“Science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life.”
— Albert Einstein
“All real art is, in its true sense, religious; it is a religious impulse; there is no such thing as a non-religious subject. But much bad or downright sacrilegious art depicts so-called religious subjects.”
— Madeleine L’Engle
Is there really a need for religion(s) in the 21st century? If there is, why? Isn’t it that religions have always been with us since time immemorial and we take their existence as something normal? Without getting into a hasty generalization, isn’t it that every individual person who has a religion was actually born into it (of course, except those converts in their adult life)? In this sense, we should not be talking about the need for religion(s). Religion seems to be a spontaneous event as if it just comes naturally, i.e., without any resistance at all on the part of someone entering into it. The initiation is so unconstrained that it is even construed as a celebration.
Or having this kind of notion is just a rehearsal of a classic understanding of what religion is. In that case, such classic treatment is nothing but a romanticizing of its past glory that no longer makes sense from the perspective of modern humanity. In this connection, we could assume that there has been a rocky path in our journey through historic time where religion has encountered strong resistance like a sailboat struggling to keep afloat amidst the onslaught of giant waves in a stormy sea. Perhaps religion has been under attack from adversaries who have been sick and tired of its lofty promises that don’t match up with paramount reality. Perhaps religion has already reached its limits that it can no longer cope with the tall order of science. In other words, religion has already failed–and failed miserably–to satisfy certain inquiries emanating from the inquisitive mind of the modern person.
But despite all this condition, there are still those who tightly cling to their religion and are still able to make sense of and get fascinated by their unified experience of the “mysterium tremendum” or “awe-inspiring mystery”. They have absolutely determined once and for all that they are never in a position to question such an experience much less the fact that they feel well and comfortable, safe and secure within the confines of such a perfect state. That is their “windowless” (with apologies to Leibniz) reality impregnable by the assault, torrent, and bombardment of common sense, logic, and modern science. For them, the issue of religion as a need is pure nonsense. They have resolved decisively and conclusively that religion is the cozy cradle that has lulled their senses to unmitigated joy and tranquility.
In a world beset with all types of problems big and small, simple and complex, despite the progress generated by science and technology by leaps and bounds, there are moments when we find ourselves alone even amidst a crowd gathered around us that doesn’t know, much less care, about our sufferings. We are in the company of colleagues, acquaintances, and friends but we are all alone in the unspoken pains that continue to linger in our hearts. And we look for inspiration and insight to brighten, freshen and uplift the spirit in us. In the words of the German philosophical theologian, Paul Tillich, we are set to discover the existential significance of an “ultimate reality” to make our lives worth living. This is the factor that connects and identifies with the religious impulse or the impulse of the spirit in us.
Under normal circumstances, this urge is present in every human endeavor to make one’s life liveable. It doesn’t have to be called “religious” or something associated with the common understanding of religion. But the seminal principle of practically all established religions in the world emanated from this impulse. It could even be understood as the one single integrant of human existence that spontaneously gathers individual persons together to satisfy the inherent longing to belong and be associated with each other in achieving common goals from day to day as we share the same horizon not only in the here and now but more significantly in the future.
Along this line of thought, this impulse of the spirit, if you will, has perennially been present in every age and generation. And as we connect it with the basic notion of religion that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with our concept of organized and institutionalized religion as we know them all around the neighborhood, it is the factor that also seeks and desires for a gathering in a community of likeminded individuals. The issue of belief and faith is out of the question at the earliest point of encounter. What really matters most importantly is the community itself–something that is lacking in a typical modern western society of thousands of beaten paths reflective of the separate ways people take as they pursue their individualistic, even egotistical, way of life.
In conclusion, we can say with a modicum of reasonable certainty that the need for religion(s) is commonplace in all ages and thus in the 21st century. Religion in all forms and shapes, colors and hues is here to stay. It may assume a new configuration, both internal and external, but it will always be around as a fitting manifestation of an impulse inherent in humanity whether it is theistic or atheistic, pantheistic or panentheistic. What truly matters is the instinctive inclination and urge of normal likeminded people to gather together in a sharing community. In the final analysis, believing in a supreme being or not is not the key point; it is the feeling of belongingness. And this we have witnessed in the invention of new religions and the reinvention of traditional ones as well.
(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 2 April 2019