The Plight of Western Religion
The Eclipse of the Other-Worldly
Argues that science’s focus on the natural has displaced the supernatural in Western religion, such that it is now largely reduced to a concern for liberal causes.
‘Religion’ can be used to mean all kinds of things, but a substantive definition––based on the premise of superhuman powers––can clarify much. It allows us to attempt to differentiate religion from culture, ethnicity, morality and politics.
This definition of religion necessarily implies a perception of reality. Until recent centuries in the West, and in most cultures still, the ordinary, natural and immediate way of understanding and experiencing reality was in terms of otherworldly or spiritual forces. However, a cognitive shift has taken place through the rise of science and its subsequent technological application.
This new consciousness has not disproved the existence of spiritual forces, but has led to the marginalisation of the other-worldly, which even Western churches seem to accept. They persist, but increasingly as pressure groups promoting humanist values.
Claims of ‘American exceptionalism’ in this regard are misleading. Obama’s religion, Evangelical support for Trump, and the mega-church message of success in the capitalist system can all be cultural and political phenomena.
This eclipsing of the other-worldly constitutes a watershed in human history, with profound consequences not just for religious institutions but for our entire world order.
Paul Gifford is Emeritus Professor of SOAS, University of London. He is the author of several works on African Christianity, including African Christianity: Its Public Role, Ghana's New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalising African Economy and Christianity, Politics and Public Life in Kenya, all of which were published by Hurst.
‘Intellectual and brisk, this book will be of great use to those interested in the history of ideas. A very helpful rebuke to simplistic arguments about the changing nature of religion in society and the modern world.’ –– Ben Ryan, Head of Research, Theos
‘A learned exploration of a compelling issue: why has religion lost its place in the West? Gifford’s perspective as an Africanist is invaluable; he sees what scholars in Europe don’t. Seamlessly weaving together history, theology and sociology, Gifford wears his erudition lightly. A major contribution and a good read.’ –– David Voas, Professor of Social Science, University College London, and Co-Director of British Religion in Numbers