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Why Religion Survives in the Modern Age

January 9th, 2012

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks opines that religion survives despite its functionality being replaced by modernity because:

My answer is simple. Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? … You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterize modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.

Sadly, what that boils down to is a fear of death. Finding meaning is part of that, as meaning gives a sense of fulfillment in the face of departure (having children or leaving works to be remembered by accomplishes this as well, but those also can be fulfilled without religion).

Ultimately, we sense demise as oblivion, and fear it like nothing else. Religion gives us an escape from that which horrifies us to our core–and thus explains why, then, people become so intensely charged when their religion is challenged or questioned. Tearing down even a part of that structure is, to many, equal to tearing it down as a whole; this explain why, when confronted over even trivial matters, some religious folk become highly offended and extraordinarily defensive. You’re not just questioning one part of scripture, you are, emotionally to them, trying to deprive them of their comfort in the face of absolute demise.

What would truly challenge religion is not science, doctors, credit cards, or psychotherapists. Instead, people facing and coming to terms with their mortality would accomplish that. To find solace and satisfaction with the fact that you have existed at all, the gift that life is all in itself, or even to know that oblivion would carry with it an end to even fear. If we could find a way to instill a comfort with mortality, religion would take a serious hit.

But not a mortal hit, because there is one other major reason religion survives: tradition. People passing religion on because they were immersed in it from their birth onwards, like an ancestral home. That all in itself has a powerful inertia, a momentum that could not easily be stopped.

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  1. Tim Kane
    January 10th, 2012 at 03:25 | #1

    I would say the Rabbi is wrong.

    Religion addresses, though it does not answer, one simple question: “Why is there something instead of nothing.” This is the spiritual side.

    Furthermore religion is different things to different people. And it’s a swiss army knife.

    Coping with suffering:
    Religion ends up as a coping mechanism for dealing with a hostile universe that can deliver infinite amount of pain and anguish. There’s another question for religion: “How could there be a god and a good god at that, that would allow so much suffering to his creatures.” Christianity addresses this: God is good, God loves you, and he has a plan for your safety and salvation, just have faith. As to suffering, it’s either the devil’s fault or has something to do with free will.

    Some people need to be in lots of community. Other’s not so much. All humans need it, the worst form of punishment is solitary confinement. Religions supplies community.

    I think this is where Christianity got its traction in the pre-Constantine era. The Christians formed nice communities, and in addition to that, created a web of helpful services for each other. In the laissez faire, quite harsh and cruel Roman times, when also wealth was concentrating, this welfare network, plus with the joys of community and the emphasis on love over fear proved a winning combination. Too bad it didn’t stay that way. Like all good things, it got co-opted by elites, who subsequently laid on the fear and guilt.

    Constructive behavior.
    I maintain that 80% of people don’t need laws and punishment and so forth, to be good. The law exist for the 20%, and of that 20%, the punishment is for the 5% who don’t have a conscience. The rest of us do. Catholic guilt was fabricated for the 5% – yet I feel guilty almost any time of day thanks to that construct. I obviously don’t need constructive behavior aspects of religion as much as others. Athiestic Europe and Japan has far less crime than religious U.S.

    So swiss army knife. And during different phases in peoples life, they might find value in one aspect over the other.

    I had a law professor who was an athiest but also presbyterrean – he said he didn’t believe in God, but always wanted to be a member of a community of faith.

  2. Troy
    January 11th, 2012 at 12:07 | #2

    religion also has evolved better ‘stories’ than the cold analysis of scientific rationalism.

    Science says we are the cumulative product of billions of years of DNA transcoding errors as winnowed by natural selection, that our death is just as important, if not more important, than our life, while evangelical Christianity says we are the special creations of a loving Father God who wants us to live forever.

    I can understand why only 2% of the US population is willing to say they’re atheist.

    But it was nice living in Japan, where anybody who’s at all publicly religious is considered a weirdo. Except for the ceremonial Shinto/Buddhist stuff, of course.

  3. Roger
    January 13th, 2012 at 07:29 | #3

    Troy, you said: “But it was nice living in Japan, where anybody who’s at all publicly religious is considered a weirdo. Except for the ceremonial Shinto/Buddhist stuff, of course.”

    I am rather curious about this. Does this mean that they are privately religious – or that they are mostly atheistic with only some ceremonial cultural habits mixed in? Based on what little contact I have with Japanese culture (through movies mostly) it seemed to me that the Shinto/Buddhist stuff runs rather deep… i.e. firmly held by many as part of reality (spirits inhabiting the world, spiritual dimension/meaning to our actions, etc.) As a Californian, this feels like New Age spiritualism – which can be taken rather seriously by those who believe… though I realize that that lens is an unfair one to view Japan through… as New Age spiritualism is derivative of whatever the believer wants to borrow from, whereas Shintoism and Buddhism both have long traditions to draw from and are more deeply rooted in the culture, obviously. With the history/culture background behind such beliefs in Japan I’ve gone on the assumption that the spirituality of the average person there is more solid (and less open to question?), if you will, then those 20th Century California New Age versions. Treatment of the spirit world as very much real in story telling seems to bolster this view. Your use of the word ceremonial is to me suggestive of something having mostly a superstitious/tradition quality to it – not unlike the routines that baseball players go through when at bat… they may believe them on some level, but not really. But you did specify “publicly”. Where are the Japanese on the atheism-spirituality spectrum? …or is it simply a matter of them being more private/modest than Americans? Thanks.

  4. Luis
    January 13th, 2012 at 10:02 | #4


    I would say that the religions of Japan are pervasive and deep, but not very specific, with much of the country being what I would call agnostic instead of atheist. For most Japanese, I believe that Shinto and Buddhism are more traditions than religions in the sense of the word that we are familiar with. You go to the Shrine at New Year’s or weddings and the like; Temples are visited for funerals and so on. Or you visit them because they’re beautiful or are a local feature or some such. Ask most younger Japanese about religion, and they’ll give you a blank look and shrug, saying they don’t have any. All the same, if they visit a shrine, they’ll shake the rope and pray and do so earnestly. There is at the very least a kind of going through the motions, if not a sincere though background belief in a vague spirituality which New Age religions have borrowed from. People who have strong beliefs in the old religions are usually older, though even many of them know little or nothing about the religion beyond the basic rituals and beliefs. The texts of these religions are not even close to being as widely read or ingrained as those in the prominent Western religions. Amaterasu is not considered to be a real person like many Christians consider Adam and Eve. Japanese don’t believe that Japan was formed when Izanagi stirred the ocean with a spear, as Christians believe that God created the world in six days–and this certainly does not interfere with their acceptance of modern cosmology or its teaching in schools.

    When Troy talks about being publicly religious, I am pretty sure he is referring to the kind of religion we are used to–people who belong to a doctrinal sect who turn this religion outwardly, trying to proselytize or apply their beliefs to law, education, or public policy. Someone trying to have Shinto creation myth taught alongside evolution in schools would certainly be treated as a weirdo here. Even less intrusive beliefs are not received too comfortably in public. Sachi, for example, is a Reiki healer, but often notes that the open discussion of this is not always greeted warmly in Japan. Nobody is hostile to it, but if she were to bring it up with people often, they might edge away or become a bit uncomfortable. The same might be the case if you were a Christian, Muslim, or member of a smaller religious order who started talking about your beliefs in public.

    There is something of an uneasiness, a certain distrust with stuff like that. Perhaps it is rooted in the post-WWII sense which recoiled a ways from the State Shinto, which got a bad name after all that happened during the war, and was not condoned during the Occupation. A good chunk of the mistrust came after the Aum Shinrikyo terror attacks in the 90’s, which certainly did not help the image of cult religions in Japan.

    That’s part of what is so nice about being in Japan, as Troy notes: nobody shoves their beliefs in your face. Well, not nobody, you still get people ringing your doorbell or handing out fliers on the street near the train station (mostly Christians, surprise). But you don’t have to worry about them getting laws passed or subverting the local school board.

  5. Troy
    January 14th, 2012 at 11:55 | #5

    yeah, that’s what I meant : )

    Proposition 8 here in California really pissed me off, and the much of the rest of the country is even worse off.

    it seemed to me that the Shinto/Buddhist stuff runs rather deep

    That’s just it – – – I could be off-base about this, but someone either really into Shinto or really into Buddhism is the oddball in Japan.

    As Luis mentions, being really into Shinto is kinda hard since there is no doctrine other than folk history.

    Buddhism has a long tradition of development in Japan and offers something of a buddhist analogue to the evangelical experience with the various successful popular sects and subsects.

    Then there’s the aggressively evangelizing sects like SGI that AFAICT tend to put Japanese off.

    But I’m just talking out of my ass here, I never got into any religious stuff while living in Tokyo.

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