Photo: H. Aldemir, Shutterstock

Are religions still relevant?

Everything in Germany and the world still revolves around the virus. At the end of the tunnel appears the light of a comprehensive vaccination campaign, in which case science would have succeeded in solving one of the greatest crises in human history. There is still hope for a return to the old normal, especially for the full restoration of lost fundamental rights. However, our future is likely to be determined by the possible return of new pandemics. The possibility of introducing compulsory vaccination and vaccination cards is on the agenda. Uncertain are the long-term economic consequences of the crisis and the new role of the crisis winners, be it the pharmaceutical industry or the digital department stores. Experts are still arguing about all these consequences, mostly from scientific, ethical and political perspectives.

Photo: H. Aldemir, Shutterstock

After the great crises of human history, be it wars, natural disasters or hyperinflation, the significance of religions is also naturally put to the test. In the aftermath of major disasters, people either pray more or pray less. The core of faith has always been to provide comfort in situations of human exception, to convey meaning and significance of the situation and to define the core of human dignity. How much these contributions are perceived as relevant in this crisis is another matter. In principle, all religions have supported state action and only rarely criticised it. Philosophers like Giorgio Agamben were surprised that there was not more resistance from religions, think of funeral rituals, to encroachments on human dignity.

The churches in Germany, shaken by crises of abuse and trust, are also looking for their role. According to the judgement of journalist and intellectual Alexander Kissler, the churches are even “crisis losers.” In the Swiss Newspaper NZZ, he fundamentally questions the significance of the churches: “The rich institutional façade gives the impression of a significance that does not exist in the face of collapsing faith. One can see in this a punch line of history: The peak of financial endowment is accompanied by a nadir of religious relevance.” One can agree or disagree with Kissler. The fact remains the wave of departures from the official churches described above.

Religious understanding is being marginalised these days by ethical debates and the promise of salvation in science. Since Nietzsche’s postulate that God is dead, religious substitutes in the form of new spiritual practices have also been booming. For many Europeans, the old religions seem increasingly antiquated. Last year, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk put his finger on the wound. In his book Den Himmel zum Sprechen bringen (Making Heaven Speak), he does not plead for the abolition of religion, but notes the “surprising, uplifting, scandalous uselessness” of religion in secular society. His conclusion is sobering: “What remains of the historical religions are writings, gestures, sound worlds that still occasionally help the individuals of our day to relate to the embarrassment of their unique existence with suspended formulas. The rest is attachment, accompanied by the desire for participation.”

The philosopher’s fatal judgement simply places the religious in the context of irrelevance. Translated into a milder version, Sloterdijk is not bothered by the private practice of religion, but by the belief that religion could still have a meaningful social effect. On a social, one could also say on a political scale, religions are at best part of an old problem, at any rate not part of a solution. Religion is first taken as a danger, otherwise rather not. In the case of Islam, the public aversion to political engagement is evident; in the case of Christianity, think of the evangelicals’ alliance with Trump or the Pope’s criticism of capitalism, it has at least become suspicious.

In Germany, concerns about creation and ecological survival, core concerns of religions, have been taken over by the Greens. In autumn, a bourgeois-green government appears within reach, promising to reconcile growth and ecological concern. An expectation of salvation that coincides with the hope of new, clean and good technologies. Even if the Christian Democrats (CDU) still alludes to Christianity, the role of religion, apart from some moral principles, remains marginalised in such an alliance. In short, the social relevance of religions is steadily declining. At the same time, in a borderless scientific society, everything that seems feasible becomes possible.

Of course, the question of a God or a guiding metaphysics, as long as there is any thinking at all, remains an issue. The repressed topic of dying is becoming dramatically topical again in this crisis. The proximity to the religious is palpable here. Many people experience the Corona times as a spiritual exercise and as a practice in a necessary new basic attitude. The individual self-image should take a back seat in the face of prospects that threaten humanity, just think of the climate crisis. General survival becomes more important than individual freedom. However, the insight that only a God can save us has become almost unspeakable in a secular world.

In this situation, the question arises for Muslims, too, to what extent Islam can actually still claim socio-political relevance. In this context, the fatal impression of political Islam in its ideological manifestations, which stand for civil wars and terror, is part of a new, self-critical understanding. Accordingly, the Islamic philosopher of religion Milad Karimi clearly distances himself from fundamentalism and political ideology, but also sees the Corona crisis as a “sign from God.” The “consumerist, polluting way of life cannot be allowed to continue,” Karimi told Deutschlandfunk Radio. For Karimi, the current restrictions on religious freedom, which Muslims accept without complaint, are signs that one does not lose oneself in outward rituality, that is, that one remains adaptable in the face of danger. “The faith of Muslims, Jews and Christians is stronger than the ritual regulations that apply in the normal case,” he explains.

Does this view of the philosopher of religion already justify the relevance of Islam or other denominations in the crisis? That is debatable. The proposed attitude of mindfulness is basically the general attitude of any form of life, religiously motivated or not, that has spiritual elements in it. This does not answer the question of relevance. Perhaps what is still missing here is a concrete reference to the economic and social convictions that Muslims today consider relevant. If one sees on the horizon the need for a new orientation for humanity, an urge for moderation, it is precisely the social and economic institutions of Islam that are important impulses for a new debate.

Ultimately, there is a need for all religions that claim relevance to bring their positions into the social discourse in a new way. Here it is important to find new approaches and not to dismiss religion into the camp of irrationality and unworldliness. Especially in the economic sphere, characterised by the idea of eternal growth and the irrelevance of debt, Islam has a reasonable and enlightened position. Standing up for justice is and was a basic demand of all religions. Where this demand is made, relevance is also self-evident.

But even in a society dominated by science, religions can attract attention with the idea that they create positive fields and exert spiritual influence on events. In a wonderful book written by Frido Mann, the grandson of Thomas Mann and his wife, Christine, entitled The Unity of Spirit and Matter in Quantum Physics, the interested reader will find a suitable theory.

The authors describe quantum physics as a physics of possibilities that overcomes the strict dualism of mind and matter and leads into a different kind of unity. In the world of relationships, instinctive and intuitive, as well as religious inspiration, can no longer be dismissed as “imagination” incompatible with (classical) physics. The latest scientific knowledge and religious knowledge no longer form a contradiction here.

The idea of unity, which has shaped Muslim thought and practice for centuries, need not fear the scientific discourse of this time.

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