If That’s Religion, Good Riddance!

Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.

That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.

Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.

The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.

I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.

Let me explain.

Religion’s Sudden Decline

Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.

What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.

That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.

All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.

For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:

  • Large families
  • That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
  • That they stay at home and care for their offspring
  • That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality

However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.

And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.

Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)

However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.

To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.

The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.  

Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.

Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.

Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.  

In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.

Liberation Theology

All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.

In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.

Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.

Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.

Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.

More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.

For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.

In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.

In the first place, the prophets opposed the creation of royalty at all (1 Samuel 8). In the second place, their social criticism advocated the interests of those widows, orphans and strangers (https://www.openbible.info/topics/widows_and_orphans). In the third place, they suffered the predictable consequences experienced by all (then and since) who speak truth to the patriarchy. They were ostracized, exiled, imprisoned, assassinated or formally executed https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Killing-Prophets

Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.

All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.

And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).      

Conclusion

Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?

More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?

For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:

  • First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran. To ignore this truism is to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
  • Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
  • And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

7 thoughts on “If That’s Religion, Good Riddance!”

  1. And wouldn’t Thomas Merton be pleased if liberation from the oppression of power based on wealth were to occur, and the function of religion were able to be focused on connection with the Divine in ways beyond words in order to connect with all around us. Yes, the process of seeking to know and connect with the Divine can occur in any context; and it’s a lot easier to do such when one is not preoccupied with keeping oneself or others alive.

    The point of liberation, it seems to me, is not just relief from oppression but rather is by eliminating oppression gaining the space and time (Merton is very certain on that point) to connect with the Divine in all forms, everywhere. That connection, which once made persists in the face of all hardships, is true liberation.

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  2. Watched most of this this interview, and will watch it again to see if either Rob or Prof Inglehart mention the Sikh traditions or the Protestant/Evangelical traditions of “Nordic” Europe.

    Both of those “Bottom-Up” movements sought to assist self-respecting people to get out from under the oppression of greedy, cynical, uncaring imperial rulers who siphoned their resources off to distant projects, leaving ordinary people depleted and unable to properly care for their communities at home.

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  3. The Sikhs began as a common sense self defense organization as their primary goal, and instituted rituals later as they discovered their group began to fall apart without shared rituals. (If I remember Dr. Richey’s instruction and the readings in Berea classes correctly)……

    Point being, that shared rituals and shared narratives help to create order and social cohesion in communities. People more easily know what to expect from themselves and from others. Religion provides a framework for behavior that works well (or doesn’t, in the case of religious organizations deeply corrupted by governments and organized crime)

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  4. How often is religion and religious ritual described as a “tool of matriarchy”?

    A friend who ran a daycare for toddlers in her NYC apartment told me of her experiences using rituals derived from Rudolf Steiner’s teachings. She said that when she began her daycare, the days were long, chaotic and exhausting for her. As she learned to structure the days with specific rituals, the 2-year-olds were highly pleased because they knew what to expect during their hours with her, and could initiate appropriate behavior on their own, feeling more “grown up” and personally powerful. I saw this for myself when I subbed as an assistant with her—at “circle time” the children would quietly take their places, at “snack time” they went on their own to set the tables and clean up. All was quiet, efficient and happy. The children were pleased with themselves, and there was less effort for adult supervisors.

    An Orthodox Jewish kindergarten teacher with whom I shared Passover many years ago told me a similar story. She had grown up in a rebellious secular atheist California household back in the 60s. Her parents were divorced, rebellious against all religion, and there was constant chaos with high anxiety in the shifting household of blended families.

    As an adult this woman turned to the strict rituals of kosher, Shabat-observant Judaism and was very conscious about what she found satisfying in that practice. She said she had a bit of an obsessive-compulsive personality, and the constant round of prescribed prayers and actions worked well for her.

    She was anti-contraception until after bearing her fifth child, at which point she said her understanding of the issues changed, and she fully “got” the why of contraception, and endorsed family planning by choice.

    This woman loved the company of small children with all the joy, humor and challenges that they bring to adults. A person less child-centered would probably have turned to limiting conception long before she did. Desire to parent is highly individual; there is no need for outside authorities to try and enforce what comes naturally — just enable safe access to contraceptives, and get out of the way.

    But for whatever reasons, governments just gotta govern as much as possible, even when their interference messes up lives and creates depression and disasters.

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  5. If this JStor link works, it describes infant mortality in the former Soviet Union which first appeared to go down during the 1950s… and then rose during the 1970s despite all medical advances.

    Infant mortality has many causes, but there appear to be links to exhausted, overstressed parents. Dismantling religious support and family structures in favor of depersonalized infant care provided by unattached, overstressed caregivers does not seem like a winning strategy either.

    Germany (one of those “Nordic” European countries) makes provisions for either father or mother to stay at home with children during the labor intensive first three years of life. Children who do not have a full set of teeth to chew, cannot yet use language fluently to express what is going on with them, and who are still in diapers, require many more hours of close attention, optimally from someone who knows what is going on with the rest of their days and nights. Nursing homes also find that there are fewer mistakes and better outcomes when the same people care for the same patients. Every shift handover raises the risk of missing information and resulting judgment errors.

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