The Clash of Worldviews

 In Our Global Society, Religion vs. Secularism

We know that there is incredible diversity among the peoples of the world, but there is something that most of us would agree on: that we all have fundamental beliefs about reality and about ourselves and that we rarely discuss these matters with people who have fundamentally different beliefs. In our world today, we can observe countless examples of fierce partisan, nationalistic, and ideological bickering and tit-for-tat animosity among different groups, but there are deeper philosophical differences that underlie such differences. Even though so much hinges on such differences, polarized opposing camps rarely discuss their philosophical differences amongst each other with much thoughtful consideration. So although many of the most well-known social and political leaders of our time are very outspoken in rallying their base of supporters and in demonizing the supposed enemy, they rarely or never address the true points of disagreement among the different groups of people. While it may seem like we live in a world where the fault lines are primarily determined by political ideology, partisanship, and nationalism, what we are actually witnessing today is a wide-scale and deeply felt clash of worldviews.

Unfortunately, people who have vastly different worldviews are often at reflexively odds with each other. People tend to think in terms of us-vs-them and a person’s worldview is an important marker of identity. This chasm of thought and belief tends to cause a breakdown in productive communication and often leads to open hostility. The result is an increasingly dangerous and unbearable tension in society.

And this is a clash that becomes ever more acrimonious and potentially explosive when the social and political leaders continue to avoid the true matters of disagreement and forego any semblance of civility and instead focus on relentless spin and vitriolic attacks in order to protect their own wealth, power, and privilege. When those with political power and/or social influence insist on being so self-serving and focusing on quite superficial matters, those who are not so privileged and those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum pay the price. The most dire consequences of such atrocious leadership include human rights abuses, chronic poverty, and environmental degradation.

As such, we can try to identify the hinge points of this clash so that we might use this understanding to formulate a plan to improve the situation. There are several perspectives worth considering.

One Perspective: Religions and Cultures in Conflict with Each Other

Samuel P. Huntington wished to highlight the clash of different civilizations that are mostly differentiated by their religious and cultural identity as the most significant cause of global civilizational tension. We can see that there is some truth to this because of the large number of religious faithful who think that their beliefs are the only true ones and who disagree with other faithful about which beliefs are true. Throughout the world, religion is a major force in motivating individuals and mobilizing legions of followers to fight for causes that stem from these beliefs. In every region of the world, religion is a significant factor in local and national politics as well as international diplomacy. Though it is not uncommon for followers of different religions to live in peace alongside each other, it does appear that there will always be conflict as long as there are incompatible religious belief systems and people who fervently believe that their religion is correct and that all others are wrong. The world’s major religions certainly contain fundamentalist believers who are at odds with one another, and thus the religion vs. religion perspective remains a major cause of this tension among the world’s different cultural spheres.

We can consider almost any geographic region where there is religious diversity and that lies on the fault line between two larger and more religiously homogeneous regions and we can observe tension and sometimes violence between the two religious communities. Indeed, many smaller local conflicts between followers of different religions can be seen as part of greater regional conflicts, which can in turn be seen as part of an even greater global religious conflict that is playing out in all corners of the world. Likewise, we can see the force that cultural nationalism has in creating and sustaining hot-tempered conflicts as peoples of different ethnic groups intermix. Religious and cultural identity are deeply often interwoven into many people’s lives and into their families, communities, and national allegiances as well. The in-group versus out-group psychological dynamic can be toxic in regions that are not ethnically and religiously homogeneous, which are almost everywhere in our contemporary world. This conflict is a threat to the dream of a secure and prosperous future, which is a dream that is common among peace loving people in every region of the Earth. It is a threat to the peaceful coexistence of diverse beings who must share the Earth and its life-sustaining resources.

Another Perspective: Religion vs. Secularism

The clash of civilizations that Huntington brought to the forefront remains a matter of significant threat to world peace and stability, but the social influences of religion, culture, and nationalism do have their limits. There are other factors causing different types of divisions among people that are growing stronger and that have the potential to have increasing power to mobilize people and to cause conflicts in the coming years. There is another perspective, besides the one that focuses on religious and cultural divisions, that might become even more important in the near future, and it is one that pits some form of traditional worldview, including those rooted in religion and/or spirituality, against more modern and secular alternatives. While clashes between religious and cultural traditions have ancient roots, these additional perspectives are the result of more recent developments on the world stage.

There is a wide diversity of worldviews throughout human society, many of which are religious in nature and some of which are secular. For some people, their worldview involves significant philosophical engagement, while for others it mostly involves unquestioning belief and adherence to what they have been told and is practiced with little critical thinking. Some people are able to use their worldview to find satisfying answers to the great questions of life, while others might have to admit that their worldview leaves many great questions unanswered.

It is natural for humans to ponder questions such as “What is right and what is wrong?”, “What is the nature of our conscious experience?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, and “Why is the universe the way that it is and not different?”, although it is less common for one to achieve satisfying and reasonable answers to these questions. There have always been religions within human society through which one can find some sort of answer to these questions with relative ease, but these answers are often to be taken simply on the basis of faith rather than on the basis of observation and reason, which are the mental faculties that one uses to understand most other things in life. Conversely, people who are more secular minded usually don’t have any particular need for faith in their lives and they can more consistently use observation and reason to address questions and problems in their lives.

We can see that there is a clash between religious vs. secular minded people. On one side you have those who are more traditional and religious. They tend to believe that the core tenets of their worldview are correct and that this is justified on the basis of faith, and thus is not open to challenge on the basis of observation or reason. The other group, based in secularism, might charge that religious faith, and the socio-political movements that spring from it, is the cause for a large proportion of our societal ills and that therefore such belief systems should no longer have as much influence in the world. They might argue that far too many people believe in the infallibility of scriptures or religious dogma or prophecy or revelation despite the lack of evidence in favor of such beliefs, and even sometimes in the face of significant counterevidence. Such secularists could point out that most of these beliefs were first created by human beings many generations ago, before humans had come to better understand the way natural forces operate. These beliefs, so the argument goes, were created by people to give explanations for life’s origin, to give hope for life after death, and to provide the community with certain ethical standards. According to this theory, these beliefs were simply passed down from generation to generation relatively unchanged and accepted by seemingly endless arrays of followers in a way that lacks sufficient critical investigation. Secularists argue that modern science allows us to understand things such as life, death, the weather, the sun, and the moon, and that religious beliefs are often at odds with the findings of modern science.

There are secularists who go so far as to argue that whenever groups of people have strongly held beliefs that are not backed up by sufficient evidence that this inevitably leads to unnecessary conflicts. Some secularists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, argue that the evidence shows that everything in the world is ultimately material, that the only way we can come to understand the truth is through objective study, and that the only way of really knowing anything is through scientific investigation and reasoning. Other secularists, such as Sam Harris, leave open the possibility that something immaterial could exist, but say that we can only know about it through observation and reason, as opposed to simply believing what we are told from scriptures or dogma. Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris have become increasingly influential in recent years, and all agree that religion has too much respect in the modern world and that religious faith is responsible for much of the conflict in the world today.

Many religious followers have worked to defend faith against the attacks of all three aforementioned secularists, and many others as well. Defenders of faith argue that faith is necessary in life because there is so much uncertainty. It is common among such defenders to argue that their faith is peaceful and that they are able to live in harmony with all people, regardless of what beliefs others have. But there is also, in some religious circles, a certain level of distrust and skepticism of modern science. Some religious followers believe that science is just another belief system and that it is not the best way of knowing the truth about the world, but that it is instead only intended to eliminate the need for religion. It is unfortunate that such people take their suspicion and hostility to reason and apply to matters that are not typically within the scope of religion, such as partisan politics and blood-and-soil nationalism. Out of frustration, those who are secular minded and who are inclined to embrace science and reason might either disappear completely from any sort of public life – choosing apathy over participation or, conversely, they might engage in the same sort of political theater and tribalism as the people that they oppose.

On the rare occasions when secular and religious people do discuss the merits of their worldviews with civility and with appeals to reason and evidence, we sometimes see a bit more of a mixed bag regarding which side has the clear intellectual high ground. Secular minded people will tend to rely on the findings of modern science on any point of debate with religiously minded people. They can draw on scientific evidence and they can point to the abundant evidence that the livelihoods of countless people have been improved through scientific progress. But some of the great questions of life are difficult to address with the sole reliance on science, including the nature of consciousness, the foundation of morality, the ultimate explanation for the universe, and the meaning of life. Some of the world’s major religions do have full and detailed answers to these questions, although they are to be taken as matters of faith, often as given in some holy book such as the Bible, Quran, etc.

Some people might take a different path that can be called spiritual but not religious, in which they seek to understand these great questions of life that they believe cannot be adequately addressed through science or religion. The word “spiritual” can have varied definitions depending upon the context. For those who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, we might find that what is common is the individual experience of wonder and the sense of relation to things that are greater than one’s self, but in a way that is difficult or impossible to describe. Spirituality is a mysterious concept that can be compatible with religion and is not necessarily at odds with secularism.

What is your worldview?  Let your voice be heard in the forum.


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