Is Religious Fundamentalism at Odds With Modernity?

Modernity, Liberalism, and Modernism vs. Christian Tradition

Independence and Autonomy
Independence and Autonomy. Cultura RM/Manuel Sulzer/Cultura/Getty

Fundamentalism and conservative forms of most religions share in common a strongly negative reaction to modernity, the modern world, and everything which modernism brings. This is relatively easy to point out, but the true implications are as important as they are difficult to fully grasp. It's necessary to take a close look at what exactly it is that defines the modernity that religion is rejecting.

In Catholic Theologians in Nazi Germany, Robert A. Krieg writes:

Modernity rests on a belief in personal freedom or emancipation. It holds that human life should be marked by independence, by the absence of constraint or coercion upon individuals and communities by external authorities, whether the state or the church. It defines freedom as self-determination, that is, as the ability to reason, judge, and act for oneself. Representative of this belief is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859), with its stress on individuality, on a person's continuing self-development.

This idea of freedom, or personal autonomy, shapes modernity's understanding of human reason, the personal subject, and history. Human reason should enjoy free rein to inquire into all aspects of reality; every human being possesses a dignity and basic rights that demand the respect of society, the state, and the church; all human beings have the potential to improve their lives. These three aspects of the modem project are characterized, especially by their critics, as "subjectivism," "individualism," and "progress." [emphasis added]

Democracy, human rights, civil liberties, science, and everything which we take for granted can be traced, either in large part or entirely, to this conception of personal human freedom. Because of our freedom as individuals, we have the authority to choose our own leaders. Because of our freedom as individuals, we have basic rights and liberties in our communities which our leaders either cannot touch or can only infringe upon in extreme situations.

Because we have the freedom to let our reason inquire wherever we want, we have developed expansive fields of science which contribute both our knowledge and our well-being every day.

This basic premise of personal liberty and personal autonomy is what fundamentally distinguishes the modern era from all other eras. It distinguishes us from those periods in human history when people were subject to the will of lords and masters, were born and died as slaves, were restricted to the social status and jobs of their parents, and so forth.

When religious conservatives and fundamentalists attack modernity, this is what they are ultimately attacking. When religious fundamentalists and conservatives seek to reverse the progress of modernity, this is what they are ultimately trying to overturn. However, this religious perspective on modernity should not be oversimplified. There are nuances to what modernity is and there are some valid criticisms which can be made of some aspects of modernity.

Modernity, Modernism, and Liberalism

One of the key issues is the fact that modernity, modernism, and liberalism aren't all exactly the same, despite the fact that modernism and liberalism are both products of modernity.

This is something which many religious critics of modernity fail to understand.

Liberalism is the mentality that "has favored a minimum of restrictions on individual liberty in private and public life, and defended a maximum of freedom for the individual in his social, economic, and religious existence and in his relations to the state." It frequently opposes the church, which it regards as an opponent of personal independence. For this reason, it not only upholds the separation of church and state but also wants to abolish the church as an institution in the public realm so that religious belief becomes a wholly private or subjective matter.

Modernism is the attitude that reduces all aspects of life to rational principles that the human mind is capable of knowing by its own powers.

In the past, religious leaders condemned modernity, modernism, and liberalism all together as a single entity.

More recently, religious leaders have tried to separate them out and direct their criticisms more at liberalism and modernism in order to retain support for modernity more generally. Although this is a legitimate and important distinction to make, I'm not sure that this is a viable approach. If modernity is based upon the principle of personal liberty and autonomy, and if liberalism is the mentality that favors a minimum of restrictions on personal liberty, then the two appear to go hand-in-hand. How long would modernity be able to survive if people stopped hold the belief that there should be a minimum of restrictions on personal liberty?

By the same token, if modernity is also based on the principle human reason can and should extend wherever one's search might lead and that human reason is an appropriate basis for government and other public institutions, then how can it be separated from modernism if that's the attitude that reduces life to those things which the human mind is capable of knowing? Indeed, how can a personally rationally assert that there are things which human are incapable of knowing? To say that requires asserting knowledge about what one speaks, thus contradicting the statement.

Separating modernism and liberalism from modernity strikes me as an attempt to separate out the things which religion wants to attack about modernity without actually eliminating modernity entirely. It's an acknowledgment both that modernity is here to stay and that it provides too much good to be done away with. This attempted separation will ultimately fail, however, for modernity exists because of liberalism and modernism. It's not necessary for everyone to fully adopt a 100% liberal and modernist attitude, but they must exist in sufficient numbers in order for modernity to be preserved.