On Secular Culture and Religious Crisis

Tags: agnosticism, atheism, christianity, hope, individualism, laity, postmodernity, religion, religious experience, secular

Our context —variously identified as “modernity”, late-modernity”, “hyper-modernity”, or “post-modernity”— is somewhat like quicksand. We are not only facing a time of changes, but, as the final document of the Assembly of the Latin-American Bishops held in Aparecida says, we are confronting an epochal change, and this means significant changes for human life, its configuration, its meaning and self-understanding, along with a feeling of enormous uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. 

One of the greatest impacts of the current changes is no doubt its effect on religion. If during the Age of Enlightenment, human rationality became increasingly visible and achieved the status of a fundamental principle governing human life, what we see today is quite different. Modernity is being replaced by a new state of affairs, which human knowledge is still far from having deeply assimilated, and it is concretely in the twentieth century that this process appeared more clearly. Religion suffers the consequences of this new post-modern worldview. From a modern perspective, for something to be considered legitimate and true, it must have gone through a process of rational comprehension. This was seen as the antidote for the fanaticism, superstition and intolerance that religion has been accused of fostering over the years.

Today, human beings consider themselves as autonomous and emancipated. Science and technology resolve their problems, replacing beliefs. The individual is the center of the universe, of phenomena and events, somehow replacing God himself. Human beings alone are the ones responsible for finding happiness and meaning in life through their thinking and reasoning capabilities. In a similar way that theocentrism, at the beginning of the modern era, fell into deep crisis and lost its power to explain the world, the same such process is now underway regarding Cartesian rationality. This crisis appears as a symptom of the birth of a new era: the one in which we now live. With all utopias now collapsed, certainties gone and abundant means to achieve scarce and poorly defined ends, the contemporary human being is seeking “peak experiences”, experiences that can give their lives meaning and convey whether life is still worth living.

Faith, belief or “religious organizations,” with their perpetually insufficient messages about human beings, are no longer the best means of communicating these peak experiences. As Zygmunt Bauman says “Having disconnected the dream of peak experiences from the religiously-inspired practices of self-negation and withdrawal from worldly attractions, we feel obliged to connect this dream to the desire for mundane goods and deploy it as a fuel for an intense consumerism”. Living a human life has become a synonym for enjoying the delights of consumerism. Living fully now means to satisfy the endless hunger of human desire in a highly material manner. Conspicuous and excessive consumption of material goods, has been elevated by the consumer to the status of true religion. Our mantra is no longer “I think, therefore I am,” but “I consume, therefore I am”. We are confronted by a consecration of commercial and consumerist relations.

Nevertheless, religion as a path to transcendence has not been banished from the human horizon, as the “masters of suspicion” once prophesied. The same modern thinkers who strongly criticized the superstitious and magical elements of Christianity are now called to recognize the strength of transcendence as a constitutive element of humanity. Even committed atheists, such as André Comte Sponville, speak of a “spirituality of atheism” that grants to human beings some experiences that cannot be classified as rational or natural.

In this scenario, religion turns into something private, a property pertaining exclusively to the inner forum of human consciousness, without mediation or institutions. It becomes increasingly something to be lived within the sphere of private life, where each person holds truths and beliefs apprehended in a mix of concepts, rituals and experiences. They are considered and discerned by whatever it is that influences people within their own experience and by the gratifying sentiments that this lived experience grants.

The twentieth century, a century without God, in which the divinities were still flitting and volatile —objects to be consumed— pointed to the height of the postmodern process. Retrieving transcendence, but fragmenting it, it presented transcendence without a face, without identity, without absolutes.  “Religious” experiences proliferate again, when they seemed to have disappeared. Nevertheless, in spite of a new configuration, they are equally objects to be consumed. They speak to the senses and are exchanged by other experiences, equally superficial, and the fruit is the exhaustion of the potential for fulfillment and delight, which increasingly creates, as the scientist of religion Jim Heisig has pointed out, a “frigid” society. In contrast to this state of affairs, it is the mystics who can show once again the burning roads of “pathos”, of that passion without which human life loses its flavor, and depression or suicide become daily occurrences.


María Clara Bingemer

Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

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