Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 8
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 8 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 7: Religions and Culture
Culture: The sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another—Webster’s College Dictionary 1995.
Religion and culture are intertwined with one affecting and sometimes limiting the expression of the other. We have all grown up in a culture and from that have acquired models of how humans should behave in many different situations. If we have religion it is inextricably part of that culture.
Ideology and Religion as Cultural Tools
Religions seem to fall in the broader category of ideologies. The goals of ideologies are generally to alter human belief and action in the interests of controlling our world. The claim is usually that this will produce greater human happiness by making better human individuals, greater social integration or more equality or …. These movements (ideology or religion or …) also may offer great opportunities for the exercise of power for good or evil by the leaders.
The idea of a secular culture not based on religion probably started with the Enlightenment. The mix in North American culture can be seen in the wide variation in our treatment of the Christmas festival as either religious or secular. In fact human lives in most of the Western democracies show great variation in the importance of religious concerns—some dominated by religion and some in effect atheistic. Western religions especially some form of Christianity have also been carried to much of the rest of the world along with other elements of Western culture. There this mix is evolving with sometimes unexpected results.
Religion and Family/Gender Relations
The dominant religion in a culture is usually understood to support the typical family and gender relationships in that society. Throughout most of its history the Christian church has been patriarchal in organization and orientation. Women’s rights have been improved in the last two centuries but religion was not generally a source of leadership in this change. Currently there is an ongoing religious battle about homosexuality and whether it might be a real and acceptable human variant.
Religion and Educational Factors
Some religious groups prosper best among those with less education and may even, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, discourage higher education for their followers. On the other hand American scientists have a lower belief in God and immortality than the average American and scientists prominent and productive enough to be members of the National Academy of Science are markedly less likely to be believers than other scientists.
Attempts at Culture without Religion
At its height the French Revolution tried to do away with God and religion but substituted a Goddess of reason. Many social/cultural changes were attempted such as changing the weekly cycle. Most of this disappeared and the church was restored under Napoleon Bonaparte. The other documented attempt to rid society of religion and God was the Bolshevik takeover of Russia and subsequently other countries. The Party itself was a partial substitute for a religion but it was ineffective in this role and after almost three generations of power it was gone.
A secular state without a commitment to any religion but tolerant of many was founded in North America in the late 18th century. This was partly guided by the evolution of first Dutch and later English tolerance of multiple religions. These had been the two most successful commercial societies up to that time. The American model of an open, pluralistic society has been successful and admired—except by fundamentalist religious groups.
The Religious Marketplace
The open North American religious marketplace has created a place where religions have to compete for adherents. This may partially explain why the United States has come to have more vigorous religious belief than is found in most other western democracies.
Happiness and Religion
It is unclear just how religion relates to human happiness but it is clear that a high level of religiosity in a society doesn’t correlate with a high level of happiness.
Cultural Achievements Associated with Religion
From ancient and widely read religious texts to modern literature driven by religious images, emotions and ideas, religion and literature are deeply intertwined.
Religious themes and religious support have created much of our great music, art and architecture. This may be true because religious organizations had resources for the task.
Schools in churches were probably the starting point for many European universities. The great universities of North America often began life as religious institutions but have usually moved to a secular existence. Churches however remain extensively involved in education.
Religions have been sponsors of medical care, especially entreaties/prayers for healing since antiquity. These are still very popular. Churches have also set up modern medical facilities to supplement the prayers for healing and in some cases this has brought them positive attention.