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Can modern people be religious?

  • James F. Drane
    James F. Drane
Published March 30. 2013 09:02AM

The surprise resignation of one Pope, followed by an ancient system for selection of his successor has filled strongly secular news channels with streams of religious images and religious discourse. The resignation and election events in Rome actually provided members of today's society with an opportunity to take a look into history, and to see how people used to dress and how things used to be done. All the religious news coverage however amounted to a missed opportunity unless some background is provided for understanding all the historical buildings and vestments and practices.

Historical background is needed because persons living in the U.S. today are members of a society very different from the ones in which all the papal events are rooted. Americans are members of a society formed by beliefs and practices of the Enlightenment, a movement which arose from 17th and 18th century philosophies of human life and human society. Much of the writings and thinking of Enlightenment philosophers was very hostile toward religion. Persons formed by the culture which they created are bound to be less religious. Culture influences persons.

Surveys conducted by university professors and social organizations reflect the Enlightenment influence. More and more Americans are no longer religious. They identify themselves either as unaffiliated with a religion or as atheistic. Even many of those who call themselves religious do so because they claim to be "spiritual" which means that they engage in self centered practices like yoga. People today are different beings from those who lived before the Enlightenment era and during most of human history. American culture today, formed by the Enlightenment, is secular and this culture influences American citizens. It forms Americans, forms their thinking and makes more and more of them into a certain type of person.

Aude Sapere - Dare to think was a motto of the Enlightenment movement and the thinking which persons were challenged to do was devoid of any reference to religion or connection with a creator. Enlightenment thinking was scientific, and mathematical, and free from any references to revelation or religious tradition.

The thinking and way of reasoning that preceded the Enlightenment movement was either ignored or ridiculed. Ecclesiastical institutions especially were subjected to harsh criticisms. Churches and monasteries were closed and their properties confiscated. Atheism and materialism were the dominant philosophical convictions. The declines in religion and increases in atheism today show the continuing influence of Enlightenment culture on the way people think and feel.

One Enlightenment thinker accepted the compatibility of religion and modern science (Kant) but for most Enlightenment thinkers, religious thinking of any sort was rejected or ignored. Sola Sciencia, science alone, was the motto of Enlightenment believers. Some Enlightenment believers became "evangelists" and "missionaries" for their atheistic beliefs. Science alone provided all answers to questions about the origin of the universe, and the senses or sense experience explained all human cognition. Morality, joined to pure scientific materialism, was all about self satisfaction and there was no place for a creator or for revelation.

For more tolerant Enlightenment thinkers, the one acceptable religion was Deism, a religion based on whatever human beings think. For Deists, the more religion is cleansed of supernatural beliefs and focused only on human thinking, the greater its value. The person Jesus is snubbed, his teachings rejected, his deeds ignored and his promises passed over. Toward the opposite end of the religion spectrum is Catholicism.

The mention of Catholicism brings us back to all the recent news coverage of the Popes. Popes and the Papacy and Catholicism were the primary targets of believers formed by the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century. The Catholic Church, focused on Jesus and headed by a Pope, was at the opposite extreme from believers in Enlightenment philosophies.

Enlightenment rulers stripped the Church of its property and religious believers of their rights. John Kennedy, the candidate, had to swear that if he is elected President the Pope would not rule the U.S. and he would not be consulting the Pope on how to run the country.

Even Americans who care little about Church history will be interested in seeing how Pope Francis behaves. The more simple, and modest and caring he is, the more he will do to reflect a forgotten Jesus, and modify attitudes of people formed by the Enlightenment culture.

James F. Drane

James F. Drane Bioethics Institute

Edinboro University of PA

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