[Eyes of the Wise] The Role of Religion in Modern Society

This speech was presented at the Sixth Dialogue among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on March 23, 2008. 

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I am neither a scholar of religions nor a specialist in Islam, but I do give considerable thought to the major issues facing modern society from the viewpoint of government policy and the organization of society. So what I wish to do today is to offer a rough sketch of what I consider to be the role of religion in modern society in the hope of offering some food for thought. I must admit, though, that I am not a specialist in this field, so I please pardon me if my perceptions are not accurate.

Man and Modern Civilization

First I would like to address the nature of modern civilization. A scientist once commented that the defining difference between modern and earlier civilizations is our ready access today to mechanical power. By burning fossil fuels, an energy source that has been stored underground for millions of years, we have been able to speed up the pace and broaden the scope of our activities and have advanced the division of labor and money economy to their ultimate limits. Today, the impact of our activities can instantly reach all corners of the globe.

Modern civilization has blessed man with many benefits, including convenience, comfort, and economic prosperity.

At the same time, it has spawned a number of what I would call "pathological phenomena," one of the biggest being the crisis in the global environment. Another is the fact that trading of financial and other products in lots hundreds and even thousands of times greater than actual demand is being conducted on a daily basis. On the personal level, there has been a rise in such allergies as hay fever and atopy in Japan, and the number of mental patients suffering from depression and people committing suicide has been on the rise.

Even though humans have a highly developed brain, we are still part of the animal world. It is this difference in cerebral development, though, that has led to the creation of civilization. The various aspects of modern civilization, such as man-made products and the fast pace of activity, moreover, are themselves creating even larger gaps between man and other life forms. The gaps have become so wide, in fact, that non-human aspects have been unable to keep up with modern civilization. One might characterize modern pathologies, then, as the manifestations of this phenomenon.

Religion

For most people, religion provides answers to the big questions in life, which in Buddhism revolve around the themes of birth, aging, disease, and death. It teaches people how they should relate to their desires, worries, and fears. It also brings them comfort and impresses upon them the need for resignation. At the same time, based on these teachings, it provides a system of norms regarding daily conduct. The extensiveness of such systems will no doubt depend on whether one is talking about a world religion or a local, indigenous faith. The most universal of such systems, transcending time, region, and culture, are the ones that have emerged as world religions.

In other words, most people expect religion to fill the gap that I referred to earlier existing between man and other life forms.

The universality of the values that religion upholds is in the realm of abstract concepts. When they are actually put into practice in concrete ways, though, they manifest themselves in various forms according to place and time.

This is akin to the fact that universal values of modern society, such as freedom, equality, fairness, and human rights, are upheld in different ways according to country and ethnic group.

What Modern Society Looks for in Religion

In this sense, I believe that religion will come to play an increasingly larger role in filling the yawning gap that modern civilization has created between man and other life forms.

Its role will be not only to comfort man as he struggles through life but also to curb the excesses of civilization. For example, in the microscopic world, modern civilization has gained the ability to manipulate genetic information. Such attempts to modify the mechanisms of life are being driven by advances in technology and man's greed, even though their potential future impact are not yet clear.

On a larger-scale, environmental issues have been ignored for decades despite warnings from scientists that the problem is really serious, largely because these issues were not immediately felt. This has resulted in the crisis we face today.

Both of these issues involve the need to control human greed and desire, which is a fundamental task for any religion.

What are some of the issues that religion must confront if it is to play a larger role in curbing such excesses? I would like to consider this point with reference to the role of Buddhism in Japan.

The biggest issue religion confronts today is the fact that it appears unable to keep up with modern civilization. The gap between man and other life forms that religion is addressing is that which existed about a century ago.

This is true of almost all religions, as aptly illustrated by the fact that the condemnation of Galileo for heresy was only recently rescinded.

How Islam deals with progress was discussed at a previous meeting of the Dialogue among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World. I am sure that all religions of the world, including Islam, have attempted to adapt to the times by adding new concepts and changing interpretations. But there are differences in the speed and scope with which such changes have been made. I would add that there are also differences in how the devotees of the various faiths react to the changes.

In order for religions to catch up with modern civilization and effectively deal with its pathologies, I believe it is important for religions to explain the core aspects of their teachings in a manner that is readily understood by modern man. It is also necessary to establish norms for daily conduct that are in keeping with modern lifestyles. In this regard, I believe it is important to allow for diverse responses according to region and ethnic group.

It is my conviction that the Japanese people inherently have very strong religious feelings but that this is being rapidly lost in modern society, especially in urban areas. As far as Buddhism in Japan is concerned, I believe it needs to quickly catch up with modern civilization and to make the two changes I have just mentioned if it is to remain a viable means of bridging the gap between man and other life forms in contemporary society.

Hideki Kato

  • President, Tokyo Foundation (2006-2012)