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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The role of religion in contemporary society

What is religion’s place in the society? Should a non-believer be described differently, without – or outside – the frame of reference of belief? In a postmodern world, do we now need to redefine the notions about secularism which have fostered the idea (dogma?) that religion should stay personal, and that it has no place in the public. Is religion inherently pernicious? 

These are straightforward questions with too many answers, and therefore no answer; also these are some of the many contentious issues that surround religion in the Canadian society that is avowedly multicultural.

Spur Festival, the annual celebration of politics, arts and ideas that shape Canada, organized a discussion on the Role of Religion in Contemporary Society.

The participants were Ara Norenzayan, Ingrid Mattiso, Eva Goldfinger, and Mark Toulouse. Three of the four (Ingrid, Eva and Mark) are believers, and three of the four (Ara, Ingrid and Mark) are academics. So, the discussion was expectedly erudite, polite and agreeable. Brent Bambury, of CBC moderated the session.

The Al Green Theatre at Miles Nadal Jewish Cultural Centre (Spadina & Bloor) was surprisingly filled to capacity, despite it being the first day of spring weather in Toronto (April 11). More than a discussion on religion, it turned (again, expectedly) into a discussion on the need to evolve interfaith understanding.

But to achieve interfaith understanding is almost impossible. A majority of believers have to depend upon agents of god (there really is no better way to describe the swamis, priests, mullahs, rabbis) to understand their own beliefs, and these agents prefer to protect their own turf rather than get into others’ domain. Their interests are better served by being isolated, not by amalgamation.

So, for all practical purposes, the interfaith dialogue and understanding has a limited appeal, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future.

But, coming back to the discussion: Scholarly erudition can make even the most complex ideas accessible. And during the hour-long discussion the audience must have felt warm and happy that in Canada (unlike down south) we’re all tolerant and conscious of the need to be more accommodative of alternative belief systems.

The usual suspects – Stephen Harper, Quebec Charter of Values, Charlie Hebdo, Bill C-51, ISIS, – got the knuckle-rap they perhaps deserved.  The panel also questioned the selective demonising by the media of some events, and selective amnesia of other events; it questioned the selective funding of religion-based schooling by the government.

Each panelist had at least one idea that was thought-provoking. Norenzayan said we need to acknowledge the universality of religion in public life and be curious about it before analyzing or critiquing it. Mattiso said we must break down the silos and compartments and reach out to believers of other faiths in a genuine attempt to foster better understanding. Toulouse said we are in a postmodern world where the traditional European dichotomy of the separation of the state and the church was no longer meaningful or relevant. Goldfinger said it’s necessary to redefine the debate over belief and non-belief. To term non-believers as atheist is restrictive. She said she preferred to be termed a humanist.

These scholar-believers stressed on tolerance. The hurdle here is that the common believers of all religion generally prefer to be among their own kind, secure in their belief, and don’t necessarily go out of their way to mingle with believers of other faiths.

Also, the implication of a more public role of religion in the society that was advocated by at least two of the panelists, seems to ignore the potential of trouble it would create in something as basic as the workplace, where people of many religions work together.

Moreover, it is unrealistic (as the panelists advocated) that religion or religious practices would change and become more attuned with the changing world. It means acceptance of blasphemy, sexual orientation, interreligious marriages; it also means rejection of proselytizing, religious texts that propagate bigotry and intolerance. This is unlikely to happen in a hurry.

It may sound terribly antiquated, but I think Marx got it right: Religion is the opiate of the masses, and of scholars as well.

Image: http://www.foodgalaxy.org/food-and-religion

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