In times of neoliberal precarity, religion helps master the dread and uncertainty.
An image from Kanwar, India’s largest annual religious pilgrimage. Photo by Vikash Singh.
In his 1967 book, The Sacred Canopy, sociologist, Peter Berger, famously argued that religion would decline and become redundant as the world modernized. Three decades later, equally famously, he did a volte-face and said he had been proven wrong; religion was back with vengeance. Like so many “theorists of modernity,” Berger had made the mistake of thinking of modernization as abstract history instead of concrete social reality, a tack sociologists inherited from Enlightenment philosophy. The philosophes of that era entertained a conceptual understanding of history as a long arc with an inbuilt direction, purpose, or goal (telos) and seen through this lens the decline of religion, as science and technology took over, was regarded as an inevitable, scientific truth—one of sociology’s own “laws” to rival the inviolable rules that govern the hard sciences. Yet in our fascination with science, carried away by the systematic biases of Cartesian objectivity, we have ignored something critical: the concrete conditions of human existence.
We are wont to approach the resurgence of religion, as it is often called, with suspicion, as fundamentalist and fanatic. But one must be careful.
I spent about a year, studying the Kanwar, a religious movement in India, in which millions of people carry water from the river Ganga to local Śiva shrines. This used to be a modest event, involving a few thousand people, but the pilgrimage has grown explosively over the last couple of decades. We are wont to approach such resurgence of religion, as it is often called, with suspicion, as fundamentalist and fanatic. And considering the rapid political ascendancy of the Hindu right over the same period of time, there may be some justification for such a reading. But one must be careful, because that is precisely the trap of abstraction.
As soon as I approached these subjects in their situated material and moral circumstances, I found not “fanatics,” but poor young men and women coming of age in conditions of hopeless uncertainty. These were people trying to find a meaning for their lives and find a path to life, livelihoods, and honor, in a sea of traumatic misfortunes and deprivation. In an exclusive global economy, premised on seducing and ingesting people as consumers while violently rejecting them as workers, religion becomes an alternate field for performed existence as well as social and self-recognition. In conditions where the overwhelming majority of workers are informally employed, and the prospects of a stable livelihood and respectable future are faint if not illusory, the often painful journey repeats, performs, and prepares for a daunting transition to an elusive adulthood. It is an open and freely accessible, yet formidable and valued stage for people to practice and demonstrate their talents, resolve, and moral worth.
Photo by Vikash Singh.
To practice and prepare, however, is only one aspect of these repetitions. As Freud has taught us, “repetition” also involves the drive to master and accomplish, with death and destruction at hand. In identifying with Śiva, the destroying master of the world and a pathetic drunkard, as expressed in their own aggressiveness, participants seek to demonstrate their own sovereignty and desirability despite their often abject, stigmatized status. The religious event thus is also a means to contest the symbolic violence, and social, sexual, and economic inequities of a hierarchical society now dominated by a neoliberal social ethic as imposing as it is exclusive. Beyond any reaction against modern changes, I saw young adults and teenagers anxious to make something out of their lives, and to deliver on the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, and agitated by the dead end futures they saw ahead of them.
The force of religion, we see, comes not primarily from what is called “fear,” or desire for “rational knowledge,” but from the very real consolation and hope that it gives to the suffering, the poor, and desperate. It offers solace and divine recognition for one’s ordeals, and promises miracles in an uncaring and ruthless world, in which there is no chance. For most of human history, we (the masses) have suffered. Poverty, disease, death, hunger, wars, and famine have been the rule. There have been few if any institutional recourses to address this widespread suffering, or care for our blood, tears, moral pangs, and helpless cries on seeing our loved ones dying, beyond religion. In such hopeless circumstances, religion—for all its limitations—promised hope, even miracles, a meeting beyond death, hearings in the other world, a true day of judgment. For many, religion still holds this promise.
The force of religion, we see, comes not primarily from what is called “fear,” or desire for “rational knowledge,” but from the very real consolation and hope that it gives to the suffering, the poor, and desperate.
Berger would eventually amend his position. Rather than seeing religion as a phenomenon that was gradually and inevitably being displaced by the modernizing forces of science and technology, he began to argue instead that the resurgence of religion was a reaction against secularization; that is, desecularization. Drawing on my research on religious practice in India, however, it was obvious that this celebrated sociologist was wrong then… and wrong now.
Religion is implicated in a slew of politico-economic circumstances, psycho-moral concerns, and social conflicts that are as immediate and local as they are historical and global—the case of the Kanwar pilgrimage is just one brief snippet of lived social existence that demonstrates this. These complex determinants of social and religious practices, however, are repressed when religion is habitually seen as atavistic and irrational, while the excesses of neoliberal capitalism pass as rational and meritocratic. Ignoring the practical rationality and ethic of religious and cultural practices, these habits of thought legitimate all kinds of physical and symbolic violence against ordinary social actors while keeping us tied in arcane debates about the oppositions between modernity and tradition, reason and religion, or secularization and desecularization.
It would be reasonable to expect that modernity would diminish the importance of religion insofar as it would alleviate human suffering. That is, to the extent that we would have real institutions providing healthcare, livelihood security, freedom from war and strife, and thereby a healthy life, moral education, accessible doctors, and more social certainty, we wouldn’t need many miracles. If our grief was bounded, predictable, and everyday life not as tormenting, and institutional recourses were available, we wouldn’t have to desperately seek magical solutions. The idea of secularization would be spot on if this was what modernity meant, as long as it delivered on this sublime, awesome promise.
But that’s precisely where we have failed, tragically. In a world where half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, where suffering and despair, hunger and famine, war and strife are as relentless as they have ever been, and there is no ground for faith in institutional help and secular justice, we have none but God, this supreme judge, the great Witness to plead. There is nothing “irrational” about faith in God, in miracles, in the temptation of magical thinking, when that is the only, if illusionary, glimmer of hope that makes it worthwhile to look forward to another day.
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