Friday, 29 May 2009

So is God back?

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In our latest issue, Caspar Melville talks to Economist editor John Micklethwait and Economist Washington Bureau Chief Adrian Wooldridge about their new book God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World (published by Allen Lane). As Caspar writes, it's a book that secularists and humanists, many of whom hold firm to the idea that the onset of modernity tends to herald the decline of religion, need to sit up and take notice of:
"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."
What do you think? Is God back (or did he never go away), and is he here to stay? Read Caspar's interview and share your views by commenting on this post.


Joe Hayhurst said...

Surely 'God' can't be back as he was never here. I think they mean radical religion is back.


Having said that, maybe atheists shouldn't necessarily be always on a mission to 'convert' the pious, as long as they do no harm let 'em get on with it. Most religious people are good people, just as most people are good people. Its the bad people, religious or not, who are the problem. It's just that religion provides the certainty and promise of everlasting life to the bad religious people which is scary. However the people best placed to change that attitude are probably the good-religious, not the non-religious!

Hope that makes sense!

SilverTiger said...

I have always thought that religion expresses the best and worst of humanity but that we should realize that we could still have the best without religion if we put our minds to it.

As long as religion is around, I think secularists would be wise to accept to work with those believers who do good work for the community while continuing to criticize and actively oppose where necessary. It doesn't matter to me whether a crime is committed for religious reasons or not: the important point is that it is a crime and should be dealt with as such.

It's hard to tell whether religion is undergoing a world-wide revival or whether the hysterical voices and acts of religious lobbies are part of a more combative attitude among the population as a whole (the "I'm offended" obsession). Time will tell and in the meantime forecasts are good if they help us concentrate the mind but bad if they cause us to panic.

I hope that religion will one day pass into oblivion but humans have an immense capacity for self-delusion so I think we will have to live with it for some time yet. The more good religious people we can find to work with, the better.

David said...

Europeans defer to the state much more than do Americans. Europe went from established churches to established atheism or indifferentism, with little or no middle ground of separation of church and state.

Europeans' loss of faith or interest in religion is part of their attempt to "retreat from history" that Raymond Aron talked about in the 1970s. Since religion was identified more with the state than in America, abandonment of religion was part of the retreat from history.

Matt said...

I think the article really overlooks what the authors said about religion in America. Infiltration of religion into the state is highly prevalent - the military, the judicial branch, government funding. On paper religion is separate, but it seems that this book takes too much stock of the paper.

Otherwise, I applaud their notions. God is not dead, and will repackage himself until they end of time. As well, I agree with the theory that spiritual charity is one of the most effective forms of aide.

Yet, the tone of their reasoning is far too optimistic. They hope, not know, that religion is a free market immune to monopolization. While it has yet to happen to any appreciable level yet, by asserting incorrectly they risk severely miscalculating almost everything.

Finally, one must look at religion from a different political perspective: theists are quite stubborn, as they ought, about their values, and will rarely compromise when is comes to especially controversial subjects. Thus, when it comes down to it, it must be said that they will stop short of nothing to get what they want.

For them, democracy usually is not the answer but a waypoint toward a caliphate - I think the authors, while comprehensive, missed this part especially.

Tommykey said...

I would agree that modernization ends up pushing segments of the population towards greater religious fundamentalism. Modernization often results in creating uncertainty in people. The world is changing so fast and they can't make sense of it anymore. So they turn to religion because it offers simple solutions to their problems.

Steven Cox said...

Non-atheist here...there are two aspects to this issue, which is usually overlooked. There are religions and religious beliefs, and then there is faith, perhaps not aligned in any way.

To those of us who have faith, it seems obvious there is some sort of organizing intelligence at work in my life, and in the lives of others. I actually think atheists have to wilfully deny it.

I do think, having examined this for decades, one can't get much past that there is some sort of organizing intelligence that moves us towards something better while allowing us free will. I can't define it in any way that is more meaningful. Religion tries to do this, and often causes problems by doing so.

Religion which tries to funnel faith, and sexuality, is the problem, not faith. And, most of the good being done by people of religion is being done by people who have faith and happen to like belonging to something.

Thank you.


Bob said...

What we've grappled with in the U.S., coming out of the Bush years, is a workable distinction between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and the separation of religion and public discourse on the other. The former means no state sponsorship of religion or religious institutions, and no formal role for religion and religious institutions in the activities of the government. Most citizens of the U.S. understand this, and agree with it.

But the latter idea-separation of religion and public discourse--is much harder. The Religious Right wants to grant religious motivation and reasoning a special place in the way we decide public policy. The secular left (with which the author of this article would likely feel at home)wants to remove religious speech from the public square, and relegate it solely to "private" concerns--an argument I have heard frequently from European secularists as well.

But, as I suspect the authors of the book would recognize, part of the vitality of religion in the U.S. derives from the freedom of religious reasoning to compete within the overall marketplace of ideas. Released from the stultifying effects of state sponsorship, religion in the American colonies and the U.S. has had to establish itself in our culture primarily through persuasion. Religion in the U.S. is at its best, therefore, when it seeks to enter the broader public dialogue and present its vision of the common good in terms that nonreligious people will accept as well. It is at its worst--as it has been in recent years--when the religious (mistakenly) believe they have the political clout to enforce their vision on the rest of society without this moral suasion. Our election last November is but the most recent example of the fact that we always reject such attempts by the religious to exercise coercive, rather than persuasive, power.

At the same time, we have also been largely free of the kind of dismissal of religious reasoning so prevalent in societies dominated by a secularist outlook. So, for example, to argue against capital punishment or abortion on the grounds that they contradict God's law will carry little weight with those not already converted. But to argue on the basis of the sacred elements of life will be more effective, even among those who hold to no theistic concept of the transcendent.

If the U.S. can model a healthy integration of religion and modernity, I suspect it is because we have (thus far) allowed religious reasoning this equal, but neither privileged nor separate, voice in the public square.

Anonymous said...

Affiliation with a church is high in the United States, but belief is at a low; that is how the couhntry achieves its vaunted coexistence of chruch and state. Americans no more believe in religion than they do in peaceful coexistence.

Steven Cox said...

You make a good point, Bob.


egaliede said...

Woah! The beliefs of those of one religion infringing on the lifestyles of others - that´s not separation of church and state. America shouldn´t serve as an example to anyone in terms of their religious or political condition. When gays aren´t allowed to marry because a book they don´t follow says it´s wrong... frankly, that´s not very modern.

Anonymous said...

The US turned democracy into a religion, so the state and religion are merged together.

I'm not saying dictatorships are good, but "spreading" democracy as the best thing for people sounds a lot like crusades from those olden days.

Gregory Gazaway said...

Oh, to have the academic ivory tower privilage of the authors. I, a gay man in California, on the other hand, am still reeling from the down on this Earth fact that a simple majority of Californians can, and did, vote me into a second class status. Separation of Church and State in the USA is in peril and apologists for Religion are part of the problem. The American Taliban spead lies about me and mine, spent sinful amounts of money that could have better served the needy, and whose actions in the fight over Prop 8 generally, as a whole, reflect very little of the values I learned in Sunday school.

George Jelliss said...

"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."

Their ideas of what constitutes "modernity" must be rather strange!

Anonymous said...

I would love to see a definition of modernity and modernisation. Anyone have an idea?

Anonymous said...

A candidate for President of the United States who is not an active Christian? Unelectable.
A candidate for Prime Minister of New Zealand who is not an active Christian? We've just had one. And other countries who manage to separate religion from the state can boast the same. How can the USA be "a perfect example of how religion can be kept separate from the state"?

Anonymous said...

-To those of us who have faith, it seems obvious there is some sort of organizing intelligence at work in my life, and in the lives of others. I actually think atheists have to wilfully deny it.-

To those who have actively studied psychology, biology and physics...not so much.

A sense of spirituality and community are the two things that make religion popular. Modernity has changed these to some degree but it's hardly all one way. Religion is fading...from gods for every tree and one god.. to becoming nothing more than a vague feeling of...something... but spreading thinner and thinner is not growth.

andersoneric said...

The U.S.A. is the most modern country in the world ?It is difficult to accept any argument from someone who starts like that.

Anonymous said...

" ... a kind of subtle Anglicanism, some version of a doubting Graham Greeneish religion.": Interesting pejorative.

Sceptic said...

I would strongly oppose the assertion that the United States is the single most modern nation in the world today. It certainly is the most religious in terms of Judeo-Christianity.
It baffles my mind how the assertion can be made that the United States serves an example of how church and state is separated, when every governor, supreme court judge and presidential candidate's religious orientation is explored and emphasised before, during and after election campaigns.

I think if one really wants to see a progressive society, that also happens to be predominantly atheist, then, Sweden, Denmark and Norway should be used as examples ... certainly not the United States.

If we all became like the United States, our economies and personal well-being would be in constant danger. We would certainly not all get along famously. The United States is a perfect example of what extreme right-wing Judeo-Christianity coupled with unbridled capitalism produces. And it certainly is not a nation, culture or society I wish to be part of, let alone strive to imitate.

Ben D. said...

@egaliede said "The beliefs of those of one religion infringing on the lifestyles of others - that´s not separation of church and state."

Which "one religion" did you have in mind?

In California an unprecedented coalition of Mormons and Catholics backed the Prop 8 campaign.

Catholics don't even think Mormons are Christian -- and lots of other Christians don't think Catholics or Mormons are Christian.

And the swing votes for Prop 8 in November came from African Americans -- who don't tend to be either Catholic or Mormon.

Do you think widely disparate religious groups are able to form effective political blocs in real theocracies like Iran?

I would argue that it's precisely because of the separation of church and state in America that Prop 8 was able to pass.

Anonymous said...

Although you probably wont altogether like the author, His criticisms of what is usually called religion--the one-dimensional consumerist religion that is celebrated in the God Is Back book--are quite unique.

Plus a related critique of the ideology of scientism--and the culture created in its image.

Also a related essay