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Contesting Worldviews


April 19, 2011 by Steven Worden

Although in the middle of the last century, many observers seemed convinced that religion was fast fading from the scene, few social scientists hold that view today.  Instead of religion becoming less important, we listen to the furious sounds coming from the clashing of intense religious convictions.

According to the noted sociologist, Peter Berger, the significant change that has taken place is not so much secularization—or the disappearance of religion—as pluralization or the rise of a diversity of competing and contesting religious worldviews spurred by a virtually instantaneously communicating, world-spanning media apparatus.

Just consider this past week:  22 people in Afghanistan have been killed in protests over the burning of the Koran that occurred in Florida some 8,000 miles away.  Of course, the President of Afghanistan did not help matters by drawing attention to the acts of a couple of Florida preachers at a staged event, an event that was actually attended by fewer than thirty onlookers.  Nevertheless, the contrived media event triggered an enraged response worldwide when disseminated to the Muslim community.

Such seemingly irrational acts usually occur as threatened supporters of traditions race to shore up the boundaries of communities of belief they perceive to be under attack.  Just as rural residents may view with dismay the arrival of new residents with their urban lifestyles, Berger argues, so traditional cultures now scramble to brace the defenses that held back threats to a coherent community of belief.  But, with increased mobility and communication, the old community can no longer provide the seamless taken-for-granted, unquestioned worldview for its inhabitants.

So, rather than simply being born into a belief system, Berger argues that now we are forced to choose one, and choose them we do, often in unpredictable ways. Witness the exasperation of highly secularized parents as their children suddenly become adherents of this or that religious sect.  In fact, this choosing from plurality can be seen at work even in the lives of the most blasé and sophisticated of urbanites.  Consider the life of Andy Warhol.

Once known as the King of Pop Art with his graphics depicting Marilyn Monroe and Campbell soup cans, Warhol was a painter, printmaker, and avant-garde filmmaker famous as a denizen of Club 54 and founder of the artistic studio, The Factory.  Just one of his paintings, “Eight Elvises” brought $100 million at auction.

Nevertheless, although the secular press never covered it, according to Michael Morris, Warhol regularly visited his parish church in New York City, sitting and praying in the shadows.  Warhol also frequently worked for the poor in a soup kitchen and financed a nephew’s seminary education.

Later, after he nearly died after being shot by a deranged co-worker, his art changed and he spent his last years reinterpreting for a modern audience iconic images such as the Last Supper and the cross.  Apparently, the cynical and cool commentator on American popular culture actually based his life on a carefully chosen and remarkably pious and private existence of faith in striking contrast to his persona of disdainful irony.  Such is the plurality of the modern world.

In sum, under modern conditions of instant communication, once-cohesive communities now  find themselves struggling to maintain eroding monopolies, while at the same time, individuals now find themselves with an array of opportunities with which to piece together a quilt of choices with which to shelter oneself from the cold chill of meaninglessness.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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