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Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. All religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with the scientific discoveries of the time. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 143.
Throughout history and until virtually this moment, religion has been conceived and practiced in three ways.
The first we can think of as Exclusivist or Fundamentalist. This was how most religion was conceived of for the vast majority of history. This view holds that one’s own religion is right and all others are wrong, that one religious founder is correct and all the others either occupy a station far below, or else are pretenders. Fundamentalism’s essence is “My way or the highway … to hell” (with apologies to AC/DC). It is characterized not only by exclusivity, rigidity, and a hyper-literal reading of scripture, but is disproportionately animated by a reward/punishment model based on heaven and hell. Because Exclusivism feeds an us-versus-them, in-group/out-group mentality, it thrives by stroking the group ego with a sort of self-congratulatory vibe.
The second view, which flourished largely as an understandable reaction to the unyielding nature of Exclusivism/Fundamentalism, is Materialism, or atheism, the motto of which might well be: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Materialism, holding as it does that there is no non-physical dimension to life or to the universe, dismisses all religion as superstition, as a mere function of individual and group psychology, as a tool for control of the masses, and as the nemesis of science and reason.
The third conception of religion can be called Postmodern Pluralism, and a suitable shorthand for it might be a spiritualized version of “If it feels good do it.” In most instances, we have a positive association with the term “pluralism,” but in this case it refers to a fragmented approach to religion rather than a holistic one, where theology and observance is a la carte, as a salad bar at which one picks and chooses the religious ideas and observances she fancies, instead of the full-meal deal, eaten at the behest of an expert nutritionist. Here, we find those who suspect that there is a higher power and therefore are not comfortable with cold Materialism, but likewise reject Fundamentalism for most of the same reasons Materialists do — its hostility to questioning, its disregard for science, etc.
Though Postmodern Pluralists may believe in a higher power, their typical lack of an internally consistent doctrine can lead to a vague, ever-shifting, somewhat non-committal faith, largely a function of cultural preferences and comfort zones. (“I like the music/location/preacher in this church, so I’ll be a ___.”) As much as Fundamentalism is closed, Postmodern Pluralists, in their extreme form, can be equally open to every new idea that comes along, and therefore their conception can even be a portal back into superstition. Here we see the “new age” resurgence of astrology, crystals, past lives, etc. Author Nader Saiedi, whose typology I have borrowed here, writes, “Its relativism of truth and value becomes compatible with an eclectic, arbitrary, uncommitted, and fragmented approach to religion.”
Finally, Postmodern Pluralism generally preaches a gospel of affirmation rather than one of transformation. Because its members circulate in a vast marketplace with infinitely varied menus of beliefs and approaches, it typically seeks to reassure, comfort and affirm the views and habits a person already has instead of challenging them to transform themselves through the sometimes uncomfortable process of personal growth and the tough re-examination of assumptions.
These three contemporary ways to view religion have now been joined by a new, “fourth way” – progressive revelation.