This article is about the outlook for religions in the 21st century. It touches upon liberation theology and contrasts it with prosperity theology and religious fundamentalism. It further reports on a study about the origin of religions and its implications for human rights. For a quick overview, just read the bolded text].

Religions will have to adapt to the definitive loss of their influence and will have to share their followers with other social movements (Jaume Botey, Catalan theologian and philosopher)

-The question this statement brings about then is: Will the state have to establish a new legislative framework for religions to operate in a pluralistic, human rights-tolerant fashion?

By Claudio Schuftan, PHM

1. Used for centuries to play a role of superiority in the public space –setting moral standards and monopolizing what is sacred– religions will now have to adapt to the definitive loss of their influence and will have to share their followers with other social movements. The original message of all religious and spiritual traditions is simple and profound: It can be summarized as the recognition of ‘a mystery’ that takes us beyond ourselves and towards the love for the other. In each religion, this message has taken different shapes and has configured a different image of God, brought about different social relations and a specific rapport with the ruling political power.

2. With time, that original message has allowed religions to exert a certain monopoly in the administration of ‘the sacred’ in the areas where they are practiced. This is why every religion ought to analyze its past and ask itself what is left of the original message and what unrelated historical baggage it should let go-of. For centuries, hierarchy and political power were treated as equals. In the Middle Ages, the popes established the theory that the only true power is theirs, because it comes from God.(i)

(i): Let us not forget that many of the church officers were of blue blood and brought with them to the church the pride and the inflexibility of the folks of their condition. No surprise the clergy then showed intolerance and adherence to their old privileges. (Alexis de Tocqeville, 1856)

3. Having come up with the human rights (HR) criteria of justice, of an equitable economic model, of peace, of personal moral standards and of the role of science, modern society has rejected any dogmas coming from religion considering them an unwarranted imposition. We live in a secular society and many consider secularism is a progress, a collective enrichment, a new ‘liberty’ that facilitates an honest, unbiased dialogue and a peaceful coexistence of different ideologies plus a cultural pluralism –all of them irreversible, HR-sanctioned attributes.

4. The new society, they say, will, for the first time in history, have the privilege of being able to get close to all traditions without risking confrontation thus allowing to discover the diversity in HR that unites them all. (J. Botey)

Liberation Theology/Prosperity Theology

-For Max Weber, Protestantism was one of the elements contributing to the origins of capitalism.

5. Ponder: The traditionalist neo-pentecostal church –born in the US and exported from there– is considered a fundamental part of the current neoliberal phase of capitalism.(ii) It promotes the idea that the State ought not to intervene in society and the idea of a staunch individualism that stays aloof from social solidarity. The model of charismatic pastors was exported by the US to Latin America in the 1970s to counter the growth of Liberation Theology that was showing a clear compromise with the fate of those rendered poor.

(ii): In Latin America, the neo-pentecostal tradition got consolidated spreading the so-called Prosperity Theology that does not openly question capitalism claiming that wealth is a divine gift. Furthermore, it keeps alive sexism and patriarchy and aggressively opposes the identity of LGTBIs, any form of feminist movement and abortion rights in general –all at the core of HR principles. (Manuel Yepe)

How far is the above other from ‘the rigor mortis of religious fundamentalisms’?

6. Religious fundamentalisms are opposed to any human regulation of the will and the laws of God; they demand obedience to divine mandates that they themselves interpret and manipulate so as not to, importantly, loose the financial contributions from their followers.

7. Actually, faith is a positive force when it motivates people to think outside of themselves and to be of service. But… when it makes people strike out at others and look for demons to blame, it is doing a great disservice. Honestly, we have experienced both. (Jeff Levin)

[I found this interesting piece worth sharing in this Reader:]

“Big Gods Came After the Rise of Civilizations, Not Before, Finds Study Using Huge Historical Database.” (The Conversation | Harvey Whitehouse, Patrick Savage, Peter Turchin and Pieter Francois)

God only started watching over us quite recently, according to a study that analyzed 414 societies from 30 world regions.

8. When you think of religion, you probably think of a God who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies –the kind missionaries used to dismiss as pagan– envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behavior. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them.

9. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing-punitive-deities or, at least, postulate some kind of broader mechanism –such as karma– for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked.

10. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralizing religions came into being. Now, thanks to a massive new database of world history, known as Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping), the authors are starting to get some answers.

11. Eye in the Sky: One popular theory has argued that moralizing gods were necessary for the rise of large-scale societies. Small societies, so the argument goes, were like fish bowls. It was almost impossible to engage in antisocial behavior without being caught and punished –whether by acts of collective violence, retaliation or long-term reputational damage and risk of ostracism. But as societies grew larger and interactions between relative strangers became more commonplace, would-be transgressors could hope to evade detection under the cloak of anonymity. For cooperation to be possible under such conditions, some system of surveillance was required.

12. What better than to come up with a supernatural ‘eye in the sky’ –a god who can see inside people’s minds and issue punishments and rewards accordingly. Believing in such a God might make people think twice about stealing or reneging on deals, even in relatively anonymous interactions. Maybe it would also increase trust among traders…

13. If you believe that I believe in an omniscient moralizing deity, you might be more likely to do business with me than somebody whose religiosity is unknown to you. Simply wearing an insignia such as body markings or jewelry alluding to belief in such a God might have helped ambitious people prosper and garner popularity as society grew larger and more complex.

14. Nevertheless, early efforts to investigate the link between religion and morality [people’s rights included] provided mixed results. And while supernatural punishment appears to have preceded the rise of chiefdoms among Pacific Island peoples, and in Eurasia studies suggested social complexity emerged first and moralizing gods followed. These regional studies, however, were limited in scope and used quite crude measures of both moralizing religion and of social complexity.

15. Sifting through history: Seshat is changing all that. Efforts to build the database began nearly a decade ago, attracting contributions from more than 100 scholars at a cost of millions of pounds. The database uses a sample of the world’s historical societies, going back in a continuous time series up to 10,000 years before the present, to analyze hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space. Now that the database is finally ready for analysis, the authors are poised to test a long list of theories about global history and religion.

16. One of the earliest questions they are testing is whether morally concerned deities drove the rise of complex societies. They analyzed data on 414 societies from 30 world regions, using 51 measures of social complexity and four measures of supernatural enforcement of moral norms to get to the bottom of the matter. Research published in the journal Nature reveals that moralizing gods come later than many people thought, well after the sharpest rises in social complexity in world history. In other words, gods who care about whether we are good or bad did not drive the initial rise of civilizations, but came later.

17. As part of their research they created a map of where big gods appeared around the world. For example, Emperor Ashoka adopted Buddhism 2,300 years ago after he had already established a large and complex South Asian empire known as the Mauryan Empire.

18. Their statistical analysis showed that beliefs in supernatural punishment tend to appear only when societies make the transition from simple to complex, around the time when the overall population exceed about a million individuals.

19. They are now looking to other factors that may have driven the rise of the first large civilization. For example, Seshat data suggests that daily or weekly collective rituals –the equivalent of today’s Sunday services or Friday prayers– appear early in the rise of social complexity.

20. If the original function of moralizing gods in world history was to hold together fragile, ethnically diverse coalitions, what might declining belief in such deities mean for the future of societies today? If beliefs in big gods decline, what will that mean for cooperation across ethnic groups in the face of migration, warfare, or the spread of xenophobia? Can the functions of moralizing gods simply be replaced by other forms of surveillance?

21. Even if Seshat cannot provide easy answers to all these questions, it could provide a more reliable way of estimating the probabilities of different futures in this belief in all-seeing-punitive-deities.

22. I ask: Is all this important for the future of HR…? I will let you be the judges.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
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-I cannot stand bishops who baptize war ships. (A. Campbell, International Association of Bioethics)
– Concerns about the healing of people go back to the origins of religion, and religions have been involved in the training of healers of both body and mind. As this relationship has evolved, we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly… (J. Levin)