Contemporary Religion

Whatever your personal opinion on religion, there has been much debate about its role in contemporary society, and the primary issues within religion today. 

Contemporary Religion Contemporary Religion

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Table of contents

    Some argue that religion's influence on society has declined considerably and that people are becoming less and less religious. Others point to the rise of religious fundamentalism as evidence that religion is not, in fact, less important. We will discuss these differing views on contemporary religion.

    • We will start with the meaning of contemporary religion.
    • We will introduce the concepts of secularisation and religious fundamentalism within contemporary issues in religion.
    • We will go over religion in contemporary society: globalisation and the role of religion in economic development.

    • We'll consider the contemporary philosophy of religion and its historical and current relationship with science and art.

    The meaning of contemporary religion

    Religion has been a significant part of human society for a very long time. World religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism played an important role in forming societies' value systems, rules, social practices, holidays and so on. Their importance in people's lives has changed over time. Attitudes towards religion were very different in the Middle Ages and in the Enlightenment, for example.

    Sociologists argue that religion and its place in society have been going through a transformation in recent decades as well. When searching for the meaning of contemporary religion, they study how people regard religion in their everyday lives and how religious institutions influence social structures, values, and rules today.

    Contemporary issues in religion

    The major issues and debates surrounding religion in contemporary society tend to revolve around its degree of influence.

    Some argue that religion's influence on society has declined considerably and that people are becoming less and less religious (this process is called secularisation). Others point to the rise of religious fundamentalism as evidence that religion is not, in fact, less important.

    The secularisation debate

    This is an important issue, as the religious landscape of modern Britain has undergone remarkable changes compared to a decade or so ago.

    Evidence shows a reduction in religious practices and beliefs - declining church participation/membership, baptisms and church weddings, as well as traditional Christian beliefs overall. In contrast, there is considerably greater religious diversity.

    The influence of religious institutions on public life has not completely dissipated (e.g., Church of England bishops have sway on law-making in the House of Lords) but the state has primarily taken over most functions under the jurisdiction of religious institutions. This has all been theorised to be the result of the long-term process of secularisation - where religion and religious beliefs and practices lose significance in society.

    Sociologists have come up with different explanations as to the causes and drivers of secularisation. Some argue that secularisation is a result of the rationalisation of society and the increasing importance of science. Others believe it is due to the process of replacing religious institutions with secular ones, i.e., the state. Multiculturalism and religious diversity are considered catalysts by others.

    Whatever the culprit may be, there are also doubts about whether secularisation is such a widespread phenomenon in the first place. Critics assert that the situation is not so black and white, that religion may just be changing in nature instead of declining, and that secularisation theory is very Eurocentric.

    Contemporary Religion, People shaking hands at group table meeting, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Some believe cultural diversity leads to secularisation.

    The rise of fundamentalism

    Seemingly completely contradictory to the trend of secularisation in contemporary society is the rise of religious fundamentalism, which seeks to return to a religion's most traditional values and beliefs. It involves literal interpretations of, and a very strict reliance on, a religion's sacred text(s). This is the basis of most 'extremist' religious movements in contemporary society.

    While differing greatly in scope, fundamentalist religious groups exist all over the world - prominent examples are ISIS in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Africa, and the New Christian Right in the US.

    Fundamentalism is often attributed to the increasing secularisation of society - a defensive reaction to the perceived threat of modernisation brought by globalisation. It can also be viewed as a response by religious individuals and groups to the uncertainties of the postmodern world. Within economically developed countries, fundamentalism can be seen as a pushback against social change and progress.

    Religious fundamentalist groups are as unique as religions themselves, but usually have some core characteristics in common:

    • They believe in the literal truth of religious texts; what is written in them is final and irrefutable.

    • They reject religious diversity and see themselves as opposed to the rest of the world. They take their religious duties and lifestyles very seriously.

    • They tend to be against all forms of secularisation and have aggressive reactions to anything they perceive as undermining their religion.

    • They generally hold conservative political views.

    Religion in contemporary society

    The role of religion in the economic development of increasingly globalised societies is much disputed. We will discuss some of the sociological theories on the issue.

    Religion, globalisation, and development

    Secularisation theory posits that the more modernised a society becomes due to globalisation, the less influence religion should have on it. On the other hand, the higher the levels of religiosity in a given country/society, the less likely it will experience economic growth and development.

    However, sociologists argue that religion in some cases may actually have an overall positive impact on development. The branch of Protestant Christianity known as Calvinism may have played a defining role in the growth and establishment of capitalism in the 17th century through its religious teachings; it extolled the values of hard work, entrepreneurship, and refraining from 'unnecessary' expenses. This created an ideal 'work ethic', and good conditions for development.

    There is recent evidence to suggest that this is true, even in more contemporary times and across different continents and cultures. Some researchers credit the rapid industrialisation and economic successes in India, East Asia and Latin America to their separate religious contexts, (spurred on by globalisation, of course).

    In India, the strategic combination of Hinduism with capitalist values created an Indian middle class comfortable with globalisation and the wealth it brings and even led to rising levels of religiosity.

    Contemporary Religion, Photo of Indian god Ganesh in crowd, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Religion in India has adapted to globalisation and economic prosperity.

    Contemporary philosophy of religion: is it incompatible with science?

    Many sociologists view science as a product of the process of rationalisation which began in the 16th century as a result of the Protestant Reformation. The resulting advances in scientific thinking have been thought to undermine religion and religious belief by changing the way we think about things and explain the world.

    This is because science is an open belief system where all scientific theories are open to criticism and testing, but religion is a closed system, where its teachings are absolute and unquestionable. Thus, the more people believe in scientific explanations (that can theoretically be proven), the less weight religion tends to hold.

    As a result, religion and science are often considered incompatible in modern society, and there can sometimes be conflicts between the two.

    Some Christian sects maintain that creationism should be taught in schools instead of the biological theory of evolution.

    However, others argue that science and religion address different aspects of human life that deal with different human needs, so they can coexist. Some new religious belief systems also claim to be based on science, such as Scientology.

    Contemporary religion and art

    Religion has historically been very closely intertwined with art. The church shaped the nature of Western art for centuries. Some of the most famous works of art of all time were commissioned by religious bodies, i.e., the paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

    In contemporary times, though, much of art has moved beyond simply depicting religious subjects, with artists primarily exploring other topics. Artists often satirise or subvert religion when they do depict it.

    An art exhibit called 'La Nona Ora' - a life-size installation of Pope John Paul II being struck down by a meteor - caused controversy and spawned different interpretations upon being unveiled by artist Maurizio Cattelan in 1999.

    Contemporary Religion Art Sistine Chapel StudySmarterFig. 3 - Religious art, such as Michelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam' (from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), dominated the Western art world for centuries.

    Contemporary Religion - Key takeaways

    • Religion in contemporary society plays a complex role and has varying degrees of significance. The secularisation debate states that religion has become increasingly less important as society becomes more globalised.
    • Religious fundamentalist movements aim to return to the basics of their faith, and live a very strict religious lifestyle based on literal interpretations of their sacred texts. Potential causes of fundamentalism include defending the religion against secularisation, uncertainty due to modernisation, and pushing back against social change.
    • Some sociologists believe religion can positively impact economic development, e.g. the religious values of Calvinism actually led to a capitalist economy. Recent examples of religiosity and development coexisting can be seen in India, East Asia, and Latin America.
    • Religion and science are considered incompatible by many since scientific explanations are thought to override religious beliefs, and religion is a closed belief system. Others assert that they can coexist since they operate in different spheres.
    • Art has historically been deeply influenced by religion. While this is less the case nowadays, contemporary art still finds unconventional ways of incorporating religion.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Contemporary Religion

    What is contemporary religion?

    Sociologists argue that religion and its place in society have been going through a transformation in recent decades. When they search for the meaning of contemporary religion, they would like to find out how people regard religions in their everyday lives and how religious institutions influence social structures, values and rules today.

    What are some contemporary challenges and issues related to religion?

    Contemporary challenges and issues related to religion include the secularisation of society, the rise of religious fundamentalism, religion's relationship to globalisation and economic modernisation, its conflicts with science, and its changing relationship with art.

    What is the role of religion in contemporary society? 

    Some argue that religion plays an increasingly insignificant role in contemporary society due to processes such as globalisation, secularisation, and rationalisation. However, this is refuted by others. 

    Why do we study contemporary religions of the world?

    Religion has been a significant part of human society for a very long time. World religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism played an important role in forming societies' value systems, rules, social practices, holidays and so on. Their influence on contemporary society is extremely significant, so sociologists are interested in knowing more about how ancient dogmas operate and affect people's lives today.

    What is contemporary inspiration in religion?

    Many traditional religious institutions have changed over time to adapt to the new social needs. Contemporary inspiration can be found in all ancient religions, even in the ones that stayed most true to their core teachings and beliefs. Technological developments and modern ideas infiltrated religious institutions as well. These we can call contemporary inspiration.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the result of globalisation and economic development in India?

    What is religion classified as?

    Which process is said to cause a defensive reaction to the perceived threat of modernisation?

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