Thursday, November 1, 2012

How Tradition Can Find A Place In The Modern World

Our Society
Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science, which achieved its most spectacular triumphs in the seventeenth century.  Bertrand Russell
We live in the modern age. What exactly does that mean? Does it mean that traditions, including religious ones, are no longer necessary? are no longer relevant? How does a modern individual also live a life with religious meaning? Such are some of the questions that confront us in the modern age, one defined both by technological advancement and by a search for meaning and significance.

In many ways, Religion, and I am defining here all religions for a reason—since Religions tend to share common characteristics in that they collect traditions from the past and carry them through to the present— are in many ways ill-prepared to deal with modernity and all of its apparatuses. In short, Religion is often at odds with modernity in trying to find a place in modern society. In some cases, it is fearful of it and wants to destroy it, as is the case of reactionary elements within Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Before anyone accuses me of being against tradition or religion, I am not. I have written in defence of both on numerous occasions [see here, herehere & here]. And I have not changed my mind at all. But the Scientific Revolution, in its questioning of religious beliefs, and particularly as it applies to our understanding of the physical and known universe, has placed Religion at odds with Science. To argue otherwise is to deny the obvious. In many ways Religion and Science are battling for supremacy in the public space of ideas as to which is more important in the lives of humans.

Both are, but in different areas and for different reasons. It's true that the less educated one is, and in particular in science, the less one will find science accessible or important. Science, unlike religion, cannot really be made as accessible to the general public. And that's perhaps its benefit: you have to work at it to try to understand concepts that seem esoteric and difficult.

To be sure, Religion has its place, and an important and one can argue an essential place in the lives of many individuals, but not in position of supremacy, which unfortunately is not the strength of Religion in general and its leaders. (A recent example of Religion's failure is after a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy and the emotional response of some who "thank G-d" for being spared any harm; this implies that those who were harmed somehow deserve their fate.)

It, Religion, works best to confer comfort, solace and a body of tradition to individuals who wish to access such ideas and incorporate these into their lives; it works best in human life-cycle events such as birth, coming of age, marriage, divorce and death; it can provide excellent moral answers to life's questions and a framework to provide guidance in life's decisions and to confer it with meaning; it serves the public best when it works alongside science and not against it. Religion can and often is hijacked by extremist elements who want to deny's modernity's advances, fearful of it for the same reasons that buggy manufacturers were fearful of the automobile. Or pseudo-scientists of genuine scientists.

The modern world gives us many benefits, yet one only gives credit to it if the desire and inclination is to reside in a modern world, and not consider it a training ground for a future better world—some Paradise or Gan Eden; some people don't and that's why they live in caves or as hermits, whether in physical reality or in their mind. Some want others to live in similar fashion. But I suggest that most persons don't have such pre-modern desires, even though they might say they do.

Bertrand Russell is correct to suggest that modernity  and modern thought is linked to science. That post-modernism has invaded the academic world, a radical response to modernity that has in some cases caught on with the general public, does not negate in any way science's strength, advantage and importance in our society. In reality, post-modernism is an absurd idea thought of by intellectually shallow but clever men; its importance is over-rated compared to other more important ideas. To wit: think of a world without science. Without it, we are truly living in a pre-modern world; and such a thought is hardly appealing for most of us.