The Psychological Challenge Of Religious Surrogacy

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Until recently, there was a tendency to associate modernity with secularization and to anticipate an eventual disappearance of religion. The reasoning has been that modernization interferes with the unity and solidarity of meaning systems, weakens the social underpinnings of religion, and calls into question the relevance of the sacred and its associated values. Now, however, certain developments have caused scholars to rethink secularization theory and to focus more on the ways in which modernity changes the appearance of religion, rather than extinguishes it.

One such development is the expanding body of data demonstrating that religious decline in any given society is almost always temporary and followed by various types of revitalization. Furthermore, during periods of religious decline one can observe manifestations of religious improvisations that appear to compensate for deficits in the dominant religion of the culture. Another development that casts doubt on traditional secularization and modernization theories involves the fundamentalistic transformations that may be a religious response to modernity.

Fundamentalism has been depicted as a religious voice that addresses the fears generated by modernity.11 It is a reaction against the secularizing forces that threaten traditional religious foundations. The concept of the fundamentalistic self has been used to describe an emerging identity structure that is motivated to subdue the forces responsible for the unpredict able protean age.12 The fundamentalistic self is drawn toward movements that can restore simple delineations between good and bad, God and devil, and so forth. These types of religious designs mitigate the modern experience of insecurity and chaos, while introducing antimodern elements that can restore common unifying principles as well as absolute morals and values.

In fundamentalism, religion responds to toxic historical forces by seeking to revitalize itself and to make possible the advantages traditionally associated with religion. Modern fundamentalistic religion represents a bold return to idolatry, as the Bible serves as the idol that must be followed blindly. It has responded to the need of many lost souls to find psychological sanctuary in an automatic, unquestioning, and unconscious spirituality.

There is mounting sentiment that religious motivation should be understood as a constant that seeks expression under all cultural conditions, but the means by which religious motivation tries to stay alive can take many different directions. The recent era of religious decline has been associated with a logarithmic rise in new religious movements that aim to reenchant the world. Research shows that the degeneration of dominant cultural religions is often followed by an increase in small-scale cults and other alternative religions. One study that calculated the number of cults per million people in nineteen different countries found that the highest rates of cult participation existed in the least religious countries.13

Europe, which contains some of the least religious countries in the world, has the highest rates of cult involvement. For example, Iceland has exceptionally low levels of mainstream religious belief and practice and five times the rate of cult participation of the somewhat more religious United States. The United Kingdom, which also has low levels of traditional religion, has seven times the cult participation of the United States, irreligious Sweden has four times, and Switzerland has ten times. This finding begins to sketch a picture of compensatory efforts aimed at achieving spiritual transcendence in the absence of broader cultural direction.

Declining rates of church participation should also not lead us to conclude that modernity is somehow incompatible with spirituality. For example, whereas only 2 percent of people in Iceland attend church on a regular basis, 77 percent profess a belief in God and 75 percent believe in life after death.14 Similar patterns can be seen in other superficially irreligious societies such as Denmark, Belgium, and France.

Instead of becoming completely nonspiritual or nonreligious, people continue to be motivated spiritually even when they cannot avail themselves of a traditional dominant religion. That is, spiritual needs do not cease to exist when culture no longer becomes a competent supplier of religion. The apparent absence of religion in some societies almost always coincides with the appearance of invisible religion, or what has also been termed civic religion. Nationalism and patriotism can also serve as quasi religions that compensate partially for slumping mainstream religious systems. This strategy is quite evident in the United States. Psychotherapy also has some potential to function as a religious surrogate, as famous therapists are able to muster some credibility as high priests of personal growth and self-fulfillment.

In one well-known study, researchers examined patterns of religious change in two hundred societies.15 They were especially interested in those locations where the dominant cultural religion was undergoing serious decline. The results showed that religious decline is almost always followed by a process of revitalization wherein several minority religions surface to replace the sickly dominant one. A good example of the resilience of the need for spiritual transcendence is in Russia, where religion was suppressed for several decades. During the actual suppression phase, religion went underground, replaced in part by an upsurge of interest in the occult and other paranormal quasi religions. With the recent lifting of religious bans, there has been a rush back to religion on a scale that has not been witnessed since the Middle Ages.16

An analysis of Japanese culture sheds further light on the indefatigable quality of religion. After World War II, Shintoism came under attack for its role in promoting the type of militarism that led Japan into war. Other religions, in particular Buddhism, were also greatly depreciated in the years following the war. To this day, Japan has one of the lowest rates of religious belief and participation in the world; upon closer inspection, however, it soon becomes clear that it has one of the highest rates of cult participation. Not long ago, Japan's extremist Aum Supreme Truth cult made the news as a result of Tokyo subway gas attacks. At the time of the attacks, that particular cult had only ten thousand followers, but the Aum Supreme Truth cult is only one of over three hundred cults in Japan, of which the largest has a membership in the millions.17

To reiterate, the weakness of religion today is the result of cultural disintegration rather than the loss of the need for transcendence. Instead of disappearing, spiritual energies transform themselves and reemerge in other forms. Therefore, it is illogical to speak of secularization as a process whereby religion ceases to be a factor in the lives of people. At most, it wanes temporarily only to find some other mode of expression.

Today's world is inhabited by an extraordinary number of paranormal and parapsychological beliefs and rituals. They are emerging at an extraordinarily fast rate, raising the question of their function. At this moment in the United States, UFOlogy is the religion growing most rapidly. UFO abductees have spiritually moving experiences, but there is also a great deal of variation in these experiences, and some abductees report sexual abuse at the hands of the aliens. Like all other types of new age religion, UFOlogy is uncoordinated and poorly patterned. The high degree of im provisation involved explains why no two abductees have the same experience. That is an ever-present limitation of all compensatory quasi religions.

Research at the level of the individual supports the claim that motivation toward transcendence remains relatively constant despite developments of conventional religion. One group of researchers tested the hypothesis that nonreligious paranormal beliefs and rituals (e.g., clairvoyance, witches, ghosts, ESP, astrology, UFOs) serve as functional equivalents to mainstream religion.18 Specifically, they predicted that a greater amount of paranormal belief and ritual would be found in individuals with low levels of mainstream religion. As predicted, low-religion people had significantly greater belief in the paranormal than their high-religion counterparts. These results, which have been replicated by other researchers, substantiate that nonreligious paranormal belief is a type of invisible religion that tries to make up for an inadequate measure of traditional group religion.

Another line of research has focused on individuals who indicate "no religion" when asked to indicate their religion. It has been shown that the majority of these "religious nones," as they have been called, actually have religious belief of one sort or another. One researcher found that only 19 percent of these "nones" were without a personal God.19 Granted, some people today seem to lack altogether a spiritual side, but everything tells us that this is more the result of an absence of outlets for the spirituality that lies within. Most people, even in the midst of cultural predispositions that are incompatible with human spirituality, find themselves searching for some way to meet their transcendence needs.

Some commentaries on cyberpunk culture have made reference to an absence, or rejection, of religion among its members. The cyberpunk movement has been described as one that has staged a rebellion against the illusory fantasies (including religion) of former generations, but some observers have described cyberpunk more accurately as a generation of existential seekers who are asking questions about the meaning of their lives.20 They experiment with meaning systems that have close ties with Eastern religion, goddess worship, primitive ritual ceremonies, evangelism, spiritually based growth and recovery plans, and all varieties of new age religion.

Mysticism is especially well suited to the conditions of modernity since this type of religious experience tends to be internal, free-floating, subjective, and relatively tolerant of rationalism and scientism.21 It responds well to the breakdown of traditional religious structures by releasing individuals to their inner freedoms, and to their compensatory predilection for personal experience and self-actualization. Rather than seeking to accommodate or transform the world, as members of churches and sects have tended to do, the modern mystic enjoys the option of remaining indifferent to the world while focusing on idiosyncratic experience. One possible shortcoming of mystical consciousness is that the person becomes lost in a meandering succession of spiritual probings that fail to engage meaningful sources of communally sanctioned myth and symbol. Therefore, mystics, like other spiritual specialists, find themselves partially exposed to the many insecurities and vagaries of modern life.

The media have become an important vehicle by which the world can be reenchanted and replenished with spiritual drama.22 This goes far beyond the way in which the media and religion have forged a closer union in the cultural transmission of relatively traditional modes of spirituality. Television, for example, has become the display vehicle for the secular myths and melodramas of the contemporary age. It has the potential to infuse consciousness with a sense of magic that is amplified by visual spectacle and vicarious ritual involvement. Sporting events are among the most potent media-based sources of compensatory ritual and transcendent cognitive bias.

The divinization of entertainment and entertainers through the media may seem an unlikely means by which to redress the modern spiritual vacuum. However, this process does provide media consumers with some answers and meanings, even if there is the risk that life itself will come to be perceived as something that entertains and distracts us. By providing a stage upon which moderns resacralize the world, the media can foster emotions and attachments with a transcendental quality.

Charisma has been relocated from the religious to the secular arena. Popularized media heroes facilitate religious surrogacy by serving as focal points of worship. The most adored figures in the media sphere can even offer opportunities for primitive hysterical catharsis, especially when they perform live. Some people today construct entire life-styles around the following of worshipped entertainment idols.

The convergence of media and religion is evidenced further by the evolution of commercial advertisements that tap spiritual appetites and entice consumers with spiritually laced fantasy in order to sell products. Recent years have seen an increasing prevalence of advertisements that convey indirectly the message that the goods on offer will provide some sort of inner peace or illuminated state. Product developers have discovered the value of choosing brand names that carry associations with the religious domain and of making God into the tempter. Especially common are those that target educated and fashion-conscious doubters who have gravitated toward vogue Eastern spiritual themes, thus we are now tempted by Zen skin lotion, Buddha cologne, and Karma coffee. Of course, it is rather far-fetched to presume that these products can even begin to make good on their implicit spiritual promise. More than anything, they are effective at reinforcing awareness of the new spiritual evil, which is not to look after yourself and not to consume what you deserve.

Technology is another religious surrogate that can compete to some extent with the spiritual disenchantment of modernity. As the media chroni cle the perfection of technique and celebrate breathtaking technological advances, people acquire a sense of unlimited possibility. Over time, this approximates an experience that technology can accomplish the impossible. This is not apprehended consciously as the type of impossibility we associate with religious miracles, but people's inability to imagine any limits to technology bewitches them with the awe of infinity. In a general environment that offers little ultimate hope, it is easy to allow oneself to channel one's faith needs into the omnipotence of future technology.

As the new cultural archetype of hope, technology speaks on behalf of a life mastery that can be achieved by way of absolute efficiency and the systematic banishing of the unknown. Our technological prophets allude continually to the positive transformations that can be delivered by way of technical progress. We come away with a sense that this will happen if, among other things, we can somehow be connected at all times to the information that makes this a hypothetical reality. Unfortunately, the human psyche is not an ideal landscape for the realization of the promise of technological bliss. The surface impression that technology makes life easier and more efficient obscures the paradoxical effects of technology on mental health and overall quality of life.23

Although technology can expedite the satisfaction of existing needs, it can also make the person aware of new needs that require attention. Consumers of technology are also faced with the dilemma of obsolescence, which is due to the short lifespan of new technologies. Thus, in addition to financing the replacement of outmoded technologies, the person must invest time and energy into learning about its operation. The freedom and independence that flow from technology consumption can easily be negated by an unhealthy dependency wherein technology proves more restricting than liberating.

It is not even guaranteed that technology will ultimately increase efficiency. With all the time and effort required to prepare and refresh oneself for its use, as well as the additional expenditure of energy and time needed to afford the products, it is quite possible for the result to be less efficiency and reduced coping ability. Rather than simplifying life, it often introduces complexities that escalate stress levels. Just as technology can bring people together, it can also contribute to alienation and interpersonal disengagement. All considered, technology has too many inherent structural problems that prevent it from filling the role of an emotionally sustaining religion. Technology, which has been defined as the knack for arranging the world in ways that disallow us from experiencing it, runs the risk of adding further to the psychic numbness that stalks the modern personality.24

Religious compensation is always difficult, and many people find themselves left with a residual hunger that keeps them always vigilant for new sources of spiritual fulfillment. One chronic problem with this-world religion is that it challenges the individual to transcend without much aid from the supernatural. A sense of spiritual aloneness is exacerbated by the additional challenge of having to maintain beliefs without the support of a tenable sanctioning body. Because most modern seekers can achieve only partial religious compensation, frequently they must draw on multiple spiritual sources.

It is not uncommon for the new religious eclectic to juxtapose widely divergent and even incompatible elements. In the United States, for instance, 25 percent of adolescents believe in reincarnation even though most of them would describe themselves as Christian.25 Nearly two-thirds of American young people assert that it is worthwhile to explore religious teachings from a variety of faiths, rather than adhering dogmatically to a single faith. To complete the formidable task of religious compensation, many people also find it necessary to extract spiritual sustenance from cultural themes that have been sanctified and then imported for religious utilization. In this regard, modernity has seen a considerable overlap between religious principles and those that govern consumption.

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