Spotlight on Chapter 16 Religions and social progress

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This excerpt from Chapter 16 (Religions and social progress: Critical assessments and creative partnerships) summarizes the complex relation between religions and social progress:

Religious communities can be spaces of valued solidarity and mutual esteem, partners in providing for the wellbeing of the community, as well as agents of beneficence and generosity. They can, in fact, be critical spaces in which the very parameters of progress can be debated and given moral grounding.

Religions can also be impediments to basic principles of equal dignity in myriad ways, for example, when they stand in the way of women or limit freedom of expression or participation in democratic governing. Indeed, the same mechanisms that create religious solidarities can also limit toleration or restrict educational exploration. As we have already noted, religion must be understood in its local, embodied particularity in order to assess the possible ways it may or may not enable human flourishing.

Just as we need a wide lens to recognize the presence and effects of religion in society, this project also seeks a multidimensional “compass” for assessing progress. That compass makes clear that progress and religious tradition are not of necessity antithetical. In various cultural contexts and in varying religious views of the world, we will see multiple models for both the goals and the process for obtaining them.

This can be illustrated by thinking about social progress in African contexts (Olupona 2012, 2014). At the center of many African cosmologies is the lifelong quest for a good life that is engaged together by individuals and communities. From birth to death, one should enjoy the blessings of long life, wealth, and children. The fulfillment of these blessings is viewed as one’s destiny, with rites of passage, socialization processes, festivals and ceremonies, ensuring that this quest is accomplished within a lifetime. There are also expectations about how these goals are balanced. For example, in most communities, it is said that it is better to die young with dignity than to live to an old age in poverty and want. Thus the blessings of health and long life, wealth, and children are intended to strengthen and support communal structures, and any person who seeks to acquire such blessings without embedding them within the larger society is condemned. For which reasons both individual and social fulfillment are intimately connected to the ritual life of society.

When we speak about movement toward human flourishing what we say will ring true in distinct ways across cultures. That said, the African example has much to teach us. We can, for instance, speak of sufficient wealth to live a long life without degradation. We can speak of peace and tranquility among neighbors. We can speak of participation in a community of respect and fairness and accountability. We can speak of being in healthy harmony with the earth itself. At the same time, we can recognize the degree to which these values often depend on ritual reinforcement that is provided in the religious practices of everyday life.

Social progress requires a society to engage in moral deliberation and moral judgments. It is not simply a matter of finding the right technological formulae. Imagining what a society could become requires reaching beyond oneself, beyond the mundane everyday world. Progress implies a sense of meaning and purpose that has, even if unstated, moral valence. There are many ways such moral deliberation and transcendent imagination can be fostered, but for much of the world’s population religious communities and religious rituals are the spaces in which humans are called to the work of this-worldly transformation.

The moral deliberation and ritual reinforcement that take place in religious communities are, as we will see, sometimes at odds with ideas about social progress that come from outside experts. Religious traditions and religious authorities can and do block needed changes that would increase the larger flourishing of a community. This chapter will assess both those conflicts and the often-overlooked ways in which religious institutions, beliefs, and practices are partners and facilitators of the work of social progress.