“Can you be religious and modern?”


This question was put to the room in one my lectures recently and it prompted some interesting responses. No one could really agree. Modernity might just be about changing and staying relevant to contemporary societies – the last Pope joined Twitter after all. Or is modernity about rejecting religion, as much of Europe did during the Enlightenment period, or can religion modernise alongside the scientific or secular community?

A few months ago, in the UK, the state church (yes, despite being 45% atheist, the UK is technically figureheaded by the head of the Church of England) voted on the issue of allowing women to become bishops. Despite winning the majority of the votes, the proposed change didn’t reach the all-important 2/3s majority needed to be passed. This led to a huge amount of hand-wringing articles and editorials deploring the lack of modernity in the Anglican Church. How can such an archaic institution continue to be relevant?

The issue of religion is, as was also pointed out in my lecture, a relatively fashionable topic in international development at the moment. Much of the discussion we had in the lecture centred on issues of gender. If an aim of development is to empower women, as many would argue, the role religious groups or organisations becomes difficult. The argument that religion or, more specifically, religious organisations having a long established history of oppression against women is difficult to dismiss.

Can development reasonably seek to promote both religious values and gender equality? Probably. Is this likely to create an industry without massive, crippling internal divisions and tensions? Probably not.

The other side of the question is something almost all development workers have faced – the people that we work with are almost always religious. Almost all of the developing world is made up of cultures in which religion is dominant. We often worry about whether or not we’re properly including benefactors or local partners in the industry; if we aren’t being fully inclusive about religion are we likely to be inclusive of religious people? Again, probably not.

Living and working overseas is something I enjoy massively. For me, probably the strangest, most alienating aspects of this was moving to a predominantly religious country – in my case, Uganda. I had basically never been in a non-secular setting, despite going to a Church of England primary school were I was exposed to religion. The fervour not only of those I worked with but of social acquaintances was rather strange to me. Some friends would want to discuss religion, sometimes to try to change my mind or just to hear the curious opinions of an atheist, but I mostly avoided talking about it. Do-gooders rarely seek to upset people (unless they’re bankers/oil industry workers).

Recently, a friend of mine told me she had become an atheist after growing up fairly devoutly Christian for most of her life. She appeared in a short video discussing what it means to be an atheist in Uganda,

As globalisation and Western influenced thinking spreads more pervasively, the issue of religion in the developing world will probably become ever more diverse and complex. In many East African countries, for instance, several large religions are widely practised and the people who follow them are proud of their faith. I remember being told by a prisoner (acting as pastor inside a Kampala prison) that Uganda needed to send missionaries back to Britain to remind Britons how to be Christian again. Religion all over the world is changed by the culture in which it resides, further complicating matters. Add the radical growth of Evangelism and a resurgent ‘New Atheist’ movement gaining traction worldwide (as seen by Lindsey’s choice of book) and the difficulties of addressing religion within international development become more and more obvious.

Perhaps the reason religion has been excluded from development discourse for so long is that, frankly, it’s yet another hornet’s nest for anyone seeking to enact external interventions. Working life for many development workers is complicated and frustrating enough, why would they want to add another potential stumbling block? Lazy as that sounds, it’s probably closer to the truth than we might like to think.

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One thought on ““Can you be religious and modern?”

  1. As someone who is religious and considers herself modern, as well (!) the title made me a bit defensive – but it is a really thoughtful post that demonstrates how complicated this all this.

    Your anecdote about the Ugandan pastor reminded me of the experience of a Canadian friend of mine who worked for a church in South Africa – he certainly calls himself Christian, and yet because of cultural and theological differences, many of the South African pastoral staff called his Christianity into question.

    It just goes to show it’s not even a simple matter of religious and irreligious people needing to understand each other’s perspectives – there are significant barriers to understanding each other even among people of the same religion. As you say, religion is influenced by culture and it complicates matters (as though religion needed further complicating!)

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