I was banging along with my thoughts about the new global changes (I really need a new term for this; “the coming revolutions”? … “new world order” (barf)? … “Philosophy 2.0”? That I like!), and I asked myself, “Self, what role will religion play throughout these massive changes?” And Self answered, “Religion will play the same role as nation states. It’s just that the associative bond is creedal instead of geographical.”
What did Self mean? Well, nation states nowadays need to choose between connectivity and insularity. If they choose to connect with other states, economically and politically and epistemologically, then they will reap the deep rewards of cooperation. But their cultures will also be infiltrated by outside ideas, from Pepsi to disco to women’s rights. They will have to learn how to tolerate outside influences and tolerate differences in opinions among their citizenry. In the end, learning such toleration is a good thing for everyone.
On the other hand, if nation states choose insularity, they will in all likelihood degenerate to the point that the rest of us have to invade and co-opt them, either because we need their resources, or they’re getting violent, or we can’t stand by and watch what they’re doing to their own citizens.
Same for religion. Some religions, or sects within religions, are open to outside ideas and influences. The Protestant tradition I was raised in was always asking how to read the Gospel in the light of our experience gained through science, literature, politics, or other religions. It wasn’t a matter of cleverly combining some literalist reading of, say, Genesis with Darwin; rather, it was a matter of taking seriously what we learn through our secular studies and using that as a way of opening up new insight into our own religion. So it was very open to connection with all sorts of new ideas and lines of thought.
The religions which typically grab the headlines, though, are closed. They stubbornly insist on their own traditions and visions and resort to warfare talk whenever threatened by an idea that challenges their own accepted dogmas (beating their plowshares back into swords). They are the Irans of the ideological community. Indeed, the creationist fanatics in Texas are commonly referred to as the Texas Taliban. Many of these people homeschool their children because they don’t want them to come into contact with “corrupting” ideas – thus shoving them into an educational burka of sorts. Their mindset is, “We’ve got the truth! Now don’t disturb us with any new ideas, or we might lose track of it!” It’s exactly the same mindset as insular nation states.
This is not just an analogy, of course. The two phenomena are connected. Most insular nation states use some dogmatic and conservative religion to maintain their powerbase, which typically involves denying a large segment of the population any opportunity to earn money or get involved in politics. And many insular religions would love nothing more than to set up a compound or restricted community to as to geographically isolate themselves from the outside world.
My secular humanist dream is that insular religious states will become simply impossible as ideas and economic opportunities spread – especially as they spread to women. Tom Barnett, in Blueprint for the Future, convincingly makes the connection between the oppression of women and the back-asswardness of nation states. The general rule is true: if women are educated and given the same political and economic opportunities as men, you’ve got a developed nation on your hands. (And, no, I will not accept any garbage that sounds like “In my religion, women have a very special status – just one that is different from that of men.” That ultimately is code for “We keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant.”)
If knowledge and commerce get shared, insular religion goes out (inshallah). But if a religion is interested in exploring new ideas, and furthering itself by co-opting new ideas, then it really can play a role, and a welcome one. Because in addition to arguing over whether this strategy or that one is the best, we need to also be arguing over the goals we are trying to achieve. Arguing over goal-setting means arguing over big pictures, and that is exactly where open religions – and not closed ones! – need to be speaking loud and clear. Religion can orient efforts and strategies, if their believers are at the same time listening and learning as well from the world outside their own creeds. The same goes for traditional cultures. And for each and every one of us.