Chapter 15. Religion

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

A man carries a large yellow sign that reads, "Obey Jesus or Perish."
Figure 15.27 Here we see a young man sharing his religious affiliation through biblical signage at a widely attended sporting event. Adopting the methods of the 1960’s protest movements, displays such as this are a common method in which fundamentalists make their core beliefs known to the public. Themes of being “doomed” or “damned” are projected towards those who are not aligned with the projected faith. (Photo courtesy of Saraware/Wikimedia.) CC by 3.0

During her walk to school, an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, became the subject of the ignominious side of religious fundamentalism when she was spat on and called a “whore” by a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Men in Beith Shemesh, Israel. This group of men wished to enforce their “strict interpretation of modesty rules” (Kershner, 2011) even though Margolese was wearing long sleeves and a skirt. Another extreme fundamentalist group, the Westboro Baptist Church, picket the funerals of fallen military personnel (Hurdle, 2007), of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings (Linkins, 2013), and even of the brutal greyhound bus stabbing in Winnipeg, Canada (CBC News, 2008). They interpret these tragic events as demonstrations of God’s discontent and of society’s rejection of fundamentalist interpretations of gay marriage, divorce, and abortion. The public demonstrations of the Ultra-Orthodox men and the Westboro Baptist Church provide a platform for these groups to disseminate their beliefs, mobilize supporters and recruit new followers. However, the controversial protests also attack routine norms of civility — the right of eight-year-old girls to walk to school unmolested by adult men; the solemnity of funeral rites and the mourning processes of the bereaved — and lead to communal disruption and resentment, as well as the alienation of these groups from broader society.

One of the key emblems of the contemporary rise of religious fundamentalism is that conflicts, whether they are playground disagreements or extensive political confrontations, tend to become irreconcilable when fundamental beliefs are at the core of said disputes. These types of issue are one of the defining features of the contemporary era. Unlike discussions relating to secular business or political interests, fundamentalist beliefs associated with religious ideology seem non-negotiable and therefore prone to violent conflict. In an increasingly globalized and diverse world, where people are obliged to live in proximity with “Others” who hold different truths, the militant insistence on ultimate religious truths seems problematic.

The rise of fundamentalism also poses problems for the sociology of religion. For many decades theorists such as Berger (1967), Wilson (1982; 1985) and Bruce (1999) argued that the modernization of societies, the privatization of religion, and the global spread of religious and cultural pluralism meant that societies would continue to secularize, and levels of religiosity would steadily decline. However, other theorists such as Hadden (1987; 1989), Stark (1994; 1999) and Casanova (1994; 1999) have recently begun to reconsider the secularization thesis. They argue that religious diversity and pluralism have sparked new interpretations of religion and new revivals of religiosity. Dawson (2006) observes that the inability of late modern societies to produce concrete answers to basic questions about the existential experiences of human life or provide meaningful responses to miraculous or tragic events “has implicitly kept the door open to religious worldviews” (pp. 113–14). In other words, these new sociological interpretations of religion propose that rather than withering away, fundamentalist groups will continue to thrive because they offer individuals answers to ultimate questions and give meaning to a complicated world.

Interestingly enough, in his later works, Berger (1999) abandoned his original theory of secularization. Even though contemporary society is increasingly modern — globally linked, diverse, technologically sophisticated, capitalist — it is as “furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more than ever” (1999). Berger gives the example of the “Islamic upsurge” as an “impressive revival of emphatically religious commitments” (1999) and presents the worldwide adoption of evangelicalism as “breathtaking in scope” (1999). The growth of evangelical Protestantism is noted to have gained a substantial number of converts all around the world, but most prominently in Latin America, which Berger identifies as having “between forty and fifty million Evangelical Protestants south of the U.S. border” (1999, p. 8), many of which are assumed to be of first-generation.

The Pew Research Center has recently presented some interesting findings that can also provide a general sense of what the future for religious fundamentalism may hold. First, Pew (2015a) identifies that in the United States, one of the most modern societies in the world, “[s]ix-in-ten adults — and three-quarters of Christians — believe the Bible or other holy scripture is the word of God.” In addition to this “[r]oughly three-in-ten adults (31%) and four-in-ten Christians (39%) go a step further and say the Bible should be interpreted literally, word for word.” Second, Pew (2015b) identified Islam as the fastest growing religion in the world, and suggested that by 2050 “the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.” While it is not clear from this research how many Muslims hold fundamentalist beliefs per se (e.g., Wahhabi, Salifi, etc.), this is of interest because the more or less equal distribution of the two most popular world religions could result in an intensification of fundamentalist support. In other words, the anxieties around the encounter with the beliefs of the “Other” that leads people to seek out the “certainties” of fundamentalist belief systems, are likely to intensify once Christianity’s spot as the world’s most popular religion is threatened.

Defining and Explaining Fundamentalism

A fundamentalist Christian cartoon. Long description available.
Figure 15.28 A 1924 Christian Fundamentalist cartoon illustrates the progressive abandonment of fundamental Christian beliefs associated with modernist thinking. Can the origins of fundamentalism be explained as a response to the social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries? (Photo courtesy of E.J. Pace/Luinfana/Wikimedia.) Public Domain Mark 1.0. [Image Description]

How does the sociology of religion explain the rise of fundamentalist belief in an increasingly modern, global society then? The answer that sociologists have proposed is that fundamentalism and religious revivalism are modern. Rather than seeing it as a return to traditionalism, Ruthven (2005) defines fundamentalism as a modern religious movement that could only emerge under modern conditions: “a shrinking ‘globalized’ world where people of differing and competing faiths are having to live in close proximity with each other.” The encounter between faiths initiated by a globalized world provokes the fundamentalist reaction because, in the face of a bewildering diversity of ways to live, fundamentalism provides individuals with an opportunity to consolidate their identity around a core of “ultimate” beliefs which relieve anxiety and provide comfort and reassurance. In this way, Ruthven (2005) defines the common core of fundamentalism in different faith traditions as “a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or a group in the face of modernity and secularization.”

The use of the term “fundamentalism” has its origin in the early 20th century Christian Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Southern California. Oil tycoons, Milton and Lyman Stewart, sponsored a series of widely distributed pamphlets titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth, which presented a core set of beliefs said to be fundamental to Christianity:

  • Biblical inerrancy: The inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible
  • Creationism: God’s direct creation of the world
  • Divine intervention: The existence of miracles
  • Divinity of Christ: The virgin birth of Jesus as the son of God
  • Redemption: The redemption of the sins of humanity through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection
  • Dispensational premillenarianism (or premillennialism): The Second Coming of Jesus, the end times, and the rapture

These pamphlets were not a return to pre-modern traditionalism. They were an explicit response to modern forms of rationality, including the trend towards historical and scientific explanations of religious certainties. They also addressed the desire for clarity and simplification of religion in a complex “market” of diverse, competing religious doctrines and theologies. The Stewart’s pamphlets can therefore be interpreted as both a response to, and the product of, modernity. A response, because of their defensively orientated motivation to challenge the modernist movement; and a product, because of their use of modern techniques of mass communication and commercial promotion to transmit a particular set of beliefs in a clear and concise manner to a mass audience.

To expand the concept of fundamentalism beyond this specific usage in the context of 20th century Christian Protestantism poses some analytical problems. In a strict definition its use would be limited to this specific, early 20th century religious movement in the United States: “those who were prepared to do battle for The Fundamentals” (Ruthven, 2005). However, its use in popular culture today has expanded far beyond this narrow reference. Fundamentalism not only refers to similar movements in other faiths like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but it is also common to hear the term applied to “market fundamentalism,” “secular fundamentalism,” or “musical fundamentalism,” in non-religious contexts. It is even possible to describe New Age fundamentalisms, like est or the Landmark Forum, which promise to strip participants of their old and useless, counter-productive psychological defenses (or “rackets”) and return them to their core moral purpose: to “take responsibility” for themselves.

In this expanded usage, fundamentalism loosely refers to the return to a core set of indisputable and literal principles derived from ancient holy, or at least unchallengeable, texts. However, even if we restrict the use of the term fundamentalism to a religious context, there are several problems of application. For example, the emphasis on the literalism of holy texts would not be able to distinguish between fundamentalist Islamic movements and mainstream Islam, because both regard the Koran to be the literal, and therefore indisputable word of God communicated to the prophet Mohamed by the Arch Angel Gabriel. On the other hand, the fundamentalist movements of Hinduism do not have a single, authoritative, holy text like the Bible or Koran to take as the literal word of God or Brahman.

In response to these problems, Ruthven (2005) proposes a family resemblance definition (see Section 15.1 above) composed of a number of characteristics shared by most, but not all religious fundamentalisms:

  • A return to the roots or core of scripture: a common style of reading holy texts.
  • The use of religious texts as blueprints for practical action rather than simply spiritual or moral inspiration.
  • A search for secure foundations of personal identity and cultural authenticity in a modern pluralistic world.
  • A rejection of cultural pluralism and diversity in favour of religious monoculture.
  • The projection of period of ignorance prior to the revelation of belief and the myth of a Golden Age when norms of religious tradition held sway.
  • A theocratic ideal of a political order ruled by God.
  • A belief in Messianism or end times when the divine will return to Earth.
  • A reaffirmation of traditional, patriarchal principles including the subordination of women and strict, separate gender roles.

In this respect, the common sociological feature that unites various religious fundamentalisms, is their very modern reinvention of traditions in response to the complexity of social change brought about by globalization and the diversification of human populations. Globalization and late modernity introduce an anxiety-laden, plurality of life choices (including religious choices) where none existed before. As Ruthven (2005) puts it, “fundamentalism is one response to the crisis of faith brought on by awareness of differences.” It seeks to secure the certainty of individual or collective selfhoods by defining their roots in an all-encompassing, unquestioned, supernatural source of “ultimate referentiality” as Peter Berger described (see Section 15.2 above).

Fundamentalism and Women

If religious fundamentalist movements primarily serve and protect the interests and rights of men, why do women continue to support and practice these religions in larger numbers than men? This is a difficult question that has not been satisfactorily answered. In the feminist view, women’s subordinate role with respect to the leadership roles of men in religion is a manifestation of patriarchy. Women’s place in these movements subjects them to oppressive religious social norms and prevents them from achieving social mobility or personal success. On the other hand, the traditional gender roles promoted by fundamentalist movements are seen by some women to provide a welcome clarity about men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities in the family and elsewhere in a period of late modernity when gender roles appear increasingly diverse and uncertain (Woodhead, 2007). From another angle, Mahmood (2005) has argued on the basis of her ethnographic research into the Da’wa or “Mosque Movement” among Egyptian Muslim women, that from the women’s point of view, leading chaste, pious, disciplined lives of ritual practice apart from men and secular life is a form of spiritual exercise that actually empowers them and gives them strength. Strict observance of the rules of ritual observance is a choice women make to bring themselves closer to God.

Control over female sexuality is a primary focus of all fundamentalist movements. Through fundamentalist religious beliefs, men are “reclaiming the family as a site of male power and dominance” in the face of modern challenges to male privilege and confining gender roles (Butler, 1998). For example, in Islamic fundamentalism, it is seen as shameful and dishonourable for women to expose their bodies. Under the Pashtunwali (customary law), Afghan women are regarded as the property of men and the practice of Purdah (seclusion within the home and veiling when in public) is required to protect the honour of the male lineage (Moghadam, 1992). In both Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism, women’s equality rights are stripped from them through laws and regulation. For example, in 1986, the Indian parliament passed a bill that would disallow women to file for divorce. There have also been many significant instances of violence against women (physical and sexual) perpetrated by men to maintain their social dominance and control (Chhachhi, 1989). In Saudi Arabia, rape can only be proven in court if the perpetrator confesses or four witnesses provide testimony (Doumato, 2010). Christian fundamentalists in the United States have pressed for decades for the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed women’s reproductive rights and were partially successful in achieving their goal with George Bush’s signing of the “partial-birth abortion” law in 2003 (Kaplan, 2005).

One purpose of fundamentalist movements therefore is to advantage men and reinforce ideals of patriarchal power in a modern context, in which women have successfully struggled to gain political, economic, and legal powers that were historically denied them. The movements’ efforts to shape gender relations through enacting new social and political limitations on women leads Riesebrodt (1993) to define fundamentalism as a “patriarchal protest movement.” What is necessary to keep in mind however, especially with respect to the controversies of fundamentalist Islamic or Hindu religions, is that it can also become an oppressive act for Westerners to attempt to speak on behalf of non-Western women. The role of women in Muslim or Hindu traditions is so different from that in Western religions and culture that characterizing it as inferior or subservient in Western terms risks distorting the actual experience or the nature of the role within the actual fabric of life in these traditions (Moaddel, 1998). To properly study women in Fundamentalist movements, it is imperative to gather the perspectives and ideas of the women in the movements themselves to eradicate the Orientalist stigma and bias towards non-Western religions and cultures.

The Veil and the Iranian Revolution

Women in hijabs protesting.
Figure 15.29 Women protesting during Iranian Revolution in 1979. (Image courtesy of Khabar/Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

After the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the law that made veiling mandatory for all women emerged as one of the most important symbols of the new, collective Iranian national and religious identity. It was a means of demonstrating resistance against Western values and served symbolically to mark a difference from the pre-revolutionary program of modernization that had been instituted by the deposed Shah. Many women demonstrated against this law and against other legal discrimination against women in the new post-revolutionary juridical system. However, this dissent did not last long. As Patricia Higgins (1985) stresses, these demonstrations were not supported by the majority of Iranian women. The number of supporters of the demonstrations also decreased when Ayatollah Khomeini — the religious leader of Islamic revolution — mentioned his support of compulsory veiling for women. So, it appears the majority of Iranian women accepted the new rules or at least did not oppose them.

To explain the main reasons why most Iranian women accepted compulsory veiling after the revolution, it is important to distinguish between women’s “rights and duties” and their actual behaviour patterns (Higgins, 1985). In the prerevolutionary regime of the Shah, there had been a state-lead attempt to change the juridical system and the public sphere to promote the rights of Iranian women in a manner similar to their western peers. Nevertheless, the majority of Iranian women, especially in the rural areas and margins of the cities, still wore their traditional and religious clothing. Veiling was part of the traditional or customary dress of Iranian women. It was only when the veil was used as a political symbol that it was transformed from a traditional element of women’s fashion into a political sign of resistance against western values, emblematic of the ideology of the main Islamic parties.

However, an equally important fact, which is always less stressed in the dominant narrative about the Iranian revolution is that this transformation of veiling from traditional custom to political symbol first occurred in 1930s, when King Reza Pahlavi banned veiling for all women in the public sphere. To be clear, veiling was a custom or fashion in clothing for women, but not mandatory in law. Nevertheless, 40 years before the 1979 revolution, King Reza Pahlavi made unveiling mandatory in law for all women in Iran. What were the main reasons beneath this radical change which was imposed on Iranian society by the King Reza government?

Reza Pahlavi can be recognized as the founder of new modern state in Iran. Just as his peer in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he wished to rapidly transform Iranian society from a traditional, religious society into a modern, coherent nation state. To a certain extent he was successful, especially in building the main transportation and new economic and bureaucratic structure. In this vein, the veiling of women was recognized as one of the most important symbols of Iranian traditional culture which needed to be removed, even violently, if modernization was to succeed. But did the significance of veiling arise from its place in religious texts and the strict customs of traditional ways of life or did it arise only as the outcome of the modern reading of these religious and traditional rules?

It has been argued that fundamentalist movements represent a claim for recognition by beleaguered religious communities. They are a means by which traditional ways of life become aware of themselves as “different” and therefore threatened (Ruthven, 2005). However, in the case of the Hijab or veiling in contemporary Iran, the irony is that from the beginning it was not the religious scholars, traditional leaders or Olama who emphasized veiling as central to the distinction between traditional, religious Iranian culture and western culture. Rather, the equation of traditional Iranian religious society and veiling originated with secular intellectuals and politicians. As Chehabi (1993) states, “When upper-class Iranian men began traveling to Europe in larger numbers in the nineteenth century, they felt self-conscious about their looks and gradually adopted European clothing. Upon their return to Iran, many maintained their European habits, which had come to symbolize progress” (italics added). Reza Shah, the modern leader who identified these symbolic qualities of religious identity, could never be regarded as a religious fundamentalist. However, he was the first head of state to recognize and highlight veiling as an important symbol of the traditional religious way of life, albeit in a negative way. It was Reza Shah who initiated the project to rid Iranian society of fanaticism and ‘backward’ cultural traditions by banning veiling for women.

The second irony is that, apart from upper-middle-class urban women who embraced the active role of unveiled women in the public sphere, this process of cultural modernization and unveiling was not noticeably successful. Most Iranian women were subject to traditional and religious restrictions whose authority rested with the family and religious leaders, not state laws (Higgins, 1985: 490). However, during the Iranian revolution, the political process of Islamization was not monolithically conservative or fundamentalist. At the moment of revolution, the dominant Islamic discourse included accepting and internalizing some parts of modern and western identity while criticizing other parts. It was argued that veiled woman should participate in society equally, even if motherhood should be their priority. At this point in time, veiling was not seen so much as a return to traditional conservative gender roles, but as a means of neutralizing sexual differences in the public sphere. If they complied with wearing the veil, (as noted above, most Iranian women already did wear veils voluntarily), women could leave their confinement within the patriarchal family and participate in public social activities, even without permission of their father or husband. Veiling was ironically a means of women’s liberation.

In this context, during and after the revolution, the leader Ayatollah Khomeini frequently asked women to participate in demonstrations against the Shah’s monarchy even without the permission of their family. At this specific historical moment, the religious authorities treated women as free, independent individuals, whereas previously they had been under the strict authority of their families. Veiling, within the political narrative of the revolution, was seen as the feminine expression of the resurgence of pure Islam, a flag of the critique of western values by Iranian society. After the revolution consolidated into the Iranian Islamic state, this modern, leftist version of Islam was displaced by a more fundamentalist conservative narrative. Even so, at its inception the meaning of compulsory veiling, as a symbol of traditional religious values, was not the product of the traditional values of religious society itself but a product of the way religious society was represented by secular scholars and politicians. Modern secularization was the process that established the symbolic significance of the veil for fundamentalism in Iran.

Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate

The Case of Sati

A painting of a man and woman burning on a funeral pyre surrounded by a crowd of people.
Figure 15.30 The Sati of Ramabai, Wife of Madhavrao Peshwa. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

 

One of the most internationally publicized and controversial instances of sati was that of Roop Kanwar on September 4, 1987. It occurred in the small town of Deorala in the state of Rajasthan. Roop Kanwar was a well-educated eighteen-year-old Rajput woman who had married twenty-four-year-old Mal Singh just eight months before. Her husband died unexpectedly of gastroenteritis, although some speculate it was a suicide by poisoning (Hawley, 1994a). The next day, Roop Kanwar stepped onto the funeral pyre with her deceased husband, put his head in her hands as is the custom, and burned alive with his body. This illegal event was witnessed by a few hundred people but there were conflicting reports as to what had actually happened. Pro-sati supporters said that Roop Kanwar had voluntarily decided to become sati and underwent the process with purpose and calm. Those who opposed sati argued that she had not acted of her own free will and was instead drugged into submission by her in-laws who had economic motives for her death. Some reported that she had tried to jump off the pyre, but was pushed back onto it (Hawley, 1994b).

The practice of Sati offers another look at the complicated relationship between fundamentalism and women. Sati is a Hindu ritual in which a widow sacrifices herself by being burned alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. It is a religious funeral rite practiced or endorsed primarily by Hindu groups rooted in the aristocratic Rajput caste in the Rajasthan state of India. Sati is therefore not central to Hinduism, but is practiced by a portion of the population, both men and women, who can be seen as Hindu fundamentalists.
While the Western and English understanding of the word sati is as the practice of widow burning, in the Hindi language it refers to the woman herself. A woman who is sati is a good, virtuous woman who is devoted to her husband (Hawley, 1994a). The Rajput belief is that a woman who freely chooses to become sati is protecting her husband in his journey after death. The power of her self-sacrifice cancels out any bad karma that he may have accrued during his lifetime. She also provides blessings to all those who witness the event (Hawley, 1994b).

The term “sati” comes from the Hindu myth of the goddess Sati who was the wife of the deity Shiva. After her father humiliates Shiva by excluding him from a sacrifice, Sati kills herself in front of him as an act loyalty to her husband. Supporters see the modern version of sati as a manifestation of this same sacrificial power used by the goddess Sati (Hawley, 1994a). However, while sati is seen as a traditional practice, most of the early Hindu religious texts do not recognize sati at all, and it is only mentioned occasionally in later texts. In a manner consistent with other forms of fundamentalism, certain verses have been cited as scriptural justification of the practice by supporters, but their interpretation and translation have been contested by scholars and there is no definitive, unambiguous endorsement of sati (Yang, 1989).

Although this Hindu practice has never been widespread, it happened with enough frequency to catch the attention and revulsion of the British in the nineteenth century while India was under British rule. In 1829 British officials made the practice illegal and a punishable offence for anyone involved (Yang, 1989). The practice has continued to occur very infrequently since then, but the worship and glorification of sati is still a major aspect of the religious belief system of some Rajput Hindus (Harlan, 1994). The criminalization of sati has also become a rallying point for Hindu fundamentalists in their larger battle against the secular state. Its persecution is seen as an infringement by the state into the domain of religion causing the fight for sati to become a fight for religious freedom (Hawley, 1994a).

While previous instances of sati went relatively unnoticed outside the local area, the rise of women’s rights activism by feminists and other liberals caused the story of Roop Kanwar to gain major attention. Twelve days after her death by immolation, a chunari celebration was held at the funeral site to honor and praise her sacrifice. Although the Rajasthan High Court legally prohibited this gathering and any other “glorification of sati” after pressure from women’s rights groups, between 200,000 to 300,000 people from throughout the province attended (Hawley, 1994a). Further gatherings and sati endorsement by both religious and political organizations continued in the months that followed and eclipsed smaller protests held by opponents of sati.

The sati of Roop Kanwar triggered a number of larger social debates regarding the intertwining threads of religion, gender, and the state. Some Indian feminists saw sati as a “ritualized instance of violence against women” and paralleled it with female infanticides and dowry deaths also practiced in India (Hawley, 1994b). For them, the religious significance given to sati is nothing more than a guise to aid the oppression of women. Meanwhile supporters said that sati is a deeply spiritual event where the power of a women’s self-sacrifice and devotion to her husband causes the woman to become “a manifestation of divinity” (Hawley, 1994b). Roop Kanwar’s case questioned whether sati is truly a voluntary undertaking, or if it is decided by family members for religious or economic motives. Sati also became a battleground in the struggle between the religious freedom of Hindus and the secular Indian State. Conservative Hindu organizations said that the state had “no business interfering in matters of religion” (Hawley, 1994b) and that by criminalizing sati their religion was being unfairly targeted.

The pro-sati movement that followed Roop Kanwar’s sati has several features which are characteristic of fundamentalism, and it is this event that first led to the wide usage of the term “Hindu fundamentalism” (Hawley, 1994b). First is the reactionary nature of this Hindu movement against the perceived threat to traditional religious beliefs and values. Demonstrations by sati supporters signified a resistance to the modernization, secularization, and liberalization of India, particularly regarding the place of women. The sati debate manifested into a war between traditional, patriarchal beliefs and liberal feminist ideas about women’s rights. The denouncement of sati was seen by fundamentalists as a “condemnation of chastity and virtue” and feminists were portrayed as modern, westernized women condoning loose morality (Narasimhan, 1992). Sati also reinforces another commonality among fundamentalist religions: the notion that a woman’s principle place and religious duty is to serve her husband and her family. When a woman becomes a sati, she is performing the ultimate act of devotion to her husband and is sacrificing herself for the betterment of her family and the wider community. In other words, a woman’s power is gained through her service to others, and more specifically to men. (Hawley, 1994b). While sati has become a very rare occurrence in modern times, the debate it has caused between conservative Hindu beliefs and liberal or secular thoughts on women’s rights is representative of the larger picture of religion in India, and arguably of the relationship between fundamentalism and women in all societies.

Science and Faith

For most of history every aspect of life in society revolved around some form of religious practice. In many cultures, prior to contact with the Western world, religion was so ingrained into every part of life that there was no specific word for it. Religion in ancient times can be thought of as having a similar role to that of contemporary laws (Müller, 1873). It was how life was regulated and made purposeful. The modern shift towards secularization and the scientific worldview is a recent phenomenon.

As we saw earlier in the chapter, Weber (1919/1958) characterized the transition to a secular, rationalized, scientific worldview as the disenchantment of the world. Explanations for events of everyday life were no longer based on the notion of mysterious or supernatural powers. Everything, in principle, could be reduced to calculation. However, the transition from a world based on religion to one that gives the ultimate authority to scientific discovery has not been without its issues. Contemporary creationists reject Darwinian evolutionary theory because they believe everything came into being as a result of divine creation, as described by religious texts such as the Bible. Similarly, many Christian fundamentalists continue to deny that climate change is a real threat to our planet, because recognizing climate change as a problem, and taking preventative action, would be to question God’s plan and ultimate authority.

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Figure 15.31 Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Ottavio Leoni. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

One historic example of such a conflict is that between the astronomer Copernicus and the Catholic Church (Russel, 1989). When Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system based on his empirical astronomic observations, (i.e., in which the sun is the immobile center), he opposed the Earth-centric model of Ptolemy endorsed by the Church. This claim, originally made in 1543, did not immediately attract the attention of the Church. However, almost a century later, in 1610, when Galileo confirmed its validity based on evidence he had collected using a telescope, he was tried for heresy. Because his model was in direct contradiction with Holy Scripture, he was forced to denounce his support of heliocentric theory. He lived out the rest of his life under house arrest, although the ideas he championed were later proven to be scientifically correct.

What is the underlying source of the conflict between science and religion and what are the implications? Berman (1981) argues that the Scientific Revolution created a division between the worlds of fact and the worlds of value. This was the basis for a profound shift in worldview. Humans went from being part of a rich and meaningful natural order to being the alienated observers of a mechanistic and empty object-world. Questions concerning the value of things or why things were, which had been addressed by religion, were replaced with questions about what things are and how things work. Modes of knowledge that had been relied on to produce a sense of purpose and meaning for people for centuries were incapable of producing the new knowledge needed to effectively manipulate nature to satisfy human material needs (for food, shelter, health, profit, etc.) (Holtzman, 2003).

This shift to an empirical, objective, evidence based knowledge was democratic or “communalistic”, in the sense that science is freely available, shared knowledge, open to public discussion and debate (recall the principles of CUDOS from Chapter 2. Sociological Research). It was a threat to the hierarchical power of religion whose authority was based on its claim to have unique access to sacred truths. However, at the same time, Weber (1919/1958) also argued that “science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’” In fact, Weber predicted that the outcome of the disenchantment of the world and the dominance of the scientific worldview would be a condition of “ethical anarchy.” Science could answer practical questions of how to do things effectively or efficiently, but could not answer the “ultimate” human questions of value, purpose, and goals. These questions would be answered by other sources, but without any authoritative means of distinguishing which was correct. In particular, it is unlikely that those who practice different religions will come to answer the ultimate questions in the same way. To the question, “which of the warring gods should we serve?” Weber argued there could be no definitive or unifying answer. The different sets of values of modern society cannot be reconciled into a singular, cohesive system to guide society.

Nevertheless, while science and religion may differ at the most fundamental level, disagreement between the two is not as common as many may think. A recent study found that there was no difference in the likelihood of religious or non-religious people to seek out scientific knowledge, even though many Protestants and conservative Catholics will side with religious explanations when there is a conflict. The debates over evolution and the history of the universe are a case in point (Evans, 2011). What this suggests firstly is that conflicts do not arise because religion completely rejects everything scientific (or vice versa), but that conflict arises only if competing claims are made, (as seen in the case of Galileo above). It was not that the Church completely rejected everything scientific, but that Galileo’s claims were in direct contradiction of what was stated in the Holy Scripture. Secondly, conflicts arise when the morality of science is being questioned by religion. For example, embryonic stem cell research is rejected by some religious leaders for moral reasons. For the most part, science is broadly accepted, as many religions adapt to the challenges of modernity. It is only in a few cases that there are major disputes between religion and science.

Creationism and Darwinian Evolutionary Theory

A large sign hangs reading, "Anti-Evolution League, The Conflict - Hell and the High School"
Figure 15.32 The Scopes Trial or “Monkey Trial” in Dayton Tennessee, 1925, tested an obscure Tennessee state law that banned the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. It became a major media event that dramatized the conflict between the beliefs of Fundamentalists and the science of modern biology. (Image from Literary Digest, July 25, 1925, courtesy of Mike Licht/Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY 2.0 

Creationism versus Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory remains one of the most hotly contested debates in the field of academia and religious studies. This debate pits American Protestant fundamentalists against the field of natural science (McCalla, 2007, p. 547). Specifically, this debate has caused extensive issues when it comes to education in the middle school and high school years, as creationists lobby for an education that does not acknowledge evolutionary theory (Bleifeld, 1983). After many decades of education taught from the perspective of the field of objective natural sciences, the recent rise of Protestant fundamentalism has lead to conflict over the lack of emphasis in schools on creationist theory. The debate however involves people from both sides arguing at cross-purposes over very different things. It is therefore necessary to clarify the beliefs and arguments stemming from both creationists and evolutionary theorists.

The debate between creationism and Darwin’s evolutionary theory can be explained simply. Charles Darwin proposed that the complex nature of life on earth could be explained by genetic mutations and small changes that over time, that, due to their effect on the capacities of species survive and compete for limited resources, resulted in a process of “natural selection.” On this basis, Darwin proposed that humans were also essentially biological animals who had formed through an evolutionary process over millennia from primitive primate ancestors to contemporary Homo sapiens. This is Darwinian evolutionary theory. Scientists and advocates of Darwin’s evolutionary theory posit, based on evidence of fossil morphology, carbon dating and genetics, that the world as we know it today and the inhabitants of earth have come to be as they are through a long history of evolution, forming from primitive beings, into more complex organisms through a mechanism of survival of the fittest (Wilson, 2002).

This presented a cosmology that certain Christian sects found to be fundamentally at odds with the notion of human divinity found in the bible. The idea that humans were “apes” seemed to directly contradict the idea that they were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). As a result, creationism began to gain momentum in the 19th century as a struggle against new science-based evidence of evolutionary theories. It found its support in the turn to literal or inerrant readings of the bible. The Protestant fundamentalists argued that to be Christian, one must hold everything in the Bible as completely true in a factual sense. Evolutionary theory therefore caused problems for many Christians because in the Bible the narratives in Genesis highlighted that God created the universe in 6 days and that later the Great Flood destroyed all life except for the occupants of the Ark (McCalla, 2007, p.548). Evolution contradicted the creation story, “the notion that the world was created by God ex nihilo, from nothing” (Ayala, 2006, p. 71). The earth and everything in it was created by God as is, not through a process of evolution, and to dispute this goes against everything the Bible stands for (Ayala, 2006). This fundamental difference in cosmology has pitted creationists and evolutionists against one another.

The context of the turn to biblical inerrancy was not evolutionary theory however, but the challenge of the “higher criticism” of the Bible developed by German theologians and scholars in the early 19th century. Biblical criticism recognized that the Bible was not a suprahuman text that transcends history. Using contemporary techniques of textual analysis, they demonstrated that the bible was a historical document composed by multiple human beings at different times and various places (McCalla, 2007, p. 548). Liberal-minded Christians and Biblical theologians were able to except the higher criticism while continuing to hold the Bible as a source of moral and spiritual guidance. Therefore, both naturalists and educated Christians largely were able to accept the evidence for biological evolution in the years following the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Liberal Christians were able to assimilate the findings of natural science into their religious practice because they had already accepted that Genesis was a mythic story with symbolic truth, not literal truth. Fundamentalist Protestants had a harder time agreeing to any of this (McCalla, 2007, p. 549).

The first fundamentalist leader to link biological evolution with the higher criticism was the Baptist William Bell Riley who denounced “theories of organic evolution as unsubstantiated speculations that assert hypothetical historical reconstructions of the Bible and of life in place of God’s plain word” (McCalla, 2007, p. 549). Ultimately this led into the field of creation science. The attempt to discredit the evolution model and to support the creation model defines creation science by asserting “that the evolution model is riddled with guesses, errors, and inconsistencies” (McCalla, 2007. p. 550). Creationists base this argument on four basic claims: “the radiometric and other dating techniques that give an immense age to the universe, the Earth, and life are mere guesses as nobody was around to confirm that the assumptions on which they are built held true in the prehistoric past; the basic laws of physics, and particularly the first and second laws of thermodynamics, flatly contradict the evolution model; the principles of mathematical probability demonstrate its extreme unlikeliness; and evolutionists frequently disagree among themselves, thereby proving that what they have to offer is not science but opinion” (McCalla, 2007. p. 551).

The creation-evolution controversy has led to many disagreements on what should and should not be allowed in required educational curriculum (Allgaier, 2010). Specifically, where this debate and controversy takes place heavily is in the more southern regions of the United States. In the 1980s states such as Arkansas and Louisiana passed legislation mandating that the biblical account of creation be taught in science classes in conjunction with the teaching of evolution (Bleifeld, 1983, p. 111). Christian fundamentalists continue to lobby to reintroduce creationism into the education system, and where they fail they often set up parallel private school systems or home-schooling networks. Opponents argue that a common educational basis is an essential component to democratic society because it lays the foundation for evidence-based decision making and rational debate. From a scientific point of view, Creationism has no scientific validity (Allgaier, 2010). That being said, the creationist versus evolutionary theory debate is an issue that must be handled delicately to respect peoples’ deeply held beliefs.

Image Descriptions

Figure 15.28 long description: A cartoon entitled, “The Descent of the Modernists.” Three men walk down a staircase. Each stair represents a rejection of a fundamental christian belief. From top to bottom, the stairs read, “Christianity,” “Bible not infallible,” “Man not made in God’s image,” “No miracles,” “No virgin birth,” “No deity,” “No atonement,” “No resurrection,” and “Agnosticism.” The last stair is labeled “Atheism.” [Return to Figure 15.28]

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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