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God now serves the nation

So far, modern ideologies, scientific experts and national governments have failed to create a viable vision for the future of humanity. Can such a vision be drawn from the deep wells of human religious traditions? Maybe the answer has been waiting for us all along between the pages of the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas.

Secular people are likely to react to this idea with ridicule or apprehension. Holy scriptures may have been relevant in the Middle Ages, but how can they guide us in the era of artificial intelligence, bioengineering, global warming and cyberwarfare? Yet secular people are a minority. Billions of humans still profess greater faith in the Quran and the Bible than in the theory of evolution; religious movements mould the politics of countries as diverse as India, Turkey and the United States; and religious animosities fuel conflicts from Nigeria to the Philippines.

So how relevant are religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism? Can they help us solve the major problems we face? To understand the role of traditional religions in the world of the twenty-first century, we need to distinguish between three types of problems:

Technical problems. For example, how should farmers in arid countries deal with severe droughts caused by global warming?

Policy problems. For example, what measures should governments adopt to prevent global warming in the first place?

Identity problems. For example, should I even care about the problems of farmers on the other side of the world, or should I care only about problems of people from my own tribe and country?

As we shall see in the following pages, traditional religions are largely irrelevant to technical and policy problems. In contrast, they are extremely relevant to identity problems – but in most cases they constitute a major part of the problem rather than a potential solution.

Technical problems: Christian agriculture

In premodern times religions were responsible for solving a wide range of technical problems in mundane fields such as agriculture. Divine calendars determined when to plant and when to harvest, while temple rituals secured rainfall and protected against pests. When an agricultural crisis loomed as a result of drought or a plague of locusts, farmers turned to the priests to intercede with the gods. Medicine too fell within the religious domain. Almost every prophet, guru and shaman doubled as a healer. Thus Jesus spent much of his time making the sick well, the blind see, the mute talk, and the mad sane. Whether you lived in ancient Egypt or in medieval Europe, if you were ill you were likely to go to the witch doctor rather than to the doctor, and to make a pilgrimage to a renowned temple rather than to a hospital.

In recent times the biologists and the surgeons have taken over from the priests and the miracle workers. If Egypt is now struck by a plague of locusts, Egyptians may well ask Allah for help – why not? – but they will not forget to call upon chemists, entomologists and geneticists to develop stronger pesticides and insect-resisting wheat strains. If the child of a devout Hindu suffers from a severe case of measles, the father would say a prayer to Dhanvantari and offer flowers and sweets at the local temple – but only after he has rushed the toddler to the nearest hospital and entrusted him to the care of the doctors there. Even mental illness – the last bastion of religious healers – is gradually passing into the hand of the scientists, as neurology replaces demonology and Prozac supplants exorcism.

The victory of science has been so complete that our very idea of religion has changed. We no longer associate religion with farming and medicine. Even many zealots now suffer from collective amnesia, and prefer to forget that traditional religions ever laid claim to these domains. ‘So what if we turn to engineers and doctors?’ say the zealots. ‘That proves nothing. What has religion got to do with agriculture or medicine in the first place?’ Traditional religions have lost so much turf because, frankly, they just weren’t very good in farming or healthcare. The true expertise of priests and gurus has never really been rainmaking, healing, prophecy or magic. Rather, it has always been interpretation. A priest is not somebody who knows how to perform the rain dance and end the drought. A priest is somebody who knows how to justify why the rain dance failed, and why we must keep believing in our god even though he seems deaf to all our prayers.

Yet it is precisely their genius for interpretation that puts religious leaders at a disadvantage when they compete against scientists. Scientists too know how to cut corners and twist the evidence, but in the end, the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different tack. That’s why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses. Over the centuries, even the true believers have noticed the difference, which is why religious authority has been dwindling in more and more technical fields. This is also why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilisation. When things really work, everybody adopts them.

Policy problems: Muslim economics

While science provides us with clear-cut answers to technical questions such as how to cure measles, there is considerable disagreement among scientists about questions of policy. Almost all scientists concur that global warming is a fact, but there is no consensus regarding the best economic reaction to this threat. That does not mean, however, that traditional religions can help us resolve the issue. Ancient scriptures are just not a good guide for modern economics, and the main fault lines – for example between capitalists and socialists – don’t correspond to the divisions between traditional religions.

True, in countries such as Israel and Iran rabbis and ayatollahs have a direct say about the government’s economic policy, and even in more secular countries such as the United States and Brazil religious leaders influence public opinion on matters ranging from taxation to environmental regulations. Yet a closer look reveals that in most of these cases, traditional religions really play second fiddle to modern scientific theories. When Ayatollah Khamenei needs to make a crucial decision about the Iranian economy, he will not be able to find the necessary answer in the Quran, because seventh-century Arabs knew very little about the problems and opportunities of modern industrial economies and global financial markets. So he, or his aides, must turn to Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the modern science of economics to get answers. Having made up his mind to raise interest rates, lower taxes, privatise government monopolies or sign an international tariff agreement, Khamenei can then use his religious knowledge and authority to wrap the scientific answer in the garb of this or that Quranic verse, and present it to the masses as the will of Allah. But the garb matters little. When you compare the economic policies of Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jewish Israel, Hindu India and Christian America, you just don’t see that much of a difference.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Christian thinkers railed against modern materialism, against soulless capitalism, and against the excesses of the bureaucratic state. They promised that if they were only given a chance, they would solve all the ills of modernity and establish a completely different socio-economic system based on the eternal spiritual values of their creed. Well, they have been given quite a few chances, and the only noticeable change they have made to the edifice of modern economies is to redo the paintwork and place a huge crescent, cross, Star of David or Om on the roof.

Just as in the case of rainmaking, so also when it comes to economics, it is the long-honed expertise of religious scholars in reinterpreting texts that makes religion irrelevant. No matter which economic policy Khamenei chooses, he could always square it with the Quran. Hence the Quran is degraded from a source of true knowledge to a source of mere authority. When you face a difficult economic dilemma, you read Marx and Hayek closely, and they help you understand the economic system better, see things from a new angle, and think about potential solutions. Having formulated an answer, you then turn to the Quran, and you read it closely in search of some surah that, if interpreted imaginatively enough, can justify the solution you got from Hayek or Marx. No matter what solution you found there, if you are a good Quranic scholar you will always be able to justify it.

The same is true of Christianity. A Christian may be a capitalist as easily as a socialist, and even though a few things Jesus said smack of downright communism, during the Cold War good American capitalists went on reading the Sermon on the Mount without taking much notice. There is just no such thing as ‘Christian economics’, ‘Muslim economics’ or ‘Hindu economics’.

Not that there aren’t any economic ideas in the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas – it is just that these ideas are not up to date. Mahatma Gandhi’s reading of the Vedas caused him to envision independent India as a collection of self-sufficient agrarian communities, each spinning its own khadi cloths, exporting little and importing even less. The most famous photograph of him shows him spinning cotton with his own hands, and he made the humble spinning wheel the symbol of the Indian nationalist movement.1 Yet this Arcadian vision was simply incompatible with the realities of modern economics, and hence not much has remained of it save for Gandhi’s radiant image on billions of rupee notes.

Modern economic theories are so much more relevant than traditional dogmas that it has become common to interpret even ostensibly religious conflicts in economic terms, whereas nobody thinks of doing the reverse. For example, some argue that the Troubles in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants were fuelled largely by class conflicts. Due to various historical accidents, in Northern Ireland the upper classes were mostly Protestant and the lower classes were mostly Catholic. Hence what seems at first sight to have been a theological conflict about the nature of Christ, was in fact a typical struggle between haves and have-nots. In contrast, very few people would claim that the conflicts between communist guerrillas and capitalist landowners in South America in the 1970s were really just a cover for a far deeper disagreement about Christian theology.

So what difference would religion make when facing the big questions of the twenty-first century? Take for example the question whether to grant AI the authority to make decisions about people’s lives – choosing for you what to study, where to work, and whom to marry. What is the Muslim position on that question? What is the Jewish position? There are no ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jewish’ positions here. Humankind is likely to be divided into two main camps – those in favour of giving AI significant authority, and those opposed to it. Muslims and Jews are likely to be found in both camps, and to justify whichever position they espouse through imaginative interpretations of the Quran and the Talmud.

Of course religious groups might harden their views on particular issues, and turn them into allegedly sacred and eternal dogmas. In the 1970s theologians in Latin America came up with Liberation Theology, which made Jesus look a bit like Che Guevara. Similarly, Jesus can easily be recruited to the debate on global warming, and make current political positions look as if they are eternal religious principles.

This is already beginning to happen. Opposition to environmental regulations is incorporated into the fire-and-brimstone sermons of some American Evangelical pastors, while Pope Francis is leading the charge against global warming, in the name of Christ (as witnessed in his second encyclical, ‘Laudato si’).2 So perhaps by 2070, on the environmental question it will make all the difference in the world whether you are Evangelical or Catholic. It would go without saying that Evangelicals will object to any cap on carbon emissions, while Catholics will believe that Jesus preached we must protect the environment.

You will see the difference even in their cars. Evangelicals will drive huge gasoline-guzzling SUVs, while devout Catholics will go around in slick electric cars with a bumper sticker reading ‘Burn the Planet – and Burn in Hell!’ However, though they may quote various biblical passages in defence of their positions, the real source of their difference will be in modern scientific theories and political movements, not in the Bible. From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer.

Identity problems: The lines in the sand

Yet Marx exaggerated when he dismissed religion as a mere superstructure hiding powerful technological and economic forces. Even if Islam, Hinduism or Christianity may be colourful decorations over a modern economic structure, people often identify with the decor, and people’s identities are a crucial historical force. Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities. In the twenty-first century, the division of humans into Jews and Muslims or into Russians and Poles still depends on religious myths. Attempts by Nazis and communists to scientifically determine human identities of race and class proved to be dangerous pseudo-science, and since then scientists have been extremely reluctant to help define any ‘natural’ identities for human beings.

So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are ‘us’ and who are ‘them’, who we should cure and who we should bomb. As noted earlier, in practical terms there are surprisingly few differences between Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Jewish Israel. All are bureaucratic nation states, all pursue more or less capitalist policies, all vaccinate kids against polio, and all rely on chemists and physicists to make bombs. There is no such thing as Shiite bureaucracy, Sunni capitalism, or Jewish physics. So how to make people feel unique, and feel loyal to one human tribe and hostile to another?

In order to draw firm lines in the shifting sands of humanity, religions use rites, rituals and ceremonies. Shiites, Sunnis and Orthodox Jews wear different clothes, chant different prayers, and observe different taboos. These differing religious traditions often fill daily life with beauty, and encourage people to behave more kindly and charitably. Five times a day, the muezzin’s melodious voice rises above the noise of bazaars, offices and factories, calling Muslims to take a break from the hustle and bustle of mundane pursuits, and try to connect to an eternal truth. Their Hindu neighbours may reach for the same goal with the help of daily pujas and the recitation of mantras. Every week on Friday night, Jewish families sit down for a special meal of joy, thanksgiving and togetherness. Two days later, on Sunday morning, Christian gospel choirs bring hope to the life of millions, helping to forge community bonds of trust and affection.

Other religious traditions fill the world with a lot of ugliness, and make people behave meanly and cruelly. There is little to be said, for example, in favour of religiously inspired misogyny or caste discrimination. But whether beautiful or ugly, all such religious traditions unite certain people while distinguishing them from their neighbours. Looked at from the outside, the religious traditions that divide people often seem trifling, and Freud ridiculed the obsession people have about such matters as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.3 But in history and in politics, small differences can go a very long way. Thus if you happen to be gay or lesbian, it is literally a matter of life and death whether you live in Israel, Iran or Saudi Arabia. In Israel, LGBTs enjoy the protection of the law, and there are even some rabbis who would bless the marriage of two women. In Iran, gays and lesbians are systematically persecuted and occasionally even executed. In Saudi Arabia, a lesbian could not even drive a car until 2018 – just for being a woman, never mind being a lesbian.

Perhaps the best example for the continuing power and importance of traditional religions in the modern world comes from Japan. In 1853 an American fleet forced Japan to open itself to the modern world. In response, the Japanese state embarked on a rapid and extremely successful process of modernisation. Within a few decades, it became a powerful bureaucratic state relying on science, capitalism and the latest military technology to defeat China and Russia, occupy Taiwan and Korea, and ultimately sink the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and destroy the European empires in the Far East. Yet Japan did not copy blindly the Western blueprint. It was fiercely determined to protect its unique identity, and to ensure that modern Japanese will be loyal to Japan rather than to science, to modernity, or to some nebulous global community.

To that end, Japan upheld the native religion of Shinto as the cornerstone of Japanese identity. In truth, the Japanese state reinvented Shinto. Traditional Shinto was a hodge-podge of animist beliefs in various deities, spirits and ghosts, and every village and temple had its own favourite spirits and local customs. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the Japanese state created an official version of Shinto, while discouraging many local traditions. This ‘State Shinto’ was fused with very modern ideas of nationality and race, which the Japanese elite picked from the European imperialists. Any element in Buddhism, Confucianism and the samurai feudal ethos that could be helpful in cementing loyalty to the state was added to the mix. To top it all, State Shinto enshrined as its supreme principle the worship of the Japanese emperor, who was considered a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and himself no less than a living god.4 At first sight, this odd concoction of old and new seemed an extremely inappropriate choice for a state embarking on a crash course of modernisation. A living god? Animist spirits? Feudal ethos? That sounded more like a Neolithic chieftainship than a modern industrial power.

Yet it worked like magic. The Japanese modernised at a breathtaking pace while simultaneously developing a fanatical loyalty to their state. The best-known symbol of the success of State Shinto is the fact that Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles. Decades before the USA fielded the smart bomb, and at a time when Nazi Germany was just beginning to deploy dumb V-2 rockets, Japan sank dozens of allied ships with precision-guided missiles. We know these missiles as the kamikaze. Whereas in present-day precision-guided munitions the guidance is provided by computers, the kamikaze were ordinary airplanes loaded with explosives and guided by human pilots willing to go on one-way missions. This willingness was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shinto. The kamikaze thus relied on combining state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art religious indoctrination.5 Knowingly or not, numerous governments today follow the Japanese example. They adopt the universal tools and structures of modernity while relying on traditional religions to preserve a unique national identity. The role of State Shinto in Japan is fulfilled to a lesser or greater degree by Orthodox Christianity in Russia, Catholicism in Poland, Shiite Islam in Iran, Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and Judaism in Israel. No matter how archaic a religion might look, with a bit of imagination and reinterpretation it can almost always be married to the latest technological gadgets and the most sophisticated modern institutions.

In some cases states might create a completely new religion to bolster their unique identity. The most extreme example can be seen today in Japan’s former colony of North Korea. The North Korean regime indoctrinates its subjects with a fanatical state religion called Juche. This is a mix of Marxism–Leninism, some ancient Korean traditions, a racist belief in the unique purity of the Korean race, and the deification of Kim Il-sung’s family line. Though nobody claims that the Kims are descendants of a sun goddess, they are worshipped with more fervour than almost any god in history. Perhaps mindful of how the Japanese Empire was eventually defeated, North Korean Juche for a long time also insisted on adding nuclear weapons to the mix, depicting their development as a sacred duty worthy of supreme sacrifices.6 The handmaid of nationalism

No matter how technology will develop, we can expect that arguments about religious identities and rituals will continue to influence the use of new technologies, and might well retain the power to set the world ablaze. The most up-to-date nuclear missiles and cyber bombs might well be employed to settle a doctrinal argument about medieval texts. Religions, rites and rituals will remain important as long as the power of humankind rests on mass cooperation and as long as mass cooperation rests on belief in shared fictions.

Unfortunately, all of this really makes traditional religions part of humanity’s problem, not part of the remedy. Religions still have a lot of political power, inasmuch as they can cement national identities and even ignite the Third World War. But when it comes to solving rather than stoking the global problems of the twenty-first century, they don’t seem to offer much. Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaid of modern nationalism – whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran or Israel. They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption.

Thus when dealing with global warming or nuclear proliferation, Shiite clerics encourage Iranians to see these problems from a narrow Iranian perspective, Jewish rabbis inspire Israelis to care mainly about what’s good for Israel, and Orthodox priests urge Russians to think first and foremost about Russian interests. After all, we are God’s chosen nation, so what’s good for our nation is pleasing to God too. There certainly are religious sages who reject nationalist excesses and adopt far more universal visions. Unfortunately, such sages don’t wield much political power these days.

We are trapped, then, between a rock and a hard place. Humankind now constitutes a single civilisation, and problems such as nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption can only be solved on the global level. On the other hand, nationalism and religion still divide our human civilisation into different and often hostile camps. This collision between global problems and local identities manifests itself in the crisis that now besets the greatest multicultural experiment in the world – the European Union. Built on the promise of universal liberal values, the EU is teetering on the verge of disintegration due to the difficulties of integration and immigration.

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