The Post Secular Age
By Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
The last two centuries have been a conspicuously unique era in the history of the human race. For, unlike any other epoch in our history, the last 200 years have witnessed the systematic and seemingly unstoppable deconstruction of religion as an important element of Western society and human culture. So seemingly successful has the exorcism of religion from public life been since the modern Enlightenment era, that many 20th century American scholars even went so far as to prematurely pronounce the imminent death of religion in our age. As events and trends in recent world history have shown us, however, this was an exceedingly mistaken pronouncement to say the least.
As is becoming increasingly apparent in the early years of the 21st century, religion's obituary may have been written somewhat prematurely. Our current era is witnessing one of the greatest world wide religious resurgences ever recorded in the annals of human history. In America alone, for example, we have seen the importance of religiously based human values ushered center stage in the elections of 2004. And the rest of the world has not been immune to this trend. The centrality of religion in human life and culture has been aggressively reasserted in India, Israel, throughout the Islamic world, and throughout the Third World especially. Only the modern secular states of Western Europe seem, so far, to have remained relatively untouched by the global revival of spirituality. Rather than ushering in a new secular age, an age free from the influence of religion, spirituality and contemplation, the evidence seems to indicate that we are actually entering a Post Secular Age: an age wherein religion will necessarily fill up the vacuum created by the ruinous failure of 20th century secular materialism.
The notion that religion would meet its eventual demise (and, according to some of the more rabidly atheistic thinkers, that it should meet its demise) had been espoused by a large number of Western intellectuals in the last two centuries. Perhaps the most famous of these individuals were, what Christian theologian Martin Marty termed, "The Bearded God-Killers" (National Public Radio, 1996). These primarily 19th century figures included: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Mistakenly equating all human religious expression with an enslaving opiate designed to keep the proletariat bound by psychic chains, Karl Marx predicted both the inevitable death of religion and the subsequent emergence of a new atheistic world order: the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; leading to a state of Communism. He was woefully wrong on both counts. Similarly, Freud saw in religion the greatest threat to humanity's social and psychic development. Indeed, to Freud religion and philosophy represented no more than a "...black tide of mud..." designed solely to keep humanity enslaved in the chains of superstition (Ernest Becker, "Denial of Death", p. 94). Overt atheists were not the only individuals to pronounce the imminent end of religion.
Surrendering to the en vogue secularism of their day, even quite a few Judeo-Christian theologians also felt that secularism would ultimately triumph over the human religious impulse. Among these religious leaders were several who felt that the inevitable secularization of the world merely represented a coming of age for homo religiosus (religious man). Included among these were theologian Harvey Cox (author of "The Secular City") of Harvard, and Anglican Bishop John Robinson (who wrote "Honest to God"). Succumbing wholesale to the seemingly unstoppable secular tide seen in 20th century history, some shortsighted Christian theologians went so far as to declare the death of God in the early 1960's. If God Himself were indeed "dead", however, such ongoing phenomena as the belief in the importance of the spiritual dimension of human life, religiously inspired values and ethics, and the active search for God on the part of multiple millions today seem to be very far from it.
As we enter the beginning years of the 21st Century, it appears that religion has made an undeniably powerful comeback onto the world stage. Throughout the Third-World, nation upon nation is rejecting the current Western materialistic paradigm. Nations that were traditionally Hindu (Sanatana Dharma), Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish are rediscovering their ancient religious heritage and turning to these time-tested spiritual world-views for meaningful and practical answers to many of today's social, political, economic and ethical dilemmas - dilemmas, many of which were themselves created directly as a result of the failures of secular materialism. The world's many Indigenous peoples and tribes - peoples ranging from the Aborigines of Australia to the many hundreds of Native American tribes in North and South America are also reconnecting with their own, long oppressed, spiritually-based cultures: cultures that have proven themselves to be gentler, saner, and more Earth-centered paradigms than anything secular materialism ever had to offer. Moreover, with the dramatic failure and consequent collapse of Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Third World, the peoples of these former Communist regimes have expressed an unprecedented resurgence of interest in more religious ways of life. Indeed, in today's Russia, and throughout much of Eastern Europe, two of the fastest growing religions are Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) and Buddhism.
This world-wide rediscovery of the importance of religion has also had a dramatic impact on the American scene. There are several recent trends in American culture that readily reveal this fact. One of these trends has been the explosive popularity of the trendy New Age movement in recent years. As a movement deeply grounded in the belief that personal spiritual development is essential to any real social and political change, New Age thought has had a deeply penetrating influence on the American public. With an emphasis in such beliefs as karma, reincarnation, meditation, natural foods, chakras, and Yoga, much of New Age thought is directly derived from much older and more orthodox forms of Hindu philosophy; though this clear dependence on Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) is sadly often not acknowledged by many New Age thinkers and leaders. As a result of this disconnect from its religious roots, the actual understanding of many of these New Age leaders tends to be rather shallow and faddish. The rebirth of interest in religion is also seen on the popular stage by the amazing number of books with spiritual themes that have become run-away best sellers. These include the works of such popular writers as Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegal, Thomas Moore and Marianne Williamson. While the New Age movement is not deeply rooted in the philosophical profundity and guiding discipline of traditional religious thought, the popular impact of this movement is still a clear testament to the resurgence of interest in spirituality in modern America.
Coupled with the more recent success of New Age spirituality has been the growing popularity of Asian religions on the previously solely Judeo-Christian American religious landscape - specifically Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) and Buddhism. Over the past three decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans have joined various Asian religious traditions. Legions of famous celebrities, such as the actors Richard Gere, and musical performers like Madonna and Sting, among many others, now consider themselves to be practicing Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists. In addition, to throngs of college students and youth across America, nothing is considered "cooler" today than studying and practicing Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and spirituality. Every major American city has at least several dozen Hindu temples and Buddhist meditation centers. Yoga, Tai Chi and meditation are spiritual techniques that are now practiced by millions of average, middle class Americans. The estimate is that there are currently 15 18 million Americans practicing Yoga regularly, with an even greater number enjoying the benefits of meditation. In Gallup polls conducted on the basic religious beliefs of everyday Americans for the last twenty years, a consistent 23% - 25% of Americans say they believe that the principle of reincarnation offers the best possible explanation for the afterlife. The number of Hindus in America today is roughly 3 million. Half of these are non-Indian Americans who have adopted Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) as their religious practice. In many ways, it has become easily arguable that 20th century Americans are witnessing nothing less than the slow but steady "Hinduization" of North-American culture and society.
The recent religious resurgence in America is affecting society not only on a more popular level, but within the realm of academia as well. The latter phenomenon is evidenced by the recent successes of overtly religious scholars in philosophy departments across the land. For much of the last 40 years, philosophy departments at almost every major university were uninviting intellectual vacuums, in which only materialist and empiricist philosophy was allowed to flourish. Religious philosophers were made to feel like outsiders. This is beginning to change quite significantly today as more and more departments open their doors to theistic thinkers. Such philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga (famous for his bold defense of the Ontological Argument for God's existence) and Keith Yandell (author of "The Epistemology of Religious Experience") have begun to make tremendous inroads into an area that, until recently, was almost the exclusive domain of atheistic Humean skeptics.
On a more ominous note, the new religious resurgence in America has also included a marked rise in Evangelical Christian fundamentalism. This new evangelical revival has taken on increasingly political tones in recent years. Beginning with such individuals as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the late 1970's, fundamentalist Christian activists began to take their theological opinions into the partisan political realm. Through supporting politicians and ballot initiatives viewed as being pro-family values, and pro-Christian, Evangelicals have made their views forcefully known and implemented throughout the nation. The success and acceptability of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the Republican Party in the late 1990s, and the more recent overt confessions of Christian faith on the part of President Bush, reveals to us that this is a movement that is both immensely powerful and that is here to stay.
In addition to the rise of Christian fundamentalism, the world has also witnessed the violent specter of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist inspired terrorism in recent years. The most prominent example of the destructive force of fundamentalist terror was, without question, the terrorist attacks on innocent American civilians perpetrated on 9/11. In an attempt to enforce their highly reactionary version of Islam upon the world, Islamic terrorists have declared open war against both modernity, as well as the followers of all non-Islamic religions. From the southern Philippines, Indonesia, Southern Thailand and Northwest China, to the Chechen Republic in Russia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sudan and Israel, the ravages of Islamic fundamentalism have led to untold deaths, destruction and suffering on the part of many hundreds of thousands of innocent people globally. Thus, the current global resurgence in religious consciousness also has its extremely ominous side, as well as its decidedly positive value.
The fact that religion, both in America and throughout the world, is again becoming an increasingly important factor in human culture is well-established knowledge. Let us now explore some of the possible reasons for why this is the case. One reason for the ascension of religion is certainly the dramatic failure of the most powerful anti-religious ideology in human history: Marxism. First presented to the public as a rational, scientific and humanistic alternative to religion, the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989 revealed Marxism to be a more repressive, inhumane and destructive system than any religion had ever been. As only one of a large multitude of examples showing the failure of Marxism, we have the vivid example of Cambodia. Cambodia was a peaceful and beautiful Buddhist nation previous to the Marxist Khmer Rouge shooting their way to power in 1975. Marxist rule led to the systematic genocide of at least 1.5 million of Cambodia's inhabitants - over an eighth of the population! - over a three year period. This was an instance, not of a foreign nation invading and committing acts genocide, but of Communist Cambodians committing acts of mass genocide against their very own Cambodian people! And all was done in the name of a humane and rational ideal of Marxist atheism. Interestingly, Marxists and secularists throughout the last hundred years had repeatedly attempted to accuse religion of being responsible for all of humanity's many historic sufferings and injustices. As we now know, however, more human beings have been persecuted, murdered, tortured and dehumanized as a direct result of atheistic Marxism in the 20th century alone than have been harmed in all of the world's religious wars combined since the very beginning of human history.
Indeed, it could be argued that the complete and unmitigated failure of secularism, as a whole, is directly responsible for the new religious renaissance now being experienced globally. The omnipresent human need for meaning simply could not be adequately addressed by the cold, impersonal institutions and ideologies of secular materialism. The human heart desires love, meaning, beauty and compassion. Secular materialism could only offer conflict, meaninglessness, mediocrity and fear instead. Consequently, we are now witnessing an increasing worldwide reaction against all forms of Western materialism - both Marxist and capitalist. America, as we have seen, has been far from immune from this rather dramatic global shift.
Some might argue that it is still somewhat premature to proclaim the advent of a new religious era for humanity. However, the data reveals that there is currently a definite and dramatic global shift away from institutions and philosophies that have urged the abandonment of the human spirit and the Transcendent. Additionally, the currently ongoing rediscovery of humankind's many unique spiritual traditions reveal to all impartial observers that we are at present experiencing nothing less than the beginning of a Post Secular Age. It is quite apparent that those scholars who earlier in the 19th and 20th century had predicted - and in some cases, even looked forward to - the death of religion were exceedingly mistaken. Rather than being on the verge of extinction, as we begin the second Millennium, the natural, positive and healthy phenomenon of human religious expression seems to have been rekindled anew.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.) is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
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Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
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