In an increasingly secular society, religion has lost much of the relevance it once held. Throughout much of Europe, religion and the state were once on par with each other. Rightly or wrongly, society would look towards the Church for guidance on matters of morality and governments too would look to the Church for direction and endorsement of government policy. In Islamic states and Muslim majority countries, this has been more enduring. Nonetheless, the role of religion in modern society has receded. Yet has this been to an extent that it no longer holds any relevance?
The 2011 census showed 14.1 million people in England and Wales identified themselves as having no religion. That’s around a quarter of the population. Of those that responded as following an “other religion”, the highest ranked ‘religion’ was Jedi Knight which came higher than more established religions such as Rastafarianism, Jainism and Scientology. If the census data is anything to go by, religion isn’t playing a role in as many people’s lives as it once did.
Religious celebrations have transcended religion and entered wider culture in the regions where they are most prominent. Christmas isn’t exclusively celebrated by Christians and more people exchange gifts than those who are aware of or celebrate its religious significance. Likewise, in India, Diwali isn’t celebrated merely by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and the festivities are enjoyed by most of the population. In both instances, this isn’t a bad thing and shows how inclusive modern society has become. Although it also indicates the rise of secularism and illustrates how religion has become secondary to wider culture.
Religion has long been used as a social grouping to the benefit or disadvantage of states, individuals and religions themselves. But with social identifiers such as race, class and economic status that are typically more pertinent to people’s everyday lives, religion has become secondary in this context. Furthermore, religion has often been slow to move with the times and find contemporary relevance, instead attempting to apply teachings and beliefs in a context that isn’t applicable to modern society.
The Church’s recent frosty discourse over women bishops and gay marriage illustrates just this. That isn’t to belittle or reject their beliefs and principles over either. But there’s a distinct inability for the dialogue around both to consider that the teachings of the Church would have been authored at a time when it would not have been faced with either issue. Similarly, the patriarchy and misogyny that is present in many long established religions (largely by virtue of the time in which they were founded) hasn’t been fully rejected to suggest their views are befitting of modern society.
Where religion shows it is unable or unwilling to apply its teachings in a modern day context, it merely alienates non-believers and worshippers alike and this is largely the reason why it lacks the relevance it once held. However, despite fewer people aligning themselves to a religion, the ability of religion to shape the thoughts and actions of those who follow it remains strong. Particularly amongst those of a generation where religion played a greater role in shaping society and permeating culture, religion has the power to dictate to the minds of many. Throughout history, this hasn’t always been used for good but most religions have used their ability to influence for many benevolent causes and moral guidance. If religions were able to further this, while applying their respective teachings and principles in a modern context, surely religion would experience a resurgence in its relevance and provide viable alternatives to the rise of secularism.
It’s important to remember that religion is separate from faith. Religions are designed by man and how man interpreted his faith and how it should be practiced. Faith instead relates to belief, putting aside the constraints of religion. Religion therefore articulates, according to a respective religion’s architects, how one should live and apply their faith.
While faith is personal and somewhat intangible, religion can be (and throughout history has been) modified to what those with the power to do so decide. So why do religions so often struggle to adapt to become relevant in modern society when they aren’t as abstract as they’d like to suggest?
By their very nature, many religions are conservative. They propose things are done in the way they’ve always been done and often reject any questioning of that. And if they are willing to be subject to questioning, the responses can be — but not always — meaningless for anyone seeking legitimate answers. My experience as a child, and that of my peers from various religions, has largely been that questioning of religious practices was initially responded to with superficial answers. And upon further probing, they would often be frustratingly met with submission to the fact that there were no concrete answers to offer. In retrospect, when it comes to faith, that’s understandable. Although when it comes to religion, it’s something many have unwarrantedly come to expect.
There isn’t a total disconnect between religion and modern society. Even for many who consider themselves agnostic or disconnected with the religion they were brought up with, religion finds its relevance reasserted for rites of passage out of convention and tradition if nothing else. Therefore while it might be waning, religion hasn’t completely lost its relevance.
Despite fewer people aligning themselves with a religion, religion still offers an opportunity for organised worship and an articulation of faith that for many is invaluable. In every religion, there are morals and principles that can be applied to everyday life for the betterment of society and individuals. Religion isn’t always instep with modern society but it can serve a purpose in providing timeless moral guidance in a number of areas. The challenge facing religion is to modernise its approach and to pragmatically apply its teachings to contemporary living. Otherwise, secularism will further erode the relevance religion has in modern society and could consign it to a shadow of what it once was.