I listen to quite a few podcasts during my daily commute to and from work by train. One of my favourites is CBC Ideas. I’m a bit behind but this week I listened to The Myth of the Secular, Part 3. It’s part of a series exploring the need to rethink secularism: “Western social theory once insisted that modernization meant secularization and secularization meant the withering away of religion. But religion hasn’t withered away, and this has forced a rethinking of the whole idea of the secular.” In the episode I listened to, an author was interviewed, Saba Mahmood, who had studied the religious practices of a group of devout Egyptian women and came to realize that she needed to rethink her own system of beliefs in order to truly understand these women and their ideology. From her studies she wrote a book, The Politics of Piety.
The part that really resonated with me was the discussion that occurred around 21:15 in the podcast. At this point in the interview she spoke of the idea in Islam, or in this particular sect or movement, that your good, religious actions forge within you the pious person and strong belief. This is opposed to the “Protestant Conception of Religion” where the opposite was true: piety and belief within a person inspires this person to good, religious acts. The former espouses that your adherence to religious ritual will make you a righteous person in the eyes of your peers and God. The latter requires that a person be pious within themselves and that the ritual is of secondary importance.
The idea of the centrality of ritual and orthodox practice to producing belief brought to mind a conversation I had with someone a number of years ago. They nominally belonged to a non-Protestant religion and described its tenants as “jumping through hoops” with the goal to jump through enough of them in order to get into heaven. Not the most politically correct statement but it certainly stuck with me.
The strict adherence to a dogma, including all its associated rituals and practices, always struck me a foolish way to run your life. It reminds me of the Red Dwarf episode, “Waiting for God” where the race of sentient Cat people that developed within Red Dwarf over the course of the million years that the ship was lost basically destroyed themselves during “…the war concerning the colour (red or blue) of the hats that the people who served at the Temple of Food were to wear…” I suppose it isn’t a surprise that people still feel the need to live their lives this way rather than treating other well because that is the civil thing to do.
I would recommend that people listen to the whole series on The Myth of the Secular. I found the ideas presented challenging (especially in this episode). While I didn’t always agree with the theses presented, the ideas were always well thought-out and elucidated.