Holy Ignorance

When Religion and Culture Part Ways

by John L. Murphy

17 March 2011

Artist unknown. 

Religion as a Global Export

How does the title of this book align with Roy’s viewpoint? “Holy ignorance” recalls the Pentecostal “speaking in tongues”, as this obliterates the language and favors the unmediated, untranslatable Word. The Word inhabits the believer, and its truth transmits directly from God to penitent, without knowledge, outside of theology, linguistics, or culture. Language conventionally brings culture, but in this rejection of profane culture, even religious knowledge is suspected of interference with the primary need for an individual’s salvation.

Two-thirds of this text explores cultural dimensions; the last third expands into globalization. Acculturation and deculturation both accelerate, as these two processes become more systematic, and more generalized. Acculturation expects that the dominant model imposes itself on a defeated group, which reacts by integrating or resisting. The center of Protestant and Catholic power may have shifted to Africa, where a more orthodox reaction to Western morality (as in the Anglican Communion’s debate over women priests and gay marriage) has resulted in a base so confident that native African missionaries are now breaking through service to immigrant communities in Europe and reaching out to the secularized, re-Christianizing “whites”. The Africans claim that they remain closer to Biblical norms than adherents in the West: culture separates from religion.

In the past, whole nations were forced to convert by top-down mandates from invaders or rulers; today, individuals break away from their parent culture to grow up into a new religious identity chosen on one’s own.

In another model, that of the free market, promoted by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life in its 2008 survey, demand for meaning replaces imposition of values. Religion as another product is promoted to consumers worldwide, and apart from culture. First among all Islamic movements, Al Qaida recruits 10-20 percent of its members from converts, for example, through its “internationalist wing”.  Conversely, those in areas hostile to other faiths, as in Algeria, Morocco, or Central Asia, may come to Christianity through radio, television, or the Internet. Secularization, Roy stresses, does not marginalize religion but isolates it from culture: independent of its origins, a globalizing religion can free itself via a “virtual space” that ignores “social and political constraints”. Fundamentalism, no less than secularism, becomes then an export, and converts seek it out. In the past, whole nations were forced to convert by top-down mandates from invaders or rulers; today, individuals break away from their parent culture to grow up into a new religious identity chosen on one’s own.

More than the migrations or demographic shifts assumed, some religions spread independently of many people: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufi brotherhoods need only a master and a few disciples. Self-conversions via the Internet or by those, as with Judaism, who come to a faith out of self-study in a tribe or community, also appear. This deterritorialization hastens as technology supplants a missionary into remote lands far from a religion’s cultural origins. However, as with Mormonism, missionaries from a very specific place command their own success, as one of the world’s fastest growing religions, especially among the black populations in Jamaica and in Africa. Yet, detached from its Utah Holy Land, half of its members now live outside the US.

Zen Buddhism exported by Americans back to Japan, Hare Krishnas re-Hinduizing via Indian immigrants to America, Korean Protestant missionaries in Afghanistan, Rastafarians in Nigeria, and Spanish converts to Islam who in turn converted Indians in Chiapas demonstrate how religions freed of a center reach out in all directions. Meanwhile, the territorial parish erodes into a “community of affinities,” as believers may move by social mobility, bypassing ports-of-entry, to migrate to a new locale chosen by religious similarity rather than ethnic ties. They choose where to live because of their religious sensibilities, rather than social bonds with their kin. Proximity as in the immigrant parish declines; megachurches compete among new religious movements.

Standardization, for Roy, resembles “formatting” instead of acculturation. Religion is no longer embedded in a way of life, as cultural and religious markers float apart. Exported Buddhism follows a parish model in many immigrant communities; Western Christians may turn towards Eastern methods of meditation. Formatting means interaction: a consensus forms about shared values as religiosities converge into an eclectic seeker’s quest, a defined system with legal rights, or an institutional “churchification” as Wiccans or Muslims expect a prison or military chaplain to match that provided by the bureaucracy for their Christian or Jewish comrades.

These examples stress the decisions of adults who choose to embrace a new faith. With converts, does their adopted religion pass down to the next generation, unless a culture beyond that of the household can establish its belief system within a stable community? “How can one be born from a born-again?”, Roy wonders. Transmission breaks down when the new religion lacks visibility or permanence outside the home. Isolation as a counter-culture may occur, but often (as with communes or cults), this results in short-lived communities. Social climbing may tempt, as with evangelical revivalism tied to prosperity preaching. The Jesus People who jump started America’s born-again movement in the ‘70s often failed to pass on their own transient, dated hippie culture to their own trend-driven children.

Roy dismisses the appeal of these parents from the counterculture, who try to form hip sub-cultures through halal fast-food, eco-kosher initiatives, or Christian rock to draw in today’s youth. Fundamentalism, he argues, has weakened, so religious “purity” dissolves. The ‘60s, by their promotion of the personal quest, have changed even the born-agains and the conservatives. I opened today’s paper to find an article on evangelical support for twice-divorced, newly Catholic politician Newt Gingrich, who has written with his former mistress, and now his third wife, a biography championing John Paul II.

The professor concludes that “religion has lost its original and perhaps incestuous link with culture.” Family life alters as individual choice determines partnerships, as Gingrich’s decisions illustrate rather than papal directives. Self-realization, for converts alongside those who have grown up guided by a doctrine’s decrees, trumps “natural law”. Religions, for Roy, will continue to drift away from a uniform global culture even as their followers find themselves on archipelagos, in real or virtual spaces within, but otherwise apart from the rest of the world.

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