June 4, 2009


Free market faith: Globalisation is leading to more belief, not less. Caspar Melville talks to the editor of The Economist about his new book tracing the rise and rise of religion (Caspar Melville, May/June 2009, New Humanist)

The challenge is threefold. First in line is the secularisation thesis, the argument that religion simply fades away as a natural consequence of modernisation. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Modernity doesn't usher in secularisation, it actively promotes religious pluralism. They then train their sights on the equally popular notion that religion contaminates all those who subscribe to its bogus myths and stories. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Religion brings out both the best and worst in man, and secularists need to come to terms with the positive role religions have played in providing meaningful care and support for the oppressed as well as in the nurturing of aspirations for political freedom from Poland to Burma to El Salvador. Secularists should therefore recognise the corollary of these two facts. While it is perfectly appropriate to demand that religionists should accept the separation of church and mosque from state as a guarantee of freedom of conscience for all, secularists should play their part by accepting that religion is here to stay.

Consider the United States. It is both the most modern and one of the most religious countries in the world. It also provides solid evidence of how religions can provide a commendable array of social services in the absence of an effective welfare state. But it is also a perfect example of how religion can be kept separate from the state. If we could all become more like America, the book argues, we could all get along famously.

I met up with John Micklethwait in a spacious office on the 13th floor of the tallest building in West London's Economist Plaza. He sipped from a can of Coke as he apologised in a friendly, youthful manner for the mess on his very noticeably tidy antique desk. I began by pressing him on his objections to the well-known secularisation thesis. Were he and his co-author really saying that Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Freud and generations of sociologists had got it wrong?

"Well, I'm not sure we are the first people to say it - after all the distinguished sociologist Peter Berger changed his mind about it a while ago, which was a pretty seismic event, and sociologists have been arguing about it ever since. The difference is that as reporters we have gone out into the world and seen the evidence. We have seen that religion is not going away, that it is in many ways a partner with modernity and not in conflict with it. Many people in Europe, ourselves included, missed the signs that religion was coming back. It took 9/11 for us to take notice, but as a phenomenon it started well before. Even as a Catholic I grew up in an environment which completely accepted the notion that modernity and religion are incompatible - we all thought that if religion did survive it would be a kind of subtle Anglicanism, some version of a doubting Graham Greeneish religion. The evidence shows we were wrong."

And, he went on to claim, it wasn't only the classical academics who'd got it wrong. The political class, across the West, was almost wilfully blind to the return of the sacred. "Take the CIA looking at the Shah of Iran, just before the revolution. Someone wrote a report saying that religion was an important factor in what might happen, and someone else scribbled a dismissive note on it that it was 'mere sociology'. Or when Hezbollah first appeared in Lebanon and people were trying to fit them into the old left-right spectrum - I mean this was a group calling itself 'the party of God'. When the Americans were preparing to invade Iraq it was clear that no one in the State Department knew anything about the differences between Shia and Sunni - they just didn't think it mattered. In Europe there was this same pattern. Immigrants from all over the world moved to the UK and set up organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain, and the secular British state kept trying to reinterpret them as national or ethnic groups - they didn't understand the significance of religious identity at all. History does not record the dwindling importance of religion. Instead it's a story of people trying to push the issue aside - until September 11."

There was also the compelling evidence of the emergence of new forms of Christianity in China and Nigeria, the growth of Islam across the Arab world and in Asia, and the proliferation of different strands of belief in the USA. And all of this was happening while modernisation proceeded apace.

At this point we were "joined" by Micklethwait's co-author Adrian Wooldridge, on the phone from Washington. His voice emerged, loud and clear and disconcertingly, from a golf-ball-shaped speaker in the ceiling. (It crossed my mind that it was not unlike interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury and having God join the conversation.)

Wooldridge took up the question of what we can learn from American religious pluralism: "European secularists assume that the church is on the side of the ancien régime, of the establishment, that it's against reason and democracy and liberal emancipation, and there is a lot of evidence for that in Europe. But in America the evangelical movement advanced alongside democracy and liberal enlightened values. They were not oppositional forces but comrades in arms. If you give people more freedom and more democracy they will talk about what they want to talk about and obviously for many people that is God. Religion itself has also been important for advancing democracy - it's an example of the little platoons of civil society. Churches nurture certain civic values, that's why the Chinese government, and all totalitarian governments, have been very suspicious of them and have tried to crush them."

Micklethwait was quick to provide reinforcement. "In Eastern Europe religion has served as a battering ram for opening up the post-communist world because it serves as a focus for discontent. In Poland or Latin America even the Catholic Church has been a focus for dissent. The church can act as a barrier to democratisation, as the Catholic Church did for a long time in Europe, but it can also inspire democratisation."

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2009 6:14 AM
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