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.
Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways
(Columbia University Press; US: Dec 2010)
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.
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 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.