Holy Ignorance

When Religion and Culture Part Ways

by John L. Murphy

17 March 2011

When halal turkeys sell for Thanksgiving, "Happy Holidays" drowns out "Merry Christmas", Easter egg hunts replace Mass celebrating the Resurrection, and sacred Catholic terms in Quebec serve only as swear words, culture has parted ways with religion.
Artist unknown. 
cover art

Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways

Olivier Roy

(Columbia University Press)
US: Dec 2010

When halal turkeys sell for Thanksgiving, “Happy Holidays” drowns out “Merry Christmas”, Easter egg hunts replace Mass celebrating the Resurrection, and sacred Catholic terms in Quebec serve only as swear words, culture has parted ways with religion. French professor Olivier Roy built his career analyzing Islam’s political aspects, and in this new study, he broadens his view to also investigate Christian and Jewish reactions (with glances at Hindu and Buddhist contexts) to secularization. While the results, penned in dense and sometimes awkward prose (translated from the 2008 French original by Ros Schwartz), slow down any reader of this brief book, they deserve attention for Roy’s explanations of what happens when multiculturalism and diversity produce a “holy ignorance” where an anti-intellectual reaction to modernization opposes a world of many opposed or divergent believers, or of none.

Religious advocates may boast of a comeback, but Roy labels this resurgence as a transformation. Even if religions appear more visible now, they are fading. More people are not returning to a familial religion, for many of their recent ancestors have already abandoned its practices. Rather, believers often come as converts or born-agains, and they may demand sudden acceptance by a religious community from which the individual seeker has been estranged. This “unsaid” culture, that of subtle customs and unspoken norms, may appear alien to the eager newcomer. Those who were raised within a religion they may follow to greater or lesser degree, casually as well as fervently, may disdain the bumptious aggression of the novice who demands too loudly to be accepted as genuine. Here, Roy shows, the cultural aspects have been, for many discontented seculars who wish to reconnect with religion, already attenuated.

This disconnection between religion and culture allows a faith, in this globalized matrix, to either detach itself from its cultural origins, as immigrants and converts demonstrate, or it may force it to take the defensive approach, as with European Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and to wish for integration back into ethnic or national territories that have been secularizing rapidly during the past half-century and more. Roy sums up the challenge: “Either religion is reduced to culture, or it has to separate itself from culture (in any case from Western culture) to assert its universality.”

Cultural diversity, therefore, competes against religious claims to lift a message (as in Islam or Christianity) above its origins to save all men and women. Judaism and Hinduism mingle the ethnic and religious identities, so an atheist Jew may not be surprising, but if an atheist Muslim wishes to declare himself such, as at least one author listed here has, the fact of his Tunisian birth may be the reason that he has proclaimed his status only after moving to France. In turn, that nation, Roy reminds us, has 70 percent of its citizens claiming Catholicism, but only five percent practice the faith traditionally associated with its dominant culture for over 1,500 years.

Four reactions define historic and current responses by religion as it seeks to survive within its milieu. First, deculturation occurs when Christians try to wipe out indigenous faiths, or when orthodox Islam dominates the Indian subcontinent. Acculturation happens when the Jews of the Enlightenment adapt mainstream European values, or as India’s natives integrate Christian or Islamic influences. Inculturation places liberation theology at the center of Latin American’s indigenous ideologies. Finally, exculturation marks the Catholic or evangelical reactions we witness, as these powers fight a rearguard action against a worldly set of values that are now on the ascendant.

Religion also manufactures its own culture: Roy explains how written languages set down to spread the Gospel often turn into media that may Westernize some peoples, while strengthening the national allegiances of others. In Northern Ireland or the Balkans, religion can mold into an identity marker for a person or group that may renounce or ignore its actual doctrine, while still retaining a cultural or tribal allegiance to its mores. Historically, such transitions and transfers express how religion relates to its cultural settings.

Roy intersperses case studies from across the world, mostly in the Eurasian realms, to show the situations that illustrate these changes. Christmas as celebrated with a Yule log by the hearth was not the old custom, but a new one invented in the wake of Dickens, and this “traditional”  festival replaced the churchgoing that drew worshipers out into the cold air to walk down to their local church. Central Asians may demand to become Christians within an Islamic society; African-Americans may adopt Arab names while Arab immigrants may shed theirs when settling into America. Outcries over priestly celibacy and pedophilia and homosexuality and abortion command so much attention now because the core values that Catholicism proclaimed had, until recently, pushed opposing views on sexuality, individual freedom, and fidelity to the margins. In the heartlands of Islam, as Roy documents, similar protests remain marginalized, and therefore weaker.

As women claim more power over their own lives, and as gay rights enter the mainstream, sexual freedom becomes the new norm for secular proponents. The private sphere shrinks by communications, the police state grows by surveillance, and law steps in where the clerics once patrolled. So, bolder individuals step out of the shadow and enter the stage. Modern identities favor public display, and demand “transparency, authenticity, and truth”.

Religious defenders react in three ways. First, they may regard the competing culture as “profane”, and look down upon it. The ultra-orthodox Jewish man may speak to God in Hebrew and to his family in Yiddish; the religious signifier separates from the everyday means of communication. Next, the religious movement may see the state as “secular”, and regard it as parallel in function, as in the model of the First Amendment’s separation of powers. The third approach treats the secular society as did the early Christians that of Rome: as the “pagan” enemy.

Nowadays, these “pagans” may enact, as in Western Europe, Canada, or the United States, laws that tolerate but supervise religions as to be accommodated without state favoritism. Religious adherents, from their dissenting perspective, get treated by secular, non-discriminatory laws as a sub-culture, perhaps relegated alongside other “minorities”, such as the gays or feminists whom they often oppose. Or, as in Scandinavia I may add, neo-pagans themselves may emerge to reinvent their rituals, while most of their neighbors may regard God as outmoded as the Greek pantheon became for the descendants of its ancient inventors.

This social downsizing spurs religious proponents into an assault on “materialism, pornography, and selfish pleasure” as the new idols. The reaction to California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in 2008, or the trials of gays in Cairo in 2001, marks as deviant those authorities or subversives trying to impose secular, ‘godless’, and so-called ‘sinful’ practices upon the community of believers. While such breaks from tradition tend to be perceived as sudden, Roy locates them in earlier disconnections between the majority in a culture who in fact lose interest in the dominant religion well before the exculturation process erupts into a radical-reactionary counter-movement. Reform Jews, mainstream Protestants, and assimilating Catholics, for instance, had already been lapsing from strict doctrinal interpretation decades before Prop. 8 galvanized conservatives to rally within those denominations.

Puritanical sects resent the dominant culture. Early Protestants sought separation, as this represented first a fall from Eden into the world, and second the taint of an imaginative Catholic sensibility that had piled up non-Biblical accretions that shoved an individual away from an encounter with Scripture. Roy notes how the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, as it was not sanctioned in Holy Writ. Their spiritual heirs now flocking to evangelical storefront churches in the barrios or to suburban megachurches share a wish to separate from the immoral majority. Salafi Muslims long to revive the community as it was with the Prophet, before even theology arrived to dilute Islam. The Taliban ban television and videos; the Haredim of Jerusalem invent a kosher Internet even as they try to shut down the last movie theater in their neighborhood.

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