The Birth of Religious Movements
Russell Degnan

There seems to be a lot of comment on religion at the moment. Not surprisingly perhaps. Religion would appear to be at the forefront of a number of prominent political movements, one of which holds as an article of faith the killing of non-believers. Such movements seem to be like fast strikers running at the heart of liberal, secular defences. The response is panic, confronted by the ghost of religions past, they are dismissive of the politics, and aggressively negative of the role of religions in modern society.

Pleading for a separation of church and state is not an adequate response. Not least, because it is a perversion of the concept. The separation is not a denial of religious movements in a secular society, but a fundamental call for the right to practise religion free from state control. It harks back to the times when Sebastian Castellio could say, "There is almost no sect which does not regard others as heretic;" when having the church and state as indivisible meant that "if you are thought to be right in one city or region, in the next you will be thought a heretic". At heart, all religions are a view of society itself; hence they are political, and must be engaged on those terms.

Which leads to my rule for the understanding of all religious movements. Namely, that they all share the same view of society:

1) that society has lost touch with its spiritual or religious side, and

2) that society should adhere to their political and social worldview.

The first is, of course, a given, because if a reformer wishing for less religion, would not start a religious movement.

The second holds as true for the Catholic church, built on the ruins of the Western Roman empire, and evolved to exert temporal power over a society fragmenting under the strain of the barbarian invasions; as for the more spiritual, less rational, Orthodox church that sat under the protection of the Byzantine empire. Other movements, both within and without the Catholic church, show the same pattern. Mendicant monasteries arose in the burgeoning medieval cities, as a rejection of the new idea to acquisition wealth, and as solace for the inevitable problems city-life brings to its weaker inhabitants. Fernand Braudel pointed out that the Protestant reformation followed broadly the line of the old Roman empire (although it is quite rough); that there religion became different because their society was different. I'd add that both the reformation and the counter-reformation occurred in the urban cities that were taking political control. The Dutch being the prime example.

It is no less true today. Churches formed in the past half-century are infused with the political currents of modern life -- the Uniting Church being a particularly sappy example of the late 70s. The Catholic church too, will continue their glacial like adoption to new conditions, but for those who lack the conservative patience of the new Pope alternatives seem to be growing in popularity.

The point of this piece however is to draw attention to the underlying currents of new religious movements. Noone should attack the Hillsong church for their fervour, or for their faith. if they want to be happy clappers, that is their prerogative. But noone joins a church for a bit of light entertainment, there is an underlying social movement there, an earnest movement, probably shared by many other non-religious people that is disillusioned with something.

My personal opinion: for the first time in a long time, if ever, a large percentage of the adult population (in Australia if not elsewhere) has not had and has no interest in, or may never have, children. They are divided by geography, as the childless move to the inner suburbs, by education, since the educated seem to be marrying later (though I should check that), by real income, given the cost of raising a child, by time, because people with children have none, and by the activities they engage in. And they are divided by politics, because that is a lot of things to have uncommon.

Needless to say, the portions of Islam that advocate terrorism. It is by no means all of Islam, even where sympathetic, and even given Islamic expansionism through history. Specifically, a strain is anti-Western, as the Wahabbism it grows from was, and is, anti-colonial. It is a political issue however, not a theological one. Attacking the otherwise harmless religious element merely serves to emphasize the first part of their case: namely that people aren't religious enough, while not engaging the political and social implications of the movement.

And they do need to be engaged. Because while it was largely ignored after 9/11, terrorism in Western countries has been performed by people educated and residing in the West. Somehow, they never imbibed those values that has made the West cohesive. This isn't surprising in a secular state, but it does need to be addressed. If history is any guide, religious movements flourish in the absence of something that provides a contemporary view of society. And that absence is clearly being felt.

Update: Also note this post on the Western nature of terrorism.

Sterner Matters 16th July, 2005 00:42:59   [#]