Religion in a post-modern world

Dr Isa Jahangir (religious scholar, academic)
Dr Christopher Paul Clohessy (priest, author)

Tuesday 12th October 2021

In a fast-moving world where time assumes different meaning, duration and nature, how much room has remained for orthodox religions? The divine message is said to be all-inclusive, time-independent and ever superior to what mankind can provide as a way of life. But as attachment to the absolute gradually loosens due to the persistent hammering of modern trends of irreligiosity, has religion lost its place in modern day environment? Or is it a fact that the God’s revelation cannot be superseded by man’s intellectual odyssey? Postmodernism remains a challenge to divine religions, but can it lead to the destruction of people’s faith in the unseen?

Dr Christopher Paul Clohessy: Faced with the moral relativism and shaky epistemology of Postmodernism, I find myself as a Catholic drive back to the more certain intellectual activity of St. Thomas Aquinas. Any discussion of the need for and value of religion must begin with the question of God, moving from the particular to the general; and Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God remain a mainstay of Catholic theology and philosophy. Almost inevitably, the first demand of contemporary men and women, as though they were the first to do so, as though they were the first to ask such questions, is that we provide them with some sort of evidence that God actually exists. Since they quite patently do not accept the texts that Judaism, Christianity or Islam believe divinely revealed, and therefore claim they possess no evidence for God’s existence.

But one has to ask what precisely is meant here by ‘evidence’. Some people believe that of its very nature, evidence must be seen and touched, the way a herd of cattle sees a patch of grass and eats it. Human beings, however, are not mere animals. They have reason, and can therefore appreciate intellectual evidence. The evidence of beauty in a great work of art or a piece of music, for example, is perceived by the mind, and not by the senses. Again, an animal could hear the same sounds, or see the same colours, without being impressed by their harmony and proportion. Quite clearly, even without the acceptance of revealed texts, human reason can detect sufficient evidence to guarantee the existence of God.

Thomas Aquinas famously offers a number of examples. One is from causality. The universe, limited in all its details, could no more be its own cause, could no more re come together with all its regulating laws than the Eifel Tower could just happen, or a clock could assemble itself and keep perfect time without a clock-maker. On the same principle, Aquinas argues for the existence of God, by His very nature the First or Uncaused Cause. He also argues from universal reasoning, or if you wish, human intuition: what could be termed the universal judgment of humanity can no more be wrong on this vital point than the intuition of an infant that food must be conveyed to the mouth rather than to some other place on the body. The stamp of God’s handiwork is so clearly impressed upon humans, that the instinctive belief is that there is a God. The truth is in possession. People do not have to persuade themselves that there is a God; rather, they have to attempt to persuade themselves that no God exists, and find a valid reason for such a conclusion. But the truth is that people do not grow into the idea of a God; instead, they try to grow out of it.

The moral relativism of Postmodernism ignores the fact that the sense of moral obligation confirms the existence of God because the Moral Law is a sign of the transcendent. All humans of every culture have the same basic sense of right and wrong – that some things are truly wrong, and not just wrong in the opinions of some people When people commit such a transgression they often try to rationalise or justify their behaviour – this means that they accept, by an inner, inescapable sense, the common standard of right and wrong, but wish to show that they qualify as an exception. This common set of ethical standards is the Moral Law.

If there is a law, there has to be a lawgiver, and we must attempt to detect the source of this Moral Law. Individual societies could not have invented it, for it is essentially the same everywhere. Sometimes conscience praises me when society condemns me: and sometimes conscience condemns me when society praises me. Nor can it be based upon instinct, because instincts are often contradictory; when someone is in danger, the natural instinct is both to help and to preserve oneself. The Moral Law can only come from a transcendent source.

The all-important concept of justice demands that there be a God. The very sense of justice among human beings, resulting in law-courts, supposes the existence of just God. We did not give ourselves our sense of justice. It comes from whoever made us, and no one can give what he does not possess himself. Yet justice cannot always be done by people in this world. Here the good often suffer, and the wicked prosper. And, even though human justice does not always succeed in balancing the scales, they will be balanced someday by a just God, who most certainly must exist.

Instinctively, we know God: no one is born an atheist or a sceptic, one who doubts the possibility of ever discovering truth. Even atheists like Freud admit that religion is a universal, innate instinct, though they still think it is an innate illusion). These attitudes are made less by the way one thinks than by the way one lives. As Fulton-Sheen noted: people have to find a philosophy to justify the way that they live. If you do not live what you believe you will end up believing what you live.

The greatest crisis of our century, the greatest disaster, has been the collapse of the Judeo-Christian- Islamic substructure of our society, with its ethics, its morality and its directives for how a just and equitable life can be lived. It has led to individuals and whole nations now fumbling their way blindly upon the path of relativism and a false human autonomy through the complex maze of life, making up rules and principles as it they go along, lurching from moral crisis to moral crisis but without answers and without any underlying reason for the most fundamental things in life, like human dignity, like justice and equality, and like the realization that we are contingent beings.

Ever more frequently we are hearing the contemporary cry that our lives and our bodies belong to us, that we have an autonomous control over these and are free to decide what we want to do. And yet not one of those who makes such a strident claim – and it is usually made in terms of the body of someone else, the unborn child in the womb – not one of those who stridently claims complete autonomy over their lives and bodies actually possesses the power to command their bodies to do a whole range of things: to stop ageing, for example, or not to fall ill, or to command their minds not to feel guilt or recrimination, or to hold death at bay. In fact, we quite patently do not have complete autonomy over our lives and bodies, in which case any thinking person has to ask: if I do not have autonomy and control over my life and body, if I am a contingent being, then who has that autonomy? Upon whom I am contingent?

Therefore, is the practice of religion necessary? By religion I mean is the virtue by which we give to God the honour and service due to Him alone as Creator and Lord. And is religion necessary in society? Yes.
If God does indeed exist, He has definite rights which no person is justified in ignoring. Moreover, God definitely commands you to adore and serve Him. A person or society with no religion with no worship of God, devoid of all prayer, is far from fulfilling the commandments God has given. It is not enough to admit off-hand that maybe God exists, and then ignore His definite claims. For if He does indeed exist, then there is nothing in society, nothing in human life more important than Him.

Against those in contemporary and especially post-modern society who insist that religion is positively evil and degrading, since it restrains human freedom, we can only reply that sincere religion leads to genuine freedom—freedom from vice, from all injustice and want of charity. There is no absolute freedom. With or without religion, there is no absolute and unlimited freedom. This is one of the great errors of contemporary society, that misunderstanding the boundaries of genuine freedom, they have
dispensed with anything that they think imposes such boundaries. But society does. So does law. So do the demands of justice. So does gravity and the other laws of nature.

Anyone wishing to understand the world and how it works must consider the influence of religious beliefs – religion is a central dimension of human life.

Dr Isa Jahangir: It is a very nice topic under discussion today and I could not say ‘no’ to Dr Shehabi when he invited me to share my thoughts on this very important topic: religion in a post-modern world. It is a great honour to be speaking next to Professor Clohessy.

I will share my thoughts on the relationship between religion and post modernity and what happens to religion in the age of post modernity. I would start with religion. I just want to share some of the famous definitions of religions which have been given by famous people. I will start with Paul Tllich in which he says that religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern which contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life. Religion has the main function of giving life to people – defining some sort of life and the total meaning of life.

I would like to mention two definitions one from the Sunni world and one from the Shia world. I will start with an Ashkari scholar who says religion is divine rules to help the possessors of intellect to reach intrinsic goodness at their own choice. It is divine rules and regulations and the main function is to help people to reach goodness by themselves by their own choice. And the Shi scholar defines religion a as a set of beliefs, laws morality and ethical regulations aiming at the guidance of mankind.

So we can look at these definitions and there are numerous definitions which have been given to religion. Some people suggest we do not define because the more we define religion the more we get confused. But is we look at the different sorts of definitions which have been given to religion the broad components of religions which are very important and which are highlighted are metaphysical and epistemological. And the metaphysical component suggests that the world has a master, a creator. So that is one statement. The second statement is that it is possible generally and principally for humanity to acquire some sort of knowledge about this Lord, the creator. It is a very important part of religion, religiosity and beliefs of religious people. This could be at the heart of religion – believing the creator and also the possibility and desirability of acquiring knowledge and having some knowledge about the creator.

Let me go to post modernity and post modernism. Post-modernism is an intellectual trend and tendency with many characteristics. I would like to highlight maybe six or seven of them. It rejects a meta narrative. Secondly postmodern scholars believe the reality can only be understood in terms of local narratives and everyone can have their own understanding or reading their own narration of the reality.

Today you may have a reading of the reality an understanding of the reality and tomorrow you may have a different reading and understanding. Having different narratives and understandings relies heavily on language so the local narratives are limited by the language they rely on.

Textual narratives can only be interpreted indefinitely so we can’t have a metaunderstanding of the text. There are definites. There is no categorical understanding of any text. And also there are no universal truths. Truth cannot be universal and all truths are bound by paradigm, context and culture. So something could be true to you today but tomorrow it may not be true to you. It could be true to you but it may not be true to someone else. There is no benchmark which could be unanimously agreed on by humanity.

You can’t say this is truth and I can evaluate the validity and authenticity of it. I can generalise. I cannot convince anyone. Truth is not absolute and there are no absolute truths – all truths are defined by the cultures, paradigms and context.

Also knowledge. The truth is produced by the regime in power. So power can define the truth. Power plays a very important role and contributes very heavily to defining what is true and what is false. The same knowledge and power are intertwined. Power can give direction to knowledge. It can even identify knowledge and give validity to knowledge. There is no such thing as objective knowledge.

So again there is no objectivity and there is no objective knowledge and we can’t put a bench mark to say what knowledge is – what is objective and what is not objective, what is false and what is true.

So again these are some of the features of post modernity. Now the important point is to ask the question what are the approaches of religious people, religious scholars and those who have studied religion whether they are believers or non believers. I am speaking here mainly from views of religious people – Christians and Jews who must have studied this. So how do they treat post-modernity? Some of them have welcomed it and they have raised ideas. What are the ideas that have been raised by the religious scholars to accommodate post modernity? They have said that post modernity does have an emancipatory power. It came to object to the project of modernity and it very critically analysed and rejected the foundations and principles of modernity.

And we know that in the early days of modernity many modern scientists were anti-God in their attitudes especially from the 18th century until the mid 20th century. Many philosophers like Herbert Spencer and others basically had anti-religious claims and inclinations or they were not very much sympathetic to other people’s religion..

So post modernism criticised the foundations, principles and basics of modernity and by deconstruction and all the things which I have mentioned. Some religious scholars found it appealing and positive found
it to be used in the sense of religion. Post modernity opened so many doors to reality and one of those doors could be the door of religion. It opened the door for religion in the sense that it opened the door for anything else.

But is this a reliable window through which we can look at religion? Is it something that can work for religious people – for people of faith? I think if you look at the claims of post modernity we can say ‘no’ because it says there is no absolute truth. It claims that all truths are local – defined by cultures and even by individuals. Power can play a role in defining what is true. So in this arena any views can play a role. Fake views can play a role. And if fake views can play a role they would not allow the truths which come out of religion to shine out and express itself.

So in the promotion of relativity we are moving towards anything goes. Something may be right for you today and wrong tomorrow. So in this arena in which anything goes there can’t be any place for the values of religion, the fundamentals of religion, the truths of religion. If we put this point in mind post modernity cannot basically offer a platform in which religious people can take part. It may have in the beginning opened the door through its emancipatory power I don’t think that emancipation could be utilised for religious people. It can be good for those who are studying religion from outside but for those who are studying religion from inside as believers and insiders it cannot be of to much help.

Let me also point out one last point modern scholars and sociologists were projecting that religion would die out. These are some of the claims that some modern sociologist and anthropologists and those who were studying religion were predicting that God would die and they were already pronouncing the demise of religion.

One of the claims that post modernity raised was the claim of return to tradition. This was appealing to some religious scholars. They thought that by returning to tradition religion would die. It could be the case in a way but I don’t think basically this could be true to a great extent. Modernity in general has not been a unified system or entity. We did have readings, interpretations, theories and approaches. Some of them were okay with religion and others were not. We had many approaches.

Some like Kant were religious people, they had religious concerns even though they are fathers of modernity. So in my understanding modernity was against religion. These components of modernism have been mentioned by many modern scientists but modernity should not be taken as a single unified entity.

Later modernists realised that they were underestimating the power of religion. Peter Berger an American sociologist who died two or three years ago wrote about the resurgence of religion. He wrote a book towards the end of his life In praise of doubt. There was an acknowledgement that the power of religion had been under estimated. Today it is acknowledged that religion has its own force in society.

Look at the studies done by Jorgan Kadamos in Germany. He conceived the power of religion in society even when he studies the history of philosophy. You can’t ignore religion and the role religion has played in human history. So many religious movements in the world show the prediction of sociologists was not right and nowadays the role of religion is powerful.

Dr Isa Jahangir has held positions as principal, senior lecturer, researcher, and head of academic department for over two decades in the United kingdom and overseas. He has been actively involved in the development and establishment of educational programs for youth in the UK and Europe. He is currently the principal of the Islamic college of London, in collaboration with University of Middlesex.

Dr Christopher Clohessy is a South African Catholic priest who holds a BST from the Pontifical Urbanianum University in Rome, and a PhD from the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), also in Rome. He is at present a resident faculty member of PISAI, lecturing there in Shīʿī Islamic studies, Qurʾān and Islamic Ethics, and is visiting lecturer at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, where he lectures in Fundamental Theology, Ecclesiology and Mariology.

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