When you ask a secular person why they do not believe in any of the major religions of the world, the most common answer you will get is that “these religions were founded thousands of years ago and are no longer relevant to the modern world.” The argument that centuries old religions have become obsolete and can no longer cope up with the challenges of modern world certainly has weight in it. The outlook of our world has change so drastically in last 2 centuries that an ideological book, Das Kapital, written just over 150 years ago has become so irrelevant, let alone the religious scriptures which were written 1500 to 2000 years ago. Even the ideal of liberalism, the apparent victor ideology post cold war, is in crisis following events like Brexit and construction of Trump wall on Mexican border. The hardcore liberalists have also started to realise, just 30 years after what they believed to be the end of history, that the liberal ideal is impractical.
The pace at which our world is changing is unprecedented and every few decades we come up with new groundbreaking technologies that change the course of our lives. But this has been a recent phenomena and for most of history science progressed at a snail’s pace. Only in the last 500 years the world has started to witness frequent technological breakthroughs which affected everyone on the globe. If Alexander The Great was reborn 1500 years after his death in 1144 AD, the world would still be very familiar to him. There were still kings who ruled empires, gold was still used as a medium of exchange and wars were still fought with swords on the back of a horse – just as during his lifetime. He may have been very successful in the world of 1144 AD as he was in 323 BC and might even have gone on to conquer large territories. Now imagine something similar for Napoleon Bonaparte. If Napoleon was born again just 200 years after the famous battle of Waterloo in 1815, he would be baffled to see the world of 2015. Our methods of communication, transportation and in particular warfare have taken a completely different outlook. What success he would have achieved with ‘Gun Bayonets’ in the world of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons? He would have found practices of his heyday as completely irrelevant in the world of 21st century.
Something similar happened to the major religions of the world. When two of the most followed religions, Christianity and Islam, were founded around 2000 and 1500 years ago respectively, they were certainly ahead of their times. Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) claim that “no white has any superiority over a black”, was as difficult for people of that times to accept it as it would be for us to accept if someone stood up and said “no human has any superiority over an animal”. Similarly when Jesus (PBHU) called to “turn the other cheek”, it staggered human nature. In a world where might was right, why should a powerful person not take revenge and turn the other cheek instead? Such principals of justice and high moral standards gave humanity a leap forward in the right direction. And as times for the next thousand years were relatively similar, these principals continued to gain popularity.
But ever since the dawn of modern age, the very futuristic beliefs of these religions begin to contradict with modern ideologies. While Bible commanded not to covet your neighbour’s possessions and be satisfied with what you have, the foundational principles of capitalism require mass consumption. If your friends just had a trip to northern areas and their photos on Instagram looks cool, you sure have to go there and not feel left out. Or did your neighbour buy a new car? It’s time to update yours even if the old one runs just fine.
Religion presents us with an idea that if we suppress our desires in this temporary world and live like a prisoner here, we will register a palace in heaven and live an eternal life of a king. Modern ideologies, on the other hand, do not like to make their followers wait too much. Through the power of technology they promises a life full of ‘heavenly’ experiences right here on earth, as who knows if there is a life after death or not?
Just as the warfare techniques of Napoleon-era find no place in contemporary world, modernist believe that traditional religions face a similar fate. While many of them do appreciate the achievements of these religions in Middle Ages, they claim that now their days are over.
You may argue that there are more believers on earth today as there were at any point in history, how can then we say that religion has become irrelevant? Irrelevancy of religion is not in the masses but in the elite which runs the world. How many state decisions can you list which were taken in consideration of religious text like Bible and Quran? In middle ages, pope took the most important state decisions after interpretations of the holy Bible. And fatwas by a Mufti in Ottoman Empire was as powerful as constitution of a modern day nation-state. Comparatively, today scientific theories and researches are considered when taking state-level decisions. Even the hardcore Islamic country like Iran follows the advice of modern economist when devising an economic policy rather than following the Quran.
There are clear evidences that religion has somewhat lost its relevance, but the question is why did this happen? Was it the brilliant advancements in technology that put religion down or the shortcomings of the religious institutions themselves the culprit? In my future articles I will discuss all these factors one at a time to diagnose the root cause of religions becoming irrelevant.