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Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways Hardcover – 22 Nov 2010
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'An erudite account of intricate relationships between religion and other markers of identity, including nationality, socially defined race, language, class, political ideology, generation, gender and sexual orientation.' --Times Literary Supplement
'Olivier Roy, the outstanding scholar of contemporary religions, has written a book of startling clarity and wisdom. Illuminating trends, issues and movements that had before appeared bizarre or simply antipathetic, he provides us with tools for the comprehension of matters as diverse as coverage of the war on terror to the common individual confusion over one's own beliefs and scepticisms.' --Financial Times
'Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. The brilliant French social scientist Roy proposes the most original-- and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy's biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.' --New York Times
About the Author
Olivier Roy is research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. His books with Hurst include Globalised Islam and The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East.
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In particular, I like a reviewer's use of the term "delamination" of religion from culture, which works better for my amateur background than "de-culturalization".
So to view "culture" in a historical sense up until the Napoleonic era, three layers of socio-economic activity were able to communicate and participate within territorial regions of a few hundred miles. Through the use of shared geography, history, symbols, norms of behavior, and means of expression, and a common sense of values and transcendence was able to develop over generations, which formed unique and distinct "cultures".Beyond the individual and the family, these three layers consisted of: (1) Community, (2) Society, and (3) Nationality, each being an enlargement of population and scale from the previous. Parallel to the secular (practical) aspects of each of these are the extensions of belief, as (1) Faith by the individual, (2) the collective Church as a single point of assembly, and (3) the preservation and continuity of dogma in a far-off sacred place by an elite in the name of a Religion. These laminations were able to maintain a continuity through centuries in the various continental regions by the slow pace of travel and communications, and all connected within a common culture.
World War Two destabilized all that, however, through the forced pace of marine travel, radio communications, and the global clashes among cultures that had been relatively stable for millennia.
In the following decades, an "internationalization" of markets and economies by corporate organizations further destabilized the territorial cultures in ways that: (1) individuals began to doubt their faith in an orthodoxy that could not explain the fear and evil that had come over the horizons; (2) the local congregations could no longer find shared values within the "culture", since some of those priorities of daily living were being modified by commercialization outside the church; and (3) the remote centers of Truth could no longer impose the dogma, the history and traditions, nor the education system that perpetuated it all through generations.
It was in the "jet age" and the "age of television" in the 1960s and 70s, that the cultural layers became delaminated, or "deculturalized". Faith, Church, and Religion had lost the binding glue that had held it all together with Community, Society, and Nationality in earlier communal times and spaces.
Yet the need for religion still persisted in the human hearts, so the essential core features of each religion became a "fundamentalist" effort, in which, to preserve the "purity" of the definition of the sect or cult, forced an internal identification with specific "markers" against an external banishment of the "pagan" or "heathen".
These now became "salient sales points" that could be used to attract new converts on a global scale, since all the specifications and mundane details of how to interact within personal and social spheres had been stripped away, along with all the time-consuming study and education that had been required before in the process of "becoming".
With the transportation and corporate globalization of the 1980s, then, the most missionary, partisan, and militant in each of the "universalist" sects that had begun to flake off the traditional "mainstream" cultures could now re-enter other cultures, competing through media as just another advertiser selling it wares. Thus, we get "multi-culturalism" returned back into each territory from various other sources, with each having its own "bells and whistles" to attract new converts to the message.
But that message is no longer as rich and nuanced as its original form, but merely a plastic, "neo-version" artifact of the archetype. The virtual has now become the real, just transformed and transposed to new markets.
So where do we go from here? It appears that, with economic mobility and current migrations away from danger spots, many individuals and families have since sorted themselves into new communities (roughly 7,000-10,000 each). With their own sense of shared values and traditions, they may be able to choose among the palette of multi-cultural options to select their priorities for new generations. Communities may return again to flourish, or may split into partisan factions of perpetual strife by attempting territorial control. Stay tuned.
This is a bold departure from conventional thinking and Roy presents an encyclopedic range of data, observations and anecdotes to support his thesis. So should we change our minds about the roots of violent fanaticism? Not really. One difficulty, amply documented by Roy, is that deculturation often fails to bring either extremism or violence. Whether it takes the form of separation from the surrounding culture, as with the Amish; or of a break with a religion's own origins, as with the Hare Krishna, who are not very Hindu; or of a rejection of all profane culture, even sometimes including reason and language, as with Pentecostal speaking in tongues, it can lead to very pacific outcomes.
Deculturation is obviously not sufficient to cause violence, but nor is it necessary. Tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, steeped in Moslem tradition, are more abundant sources of Jihadis than the Moslem suburbs of western Europe. And there was religious violence before there was globalization. Deculturation, with resentful alienation can be a source of violence, but it's the cultural context that makes the difference, including economic factors, such as youth unemployment, and political factors, such as conflicts over Kashmir and Palestine and between Shias and Sunnis.
Moreover, religious deculturation in the West is associated with the free flow of ideas and a fragmentation and fluidity of personal identity. Urbanization, specialization and consumerism are also parts of the picture. Which is to say that deculturation is itself a cultural phenomenon. It could not have thrived in closed, homogeneous communities. Escape from culture is harder than Roy supposes.