There is an ongoing debate in the West over religion and modernity. Some say they are compatible and others say they are not. Long before 9/11, there have been significant disagreements within the West itself over the compatibility of religion and modernity. After 9/11, many people discuss Islam and modernity as if struggles over faith and reason are unique to Muslims. However, this issue has long been discussed in the West, and both Western and Muslim societies struggle over religious traditions in our modern life.

Beginning with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, many scholars and others have argued that religion and modern life are incompatible and that as societies become more modern they also necessarily become more secular and less religious. There have been many proponents of this view, such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber and other sociologists and historians. In most of the Western world, there have been declining levels of support for religion, as measured by polls on religious belief and attendance at religious services. Jewish and Christian groups have had, and continue to have, serious divisions over modernity and tradition, sometimes resulting in institutional schisms and break-ups.

In American politics, there are also deep divisions over the role of religion in government. Liberals and progressives believe that the religion clauses of the First Amendment teach separation of church and state. Conservatives, on the other hand, frequently deny this, and claim that America is a Christian or Judeo-Christian country. We see this most prominently in the “culture war” issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and prayer in public schools. In general, the West is divided about whether religion should be a purely private affair, or whether it can be a means of guidance for social and political issues. So when we hear discussions of tensions between modernity and religion, it is important to realize that there are deep-rooted tensions in the West around this topic as well.

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