 per cent of adults in their global surveys said they were affiliated to one religion or another in 2010, a figure that’s projected to rise to 87 per cent by 2050—if for no other reason than the demographic growth of the Islamic population, which accounts for much of this extrapolated expansion.
But Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and what Pew calls “folk religions” like traditional African and Native American faiths are also set to grow. The exception is Buddhism—the result, perhaps, of too much meditation and not enough procreation along the spiritual path. Intriguingly, the trends are different among members of the millennial generation in the West, who are deserting established religions in favor of “unaffiliated spirituality.” In a new report called “How we Gather,” authors Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile write that “millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious,” but not defined along the lines or hierarchies of existing faiths.
Against this background, ignoring, insulting or attempting to eradicate religion can’t be viable options for anyone concerned with social transformation, since large parts of the required constituency for radical action will be marginalized as a result—far better to negotiate a democratic settlement between secular rights and religious freedoms. But this requires abandoning the absolutism that’s often the hallmark of enthusiasts on both sides of the debate—an attitude that leaves no room for forward movement except on terms that are unacceptable to the other. France’s ban on the wearing of the veil is one example.
Unfortunately such liberal-democratic settlements won’t work precisely where they’re most needed—the Islamic State for example, or Zionism, or the core of conservative Christian fundamentalism, but perhaps religion isn’t the key to any of these cases: if both conservative and progressive forces are at work in religion, then religion itself can’t be the deciding factor. So problems of ‘religious’ violence and discrimination may have less to do with religion versus secularity than with forces that stretch across and underneath this divide—like the urge to dominate and destroy, to accumulate more power for our tribe, to turn our fears outwards into the oppression of someone else, or to refuse to negotiate or to bend.
Fundamentalism of any kind is a threat to democracy and equal rights, but it springs from a generalized desire for hegemony and control. Is neo-liberalism more or less damaging than Catholicism? Is religious violence worse or better than the secular variety? Religion is a mask of convenience for those who need an extra dose of legitimacy as a cover for their sins, but there are many other, secular disguises waiting in the wings.
The second reason for recommending a strategy of engagement is that religions are increasingly fluid and diverse in relation to their social teachings, and this generates more room-to-maneuver for those who want to encourage a shift towards equality and rights. Everything that’s required to accentuate this shift is already present in religion—in the form of liberal and progressive readings of key religious teachings. But the reverse is also true—everything required to defend the status quo is also present. So “religion is always an act of interpretation” as William Eichler puts it, and interpretation is a matter of human agency and politics, not religious faith.
Efforts to transform religion in this way have to come from within, though they can be encouraged by active, supportive engagement from without. This is Zaheer Kazmi’s point about ‘liberal Islam’ as strategy for Muslim moderation: because liberal ideas are inextricably entangled with geopolitics and Western foreign policy, they are unlikely to have any purchase where their impact is most needed. But voices that are respected because they are religious are likely to be listened to, like Ouyporn Khuankaew, a Buddhist teacher and former nun in Thailand who's revolutionizing attitudes towards LGBTQ equality.
For secularists it may be difficult to talk about the ‘good’ parts of religion without the ‘bad,’ since all the parts are bad, but an attitude of welcome and respect is vital if religious reformers are to be strengthened instead of undermined by association with ‘outsiders.’ Despite the fact that secular-religious debates are often couched in terms of certainty, the reality is that beliefs on both sides of the divide are fluid, which opens up more space for mutual learning.
There may also be surprises along the way—like support for gay marriage among conservative Mormon Christians. Politics and religion rarely map seamlessly onto the same, unchanging landscape. Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez, for example, were both highly traditional Catholics and highly radical in their politics. Because of these fluidities, the long arc of religion may yet bend towards social justice.
Finally, religion—or at least spirituality—has something important to offer the left in thinking about the personal changes that social transformation requires. Re-structuring the economy, deepening democracy, and re-ordering social relationships are not simply matters of institutional reform—they also rely on ‘new people’ to make them work, people who are willing to make sacrifices and live out their values in truly radical ways.
Clearly, not all religious believers undergo such changes, and religious experience isn’t essential for personal change—humanism and other similar philosophies insist that personal commitments to radical values are enough, and that secularism can consciously cultivate qualities like love and compassion. “The experience of awe and wonder at the universe is something that is common to all humanity” as James Page puts it.
But some form of deep, inner experience is vital to overcome selfishness and greed, and to turn people away from the urge to dominate and destroy. These experiences are what distinguish authentic spirituality—or what Ralph Singh calls “religion from the inside out.” Feelings of joy, community, connection and liberation are common denominators of spiritual experience, but they also comprise the emotional infrastructure of democracy and equality-consciousness. So these forces can be very powerful in animating progressive politics and social activism: “what’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance” as Emma Goldman famously put it?
However, emotional depth and resonance have been conspicuous by their absence from left party politics for 40 years or more, which is one of the reasons for their decline. This is not the case in newer forms of participatory political engagement like Podemos and in social movements like Occupy and parts of the Arab Spring, which have all made a point of bringing spirituality and artistic celebration back into the heart of politics and social struggle. This fits well with the rise of ‘unaffiliated spirituality’ among millennials noted by The Pew Center, though it’s unlikely to displace formal religion because of the structure and security that mosques and churches can provide.
There’s no doubt that faith-based approaches to politics are “a provocation” to progressives, but perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to repair the emotional and spiritual disconnect that may undermine their appeal? And who better to look to for guidance than religious and spiritual traditions that have been developing techniques for personal revolution for the last 3,000 years?
If the world is becoming more religious and religiosity is deeply felt, then the only option for the left is engagement, but not the pursed lips, ‘let’s humor them’ variety that’s common among some secular progressives. Only when the left recovers its own ‘religious’ fervor—with or without formal religion—will it create a constituency for social transformation.