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Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The general consensus of the contemporary mass media is that the return of religion has emerged as the most important factor in global politics and culture today. Now, those who currently refer to a revival of religion clearly do not mean anything like the second coming of the Messiah or the appearance of new gods and prophets. What they are referring to rather is that religious attitudes have moved from culturally marginal zones into the mainstream. If this is the case, and statistics would seem to corroborate the claim, the question then arises as to what may have caused religious attitudes to become mainstream.

The survival and dissemination of opinions on the global information market is regulated by a law formulated by Charles Darwin, namely, the survival of the fittest. Those opinions that best adapt to the conditions under which they are disseminated will, as a matter of course, have the best odds of becoming mainstream. Today’s opinions market, however, is clearly characterized by reproduction, repetition, and tautology. The widespread understanding of contemporary civilization holds that, over the course of the modern age, theology has been replaced by philosophy, an orientation toward the past by an orientation toward the future, traditional teachings by subjective evidence, fidelity to origins by innovation, and so on. In fact, however, the modern age has not been the age in which the sacred has been abolished but rather the age of its dissemination in profane space, its democratization, its globalization. Ritual, repetition, and reproduction were hitherto matters of religion; they were practiced in isolated, sacred places. In the modern age, ritual, repetition, and reproduction have become the fate of the entire world, of the entire culture. Everything reproduces itself—capital, commodities, technology, and art. Ultimately, even progress is reproductive; it consists in a constantly repeated destruction of everything that cannot be reproduced quickly and effectively. Under such conditions it should come as no surprise that religion—in all its various manifestations—has become increasingly successful. Religion operates through media channels that are, from the outset, products of the extension and secularization of traditional religious practices. Let us now turn to an investigation of some of the aspects of this extension and secularization that seem especially relevant to the survival and success of religions in the contemporary world.

The regime under which religion—any religion—functions in contemporary Western secular democratic societies is freedom of faith. Freedom of faith means that all are free to believe what they choose to believe and that all are free to organize their personal and private lives according to these beliefs. At the same time, however, this also means that the imposition of one’s own faith on others in public life and state institutions, including atheism as a form of faith, cannot be tolerated. The significance of the Enlightenment was not so much that it resulted in the complete disappearance of religion, but that religion became a matter of private choice, which then resulted in the withdrawal of religion into the private sphere. In the contemporary world, religion has become a matter of private taste, functioning in much the same way as do art and design. Naturally, this is not to suggest that religion is precluded in public discussion. However, the place of religion in relation to public discussion is reminiscent of the place of art as outlined by Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment: religion may be publicly discussed, but such a discussion cannot result in any conclusion that would become obligatory, either for the participants of this discussion or for society as a whole. Commitment to one religious faith or another is a matter of sovereign, private choice that cannot be dictated by any public authority—including any democratically legitimized authority. Even more importantly, such a decision—as in the case of art—need not be publicly argued and legitimized, but rather publicly accepted without further discussion. The legitimacy of personal faith is based not on the degree of its power of persuasion, but on the sovereign right of the individual to be committed to this faith.

In this respect, freedom of faith is fundamentally different from, let’s say, the kind of freedom represented in scientific research. In the context of a scientific discussion every opinion can be argued for or against, but each opinion must also be substantiated by certain facts and verified according to fixed rules. Every participant in such a discussion is undoubtedly free—at least theoretically—to formulate his or her position and to argue in its favor. However, one may not insist on a scientific opinion that is not subject to justification, and that would contravene all proof and evidence to the contrary, without introducing any argument that would otherwise make one’s position plausible and persuasive to others. Such unyielding resistance to the obvious, such blindness toward the facts, to logic and common sense, would be regarded as bordering on the insane. If someone were to refer to his sovereign right to insist on a certain scientific opinion without being able to legitimize this insistence by rational argument, he or she would be excluded from the scientific community.

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