Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Could Religion be an Outmoded Institution?

Perhaps there were moments in humanity's social evolutionary history when religion served a progressive purpose, in the sense that it allowed humans to make that transition to begin asking questions of how they got here, how our world came to be and so forth. The turn towards burying the dead love ones by our pre-historic ancestors testifies to this abstract thought in human development, and hence, must have marked a turning point in human thinking. This was to serve as the prelude to the concept of scientific inquiry of our existence and how our world came to be.

And then, perhaps religion served yet another purpose in human social development during the evolutionary move from modest family-like communities in prehistory to larger communities by the Holocene era, and with it, the move from ungoverned communities to governed societies. Against this backdrop, at times of chaos and lawlessness, there was an urge in some forward-thinking observers of society to bring back lawfulness and composure to society, which inspired the need for calling on divine intervention. After all, history must have taught these observers that concept of divine intervention and stoking the spiritual sensibilities of people has proven to be a very effective means of bringing people in line. Religion, at those moments, again must have served a progressive way forward to bringing back order to society.

However, what was once a vehicle of progress, may in the long run become outmoded and become a vehicle of reaction, because some new-found social attainments were meant to serve well only as transitional bridges to more developed, sustainable and stable social forms, when instead they have been kept around longer than their effective date, due to the largely conservative social nature of human beings...which paradoxically runs parallel to progressive life-changing technological innovations and scientific growth.

In the same vain, it seems that religion would have served most effectively as a transitory social prelude to more mature and stable social organization in human social evolution. Now, however, that religion has become more of a cause for social reaction and social disintegration, perhaps this is serving as a sign of times that religion has outlived its usefulness as a progressive social phenomenon, and has to give way to a new level of social developmenta more advanced social maturity. Unfortunately though, societies are generally afflicted by the straitjacket of the need to protect "sanctity of tradition".

It would be one thing if people practiced their belief in a higher being in private quarters, and not allow it to affect public life, and so, make religion more socially tenable; sadly though, this is not the case, and so, what inevitably afflicts societies is religious nationalism. Religion has now reached a point wherein it has become more of a vehicle for social reaction, stagnation, and a problem creator than what it was in its formative years.

It is much easier to notice when something is outmoded, when it comes to a commodity than it is with complex social phenomenons. Take say, milk as an example of an analogy:

A fresh milk may very well taste superb and quite healthy well within its "best by" imprinted date, but it can only retain this effect for so long, when it will no longer be fresh and no longer be a promoter of health, and hence, has to be discarded. Failure to do so, can only be a recipe for a health-related disaster ahead. Sadly, this trajectory towards obsolescence is obvious only when it comes to commodities like milk, but much more difficult to "see the wood for the trees" when it comes to being mindful about the same trend at work in our complex social systems.

Some folks are convinced that religious reaction is the culpability of only a few bad apples, but a sober look at world events shows that it is a much more systematic phenomenon than some are willing to give it credit for. We have Jihadist terror organizations propping in the so-called "Middle East" who are more than prepared to harness genuine social oppression and economic grievances of the masses and channel them through violence sanctified with religious reaction. The events of September 11, 2001 in New York, the Madrid train bombings of 2004, and the London bombings of 2005 are examples that come to mind. Religious reaction is not the domain of only the Muslim world, it extends well into other corners of the globe. There are Christianity-based cult groups in Europe and America who are just as prepared to cause colossal havoc in the name of religion, as evidenced by the Oklahoma city bombings of the 90s (April 1995) and the Norwegian bombings in recent times.

Christians and Muslims are violently at each other's throats all the way from Nigeria and Egypt on the African continent, the Christian-based French government and Muslim communities in poor neighborhoods, Chechen rebels and Moscow in Europe, to clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India. Then there is the violent row caused in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the burning of the Quran by a pastor in Florida, who claimed to be carrying out the deed in the name of protest against Islamic invasion, as characterized by the intent to build a community center-mosque a few blocks away from ground zero in New York. Public row and social reaction in the U.S. itself, around the building of said community center-mosque, had been systematically incited by U.S. politicians and mass media talking heads. There have also been systematic attacks on Muslim communities in Europe, for instance, in the form of attacks against hijab-wearing, with France being a latest example of this. Such systematic attacks by the political establishments have only had the effect of encouraging violent social reaction as the one seen in Norway in recent times, done in the name of "restoring" the "traditional religious values" of Europe, and fend it off an "Islamic invasion".

Ever since the events of "9/11" in the U.S.A, there has been increasing bellicose language used by U.S. politicians, and several other politicians and/or governments around the world, from Libya in coastal northern Africa to Iran and Israel in the "Near East" for example, that are tinged with religious themes of good vs. evil, with politicians in respective countries usually taunting themselves as the "forces for good". It was even shockingly revealed quite recently, that U.S. Air Force ethic courses for missile launch officers were carried out in the name of religion, whereby the justifications for war, and deployment of nuclear weapons, were legitimized with Christianity-based biblical passages. According to the revelations, these religion-based ethic briefings had been in place for at least 20 years, and had only just been brought to the attention of the public.

In other situations, religion was used by opportunist con artists to exact money and social influence either by stoking the religious sensibilities of unsuspecting followers and/or through extortion. Warren Jeffs, who assumed leadership of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aka FLDS Church, was implicated in acquiring large swaths of land on which his followers lived, and effectively controlling the social lives of the latter, who were essentially sheltered from metropolitan living conveniences. One is even reminded of the bye gone eras of the U.S.'s early years, just at the sight of clothing worn by the communities of this cult gathering.

According to reports, "Jeffs, the sole individual in the church who possessed the authority to perform its marriages, was responsible for assigning wives to husbands. Jeffs also held the authority to discipline wayward male believers by "reassigning their wives, children and homes to another man," and "male subjects are reported to have been frequently exiled from the church due to their alleged competition with the elder male members of the church for the limited number of suitable marriage candidates." Moreover, "the FLDS Church owns essentially all of the homes and real estate in the areas where its members reside." It has been reported that: On May 27, 2006 Bruce Wisan, the court-appointed accountant in charge of the FLDS' trust fund, filed civil suits against Jeffs. Wisan claimed that Jeffs is responsible for "fleecing trust assets". Along with church leaders, former trustees Truman Barlow, Leroy Jeffs, James Zitting, and William Jessop were also named as defendants. "We feel that they’ve taken things from the trust," Wisan said. "Their actions have caused harm to the trust."

These aside, Jeffs was associated with criminal activity involving "child-bride" marriages and a series of sexual abuse of minors over the years, covering minors from ages of 5 to 14 years old, including the following:

In June 2005, Jeffs was charged with sexual assault on a minor and with conspiracy to commit sexual misconduct with a minor for allegedly arranging, in April 2001, a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old first cousin, Allen. The girl, Elissa Wall (then only known as "Jane Doe IV") testified that she begged "Uncle Rulon" to let her wait until she was older, or choose another man for her. Rulon Jeffs was apparently "sympathetic", but Warren Jeffs was not, and she was forced to go through with the marriage. The 14-year-old alleged that her new husband raped her repeatedly and that she repeatedly miscarried. She eventually left Allen and the community and had two children with her now former husband Lamont Barlow.

These are but just a slew of recent developments, but systematic religious reaction can also be recalled from more distant history, as exemplified in the so-called "Dark Age" Europe, when scientific inquiry was choked by the Roman Catholic church establishment, wherein anyone found guilty of the deed could find themselves burning at the stake. Stoning of individuals and hacking off hands or fingers of thieves in say, Nigeria or in the Arabian peninsula, are reportedly done in accordance with long-held traditions of Islamic law. Fell out of favor for more new forms of capital punishment, but going back to that burning at the stake matter, one might recall that it was the preferred method of execution in Catholic and Protestant societies of Europe. Reportedly, before the form of punishment was extended to men on the grounds of "committing heresy and witchcraft", women were initially the prime targets of these punishments, i.e. women accused of treason, while men accused of the same were hanged, "drawn and quartered". Word is also that during the Spanish Inquisition, circa.17th century, burning at the stake was the preferred punishment since "it did not spill the victim's blood", something that "Roman Catholic Church forbade", and that the "burning meant the victim would have no body to take into the afterlife".

Even if in some or the other of the examples of historic events shared here, the underlying root cause of tragedy was not religious intolerance or else wholly religious in nature, religion was at any rate used as the ends to justify the means by which the tragic events were implemented.

*Additions/updates could be made to this entry in the future.
*Referenced material:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, the following sources were offered:

Good Morning America Interview October 1, 2007.

"Elissa Wall". Michael Buerk. The Choice. BBC. BBC Radio 4.

"New Lawsuit Filed Against Warren Jeffs". May 27, 2006. Associated Press.

Warren Jeffs and the FLDS. May 3, 2005. NPR.

Personal notes, August 2011.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

If there is any place that the case can be made that religion continues to serve a vital role it is probably Africa, which there is an explosion of organized Christianity, that for all its flaws is also mobilizing communities to organize themselves and improve local standards of living.

DirectInstruct said...

There is an extensive body of writing on the functions of religion - social control, conflict resolution (religious leaders mediate conflicts), providing alternative power structures (as in independent black churches free of apartheid control in South Africa), reinforcement of group solidarity, providing social welfare assistance (burial, charity, medical help, etc) along with psychological functions such as providing comfort under stressful conditions (death, illness, misfortunes), etc etc. These functions would apply in Africa as in other human societies.

Mystery Solver said...

Religion has been just as detrimental Africa as it has been anywhere.

Superstition in supernatural powers has allowed witchcraft to continue, to the point that in certain places, witchdoctors have resorted to sacrificing human bodies...something which would have otherwise traditionally been immoral. That issue had discussed here also.

There have been Muslims and Christians fighting in places like Nigeria and Egypt. The violence involves killing of people because of their religious beliefs.

Homosexuals have been imprisoned for being gay in Egypt.

People have been stoned in places like Nigeria and elsewhere (like the Arabian plate), as a religious practice of punishing certain sinners.

Ancient Egyptian goods have been defaced by religious zealots in Egypt, and the relics are treated with contempt by locals, who dismiss their ancient predecessors as sinful idol-worshipers.

European colonizers were generally accompanied by missionaries, so that they could get assistance in pacifying African populations, while missionaries sought to help dismantle traditions of the locals and set them up for lifestyles that will allow the transitioning of these locals to consumerism for European capitalism. This transitioning included the super-exploitation of the locals' labor to fuel the growth of European economies.

IMO, what Africans need is organized political consciousness and unity to fight for their civil rights and economic freedom, not religion.