The dynamic of religion: secularization and proselytization

1. Let us begin with the idea that religion is some kind of a system (or structure or whatever you feel like using) that maintains itself. That is to say, it is able to reproduce itself, and sustain itself. I call this the `simple reproduction’ of religion. This dynamic enables not only the reproduction of the community of believers but also the experiential intelligibility that the Cosmos has for them. (Worship, for instance, is one such means for the reproduction of religion.)

2. There is, in addition, the dynamic of religion that allows it to expand. I call this the `extended reproduction of religion’. Here, we need to ascertain (through research) what exactly this `expansion’ entails. At the moment, there are several candidates that partially fill in the meaning of the word: increasing number of people being converted to a specific religion; religion penetrating the daily life ever deeper; the expansion of some religion beyond the spatial borders that it finds itself, etc.

3. Our common-sense notions of `expansion’ include the above elements. Mostly, that is all what is meant when one speaks of the expansion of religion. Because of this, the opposite processes are called the processes of secularisation. When, for instance, religion (basically the religious figures) starts losing out, i.e., wins less converts (or even none at all); when religion begins to `withdraw’ from daily life (and becomes a `private matter’, say); or it fails to spread, etc. people speak of the process of secularisation. Reformulating the common-sense notion, we could say that `the withdrawal’ of religion from spheres where it was explicitly present before indicates that secularisation is occurring.

4. My story does not deny the manifest fact that this process has either occurred or that it continues to do so. But I do claim that this is another way of how religion expands. That is, I suggest that secularisation is one of the moments in the expanding dynamic of religion. Secularisation and proselytization constitute two moments in the expansion of religion or, as I call it, they represent the double dynamic of religion.

5. What does this dynamic do? It creates a religious world and a secularised religious world. The previous sentence must be understood literally: two worlds are created within religion. It is not a question of whether this or that theologian draws the distinction between the `sacred’ and the `profane’ or between `the spiritual’ and `the temporal’, but about the coming-into-being of two worlds: the world of religion and the world of human beings. The latter includes Law, State, cemeteries, child-rearing practices, working as a computer engineer, building cars, setting up factories, designing and building cities. The world of religion is, of course, the world of God’s Will, His creations, His creatures. That means, it necessarily includes the `secular world’. That is to say, the `secular’ world of ours is how the religious world brings it forth, as a secularised religious world.

6. This is a hypothesis formulated in the most general of terms. Through research, we need to give more precise content to this story: is it possible, for instance, to look at our modern-day cities as parts of a secularised religious world? How can we show that child-rearing practices of Europe (today) are expressions of the secularisation of some religion or another? And so on. In other words, we need to know what the hypothesis about universalisation of religion entails and what it does not. All I can say at the current moment is this: my hypothesis is proving extraordinarily productive in that it has enabled some of us to formulate very surprising questions for scientific research. Does it prove that my hypothesis is true? It does not; it merely indicates that my hypothesis appears heuristically productive.

7. With these preliminaries out of the way, let me now take up some of the issues you raise. About Judaism. Your questions arise from the fact that, for all practical purposes, one can only be born a Jew today (from mother’s side). This indeed appears to be true. But what does this fact signify? That the proselytizing tendency in Judaism is muted or non-existent today? We could answer this question in the affirmative only if we say that proselytization can only mean that it wins new converts. If we do that, what do we do with every new generation born of Jewish mothers? Further, we would be looking a proselytization in numerical terms, whose limits are given beforehand: the total number of human beings existing at any given moment. In that case, the proselytizing dynamic would cease once this limit is reached. Not only would that mean that proselytization means some initiation ceremony (baptism or circumcision or whatever else), it can also mean no more than that. Should this be the case, our claims would be historically inaccurate and wrong: (a) the Jews have always looked at themselves as `the chosen’ people, suggesting that there would always be `gentiles’ (or non-Jews) in the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the Lord of Israel, and there were other nations (people) and other `gods’ besides Him. (b) Even in Christianity, `conversion’ was a process that primarily monks and secondarily Christians underwent. To undergo `conversio’, one had to be a Christian first.

All of these considerations tell us this: we need to understand what the process of proselytization entails. To do this, we need to do research. My hypothesis enables us to formulate questions for a scientific enquiry and search for answers. It is itself not an answer to these questions.

There are other kinds of questions as well. Assume for a moment that there is a simple reproduction of religion. Would a deepening of the religiosity of its believers constitute the extended reproduction of religion as well? Could the extended dynamic be muted, dulled, or even rendered non-existent by other things? Could a religion reproduce itself indefinitely only in the form of a simple reproduction? How would we then look at the issue synchronically, i.e. when a new generation is inducted? So on and so forth.

In other words, to your question, “where can the dynamic of proselytization in the Jewish religion be found?” there is but one answer: through a study of the history of the growth, spread and the reproduction of Judaism, one can find out where it can be found and what proselytization of Judiasm entails. This will help us understand the notion of proselytization itself better.

8. About the issues regarding Islam. You can, I suppose, already anticipate one answer. One needs to study Islam before your question can be answered. But there are other things to consider as well. The creation of a religious world and a secularised religious world occurs within a culture. So, if we have to understand this process (or even find out whether such a process is possible) we need to develop an empirical theory of a culture brought forth by Islam. Our newspaper conception of `countries in the Middle East’ does not constitute a configuration of learning, which is how I see cultures. We need to look at the Mogul period (in India, for instance) and ask ourselves whether it was (or was not) in some way a part of the configuration of learning that Islam brought forth. How about Indonesia today? And soon. Only if we have some idea of this configuration of learning (which will not come without serious research) could we then see whether or not there is secularisation of Islam (as I use the term). My story cannot and does not answer these questions. But it does say that this process must exist in Islam (and Judaism) too and helps you in looking for answers. If this process does not exist, there are only two possibilities: either Islam (or Judaism) is not a religion or that my theory is false.

9. You further refer to some thinker who seems to suggest that the Islamic theology does not (or is unable) to make a distinction between `the religious’ and the `non-religious’. That is, Islamic theology creates difficulties for the secularisation of Islam. I am not sure I understand what exactly this claim means.

Consider the strictures against money-lending in Islam. Let us call them `the religious’ aspect of Islamic theology. However, there are banks everywhere in the Islamic countries and these banks participate in the international money-markets elsewhere in the world as well. Whatever the variations in the national banking practices, they are subject to international banking practices as well, which include charging interest on money. Do these banks belong to `the religious’ or to `the `non-religious’ domain? Islam does not have anything to say about electricity, aeroplanes and petroleum. Do these objects and phenomenon belong to the `religious’ domain or to something differentfrom it? Once you start along these lines, you have sciences, engineering, etc. about which Islamic theology will have nothing to say. To which domain do these things belong?