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Revival of Religion: Tension Between the Modern and Postmodern

The discourse of religion has taken on different political meanings at different times, and by so doing, some of the “contradictions” in societies have been overridden by these “timeless,” “unifying” and “historical-cultural” discursive systems (Chang 2011: 123). Thus, in terms of maintaining social order, states have sought out something foundational to hold them together and to integrate their society (Yang 2008: 165). In the post-Wesphalian era, many states found that religion remains a rich source for the construction of modern institutions, not only in vicarious forms, but also in the forms as measured by standard sociological methods (Young 1984: 69). Religious discourses have been repositioned in fields like biomedicine, engineering, military training and mass communications; many religions have embraced practices and discourses on the internal logic of what is predominantly secular (Yang 1988: 158).

There are three main arguments regarding the revival of religion (or culture): some observers speculate that religious resurgence is a societal response to the ostensible retreat of the state in the face of a globally ascendant neoliberalism. Others see the resurgence of religion as the welcome expression of a civil society rising in the face of an overbearing state. Others have portrayed the resurgence as a consequence of the destabilization of once-secure secular nationalism, which itself was the offspring of a secularizing Western colonialism (149). But what all these perspectives have in common is an attempt to retrieve religion from its oblivion in modern philosophy (Sigurdson 2010: 179). Institutional consolidation of religion in the West was part and parcel of its increasing differentiation from other spheres in society, which can result in a separation between political and religious identities. This is the Westphalian model which facilitates the plurality of Christian religion (Yang 1988: 150) under the watch of the “neutral” secular state.

Moreover, although the differentiation of religion in the Westphalian model has helped the West to address the relationship between secular (in political terms “sovereign”) and religion, it contains a permanent ambiguity on the choice of religions (Yang 2008: 163). Thus, the established religion could be replaced by established secularism, but that such secularism, being the reverse image of religion, not only depends on the existence of religion, but also, as a foundational way of life, it necessarily took on some of the apparent characteristics of religion (166). Thus, the so-called secular space is itself a hybrid of religious and other traditions (Foucault and Carrette 1999: 33). In other words, secularization operates in the conceptual system of modernity as a signature that refers it back to theology, which is a specific performance of Christian faith that opens the world to man in its worldliness and historicity (Agamben 2011: 4). As Sigurdson argues,

If religion has been the “other” of modernity, it is perhaps not surprising that philosophers of very different stripes ... have taken up reading religious texts as a way of trying to find alternatives to a certain version of modernity, especially those who stand in radical traditions such as Marxism or Psychoanalysis. Even if they prefer to read the theological classics for their form rather than their content as such, all the same it gives them the opportunity to achieve a critical distance from current accounts of modernity. Especially in more radical traditions, as exemplified by Zizek, Agamben, Badiou and Eagleton, there is a growing dissatisfaction with contemporary politics and also a growing dissatisfaction with the more traditional liberal solutions of the distinction between different spheres of life, such as they have come to be defined by modern secularism. (2010: 184)

In this context, religion first serves as a referent object that keeps a critical distance from current accounts of modernity. As a “timeless,” “unifying” and “historic-cultural” discursive system, religion exists in the paradox of the idea of globalization. As Clarke further argues, the emergence of robust religious economies in which new regimes of faith are remobilizing capitalist logics are evidence of the limits of reason and secularism, rule of law and universality as the basis for the social order (2010: 110). In the religious revival, there is a significant characteristic that uses the selective recombination of tradition and modernity to strengthen both individualization and affective community networks (Shim and Han 2010: 238). This is what we call the hybridization of oppositions, which result in the combinations of both aspects in new paradoxical forms. We will examine examples of these throughout this book.

The linear relationship between religion, state and society has, therefore, been disturbed; religious citizens have discovered the will and the way to reshape themselves in the new global macrocosm (Yang 1988: 157). While religion challenges or resists the homogenizing trends of globalization, it is also a globalizing force acting at the local, transnational and global levels (Ihlamur-Oner 2013: 92). Although religions (especially non-Christian religions) were once deemed “backward” by the modernizing regimes, they are now making obsolete the conventional divisions associated with ideological constructs (Dirlik 2002: 18). That is, they can constitute distinct but equally authentic regimes for the government of conduct (Marshall 2009: 32).

As such, the term resurgence or revival for describing the phenomenon of the post-Westphalian era could be misleading. As Marshall argues, the proponents of neoliberal resistance discourse see religious and spiritual practices merely as local interpretations or resistance to destabilizing global forces (2009: 29). But if we invoke situations of material crisis in order to explain the rise of religion, “then we tacitly see these movements in terms of their functionality: as modes of accumulation, socialization, or political combat, or as languages that translate the real and help to understand it” (18). As a result, we have to consider religion as performing a second-order process of adjustment (29). Thus, to reduce regimes of religious practices, to give an exhaustive explanation of them in functional or materialist terms may thus be seen as a “battle strategy” (33).

More importantly, in most cases, it is not a question of old religions becoming refreshed and relevant again, but of new actors taking advantages of late-modern modes of communications, association and self-identification to make something new (Yang 1988: 157). Thus, the discourse of the revival of traditional culture (including religion) in China in large part is the fact that political elites came closest to breaking with the Westphalian model (150). It is neither a simple resurgence nor a revival; it is a combination of a number of late-modern historic-cultural reimagination and reorganizations (157). The renewed Confucianism in this discursive field shows both conservative resistance to Western modernity and creative engagement with modern institutions (Young 1984: 57). More importantly, as we will discuss in the section titled “The Discourse of the China Model,” the Chinese case simultaneously demonstrates premodern, modern and late-modern characteristics, and the Chinese individual must deal with all of these characteristics simultaneously (Yan 2010: 510).

Thus, as Dirlik argues, we need to revise the modernization discourse in order to embrace a new global situation and reconceptualize the contemporary politics of modernity (2002: 18). More importantly, as will be illustrated below, the opposition between secular and religious knowledge produces a new regime of knowledge that is not reducible to any one of them but is constituted by both of them. Thus, it may be more fruitful to see the revival of religion as the creation of a play of differences that was the outcome of various encounters and struggles (Marshall 2009: 37-38). Viewed in this way, religion, like globalization, is not a thing but a discourse, manifesting and disappearing according to its usefulness to the sociopolitical context (Huang 1995: 54). Religion in this era defines itself more in terms of what it is not than in terms of what it is through the prefix “post-secular.”

Therefore, in “the world today,” arguments asserting that religions are in decline by using paradigms such as secularization, privatization or rational choice are an exaggeration (Young 1984: 73). As Naletova argues, modernization has not inevitably led to secularization; private spirituality has not been disconnected from religion, which continues to serve public needs as competent institutions, both spiritually, morally and socially; and the majority of believers do not critically choose religious ideas but simply accept traditional religions unquestionably (cited in Young 1984: 74-75).

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