In times of neoliberal precariousness, religion helps master everyday dread and ignominy.
In his 1967 book, The Sacred Canopy, sociologist, Peter Berger, famously argued that religion would decline and become redundant as the world modernized. Three decades later, equally famously, he did a volte-face and said he had been proven wrong; religion was back with vengeance. Like so many “theorists of modernity,” Berger had made the mistake of thinking of modernization as abstract history instead of concrete social reality, a tack sociologists inherited from Enlightenment philosophy. The philosophes of that era entertained a conceptual understanding of history as a long arc with an inbuilt direction, purpose, or goal (telos) and seen through this lens the decline of religion, as science and technology took over, was regarded as an inevitable, scientific truth—one of sociology’s own “laws” to rival the inviolable rules that govern the hard sciences. Yet in our fascination with science, carried away by the systematic biases of Cartesian objectivity, we have ignored something critical: the concrete conditions of human existence.
We are wont to approach the resurgence of religion, as it is often called, with suspicion, as fundamentalist and fanatic. But one must be careful.
I spent about a year, studying the Kanwar, a religious movement in India, in which millions of people carry water from the river Ganga to local Śiva shrines. This used to be a modest event, involving a few thousand people, but the pilgrimage has grown explosively over the last couple of decades. We are wont to approach such resurgence of religion, as it is often called, with suspicion, as fundamentalist and fanatic. And considering the rapid political ascendancy of the Hindu right over the same period of time, there may be some justification for such a reading. But one must be careful, because that is precisely the trap of abstraction.
As soon as I approached these subjects in their situated material and moral circumstances, I found not “fanatics,” but poor young men and women coming of age in conditions of hopeless uncertainty. These were people trying to find a meaning for their lives and find a path to life, livelihoods, and honor, in a sea of traumatic misfortunes and deprivation. In an exclusive global economy, premised on seducing and ingesting people as consumers while violently rejecting them as workers, religion becomes an alternate field for performed existence as well as social and self-recognition. In conditions where the overwhelming majority of workers are informally employed, and the prospects of a stable livelihood and respectable future are faint if not illusory, the often painful journey repeats, performs, and prepares for a daunting transition to an elusive adulthood. It is an open and freely accessible, yet formidable and valued stage for people to practice and demonstrate their talents, resolve, and moral worth.