Will Religion Still Seem an Illusion?

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A century ago, western intellectuals were sure they knew the eventual fate of religion. "The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men," Sigmund Freud averred in his confidently titled book The Future of an Illusion (1927), "the more widespread is the decline of religious belief." Religion was a psychological disorder, a "neurotic relic," a collective fantasy built upon unfulfillable infantile desires. Its presence should not be regarded as a lasting state. Instead, religion should be seen as an evolutionary way station, a condition that was, as Freud further elaborated it in Moses and Monotheism (1939), "parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity." Its days were numbered.

Today, such words look rather different. It is not so much that Freud has been discredited. It is, rather, that the secularist vision he so compellingly presented now appears to be just another mythos, another master narrative, another hubristic projection of human desire and ignorance into our vast, mysterious universe. Call it the mood of the postmodern, if you like. But what once seemed the ultimate in master narratives, the prospect of triumphant secular rationality endorsed by Freud, now seems a far more limited mythos than the ones it sought to replace. Its appeal is limited to a very small and demographically shrinking group, the university-bred elites of Western Europe and the United States. More importantly, it is a mythos that cannot provide the overarching meaning without which human existence becomes empty and directionless. Science is a magnificent human achievement. But it cannot tell us how to live, or what we should live for. The need for that kind of meaning is, for us humans, as deep and relentless as the need for food or water. It cannot be denied for long.

As we begin the 21st century, the secularism whose triumph once seemed as inevitable as the arrival of spring now seems a fading flower, while religion, in both traditional and novel forms, is in renewed bloom, and even making a play for full-scale reentry into public life. There is much more to this story than the worldwide resurgence of Islam. Writers such as Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, author of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity (2002), have detailed the explosive growth of Christianity in the non-Western world. Many observers have even argued that the United States is experiencing a religious "awakening" today.

The story is equally about secularism’s lost élan. Even in such bastions of public secularism as France and Turkey, the airtight proscription of religious expression in public life is being reconsidered, while the more permeable American model is being looked at afresh. And who holds the moral high ground in China, the brutal secularist government or the scandalously persecuted Christians? For better or worse, the older dream of a fully privatized religious faith and a fully secularized public realm seems to be losing its hold.

Some will find this development refreshing, some frightening. Most will see a very mixed bag. But one should not underestimate its complexity. The fact that a strongly religious American president has committed the United States to the building of a largely secular state in the Middle East as a bulwark against religious terrorism, and is doing so over the objections of largely secular elites in Europe and America, only begins to hint at the intricacy of the matter. Like it or not, religion will remain a major player in shaping world events, and those who want to will it away are indulging in illusions of their own. John Lennon’s song "Imagine" will not be a reliable guide to the 21st century. That illusion has no future. The sooner we realize it, the better.

Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.



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