The Descent of the Modernists (E. J. Price, Christian Cartoons, 1922)

Modernity: a Cataclysm for Traditionalism or an Advocate for Tolerance?

Under a wide variety of subjects, modernity acts as an advocate for individuality, comfort, and, if handled adequately, can even evoke a sense of accomplishment for a field. When modernity, as an element, is applied to matters dealing with knowledge, one can easily attribute the various forms of media as evidence of its necessity, as well as using the accessibility that follows suit as a reason to embrace the advancements that follow from modernization. Typically, this is the stance that is upheld by people who are unafraid of distancing from various forms of traditionalism and acknowledge the need for change at times. However, what happens when a person or community — not necessarily afraid of change but rather, acting out of discretion — sees modernity to be a barrier between the roots of a field and its later progressions? That, unlike the former who would advocate for the advancement of technology in the changing of times, they view such distancing from tradition to be in direct violation of the field in question?

To tackle this question, let us first understand the idea, best put by Icelandic singer, Björk, that “all the modern things…have always existed…[they have] just been waiting in a mountain for the right moment” (Björk 1995). Here, Björk appears to believe that modernity is an inevitable and engrained part of culture, denoting it as something that has to occur at a specific time. What she argues appears to differ from what can be seen as the consensus of modernization in that, while things do change, they do not change all at once or everywhere at once. However, this irreconcilable notion is dependent on either the world consisting of people who refuse to meddle, or on the notion that intermingling is a rarity. Quite frankly, though, while the effects of modernity may appear to be distinct to any one region, can it ever truly be a privatized process, let alone one that applies to any one closed entity? I would argue that it most definitely cannot be, and it would be foolish to ever grant such an idea.

“All the modern things…have always existed…[they have] just been waiting in a mountain for the right moment”

This question of modernity is what the focus of this piece will be. I will be expanding on the notion of modernity using a number of perspectives, starting first with the role that the West plays in deriving its definition and application and then moving onto how that sort of power (and privilege) translates negatively onto various faiths and spiritualities. To do so, I will be drawing on various forms of modernity in religion including body and belief, as well as language and interpretation. Following this, I will debate whether or not modernity in religion is generally opposed due to a desire to privatize matters out of intolerance. For this idea of privatization, I will cite the case of Hall v. Powers to discuss the ways in which religion can act as a hindrance to various communities. Finally, I will debate whether or not modernity in application has nothing but an end goal of secularity, or if it actually desires to ameliorate certain aspects of traditionalism.

As aforementioned, modernity can be best understood in relation to religion when it is put under a specific scope. Here, I will focus on how modernity impacts the following factors: body and belief. These features of religiosity are some of the most prominent factors — since they are the most “telling” of a person’s conviction — and their evaluation in relation to modernity reveals a number of interesting points to make of modernization.

On Body

To begin, the basic idea of body in religion denotes the ways in which a person’s body acts as either (1) a hindrance to their practicing of said religion or if their body (2) enables them to do more, be more free, or even reach a higher level in the practicing of their religion. A few examples of body as a hindrance — which I do use loosely in order to prove the existence of inequality — in religion include the following: the way a person’s physical disability may keep them from entering places of worship due to inaccessibility, the way a person’s physical appearance may be deemed inappropriate for certain religious settings, and the way people are divided for specific roles within a religion due to gender roles. On this discrepancy with body in religion, what arguably is the most untenable of the ways in which inequality dwells is the division between men and women.

Ayesha Chaudhry in her piece titled, “Body,” addressed this problem first by reminding us that “there is no religion without the body…[and] there is no religion that is not embodied” (2019). Like many others, Chaudhry has had experiences with her body that, though reflective of a specific religious mindset in general, also reflect how modernity may not be able to be what its definition entails — that is, when applied to specific subjects, modernization is inhibited by other factors. In her piece, Chaudhry, a Muslim woman, recounted how she was not allowed to enter a section of her masjid because it was reserved for men only. Even though she had bathed, purified herself, wore the appropriate attire, and was covered the way she was supposed to be, “this believer was turned away from this masjid,” in her words, as “there was no room for women(Ayesha Chaudhry 2019). The prevalence of this story, however, is not the fact that something of this sort happened in this era — though that is a sad fact on its own — but rather, it has to do with the moments that followed. In her anger and irritation, Chaudhry wanted to make a point to the young boy who pulled up beside her on a bike, moments after she was denied entry. Knowing he was going to be admitted, she felt the urge to make this little boy “feel all the shame of [the] patriarchy” that denied her the space to pray (Ayesha Chaudhry 2019). But in her attempt to do so, she was met with the simple reply, “The Prophet said, the prayer of the woman in the home is better than her prayer in the masjid, and her prayer in the closet is better than her prayer in her room.” So, here we are: it is 2020 (though this was from 2019), yet even with the modernized aspects of this time — the bike the boy used, the fact that Chaudhry was by herself, etc. — there was no mention of modernization or any of its proponents here; instead, we see how indoctrination starts young, and it is not of modern values.

“Gendered Mosque Spaces,” photo by Giuseppe Milo/flickr

On Belief

This brings me to my other feature of religiosity, belief, which I will use for the purpose of showing how modernity impacts cognition, in addition to the prior example of how it impacts the physical. In the past, it used to be expected and mandated that people were at least an adherent of some faith, if even it was not of the one that predominated their area or that time period. With this being said, though the past was more focused on the general adherence of the public to at least some sort of faith, there were a plethora of distinctions available, colouring this history as sectarian. While this aspect of the past is similar to the current state, we have entered an “age of tolerance,” in the sense that, while there is more tolerance towards those without any faith or even those who are publicly against specific faiths, the discrepancy lies in our information.

“Religious Tolerance: The Islamic Perspective,” by Khalid Zaheer, in Renaissance Islamic Journal (2000).

This information, or lack thereof, is heavily based on two things: first, that the past becomes further from the current state of affairs in the world, leading to more ambiguity and misinformation, and second, that “new media” has changed the scope of transmission. What is considered “old media” is equally considered “traditional,” in reference to the various mediums that were always existent in society in the absence of social media (Jeffrey Mahan 2012, 18). Traditional media is more personal and was confined to a specific group (a sort of “elite” bunch), while “new media” is filled with the innovations of the internet and the way there is less restriction on who can write books or make public statements. Through new media, everyone with access to any form of transmission (i.e. books, internet, magazines, etc.) is free to not only interpret what they read in the way they choose to, but to also disseminate and proselytize others in joining their convictions. In the past, the authority was given to scholars and “experts” of religion, and they were the ones responsible for transmitting the reliable information to the public. However, now that media is relatively free and accessible to all, it is possible for anyone to inform others of their conviction, thus making modernity a way of making not only religion but all faiths accessible and available for all.

On Privatization

Onto the aspect of privatization, its relation to modernity is that it can become a way of negating things that should not otherwise be negated. There are certain aspects of religion that, though not explicit in their privatizing, make it known that there are certain acts “necessarily” deemed private. For this, I contend that the idea of privatizing is nothing but a cloak for intolerance, employed only to appear as though what is being protected is the comfort of a community when in reality, it does nothing but enforce the belief that certain matters are ultimately “inappropriate.” As aforementioned, the 2002 case, Hall v. Powers, deals with the problem of “privatizing queerness” which, though tacitly shown, reveals the problem of religion when applied in a public sphere (Grace & Wells 2005, 237). In this case, Marc Hall’s principal denied him permission to take his boyfriend to his high school prom. The prominence of this case was that Hall was initially denied due to him going to a Catholic high school; and thus, the rest of the case dealt with the efforts of the Catholic Church to privatize queerness in connection to religion. This predicament, though not new, is one that became most prominent in the age of secularity which, as I will expand on in the latter half of this discussion, is taken to be a component of modernity.

Carlos Latuff (2006)

This story of Hall’s dispute with the Catholic Church demonstrates how when religion is applied in certain contexts, the adherents do what they can to maintain a sense of order as they once knew in spite of modernity. Since the Catholic Church was aware that they could not, for instance, eradicate homosexuality in accordance with their dogmatic beliefs, they tried to make sure that they maintained their power by attempting to privatize queerness “to keep it hidden, invisible, silent, [and] unannounced” (Grace & Wells 2005, 239). This story of Hall and his sexuality is significant for two reasons: the first reason being that the interlocutory injunction Hall was granted — allowing him to go to prom before the decision was made — was the first instance of such an injunction, and the second reason being that this case brought to the mainstream the ways in which religion is still so existent in society, despite the idea of secularity. Contrary to popular belief, even if modernity introduced secularity, it did not make it so that religion cannot still be used for certain aspect of life. If nothing else, Hall v. Powers is proof that modernization does not guarantee the separation of religion from governmental aspects such as religion or law, so it should not be seen as having an end goal of secularism. Though certain aspects of religion may be affected, modernity acts more as a megaphone for secularism than it does an invitation for it.

Gay marriage supporters marching in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village (James Estrin, The New York Times, 2006)

On Language and Interpretation

On the idea that modernity in application is nothing but an end goal of secularity, I would argue that while the goal, itself, is not necessarily secularism, the journey of modernizing religion and then separating it from the state only works to distance religion from what it always was: a specific lifestyle. It can be argued that modernizing religion only desires to “ameliorate” certain aspects of traditionalism in that, since the times have changed, we should no longer acknowledge certain parts of traditional religion in their plain sense. Religious Literalism (i.e. Biblical Literalism, Qur’anic Literalism, etc.) occurs because the adherents of these faiths believe that these sacred texts are the authoritative word of God, containing infallible accounts of life, human nature, and the origin of the world (Hoffmann & Bartkowski 2008, 1245). This idea is what gave rise to the consensus that the sacred books — Torah, Qur’an, Bible, etc. — cannot be read in actuality but rather, in allegory. With this in mind, this introduces the importance and application of linguistic interpretation. Due to the difference in era, the amount of translations, and the importance of recognizing parataxis and hypotaxis, the consensus is now to take these religious texts as mere allegories and metaphors for the ways in which humans should conduct themselves in a number of situations. This aspect of modernization, in juxtaposition with the rest, is not only overarchingly justified but also is the most sensible. So, when we speak of how modernity distances us from religion, it is imperative we acknowledge the necessary aspects of this distance, as well.

On Secularity

And for the final segment of this discussion, I will elaborate on how secularity may very well be a component of modernity, but it does not have to be to its full extent to do so. In other words, while secularism does denote the separation of state from religion, its scope is only centred on the fact of religion being the unequivocal deciding factor of state mandates, and not on the foundation of the state being interconnected to religion. The principles found in (most) religions involve aspects that law needs to have in order to work effectively. For instance, the Qur’an’s penultimate goal is egalitarianism and the Bible speaks of respect for thy neighbour. Such principles of morality can very well be the reason for state policies and decisions without being connected so heavily on religion, however, this concept is not so known to the Western world under the name of “secularism.” The West speaks of secularism in its entirety, rather than for the sake of its practice. So, while the West continues with this idea of secularism, they go forward and apply such ideas onto other states independent of them, hence causing the occurrence of ethnocentrism.

Polish sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz is believed to have either coined or popularized the term, “ethnocentrism,” in the 19th century.

Ethnocentrism refers to the evaluation of other cultures according to the preconceptions of one’s own culture(s), thereby leading to the judgment of customs dissimilar to one culture on the merit of another (Hammond & Axelrod 2006). We could use Western judgment of Middle Eastern governmental systems as an example of this evaluation. When we speak of modernizing the Islamic state of the Middle East, for instance, in hopes of attributing the Western notions of equality into a more conservative and patriarchal state, are we not applying aspects of our version of modernity to a region that employs its own version? While there does exist parts of the Islamic state that can be seen as irredeemably flawed, this same point can be made for relatively any culture or government. It is not distinct nor exclusive to the Islamic state that there are problems pertaining to equality or discrimination, neither is it necessarily more common for there to be; rather, it is under the Western lens of analyzing culture and state that we are able to notice instances that deviate from our definitions, which leads to the common conviction that any state unlike ours is ultimately not one that is equal.

Conclusion

To conclude, the purpose of this discussion was to consider the various ways modernity works in relation to religion and debate whether it has an end goal of secularism or not. On the connection between body, belief, and privatization, I demonstrated how religion is still an existent force in society despite the innovations that most would conclude are evident of religion’s lack of power. And, while I do recognize and acknowledge the ways in which religion does “distance” from itself in modernity, I maintain that this distancing is still not for the purpose of the eventual secularization and eradication of religion but rather, for the purpose of ameliorating certain aspects of certain faiths. In drawing on the case of Hall v. Powers, the power of religion was demonstrated via its (and the adherents’) ability to navigate itself through life, but also still have to succumb to the power that is modernity and its new age of tolerance.

From Susanne Staudlbauer, “The Remediation of Religious Symbols and the Idolatry of Modernity” (2014).

Bibliography

Björk, “The Modern Things,” track 3 on Post, Mother Records, 1995, compact disc.

Chaudhry, Ayesha S. “Body.” The Immanent Frame. SSRC, (2019): https://tif.ssrc.org/2019/11/25/body-chaudhry/.

Grace, André P., and Kristopher Wells. “The Marc Hall Prom Predicament: Queer Individual Rights v. Institutional Church Rights in Canadian Public Education.” Canadian Journal of Education/Revue Canadienne De L’éducation 28, no. 3 (2005): 237–70. https://doi.org/10.2307/4126470.

Hammond, Ross A., and Robert Axelrod. “The evolution of ethnocentrism.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, no. 6 (2006): 926–936.

Hoffmann, John P., and John P. Bartkowski. “Gender, Religious Tradition and Biblical Literalism.” Social Forces 86, no. 3 (2008): 1245–272. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20430794.

Mahan, Jeffrey H. “Religion and Media.” Religion Compass, 2012, 14–25.

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