Will religion post-Covid-19 be more personal, less communal?

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Mohammad Alami Musa For The Straits Times

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How will religion adapt to the pandemic? The answers to five key questions point to more individualism, and a new state-religion relationship

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of religious life, given its huge communal and collective dimensions.

Religious activities have been active contributors to the spread of the virus. Religion experienced the same fate as other worldly preoccupations like the economy – its communal aspects had to be shut down amid lockdowns, circuit breakers and the like.

How should the embrace of religion be reshaped for a future with a real threat of mass infections like this pandemic?

Five hypothetical questions need to be asked.

1. Can religion become less communal and collective?

2. Can there be non-conventional ways of practising the communal dimension of religion?

3. Can there be less “institutional” religion so that substantive “ownership” of religion reverts to individuals?

4. Can a more individualised practice of religion result in less inter-religious competition?

5. Can a unique model of state-religion coalescence be the new normal?

TOO COMMUNAL, TOO COLLECTIVE?

All religions function at both the individual and collective levels. The faithful engage in private prayer or solitary meditation. Conversely, they come together in collective worship or for religious instruction, or work for the community. The notion of religious community is central in religious life.

According to the late philosopher of religion, John Hick, the notion of religion as a particular system of belief embodied in a bounded community was unknown prior to the modern era.

This explains why scriptures and sacred texts do not have a word for the modern concept of religion. These sources speak instead of piety, faith, obedience, worship and truth.

Humans had been religious throughout history without being associated with the term religion, which connotes being community-based and collective.

St Patrick’s Cathedral holding its first public mass since March with a limited number of parishioners in New York last Sunday. It had stopped in-person attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down public worship at mosques, temples and churches around the world. The writer takes an in-depth look at the issue and makes an argument for private worship’s role in religious practice. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Religions survived communism even though their communal practices were banned. They persisted because they were practised privately in homes. Religion will never perish, even without its communal dimension, because its existence is embedded in the private domain of human lives. 

The emphasis on piety, obedience, faith and worship – the individual dimensions – compared with the emphasis on the communal and collective dimensions, can better create conditions for less competition, conflict and violence.

Coronavirus: The Great Disruption 

How will the world change post-Covid-19?

Already, the pandemic is upending societies and ways of life, sending countries into lockdowns, triggering recessions and massive job losses.

To make sense of its impact on economies, business, governance and international relations, leading opinion leaders share their views in Coronavirus: The Great Disruption, a special series in The Straits Times Opinion section.

The Roman poet Lucretius, who lived in the first century (BC), hit the nail on the head when he attacked the way humans conducted worship through the “rigmarole” of rituals which took them away from the quietude, reflection and mystique of worshipping God.

Today, there is a dire need to return to more individual expressions of religiosity in worship and in demonstrating piety and faith.

UNCONVENTIONAL, UNTHINKABLE

The private or personal dimension is the true essence of religion, while the communal dimension merely serves to make religion complete.

Religions survived communism even though their communal practices were banned. They persisted because they were practised privately in homes. Religion will never perish, even without its communal dimension, because its existence is embedded in the private domain of human lives.

Still, it is imperative for the future of religion that bold efforts be made to safeguard its communal aspects. The Covid-19 experience has proven that technology is an effective enabler for communal religious practices to continue, albeit virtually.

The challenge in the post-Covid-19 era is how religious leaders can make the leap of faith to embrace technology, not just as a technical enabler, but doctrinally to accept “virtual religion” on the same footing as the “real religion” itself.

Can there be a religious rethinking directed towards removing the wall between virtual religion and real-world, physical religion so that people will enjoy the merit of communal religious practices without having to be physically present in a community setting?

Religions in a future era of pandemics need to be resourceful. An example cited by global scholar of Hinduism Julius Lipner is the Hindus of Mauritius, who converted a lake into a “holy lake” by transporting water from the holy Ganges river. Hindus on the island viewed the lake as another Ganges with respect to its purification powers. They thronged to participate in religious festivals in lieu of an actual pilgrimage to the “real” Ganges, many thousand kilometres away.

This is an illustration of how religious rethinking has been boldly undertaken to create alternative models of original communal practices.

INDIVIDUALS, LESS INSTITUTIONS

The future of religion lies in its return to a state where the individual is at its centre.

This makes sense because the seven key components of religion require individualised commitment.

British philosopher Ninian Smart identified them as doctrines, mythology, religious experience, religious institution, ethics, rituals and sacred objects. Only one of the seven, religious institution, needs community action. The remainder can exist and thrive in the individual domain of believers.

However, institutionalising religion cannot be dispensed with. This is because having a structure to centrally manage religious life is useful for the nation state to have an interlocutor to engage on matters of religion. Institutionalising religion is also necessary to perform roles more effectively, for example in the running of religious schools.

Still, having a central religious board has resulted in the temptation to assert more control in the management of religious affairs. This is to the extent that individuals become overly dependent and are disempowered to practise religion on their own during times when the communal dimension has to be suspended.

Religion in future must avoid the downside of over-institutionalising.

LESS COMPETITION, LESS CONFLICT

There has been an increase of religious-based conflicts, more so between groups, and less so between individuals.

Local scholar Lily Kong explained how the competition for space, for example physical or political space, has led to conflicts and if not checked will end up in violence. This happens when religious individuals organise themselves into groups which then become fertile ground for identity politics and the pursuit of vested interests.

The group’s assertion of identity will push the situation downwards onto the slippery path of “politicising religion” and the “spiritualising of politics”. The group’s pursuit of interests will motivate it to use force or violence through conflicts.

The pandemic offers an excellent opportunity to reflect and bring back peace, tranquillity and harmony. The emphasis on piety, obedience, faith and worship – the individual dimensions – compared with the emphasis on the communal and collective dimensions, can better create conditions for less competition, conflict and violence.

A NEW SECULARISM

The pandemic has shown the importance of garnering the support of society’s religious sectors for a coherent, national response led by the state. It is apparent that the boundary between religion and state is blurred when the two work hand in hand, even as the state takes leadership.

This is highly significant, as the emergence of a world whose existence is threatened by pandemics or other risks can no longer be segmented into the secular and the religious. The state has to incorporate religion within a new secular model.

This is not unforeseeable, as scholars of secularism, including Charles Taylor and Jose Casanova, have been discussing the new secular age – one that does not abolish religion but places religion appropriately within the state and society. They argued that the division of the world into one with religion, and the other without, is meaningless. So for example, while the practice of religion contributed to the spread of Covid-19 as seen in the case of churches in South Korea, religion also played a useful role to solicit the disciplined behaviour of people in containing the virus spread.

With the planet facing existential threats, religious leaders must understand that religion has to coalesce with the state, under two conditions. First, the secular will be the leader; and second, public reason, and not religious reason, will be employed to govern and run a society.

The five hypothetical questions listed above have generated five probable characteristics of religions of the future – they should be less communal, more individualised, unconventionally practised, less competitive and be synergistic with secularism.

Mohammad Alami Musa is head of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2020, with the headline ‘Will religion post-Covid-19 be more personal, less communal?’. Print Edition | Subscribe
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