Encyclopedia of Religion
, 1987 (New York: Macmillan), Vol.10, pp.17 – 22.
MODERNITY. Many factors working together have generated interest in modernity and religion.
Among these are an increasing consciousness of the many human societies that now exist, an
awareness of previous societies recorded in history, and a recognition of the overwhelming
variety of cultures associated with them. The constellation of cultural characteristics associated
with the modern period is very different from that normally associated with an isolated tribal
culture, a medieval peasant society, or a transitional society of the early modern period. To talk
of religion is to identify a particular set of cultural attitudes and activities that point to the deep
sources of power in a culture, how humans relate to that power, and the corresponding, codified
beliefs and behaviors surrounding it. Each concept is highly complex; to discuss the relationship
between them compounds the challenge.
For some time it has been a sophisticated convention to assume that the progressive
extension of scientific knowledge sparked the emergence of dynamic Western societies and the
extension of their influence. The subsequent triumph of reason and rational behavior over ways
of thought and patterns of action associated with traditional cultures was more or less taken for
granted. Thus it seemed logical to expect that religious beliefs and behaviors would be forced to
the periphery of societies that were becoming modern. By extension it seemed conceivable that
religion would disappear altogether. Yet in fact, evidence has suggested that religion, far from
disappearing or losing influence, has a prominent place in modern societies. Indeed, religions
play many different roles in modern societies, and these societies in turn play back upon religion
a wide variety of effects. The term modernity refers to the cultural conditions that set the terms
for all thought and action in a particular culture. Religious beliefs and behavior cannot be
unaffected, even when those who espouse some religion consider themselves untouched by their
cultural location. Just as religion remains a cultural reality in modernity, so there can be no
escape from modernity, even through a wholehearted appropriation of a comprehensive religious
Defining Modernity. Modern, modernism, modernization, modernity, and related terms,
taken alone, qualified, or compounded, are used every day in the popular media as well as in
specialized journals and technical exchanges. The ubiquity of these terms is due in part to the
shifting sets of meaning they carry. To clarify the current discussion, I propose certain
distinctions between these terms.
First, modern is a correlative term; it implies what is new as opposed to what is ancient,