Knowledge and comfort are not enough to lead a sane life. Hence the inadequacy of science and technology to satisfy all our needs. As art and literature and music respond to our aesthetic longings, religion comes to our aid on the spiritual and emotional planes. For seeing meaning and purpose in life, and to answer the most profound – and often unanswerable – questions regarding life and death and relationships most people need the religious experience of one kind of another.
The raw intellectual strength of science and the enticing powers of technology tend to shake off the supports on which religious faith rests. This has led to a spiritual emptiness that is at least as serious as economic distress and physical labor. It is often such emptiness that pushes one to wasteful alcoholism, pathetic drug abuse, and destructive crimes.
What is the alternative? One way is to go back to the traditional religions with even greater fervor. Yes, one may recognize the logical flaws in their world picture, and one may grant that science has the right explanation for atoms and galaxies, and that technology can provide us with all the conveniences and coziness we need. But even science has to admit sometimes that it does not know everything, and technology has led to nuclear wars and to air pollution. So what is wrong with embracing that old time religion which was good enough for our much wiser ancestors, like Moses and Paul and their likes in other traditions? The only way to combat the intellectual onslaughts of modern science is to reject logic and reason as the sole paths to knowledge, and to claim eternal validity for holy books on the ground that there are other modes of knowing. With this spirit, many have gone back to their former religions, proclaiming in their absoluteness even greater conviction than ever before. Thus, fundamentalist religions have been gaining more and more followers.
Others have chosen apparently different routes. They have embraced many new cults and more ancient religions that have become within reach during the past few decades. According to one estimate there are in the U.S. some 1000 different religious groups claiming sizable membership. The emergence of religious cults is not a new phenomenon in human history. Any insightful person, endowed with some qualities of leadership, can, in principle, attract a throng of confused lay people and reveal to them his or her version of Ultimate Truth. As long as there are enough bewildered individuals in the world, whose faiths in the religion of their parents have been shaken profoundly, there will always be new cults and religions, for these provide alternative paths, even if these are not any more convincing (from an objective point of view) than what are already available.
Psychologists and sociologists have pointed out that some aspects of modern technological societies are especially conducive to the propagation of some kinds of cults and religions. For one thing, a drastic consequence of life in our megalopolises is a sense of impersonality and loneliness. In the stress and turmoil of mechanical existence one is often lost in a crowd, routinely performing the daily jobs for the periodic paycheck that helps one clear the bills. Intense personal contacts are rare, and friendships tend to be thin. The sense of belonging to a community, so essential to the social animals that humans are, is seldom fully satisfied. Conflict in values between parents and children arises at an early stage, and one feels rejected and ready to explore new things. The age old question of the meaning of life keeps popping up at every moment of disappointment or frustration, and there comes a point when one is prepared to accept any answer as long as it is consoling.
Then again, the present confusions of the spirit are caused not only by our science and technology, but equally by the traditional religious institutions of Western culture where science and technology arose in the first place. Therefore, it is felt, one must search elsewhere for true wisdom: for peace, tranquility, and revelation. At the same time, recognizing, in the true spirit of productive capitalism, that religion may be transformed into another lucrative enterprise, some imaginative individuals have founded religious institutions with corporate efficiency, investing the vast amounts they suck from the simple-minded into real estate and fisheries. So we have the interesting phenomenon of religious leaders riding Rolls Royces and residing in palatial mansions. Through radio, TV and word-processed form letters they reach the hearts and homes, the souls and savings of millions. Their hold on the gullible is the envy of investment firms and movie stars.
Then there are the more sophisticated spiritual innovators whose forte lies in their free use of the phrases and framework of present day psychology and science: auto suggestion, bio-feedback and alpha rhythm are all part of their vocabulary. They blend yogic insights with results from modern physics, meditation with modern physiology; they combine abnormal psychology and karma, computers and astrology. These scientific religionists are more successful among the half-educated who are made to feel that they still respect the enlightened scientific world view, rather than adhere to primitive magic in a refined garb. For, whatever one may say about frail reason and cold science, it uplifts the ego to imagine that one’s beliefs and practices do not contradict them.
October 14, 2010