Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A new book on religion and culture in the modern world

Here is a review of what looks like a fascinating book, Holy Ignorance: When Culture and Religion Part Ways by Olivier Roy. It seems that it takes a more nuanced approach to the causes attributed to the rise of fundamentalism (of all sorts) and also to the role of religion in contemporary societies. Couple of his earlier books dealt with Islam and modernity (for example, Globalized Islam: The Search for New Ummah, and Secularism Confronts Islam), but here he looks at contemporary religion, in general. Since much of the modern world is shaped and deeply influenced by modern science, the book has relevance for science and religion debates as well.

Here are some bits from the review by Alan Wolfe:
Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy’s biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.
Two tectonic shifts have produced the gap that fundamentalism fills. One concerns the question that has dominated the sociology of religion for more than a century: Will faith decline as modernity advances? The great thinkers of another era — Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber — believed that in one way or another it would. Today’s leading sociologists point to Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden to claim that it will not. Roy stands with yesterday’s giants. It is true, he concedes, that conservative religion is growing. But any talk of a religious revival is “an optical illusion.” Religion, he writes, “is both more visible and at the same time frequently in decline.” It cedes so much to the secular world that it can no longer offer a transcendental alternative to it.
We are, in addition, witnessing the severing of religion from the cultures within which it was once embedded. Religion and culture have long existed in an uneasy embrace. Catholicism is presumably a universal faith, yet long before the reforms of Vatican II allowed Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, Brazilian Catholicism owed as much to its South American roots as Polish Catholicism did to its Eastern European ones. Islam sought to conquer the world, or as much of it as it could, yet it was intimately connected to the Arab culture in which it was born. The only reason we do not find the term “secular Jew” puzzling is because we appreciate that Judaism is both an ethnic and a religious category. Much the same can be said for many of the other world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
Perhaps more importantly, he places many of the current Islamist movements in the context of nationalism rather than in the mode of, hyperbolic but catchy phrase, clash of civilizations.
Roy’s “Failure of Political Islam,” published in French in 1992 and English in 1994, infuriated those who viewed radical Islam as the major enemy of the West. Roy maintained in that book that Islamism, the perversion of Muslim faith into a utopian political movement, had little to offer ordinary Muslims and would therefore be unable to remain in power very long. (In subsequent work, Roy argues, I believe convincingly, that the ideology currently governing Iran or motivating Hamas has more to do with nationalism than with religion.) This is not a point of view that sits well with those who consider something they call Islamofascism the greatest threat to the West since Hitler. But Roy knows Islam (and Islamism) inside out. It is a shame that his views did not receive the attention in the United States given to those of Bernard Lewis, whose more belligerent take on Islam helped persuade the Bush administration to invade Iraq. 
Sounds very interesting. It is now in the mail. Read the full review here.      

3 comments:

Benjamin Geer said...

Roy is a good scholar, but his distinction between religion and culture seems dubious to me.

Salman Hameed said...

Ben,

Do you think there is a clear distinction between religion and culture in the first place? I know that the definitions issue gets really messy - so I don't know how he defines religion and culture - but it seems to me that he is emphasizing on practices - and I think that should be fine from a sociological perspective. What do you think?

Snuze said...

I agree with you, Dr Salman, in that the distinction between religion and culture is definitely up to the observer. For example, female circumcision and "honour" killings are often lumped as Islamic practices whereby many parts of the Islamic world find this incomprehensible.

Mileage will vary, Mr Geer.