The social demand for religion

Sanne van Oosten

As I wrote in my last blog, Buddhism is hip, and not only that, it is becoming completely mainstream. And whenever people talk about the rise of Buddhism in the West, they explain how society felt a rising demand for the values explicated in Buddhist teachings and practices. But why aren’t people so open-minded when it comes to explaining such developments when it comes to religions other than Buddhism such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism?

In short, people in today’s Western society feel stressed and rushed, so they resort to Buddhist meditation practices and mindfulness. Also, people are fed up with mono-theistic religions that ask them to take a leap of faith and therefore resort to Buddhism in which you are asked to believe what you see. All these societal trends are widely believed to have attributed to the rise of Buddhism in the West. Buddhism found resonance in today’s societies.

Obviously, we don’t have trouble contending that societal needs came first and (a modern version of) Buddhism came second. But why do so many people have trouble admitting this when it comes to any other religion? Every religion originated in this manner, it is just something that people have trouble understanding. For instance, it wasn’t the case that everyone was doing just fine without Christianity and then the religion came around and everyone started believing in it. No, Christianity was adopted in many societies because it answered the questions society needed answers to in that time. For instance, people had trouble understanding natural phenomena and were given answers to these questions through Christianity.

Even today, religion is an institution that makes society more intelligible to its followers. No matter if this religion is adopted by society now or centuries ago, it guides people in the directions dictated by the society they live in. For instance, it can adhere to ideas deemed respectable by society, or to ideas deemed far from respectable, as a kind of counter reaction. This concept is far from new. Sociologist Emile Durkheim already wrote that religion is an institution that divides the “sacred” from the “profane” in 1912.

Let me explain this with two current examples. In a society where women still inhibit subordinate positions, religious institutions will adhere to this idea by accentuating, for instance, bible verses in which this idea is underlined. On the other hand, with rising emancipation of women in contemporary society, more and more bible verses that subordinate women are forgotten, whilst other verses will be highlighted more often, for instance, about equality between all people before God. It isn’t the case that religion says so and therefore people believe it, it is the case that society says so and religion explains and/or justifies it.

Another example: homosexuality. The bible only has two verses about homosexuality in which it is condemned. Nevertheless, these verses are constantly underlined by religious people who want to use it as a justification of being against same sex marriage, for instance. Nevertheless, more liberal Christian groups would never adhere importance to these two verses as they would otherwise be inclined to be accepting towards homosexuality. Once again, it isn’t the case that religion says so and therefore people believe it, it is the case that society says so and religion explains and/or justifies it.

The bible is a mix and match reference book from which people pick what they feel is right from their personal view point. For instance, there are plenty of verses that are completely forgotten, even deemed ridiculous. For instance the verses in the old testament dictating people to drag every single stone of their house out of the city if anyone comes down with the flu. Good thing religious people don’t take their Bible that literally and read things in the context of their time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying religion is obsolete as it is a mere reflection of society. What I’m saying is that religion has an indispensable role in society as it makes the typical struggles of their time easier understand for their followers. It gives people a frame of reference to understand whatever they are trying to cope with in their lives. This counteracts distorting developments in society, like the nagging question of where natural disasters come from and nagging questions such as how to make it through the week with a minimum amount of stress.

Religious ideas are produced in relation to the existing intellectual context of debates of their time. This is the case for Buddhism, which has always been transforming through culturally adaptive behavior, but this is also the case of all other religions. Religious practices and beliefs have changed and evolved with each time and culture is has been exposed to. And this is what will happen in the future as well. It will continue to change and evolve. Just like Buddhism, religion is not static, it is impermanent. In the future it will always adhere to the needs and demands of the time and the place it is exposed to.

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