Changes and Continuities
THE MORE IT CHANGES, THE MORE IT REMAINS THE SAME," the French saying has it, and some would argue that the saying pertains more to religion than it does to any other institution.
But maybe one could argue the reverse about religion: The more eternal and central to people's lives it remains, the more it is really undergoing major transformations. This contradiction reflects at least two underlying issues, two problems deriving from what are often unchallenged assumptions about the nature of culture and the nature of religion.
First, there is the tendency to use the word "traditional" to classify societies other than those found in the complex, technological states of Europe, the Americas, East Asia, and South Asia. Quite often, "traditional" serves to do little more than replace such equally imprecise terms as "preliterate," "nonliterate," "tribal," and "simple"--all of which in turn came into scholarly parlance to replace the term "primitive" (as against "civilized," like "us"--whoever "we" are). One erroneous implication of this continuing word game is that there are really only two types of societies: one technologically advanced and capable of even more change, the other supposedly both technologically undeveloped and in general resistant to new ideas and new ways.
There is also a widespread assumption that the very keeper and maintainer of tradition, the massive bulwark protecting the old ways and excluding innovation everywhere, but obviously most particularly in traditional societies, is religion.
But what if both these assumptions are suspect, if not indeed false? In other words, what if all societies, whether populous and technologically advanced or not, are equally amenable (and equally resistant) to change--or what if the factors that contribute to advancing or contesting tradition have little to do with the presence of industrialization, nuclear capability, literacy, state bureaucracies, and such!
And what if religion--everywhere the accepted repository of tradition and the supposed enemy of new ideas and new ways--is also (and everywhere) a major engine of change and adaptation to new ideas and new ways!