Religion versus Modernity

Religion versus Modernity

  1. Introduction

Religion appears a source of release as well as a source of revenge and violence. This essay offers a short review of the most important religions, and compares their characteristics with those of the upcoming modern society. The level of analysis is that of the world as a whole.

People need religion as a source of protection to create certainty and trust with respect to where we come from and where we are going, especially in the hereafter. Certainty and trust can affect the way humans treat each other and are using nature.

Because religion is important, it offers an excellent tool for those who like to dominate others, and exploit nature to reach high levels of prosperity and status. Especially in circles of science people have become suspicious concerning the way clerical people are so sure about the specifics of God’s Will. Scientists have increasingly removed all metaphysical elements from their knowledge. This trend is typical for a modern society. Logical and empirical knowledge suffices to build a huge system of production, making a large number of people prosperous.

However, there are increasing numbers of people with existential problems. In circles of the very poor as well as among young people with modern education. They do not experience a meaningful context, and feel isolated and desperate.

Girard (1990) made a thorough study of many religions and of western classical literature. Religions appear not successful in their attempt to reduce violence. But he blames modernity for not offering a solution to the typical human conflict at all. In the next section we discuss a series of religions, namely the primitive religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In a third section we discuss modernity as an alternative. In a fourth section we show what Girard means by the typical human conflict, and how to deal with it.

In many countries we observe a growing influence of modernity. We will discuss this anti-religion view in a next section. As a reaction to modernity we will discuss the work by Buber and by Keizer. Buber is a Jewish philosopher, who has theoretically as well as practically fought for peace in the Middle East. Keizer developed an integrated paradigm for human science. Then we link the results of Girard and Buber (1937) on the one hand and Keizer (2015) on the other. In a last section we draw some conclusions.

  • Religions

Primitive religion is based on the idea that life is ruled by gods and demons. These rules are the result of a long period of experience. The resulting traditions are transferred from the older to the younger generation. The tribal elders have the political authority within the tribe, and the priests are responsible to maintain the religious customs. Periodically rituals reflect the life of their gods and of the demons, being the gods of rivalling tribes. The rituals especially show how conflicts are solved – mostly by blaming some people, and exorcize them. Gods want to be beseeched. Sacrifices are needed to demonstrate obedience. If someone kills a member of a rival tribe, it will be interpreted by the own god as a victory in his conflict with a demon.

So far it is an ideal-typical description of a primitive culture. In practice tribe life never fits this frame perfectly well. When discussing Girard, we will see that primitive rules are meant to keep peace within a tribe. Peace between tribes is a different story. Especially when a tribe is relatively small, some exchange between neighbouring tribes take place, among other reasons to let boys meet girls from the other tribe.

In the Eastern part of the world different religions came up. For example, Buddhism – the doctrine of Buddha. He was a young man, grown up in a rich but isolated enclave. When he began to travel, and saw how many people were living in miserable circumstances, he was shocked. He became very popular among the mass of the people, and talked with many local authorities about how to improve the situation of the poor. Later he withdrew in solitude, and developed meditation practices. It was meant to empty the mind, thereby reducing typical human desires. Unfortunately he did not pay attention to effective methods to improve the social and the economic situation. Countries where Buddhism is an important religion are not well-developed materially, and wealth is very unequally distributed.

In India a different religion came up. When Britain conquered Southern Asia, they considered the multiplicity of religions a bottleneck in controlling the region. They created one unified religion, and called it Hinduism. It is basically about an eternal cosmic consciousness, who is the creator of the universe. The society of India is characterised by a caste system, which is religiously embedded. Humankind is interpreted as an organism. It has a head, which is the highest caste, the Brahmans. It has also shoulders, thighs, and feet: these are the lower castes. At last, there is a group of casteless people. They do not belong to society, and are used as slaves, or are just beggars. Hindu people believe in reincarnation. It means that people’s soul returns to life after their death in another body. It is possible that the soul makes progress over time. Having lived well they enter life in a higher caste. This might be the reason why so many people do not bother about the terrible situation of the low-ranked. In a next life all might be all right.

The Jews have developed their own religion, called Judaism. The most important texts are the Tanach, which is the Old Testament of the Bible. The first five parts are called the Thora, offering a series of laws. In the course of time orthodox rabbis have commented regularly on the Tanach and the Torah. A collection of important comments on these texts is called the Talmud. For the orthodox Jews the Tanach is a historically reliable book about the contract that JWHW(the Jewish God) has concluded with the Jewish people. Therefore, they consider themselves as the Chosen. The Tanach teaches us that the first people were told that they would have a good life, if they were accepting a number of rules. Alas, they did not obey, and had to leave their paradise. They had to work hard, but were promised that life was still possible – in other words, it makes sense to obey the laws of God. The first man and woman got a number of children. At a particular day two sons, Kain and Abel, were in the field, and were sacrificing something to their God. Kain saw that his sacrifice was not accepted by God, while He was accepting that of his younger brother. Kain became very angry and killed Abel. This murder stands for the human drama: we compare ourselves with relevant others, and rival with them. This status battle – who is to dominate – should be reduced as much as possible. The Tanach shows that the Jews have seriously tried to change the idea of God as revengeful to the idea of God loving his creation. The book shows a slow evolutionary approach. Only in the New Testament of the Bible do we see that the idea of a revengeful and demanding God has disappeared. But the Jews do not accept this part of the Bible. Jesus is just one of their prophets. Jewish practice shows that their idea of being the Chosen, have had far-reaching repercussions. Other religions and ethnicities saw them as arrogant and their successes were a source of jealousy. Many pogroms and attempts to genocide, with the Holocaust as the latest attempt to destroy the Jews are illustrating this rivalry. Many survivors fled to Palestine, and the Zionists erected a Jewish State. In 1947 this State was recognised by the United Nations. It was meant to be the end of this human drama. It appeared, however, the beginning of a next period of violence against the Jews. Why? Because the State was, and still is based on violent injustice: two people within one region, while one is oppressing the other. When discussing Girard  we will see why this will never end the violence. The Jewry shows a step-by-step change from primitive revenges and sacrifices to forgiving and reconciling as a reaction to conflicts. When discussing Christianity we will see that Christian practice is quite different.

A next religion is the Islam. Mohammed (632-702) was an important prophet in Arabia. At that time religions were abound and quite primitive. Mohammed felt connected to the Jewish religion. Abram and Jesus were his examples to be followed. He collected texts, written by his companions. This collection was published in the Koran, which was accepted by many of his followers as ‘written’ by Allah, the Arabic name for God. The book contains many rules to be followed. Men were responsible for the well-being of his core family. The eldest were responsible for the family as a whole. The honour of the family was crucial. To tame the male desires women should live an inobtrusive public life. A few examples illustrate the typical Muslim view of life: five times praying per day, regular donation of alms, once a year a week of fastening, and, if possible, once in a life time a pilgrimage to Mecca.

After the death of Mohammed a serious conflict about his succession split the Muslim world. One family member of Mohammed, named Ali, seized power. Others resisted and formed a counter-power. The first are the Shiites, and the second are the Sunnis. Until today they fight for religious and political power. Relevant for this essay are the following elements: Islamic rules are considered universal – everyone in a Muslim State should obey the Sharia (1), and internal as well as external conflicts are fought violently. If one person or family breaks a rule, the ‘victims’ take revenge. In practice we see that most Muslims are not radical and accept a non-Muslim country as their neighbour. There are radicals in every group, who want to Islamise the whole world. Muslim religion dominates politics. The elite is very rich, while the mass of the people are poor. A fair distribution is not relevant. Also poor people, who obey the Islamic rules are offered a place in heaven.

A last religion to be discussed is the Christian religion. The core is the idea that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the redeemer. He did not recognise the authority of the priests, and claimed that his message was meant for all people, not just for the Jews. He ignored a whole series of rules. Liberated men are able to take responsibility and decide for themselves what is good and what is bad. He dealt with many people of different walks, not something that the rulers liked.

After Jesus’ death his disciples travelled through Palestine, Turkey, Greece and Italy. In the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) priests made a collection of texts (the New Testament) and added them to the Jewish Tanach – the Old Testament. This combination is called the Bible.

When Peter, one of his disciples, later called apostles travelled through Italy, he was arrested and hanged. Why? In contrast to many local religions the Christians were unwilling to pay tribute to the Roman Gods and the Emperor. As a reaction to this hanging the Roman Catholic Church claimed to be the centre of Christianity, referring to Jesus’ words: On Peter, (which means rock), I will build my community.

When the Roman Empire became too large, it split into two pieces: the West with Rome as its centre, and the East, with Constantinople (current Istanbul) as its centre. This led to a split between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Eastern-Orthodox Church. Later the Eastern Orthodox Church split into pieces, with the Church of Kiev and later also the Church of Moscow as a centre. In Serbia the Christians erected an independent Church. Until now the Russian church claims authority over the Ukrainian church. From the moment that Montenegro became independent from Serbia, there is a dispute between the Montenegrin and the Serbian Christian Church.

The history of the Christian Church shows that the relationship between church and state has been a crucial issue. In the East the state behaves as if it is the boss. In the West the last few decades the two power centres are quite independent of each other. In Western Europe the State took over many tasks which belonged to the realm of the church during the 20th century. Social security, education and health care are illustrative for this substitution of charity for solidarity.

During the last few centuries the church has stopped being violent. The Crusaders, who went to Jerusalem in the period 900-1100, to liberate the city from the Muslims, made the last violent attempt to defend the Christian interests. In the next section we will discuss the work by Girard.

  • Girard and Mimesis  

Girard is an anthropologist, and has studied religions and literature, especially classical novels extensively. These texts differ in many respects, but have the role of the typical human conflict as a common theme. Mostly this conflict starts with competition about a particular object. A has the most beautiful house. B wants to buy it. A refuses, since he considers B as a rival, not just a competitor. The rivalry is about the status of the two persons in the social hierarchy. Then A sells his house to a person of a lower rank, and buys the most beautiful boat of the whole region. Now B wants to have this boat. A refuses, which makes B furious. He applies many tactics to get the boat, but he fails. At a particular morning the boat turns out to be set on fire. The police suspect intent. They discover that A and B are member of rivalling criminal groups. More incidents are expected. The inclination to imitate for social reasons is called mimesis.

If two groups are involved in a mimetic conflict, internal cohesion is necessary to win the battle. If some members deviate from the group culture, they are pressed to adapt or to disappear. If the deviators refuse, they are considered as scape-goats. It means that they are guilty of having created group-internal tensions. In the ideal-typical case the scape-goat is innocent. He reveals failing leadership, and therefore he must leave the group. Group unity is based on unjust practices, which is the beginning of a subsequent internal conflict.

Primitive religion projects human conflict into the spiritual world. Gods and demons struggle with each other all the time. Every tribe has its own gods. Priests are able to understand what the gods want from people. They organise services and other rites such as sacrifices and initiations. The clergy applies the traditional rules to keep order. Conflicts between tribes are more difficult to deal with. Here different gods fight against each other in very violent ways. Wise tribe leaders will try to consult each other, and develop a common culture, ruled by a common set of gods. History shows that they were not always that successful.

Buddhist tradition is focussed on meditation, which is an attempt to make the mind empty. A reduction in needs makes economic conflict less probable. So with social conflict: if we all live a sober life, there would not be any social conflict about the question who is living his life in the most sober way. However, in countries with a Buddhist tradition there is widespread poverty and violent class or ethnic conflict. Buddhists should develop an economic and social analysis to deal with matters of severe inequality.

Hindu tradition uses a strict hierarchy of castes to keep societal order. Meditation plays an important role. Acceptation of the societal position is key. The idea of reincarnation offers people the opportunity to develop positive expectations about there here-after. India is the cradle of this tradition. There is still much poverty and serious ethnic and religious conflict. To reduce this violence religion should pay attention to the position of the poor in the here-and-now.

Jewish tradition shows an evolution away from primitivism. There is one God, who is not revengeful, and does not ask many sacrifices from people. The history, as told in the Tanach, is full of conflicts between the Jews and their surrounding nations. The stories  are told in terms of the Jewish God against the demons of the neighbouring people. Quite primitive still! The current situation of the Jewish state Israel is like that of the Jews during the period of the prophets and the kings – all before the coming of Jesus. We must realise that the very orthodox Jews are not proponents of the Jewish State, and are not defending their interests by means of government power. Their kibbutzim have their own private defence.

It looks as if the Jews must accept Jesus’ idea of the liberation of the mimesis, which is universal. The Jews are not the Chosen. There is solidarity among the Jews and rivalry with their neighbouring countries. Many efforts to reach peace failed. Military strength is decisive for the status quo. But this position is based on severe injustice to the Palestine people. Both fight for the land of Palestine. The Jews are afraid that their neighbours want to throw them out. So, compromises are dangerous. Reconciliation is far away.

The Christian legacy concerns the life and message of Jesus. He was a typical scape-goat. He suggested to the Teachers that God’s message of love was for all people – not just for the Jews. This implied a complete break with the mimetic rivalry. Practically speaking many so-called Christians are not inspired to break the spiral of mutual hatred. The current situation in Europe and America shows mixed results. North-western Europe and Canada are characterised by their welfare states. The rivalry is significantly reduced by systems of consultation. But in many corners of these societies there is still much discrimination and mimesis.

  • Modernity 

Until about 1500 almost everyone was religious. In Western Europe a very long process of secularisation begins. Explorers sailed to distant countries and discovered many different cultures. Scientists developed methods of thinking and observing matters. These people could not believe that the Bible was historically and scientifically reliable. ‘We must build a more reliable framework of analysis, and we must observe whether theoretical statements are describing and explaining our world’. Christian science says that God has created the world, and is still inspiring people to do justice (Goudzwaard, 2007). Modern science says: ‘there is a world, and we have our minds to think and to understand our empirical observations. If people believe in God, that’s their own business. But it is not relevant for building a prosperous and peaceful society. Especially natural science has developed phenomenal insights and techniques. Our natural knowledge has grown in an unprecedented way. We can fly to the moon. We have improved the quality of health care. At the moment algorithms are used to produce robots, who can replace many human work efforts. We can even get control of our thinking and feeling. We learn increasingly to control our (aggressive) emotions. All people will profit from technical progress and improve their personality in the end’.

Modern minds are full of material desires. ‘Entertainment means travelling, sightseeing, eating and drinking, and music all the time. Existential problems do not exist, since existential questions are meaningless. For those who did not understand the modern philosophy there are pills with explanation. Economic growth creates a leisure class. They set the example how to live a material life. Over time wealth trickles down to other classes. For those who become ill or handicapped, they can profit from their insurances’. Dainton (2014) gives an overview of the latest inventions. He warns for too much optimism. Harari (2018) discusses the societal consequences for society – and is very concerned about it. Hindu meditation might help people to discover what it is, to be really human.

Currently our societies are not completely modern, of course. There are still many primitive elements. There is much discrimination and there are scape-goats everywhere. There is some Buddhism in the sense of people doing yoga and meditation every day. There are Christian elements: combinations of charity and solidarity. Even very advanced countries, like the Nordic countries, Germany and the Netherlands have to deal with corruption and fraud. Existential problems are everywhere. It means that people do not experience a meaningful context. In the programmes of universities students are taught that the world consists of economic men only. Every person is surrounded by things, not people. Other people are just traders. When studying psychology statistics is the most important discipline. In most courses there is no I and no psyche – there are only brains and bodies.

The most existential question is: where do I come from, and where am I going after my death. The modern answer: it makes no sense to ask these questions. If the problems continue, a physician offers the clients pills. Later we will come back to this problem. In the next section we will discuss the reaction of Buber and of Keizer on the modern vision.

  • Buber and Keizer about inspiration

Buber made a distinction between I-It relationships and I-Thou relationships. The first is about the relation between a human person and an object. The second is about a human person and another person, human or non-human. He also made a distinction between three realms, namely nature, other persons, and the spiritual world. In combination we have 6 types of relations. The I-It in the field of nature can be imagined as follows: a tree can be exploited, and the wood might be used to build houses. If a human person or a group of persons consider a tree as a person, who has played a very important role in their neighbourhood, this is a I-Thou relationship. People admire the tree and respect and maintain him. When an employer hires an employee to use its labour services, he might consider the labourer as a thing, bought on a market. Orthodox economics analyses just I-It relationships. But heterodox economics criticises the orthodoxy by saying a person cannot leave his being human at home, when he goes to the office. He should also be treated as a human. In other words, not only the economic but also the social aspect should affect the labour conditions. So with the two types of relationships in the spiritual world. When a person takes regular lessons in yoga and meditation, his aim might be to get fit and able to continue the social status battles in the factory. So he deals with his mind and tries to get inspired to dominate others. Another, more positive mind set might also lead to yoga and meditation. But then the content of his meditation is different and might be focussed on reduction of negative emotions. Buber (1937) is concerned about the process of modernisation. He interprets this process as a significant shift from I-Thou to I-It relationships.  How can we turn this process? It will take sacrifices of what he calls the small will, focussed on the daily luxuries. The released energy can be used to invest in activities, focussed on the long-term common interest.   

Keizer (2015) offers a motivation structure. Every action is multi-motivated. In orthodox economics man is assumed to be economic. It means that everyone aims at a maximum of utilities, derived from consuming goods. Neoclassical economics is built upon this axiom. Heterodox economics rejects this idea. It says that there are several motivations, all of them are endogenous in nature. In other words, it is not necessary to explicitly formulate them, they are determined by the context of the person. Orthodox sociology takes social man as its point of departure. It says that every person and every group strives for a maximum of status. There is a hierarchy of groups, and they constantly fight for more prestige at the cost of that of other groups. Heterodox sociology takes a comparable stand towards motivations as heterodox economics . Orthodox psychology assumes a psychic man, who aims at the maximization of self-respect. Heterodox psychology rejects this research strategy. All three orthodox approaches are structured in the frame of maximising something under the constraint of something else. Economic growth is limited by the state of production technology. The status battle is limited by the common morality of the fighters. The personal strive for self-respect is limited by scarce willpower. The three isolated abstractions – all of them are aspect- rather than subsystems – should be integrated and placed in a complex context, where uncertainty rules. Information is very scarce, making life unpredictable. It creates feelings of existential fear. This is an incentive for people to develop institutions – being rules of behaviour, that make the world more stable and comprehensive. Within the institutional context we can make calculations, and behave rationally. Part of the institutional framework are rules of a religious kind – based on a particular idea of who has created the world and has given man a particular function in his creation. 

In several religions the idea of a revengeful god, who wants to be beseeched, rules. According to Girard this picture of god, distracts attention from the human mimetic conflict. Everyone fights his status battle as if this is a religious service, an assignment from the own god, who is fighting against other gods, that are demons. Internal cohesion can be reached if the group has a common religious culture, including their god. Conflicts between groups, however, are triggered by this type of religion.

Modernity is an attempt to get rid of religion. ‘We don’t know how it all began – we assume that there was a big bang. Later some material appears to have the potential to give birth to living creatures. The complexity of these creatures grew, and will grow in the future. Animals were followed by humans, who will be followed by superhuman beings. All essential decisions are made by algorithms, constructed by beta-experts’. The big problem is that the human conflict is not tamed. Pharmaceutical solutions might work in the short run. But conflicts might grow and people get addicted to pills, and other quasi-solutions. Modern societies also show growing inequality and growing existential problems. John Lennon sings: “Imagine there is no heaven, Imagine there is no religion”. It’s a great song, but we can doubt about his conclusion: “we all live in peace”. He does not solve the typical mimetic conflict between people.

As long as people combine economic growth with social status, and let depend their self-respect on their economic and social success, a modern society will not end the human conflict. How can we inspire people to transform their motivations into more focus on long term common goals, such as welfare for all, justice and peace within a context that guarantees  a sustainable environment? The work by Buber is an excellent example: he worked extensively on a durable peace in the Middle-East. He had a religious upbringing. Later he left the religious-Jewish circle, and focussed his work on the here and now.

According to me, we must see religion as a reaction to the famous Heidegger question: “why is there something rather than nothing?” It is not an answer to this question; it is just a reaction to it. We don’t have the necessary information. The same holds for the question of what will happen after our death. In science we deal with complexity and uncertainty by formulating a paradigm. By introspection we discover which paradigms fit our basic intuition. Over time we are able to make our intuition more advanced – in other words, we become wiser. Some people are wiser than others. In small-group discussions we discover which paradigm proposals are worth to be researched. So with the most important but unanswerable questions: formulate a paradigm, which suggests life commitments, that might make the world a better place. Jesus: “don’t spend much time about the people, who are dead. Spend your time caring for the living”. In other words, belief in God, as the creator, who loves his creation. Don’t worry about too difficult questions about origin and death. Trust it! Focus your energy on the here-and-now. Trust people, also members of different groups, unless they prove the contrary. 

  • Conclusion

 The world has become increasingly modern. The primitive idea of gods and demons, who fight against each other is not that important anymore. But modernity has no answer to the mimetic human conflict. Modern man still aims at survival, but not only a physical, but also a social and mental survival. Buddhism tries to reduce mimesis by escaping from this world. Meditation must empty the mind, thereby reducing typical human desires and emotions. Hinduism offers losers a way out by the idea of reincarnation. Judaism has cancelled a number of primitive rules, but fuels conflicts between nations by suggesting that they are the Chosen, and that they deserve a particular region. The Islam sticks to a number of primitive practises. They claim that the clergy also rules political systems and countries . Moreover, they see revenge as the necessary answer to hostile behaviour of the enemy.

Jesus appears a revolutionary person. He breaks with many Jewish institutions, and claims that his message of the God who loves his creation, is universal, not just for the Jews. Christians can derive politics from this message. But the Church must not politically rule a country! Jesus exposes the mimetic crisis and the role of the scape-goat in ‘solving’ this crisis. Christian practise shows a different picture, however: one mimetic crisis after the other. The most recent examples are the way the USA reacted on the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. Rather than searching for the people, who are responsible for the attack and penalise them, the USA intervened into Afghanistan, and tried to organise a regime change. As a by-product they found Osama Bin Laden and killed him. In 2021 Trump followers occupy the Capitol and screamed the name of Jesus – unbelievable.

Religion should offer people release. By claiming that God loves his creation, everyone can feel his protection, whatever the circumstances. After death we turn back from where we came. We can trust our situation. Religious movements should not declare particular texts for holy. They should not claim their practices for unique and principally better than the practices of our enemy. Everyone should be prepared to accept that in some regions practises are more humane than in other regions. Northern Europe has reached a high level of civilization. But also these people can learn from other people in the world.

We can – step-by-step – reduce the mimesis one-sidedly. We focus on the job we have to do here and now – the poverty in the world, the injustice done to some many people, who are discriminated, and the maltreatment of animals and exhaustion of nature. Courageous people stand for truth and justice. Praying must not be a I-It relation, but a I-Thou relation. We should not constantly ask for being blessed. Inner peace is the great reward for sincere humans. With regular meditation we begin with seeking silence and quiet emotions and thoughts. Subsequently we go to what happened during the recent past, and evaluate it critically. Then we go the nearby future, and imagine what our vulnerabilities are. We imagine what we will do differently. We take a short nap, and walk to the next activity. Once a day? Once a week? Everyone decides for himself. Doing it alone, or group-wise? It’s up to yourself. The general attitude is humility – not searching for social recognition.

The benefit for society as a whole is a significant reduction in the abuse of power. People trust their selves and know they are essentially safe, whatever the opponent is doing. As the Jews found out: no revenge, but react in a proportional way. An eye for an eye. Meanwhile communicate with the enemy in a I-Thou way, not in a I-It way. Guantanamo practices show that ‘Christian’ America is still quite primitive.


Buber, M. (1937), I and Thou, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Dainton, B. (2014), Self, Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin Books.

Girard, R. (1990), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: London: Penny Pincer Deals.

Goudzwaard, B. , M. Vander Vennen, and D. Van Heemst (2007), Hope in Troubled Times, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.  

Harari, Y. N. (2018), 21 lessons for the 21th century, London: Jonathan Cape.

Keizer, P. (2015), Multidisciplinary Economics: A Methodological Account, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piet Keizer

Emeritus Associate Professor of Economic Methodology  —  Gieten, 7-9-2021.

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