The New Religious Identities
“The challenge of the 21st century won’t be dialogue among religions
but rather dialogue between religious and nonreligious people,”
says this expert who offers us a brief assessment of the
situation of religions “given the supply and demand”
of new religious identities we see emerging everywhere.
Religion, in its free and creative flight, has evolved and taken on new forms that present authentic challenges to some, especially politicians and religious hierarchies, who fear losing something—I don’t know what—that has nothing to do with religion. For others the challenge is that not all the new forms have the same value.
For some it has to do with a return to religion, rectifying the predictions of a secularization that didn’t happen. For still others it has to do with the persistence of a natural anthropomorphic fact that human beings have always been homo religioso, as Mircea Eliade and Julien Ries, among many others, have pointed out.
I have attempted to classify the relatively new trends of today’s invigorated new religious interest. From these trends come diverse concrete social-communal structures. None of these trends or attitudes occurs in a pure state, none is incompatible with the others and often they appear within classic religious traditions or nonreligious convictions.
Religion without the church filter First, we find the phenomenon of no religious affiliation. This isn’t about religious indifference or a rejection of religion. It’s the attitude of people who take an interest in religion or religious conviction that goes beyond its traditional dimensions or its socio-cultural function.
They don’t want to identify themselves with the social institutions that claim to represent religion and are only interested in the moral or spiritual dimension of the tradition. They believe they can have access to these moral aspects without having to go through the institutional power filter (hierarchies, rites, organization, beliefs) that publicly claim to be the exclusive preservers and keepers of that ethical tradition and spiritual inheritance.
A possible offshoot of this attitude is what some are calling today “religion a la carte,” where religion becomes a consumer item to be accommodated, manipulated and trivialized.
Religion as self-helpSecond, we encounter the growing phenomenon of spiritual counseling, akin to spiritual coaching. Here religion and spirituality are basically viewed as therapeutic aspects of emotional wellbeing and psychic and physical health.
Catalonia’s public radio, which has the largest audience in that autonomous region of eastern Spain, took a gamble by replacing a sports show with a New Age program on spirituality hosted by psychologist-journalist, Gaspar Hernandez. Since that time he has increased the audience size, received prizes and written bestsellers.
Religion as a spiritual searchThird, we need to recognize the spiritual seeker as one of the new religious forms today. All religious experience is a personal path that entails a sincere, unceasing search for truth and openness to the transcendent. What’s new about this identity is that it’s not a passing state but rather a righteous attitude that extols the virtues of liberty, honesty and human realization as an open and continual process aimed at approaching the infinite richness of reality.
For the seeker who joins the search for authenticity, spirituality is different from religion as morality, a body of doctrines, rituals of institution. For Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher whose work has touched on questions of spirituality, violence and culture, the future of religion depends to a great extent on the synergies produced between the established religious authorities and the seekers, whom he considers religion’s “creative ones.”
Religion of various religionsFourth, we meet the “multiple adherent” or religious activist. Often this translates simply into a multiple religious identity or sympathy with a wide range of different religious forms. The person identifies with various religious traditions, generally well rooted and prestigious ones. The person practices the religions simultaneously but not necessarily in a confused manner. This is less about an eclectic mixture and more about syncretism or a merging of religions based on the personal biography of each individual.
It’s practically impossible for people with this identity to practice the rituals of the different traditions simul¬taneously, but, it’s very common for them to use the sacred texts, meditation techniques and some of the doctrines of different religions to experience more intensely their encounter with Reality.
People with this attitude believe that religious identities are dynamic and do not necessarily speak with one voice and that humanity’s fullness should allow for more than one way to formulate and interpret Reality. Rather, when lived in harmony and with no confusion in one’s heart, diversity helps one experience the immensity of Reality more fully and understand the world and oneself better.
Secularism as a pseudo-religion Fifth, secularism is another identity that replaces religion. When lived as an absolute, secularism necessarily tends toward dogmatism and exclusivity, just as has been historically the tendency of religious fundamentalism.
Secularism tries to reduce religion to the arena of strict privacy, converting it into one of the last taboos of a free society. With the excuse of avoiding confusion between State and Religion, it proposes a complete separation, artificially removing religion from the public domain and facilitating the impunity and authoritarianism of religious hierarchies in exchange for limiting their field of influence to their own community.
Understood in these terms, secularism is a pseudo-religion that gives meaning to the lives of some people. It claims to be almost the exclusive heir of scientific modernity and rational Enlightenment. It holds as its highest value the idea of “citizenship,” understood as a uniform mold in which identities dissolve to guarantee the values of equality, liberty and solidarity or “fraternity.” Secularism is largely fed by the overt or covert practice of “confessionalism” [which apportions political and institutional power according to the weight of different religious communities] and will continue to have life as long as there are pockets of confessionalism in the States.
Religion disconnected from cultureSixth, there is also a religious identity supposedly disconnected from any cultural form. The secularization process has distanced religion from culture to the degree that the theory of the clash dialogue of civilizations makes no sense.
Conversions are proof of this disconnection between culture and religion. Religion, especially religious fundamentalism, is now returning to the public arena, but devoid of culture. This elimination of culture seems to be a requisite for the universalizing of religion. And curiously, the religious groups that are growing the most today are those demanding the fewest cultural requirements of their followers.
Religion without beliefsLastly, there is also “religion without beliefs.” This new identity goes beyond the distinction between faith and beliefs, very common in Philosophy of Religion and in Theology. Based on that distinction, we discover a growing trend in sectors with a certain social level and cultural and artistic concerns. There is a proliferation of certain groups and initiatives that are interested in religious questions and in religions as an experience of human fullness and wisdom outside of beliefs, doctrines, rituals, morality and the usual institutional trappings.
In this identity the religious experience is understood as a path and as internal personal fulfillment as a human being, which, of course, will have repercussions in one’s social life. To this end it is fundamental to access the mystic experience through the texts of religious teachers, many of whom have been forgotten or persecuted by their respective religious institutions. Access to these texts is possible today due to the immense body of translations and popularization especially in the second half of the 20th century.
The textual hermeneutics proposed by those who live this identity is symbolic and spiritual, rejecting a literal or moralizing reading, not because it’s false—though it may be—but because it’s useless in providing guidance for a viable human experience in today’s postindustrial societies.
Is religion without religionThe theorizers of this last identity, especially Mariano Corbí and Amando Robles, consider “religion without religion” to be the only sustainable religious attitude in our new cultural paradigm based on liberty and continuous change. This option allows access to the spiritual experience to those who are not theists and atheists as well as to theists themselves. Here the beliefs lose their central value and become more useful for the personal spiritual experience of liberating the personal and social ego. Beliefs can no longer be justifications for manipulating religion on behalf of nonreligious interests.
the only sustainable one?
Francesc Torradeflot is the secretary of UNESCO’s Association for Inter-religious Dialogue. These are extracts from his presentation at the Seventeenth Religious Forum of Vitoria, the Basque Country, March 2009.