Religion in the 21st Century

— Swami Vireshananda —

Religion always has been a dominant factor in the history of humankind. It primarily caters to the existential problems of an individual. Also, it gives a social identity to nations and groups of people, which is necessary for unity and belongingness. Besides, religion has influenced human intellectual pursuits like science, philosophy, and literature to a great extent.

Religion in the Western Context

There was an intense crusade against religion in the 19th and 20th century in the form of advancement of science and technology and the evolution of rational ideas. The politico-economic movements like socialism and communism belittled religion as a mass mania and degraded its role in the development of the human race as next to nothing.

Modern science concerns itself with the natural world whereas religion concerns with both natural and supernatural. Religion believes in God and some transcendental entities, while science refuses to believe in anything that does not come under the purview of the senses and cannot be observed empirically. In his book Faith vs. Fact, Jerry A Coyne asserts that ‘science and religion are incompatible, and you must choose between them.’[1] He puts forward two reasons for this assertion: (1) Any attempt to support religion through science or to even avoid conflict does not work. (2) The ways adopted by science and faith to understand the world are intrinsically opposed.

Technology, an offshoot of science, has gained an overwhelming global effect on the lives of people. The achievements of technology, in many cases, stand opposed to the beliefs and doctrines of religion. For example, the Aristotelian view of the earth as the centre of the universe endorsed by the Christian Church was invalidated through technological advancement in the form of the invention of the telescope by Galileo. However, technology does not provide us with values of life while religion claims that it does.

Western philosophy, to a large extent, objected to the efficacy of religious beliefs in solving the problems of life and opposed the authority of religious institutions. Karl Marx gives an effective expression to this general viewpoint when he says that religion is a fantastic realisation of the human essence in place of a true realisation. According to him, a human being is not an abstract being squatting outside the world, as religion professes. Religion, being just an alter ego of a human being, ‘is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again’.[2]

Modern psychology spearheaded by Sigmund Freud even considered religious feeling to be a universal obsessional neurosis. Freud suggested that religion is an attempt to master the sensory world, an illusion that can be compared to childhood neurosis. He demeans the role of religion in the evolution of humankind to the neurosis, which civilised persons have to pass through in the progression from childhood to maturity.[3]

There is a distinction between religion and religious institutions. While religion primarily stands for the spiritual aspirations, beliefs, and practices thereof of a human being, the religious institutions are the visible and organised expressions in historical and social contexts of such an aspiration claiming to cater to the spiritual needs of their members. In the medieval period, the catholic church became a powerful authority not only in the matters of religion but also in secular fields of social customs and traditions and even administration and politics. It is the process of sacralisation that we find in the medieval period, which signifies the all-encompassing powerful presence of the religious authority exerted on almost every sphere of human life including science and philosophy.

Secularisation and Rationalisation

The 20th century was the period of modernisation that lead to the secularisation of human thought. Secularisation is the process where religious beliefs and practices lose social significance. There are several reasons for this process, the prominent being rationalisation. Rationalisation is the process through which rational ways of thinking come to replace religious ones. According to Max Weber, a German sociologist, it leads to ‘disenchantment of the world’ and calls to question all supernormal and supernatural forces and the role they play in forming this universe. A scientific interpretation of the cosmos replaces the traditional idea.

Many social thinkers of the 19th century including Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud believed that religion would fade away into insignificance with the progress of industrialisation. Since the time of enlightenment, the death of religion was considered as the conventional wisdom in the social sciences. C Wright Mills says in his book The Sociological Imagination: ‘Once the world was filled with the sacred—in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.’[4]

This doomsday prophesy as far as the future of religion is concerned was not at all justified when we study the major developments in the 20th century. The United States remained steady in its allegiance to religion even in the thick and thin of industrialisation and later globalisation. However, secularisation took its toll on religion in Western Europe, where church attendance stretched to the bottom. The Asian countries except for China and Eastern European Countries—especially after the fall of Communism—and African countries witnessed a marginal increase in the religiosity of their citizens.

Of late, the scholars have realised the imprudence of the secularisation theory, though they argue that institutionalised religions are paving the way for ‘New age Spirituality’ that does not require adherence to any religion. The truth is that though there might be some loss of interest in the religious institutions, there is a general tendency of increasing affinity towards spiritual values and ideals they hold on to. In essence, people seem to be alienating from religions, but not from religiosity. Peter L Berger, one of the proponents of the secularisation theory in the 1960s, himself admitted in 1999 that ‘the world today, with some exceptions … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labelled “secularization theory” is essentially mistaken.’[5]

Role of Religion in the 21st Century

As in earlier times, Western scholars have come out with various theories about the role religion plays in the 21st century. We here present two such views. Yuval Noah Hariri, a well-known Israeli writer, tries to answer such questions as ‘Can religion create a viable vision for the future of humanity?’ in his seminal book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Though secular people ridicule the religion of such a prospect, billions of people still profess religious faith. The religious movements have influenced even the politics of several countries including India, Turkey, the US, and Russia. Unfortunately, religious animosities have fuelled conflicts in many countries.

The question ‘How much religions will be effective in solving problems the world is facing?’ underscores the role of traditional religions in the 21st century. Harari says in this context that religion is irrelevant in the 21st century to solve technical problems like that of agriculture and policy problems like that of economics. However, he recognises the relevance of religion even now in creating what he calls ‘mass identities’. He says that it is religious rites, rituals, ceremonies, and beliefs that make people feel unique, feel loyal, and identify themselves towards a particular society and hostile to others. Harari prophesies that religious identities and rituals will continue to influence the use of new technologies, exert immense political power, and cement national identities.

Though Harari admits the importance of traditional religions in espousing universal values and cosmic validity, he says that at present they are mainly used as the handmaid of modern nationalism. The immense potential the reli­gions have in invoking the spiritual and ethical cognizance of the vast majority of people is also acknowledged by scholars like Thomas Berry. Berry laments that ‘traditional religion, alienated from the modern world, has reached a spiritual impasse. It has lost much of its feeling for the genuine, for the authentic. It has shown neither the intelligence nor the willingness to walk with us through this modern period in our splendour and shame. Religion has not fully communicated the vital spiritual nourishment and illumination needed by a suffering world.’[6] He further says that what is needed at present is a modern world responsive to the spiritual and spiritual traditions responsive to the modern world. They both have a common task of rejuvenating human beings.

The corollary of religious institutions losing their spiritual and ethical appeal is evident in all parts of the world. Apart from losing the confidence and respect of their congregations, the religious bodies are becoming internally fragile and ineffectual to meet the challenges of the modern period. What they are facing in the future is the slow form of death resulting in loss of irreplaceable religious heritage and moral custodianship. They may continue to be an influential force in secular matters for many more decades but will definitely lose their spiritual and ethical character.

Concept of ‘Dharma’—A Beacon Light for the 21st Century

The Indian concept of ‘Dharma’ can be an effective tool in the rejuvenation of religion in the coming decades of the 21st century. The ideas of religion prevalent in the Western world are sectarian and related to secular structures of groups of believers, while Dharma is entirely a spiritual ideal. The central idea of Dharma is not the sacralisation of human institutions as happened in Medieval Europe, but the spiritualisation of all fields of human activity. Being the universal Law or Order, the Dharma does not depend upon the professing institutions for its survival, but rather the latter depends upon the Dharma for their sustenance. The only way for all religions to regain their past glory is to reclaim their spiritual credential and shape human life in the light of spiritual and ethical values. Dharma stands for these spiritual and ethical values, which are eternal and unchanging even during the vicissitudes of time.

These spiritual and ethical values gave a form and structure to all the existing religions, which continue to get sustenance from them. If any religion is to be of value in this modern period, it should protect its spiritual core and fine-tune all the external appearances to manifest the inherent spiritual nature of human beings. That religion will be irrelevant or even evil, which fails to preserve its spiritual foundation strong. In this context, Dharma can be a central spiritual and ethical foundational idea for all religions to hold on to, in order to maintain their pristine purity in this troubling period.

Ṛta is the earliest concept in the Vedas that evolved into the idea of Dharma. Ṛta is the principle of the natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it.  In the Classical Sanskrit, noun dharma is a derivation from the root dhṛ, which means ‘to hold, maintain, keep’ and takes a meaning of ‘what is established or firm’, and hence ‘law’. 

Dharma is empirically termed as the means of material prosperity and spiritual enlightenment. Dharma is an expression of the moral receptivity of a human being. Hence it is more often translated as virtue, morality, and duty. Dharma is also the effective and legitimate medium to attain other values of life like acquisition of wealth and fulfilment of desire. The same Dharma, as rightful conduct, takes us towards final spiritual beatitude. It is said that Vyasa wrote Mahabharata in order to instruct the nuances of Dharma to common people. An anecdote says that he lamented in this manner:

ऊर्ध्वबाहुर्विरौम्येष न च कश्चिच्छृणोति मे ।

धर्मादर्थश्च कामश्च स किमर्थं न सेव्यते ॥

With uplifted arms I am crying aloud but nobody hears me. From Dharma, righteousness, comes Artha, wealth, as also Kama, fulfilling of desires. Why should not Dharma, therefore, be followed?[7]

Swami Vivekananda defines religion with the back­drop of the classical idea of Dharma. His basic definitions of Religion can be classified into six groups based on different shades of meaning he gives:

  1. Struggle: [Religion is] ‘The struggle to transcend the limitations of the senses.’[8]
  2. Manifestation: ‘Religion is the manifestation of divinity already existing in man’ (ibid., 3.482).
  3. Endeavour: ‘It [Religion] is man’s ceaseless endeavour to become free. … The Master of nature is what we call God. … Blessedness, eternal peace, arising from perfect freedom, is the highest concept of religion underlying all the ideas of God’ (ibid., 1.335–37).
  4. Realisation: ‘Religion is realisation … It is being and becoming, not hearing or acknowledging; it is the whole soul becoming changed into what it believes’ (ibid., 2.396).
  5. Relationship: ‘Religion permeates the whole of man’s life, not only the present, but the past, present, and future. It is, therefore, the eternal relation between the eternal soul and the eternal God’ (ibid., 3.4).
  6. Reality: ‘Is this real?’ ‘Religion begins with this question and ends with its answer’ (ibid., 2.70).

As we can perceive from the above, religion as Dharma is quite different from religion as something static and belief-based. Contrasting to religions as they exist today in society, the true meaning of religion is really Dharma, which is universal and dynamic and represents the potential spiritual and ethical disposition of every human being. The institutional religions are primarily meant to reflect the inborn aspiration of an individual to manifest that immense potential. This is the principal duty of every form of religion; otherwise, they will fail to contribute to human wellbeing and development and thereby lose their relevance.

The Need of the Hour

Though religion plays an indispensable role in the secular spheres of human life, it is predominantly meant to cater the spiritual needs of humanity. The endurance that the world religions have shown through the centuries is due to the accumulated spiritual treasure to which the founders and faithful adherents have contributed immensely through their dedicated lives and mystical capabilities. As spiritual aspiration is the eternal compulsion of humanity, religions are bound to exist in one form or the other for ages to come. Hence, the need of the hour is to strengthen and nourish the spiritual and ethical roots of religions, so that they remain conscience keepers of humankind. There lies the magnificent service that only religions can offer to this world, which is stricken by rampant materialism, greediness, and selfishness, despite the enormous progress in the comforts of living and easiness of doing work.

The religion of the 21st Century is duty-bound to be non-sectarian in nature, the fountain of spiritual and ethical values. Its humanistic approach must be more sublime and profound through the recognition of divinity in every human being. Religion should be a promoter of ethical standards in society. Religion cannot be divisive but should be inclusive, catering to the spiritual well-being of the whole of humanity. The authoritarian, fanatic, proselytising religion will have no currency in the modern period. What a religion ought to do is not to dictate terms on people but to heal the pain of the diseased, console the suffering, lend a helping hand to the destitute, and guide a person in his or her spiritual destiny. Also, the religions must stop being repulsive tools in the hands of powerful politicians and influential sections which serve only self-centred motives.

An Ideal Religion

Swamiji envisages that the religious ideas of the future must embrace all that exists in the world and is good and great; at the same time, the religions must also be inclusive and not look down with contempt upon one another. He exhorts the religions to develop fellow feeling that springs from mutual esteem and respect, and stand together.

In this context, Swamiji presents an ideal of a universal religion: ‘What I want to propagate is a religion that will be equally acceptable to all minds; it must be equally philosophic, equally emotional, equally mystic, and equally conducive to action’ (ibid., 2.387). For him, every religion represents a single ideal that is never lost, and so every religion is intelligently on the march. There cannot be a better blueprint for Religion in the 21st Century than these ambrosial words.


[1] Jerry A Coyne, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 96.

[2] Paul Zacharia, ‘What Did Karl Marx Say About Religion’, The New Indian Express, 17 Dec. 2020.

[3] See Kendra Cherry, ‘Sigmund Freud’s Theories About Religion’, Verywellmind, 30 March 2020.

[4] Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.

[5] Peter L Berger (Ed.), The Desecularization of the World (Washington DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999), 2.

[6] Thomas Berry, The Scared Universe (New York: Columbia University Press), 48.

[7] Mahabharata, 18.50.49.

[8] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.59.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *