Religious Authority and Modern Thought

All traditional sources of religious authority are being challenged by modern thought, especially science, empirical history, and secular movements of social reform.

Religions respond to these developments in various ways, from significant internal changes accommodating modern thought to complete resistance.

In many ways, the religions most oriented to texts have had the most difficult time dealing with modern thought; the texts often contain science, history, and social systems that do not fit well with modernity and the texts are supposed to be eternally valid and binding. Many interpreters have found ways to combine the deepest insights of religious texts with modern thought by considering some aspects of the text to stem from its social context rather than divine revelation, and by regarding many stories in the text as metaphorical rather than literal truths. Others have refused to concede any aspect of traditional religious thought where it conflicts with modern science or history, with the result that fundamentalism is a dominant religious movement in the twenty-first century, especially in monotheistic religions.

The traditional religions of China have also been deeply affected by modern thought, largely in negative ways. The triumph of Communism deeply weakened the hold of both Confucian and Daoist thought on Chinese people. It also led to the severe repression of Buddhism in both Tibet and China.

Secularism or indifference to religion is also common in many parts of the modern world, especially Japan and Europe. Religion has become a minor ceremonial affair having little real authority for many people.

In other parts of the world, especially India and the Middle East, religion has become a major source of conflict as different religions claim that their texts and traditions give them alone control over land and sacred places. Both sides in the conflict claim the authority of their religious tradition and ignore similar claims by their opponents as illegitimate.

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