Despite superficial appearances of a resurgence in religious belief, we are actually witnessing the death throes of faithby AC Grayling / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
On the basis of apparently incontrovertible evidence, commentators of various persuasions, among them Eric Kaufmann in the last issue of Prospect, John Gray, writing recently in the New Statesman, and Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday) are convinced that we are witnessing an upsurge in religious observance and influence.
Kaufmann relies on the weak argument that demographic trends will turn Europe into a predominantly religious place, John Gray seems to hope that this will be so, and Damon Linker is convinced that a “theocon” conspiracy has so successfully captured Washington that the US has become a de facto theocracy—the home of faith-based politics, faith-based science (creationism), faith-based medicine (“pro-life”), faith-based foreign policy (conducting jihad for American/Baptist values) and faith-based attacks on civil liberties. Add this to the all too obvious fact of political Islam—Islamism—and the case seems made.
But I see the same evidence as yielding the opposite conclusion. What we are witnessing is not the resurgence of religion, but its death throes. Two considerations support this claim. One is that there are close and instructive historical precedents for what is happening now. The second comes from an analysis of the nature of contemporary religious politics.
If a given interest group turns up the volume, it is usually reacting to provocation. We view the Victorian era as a sanctimonious period of improving movements such as self-help, temperance and university missions to city slums. But prudishness and do-goodery existed precisely because their contraries—poverty, drunkenness, godlessness and indecency—were endemic: some streets of Victorian London swarmed with child prostitutes, and were too dangerous to walk at night. In the same way, today’s “religious upsurge” is a reaction to the prevalence of its opposite. In fact, it is a reaction to defeat, in a war that it cannot win even if it succeeds in a few battles on the way down.
Here is what is happening. Over the last half-century, sections of the Muslim world have become increasingly affronted by the globalisation of western and especially American culture and values, which appears arrogantly to disdain their traditions. Yet latterly, some of these same sections of Islam have been emboldened by the victory of warriors of the faith over a superpower (Afghanistan’s mujahedin over Soviet Russia); the combination encourages them to assert their opposition to the engulfing encroachment of western modernity, even by taking up arms.
When a climate…