‘What Do You Believe?’ How Ideology Will Shape the Culture Wars of the 21st Century

In a way, all of human history is an endless cycle of war and peace. As the old proverb goes:

“Hard times create strong men.
Strong men create good times.
Good times create weak men.
Weak men create hard times.”

We are all at war – in some way or the other, with something or the other. We are all fighting, even for our daily bread. Whether it be bargaining with the local shopkeeper or actually taking up arms against an invader, conflict of some sort or the other pervades our very social existence.

In centuries past, certain nations decided that the best way to promote their own interest would be to colonise faraway lands located across the seas. This was the age of Conquest, the age of Empires. The result was that entire nations and civilisations came under the commercial and political dominance of unreachable overlords, living in another world.

The people of these subjugated races and tribes suddenly found themselves living as if on rent on the very land which their ancestors had tilled, ploughed and reaped for their own benefit. Hardship led to resentment. Resentment led to anger. Anger led to rage. Rage led to rebellion.

Tired of being mocked, of being made to feel ashamed for the colour of their skin or the rhythm of their tongue or the lyric of their songs, they rose in revolt against the imperialist yoke. Those who were wise, left. But those who underestimated the fury of an oppressed race came to rue it to their very last breath.

Nation fought nation; tribe fought tribe. People of one language ostracised those who spoke a different tongue. Those of a particular hue of skin detested those who looked different. These were the ways of a time when one’s loyalty and one’s pride was still rooted to the soil upon which one lived and toiled.

But that age is no more.

War remains, perhaps ever more keenly than before. But it is a different kind of war. Out of the crucible of human conflict, a new world is being forged. There are several things which have led to this.

The first was the shocking discovery that this Earth could indeed be tamed by the force of human ingenuity. We were told that only the sky is the limit – but even this has proven to be false. The Earth has shown itself to be a very small place indeed, and a new frontier has emerged – the great dark horizon of space.

But this contraction has only brought people closer together – geographically speaking. We are no longer bound to the soil on which our ancestors lived, moved and had their being. The coming together of continents, facilitated by the meteoric rise of modern transport, has led to the birth of multicultural and multi-ethnic societies around the world, where people of different beliefs and various walks of life have been forced to live their lives side-by-side. Seldom do we think of this, but the fact remains that what we see today – people of myriad ethnicities working together in the same office – would have been unthinkable even a century ago.

This has led to the trivialisation of what originally divided mankind. The white man has come to see in the black man not an inferior creature, but a fellow human being. And the black man has come to see in his white neighbour not a fiendish oppressor from the pits of the underworld, but rather a mere man – with faults and flaws, just like everyone else. The close contact of daily interaction has ensured this. And this has led to a radical change in thinking.

Tomorrow’s battles will not be fought on the basis of race, language or ethnicity. Tomorrow’s wars will be wars of ideology, wars of belief, wars of religion.

Ideology, you see, is not like skin colour or tribal identity. It cannot be as easily brushed aside. Abortion is either right or wrong. It cannot be both right and wrong. Pornography is either moral or immoral. Giving condoms to high school students is either a magnificent step forward in promoting safe sex and sexual freedom, or it is a sign of growing decadence and degeneracy in a society which shamelessly normalises the divorce of sex from marriage.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable mass? What happens when one belief system clashes with another? Two world views which are diametrically opposed to each other cannot coexist peacefully. One must prevail; the other must fall.

The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington famously argued that what the post-Cold War era was about to see was not conflict between countries, but rather between cultures. He called it The Clash of Civilizations, and hypothesised that ideology – and especially religion – would play a crucially important role.

If you lived, say, three thousand years ago, you would probably have been born in a monolithic homogeneous society, where there would have been one main philosophy of life, which would have answered all the big questions for you. And in all likelihood, you could have lived your entire life without questioning it – quite natural, given that everyone you knew believed the same things.

However, that is no longer true. The confluence of cultures has resulted in people being exposed to a myriad of different philosophies and beliefs, each quite distinct from their own. Man can no longer be satisfied with accepting answers by faith alone. He has to think and rethink the big questions.

What is his place in the world? Where does he come from? What does it all mean? And what ought one to do while one lives in this changing, transient world?

These are big questions, and this sudden clash of civilisations has forced the different camps to stop and regroup. And since interaction between different communities is all but inevitable, the conflict of ideas has begun anew.

The result can easily be seen. Muslims are studying the New Testament and trying to understand what implications it might have on their own beliefs. Christians are studying Arabic and seeking to understand what the Quran actually says. Atheists are studying theology in universities and devout religious believers are devouring the works of Nietzsche and Russell with vigour. And this very happy situation is causing conversions on all sides, of the most lucrative and imaginative kinds. The clash certainly continues and democracy has played a crucial role in ensuring this.

The struggle for power is natural to all human societies. In the Middle Ages, it was restricted mostly to the ruling class – aristocrats, nobles, princes, royal families and the like. But the advent of democracy has ensured that the vast citizenry have a vital and crucial say in who ultimately becomes King. And this means that people are much more informed and critical than ever before. Everyone has a vested interest. And everyone is trying to realize their own vision of the world.

And belief plays a crucial role in all this. What do people believe would be the best for their country, and for the world? Should abortion be legalised or criminalised? Is patriarchy real or is it a myth? Should borders be opened or closed? Is climate change real or is it a hoax? Should churches be taxed or should they be exempted? Should we seek to establish a one world government or do we support the idea of independent, autonomous nation states?

Ideology shapes the world we live in. And this naturally means that every election – which inevitably guarantees a victory for one side and a defeat for all others – is a microcosm of the great culture war playing out around the world. Whichever side wins, the other naturally feels aggrieved, oppressed and persecuted, and blames the ‘decadent’ victor for ruining the world. This is the sad, but unavoidable result, of a small world in which beliefs and philosophies of life are this varied and polarised.

The fruits of this are often surprising and, at times, humorous. Today, conservative white Christian folk would rather have fellow Christians of different ethnicities, races and cultures as their neighbours and citizens rather than those of their own race who don’t hold similar values. It’s the same with the Muslim community. Generally speaking, racial differences are becoming less and less relevant, and ideological differences are becoming more pronounced and prominent.

This, ironically, means that religion and philosophy will come to enjoy an influence they perhaps have not had in the immediate past. The new world war will not be over race or national identity, but over one’s vision for life. The main question our young people will be asked is not “Where do you come from?” but rather “What do you believe?”

Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.