Despite superficial appearances of a resurgence in religious belief, we are actually witnessing the death throes of faith
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 of heightened tension such as this prompts activists in one religious group to become more assertive, to push their way forward in the public domain to demand more attention, more respect, more public funds (faith-based schools are one example), other religious groups, not wishing to be left behind, follow suit. In Britain, Muslim activism has been quickly mimicked by others—by Sikhs demonstrating about a play, Christian evangelicals demonstrating about an opera, and all of them leaping on the funding bandwagon for faith and interfaith initiatives. To placate them, politicians lend an ear; the media report it; immediately these minorities of interest have an amplifier for their presence. The effect is that suddenly it seems as if there are religious devotees everywhere, and the spurious magnification of their importance further promotes their confidence. As a result they make some gains, as the faith schools example shows.
Yet the fact is that only 10 per cent of the British population attend church, mosque, synagogue or temple every week, and this figure is declining in all but immigrant communities. This is hardly the stuff of religious resurgence. Yes, over half the population claim vaguely to believe in Something, which includes feng shui and crystals, and they may be “C of E” in the sense of “Christmas and Easter,” but they are functionally secularist and would be horrified if asked to live according to the letter of (say) Christian morality: giving all one’s possessions to the poor, taking no thought for the morrow and so impracticably forth. Not even Christian clerics follow these injunctions. This picture is repeated everywhere in the west except the US, and there too the religious base is eroding.
The historical precedent of the counter-Reformation is instructive. For over a century after Luther nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s church door, Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight. Millions died, and Catholicism won some battles even as it lost the war. We are witnessing a repeat today, this time with Islamism resisting the encroachment of a way of life that threatens it, and as other religious groups join them in a (strictly temporary, given the exclusivity of faith) alliance for the cause of religion in general.
As before, the grinding of historical tectonic plates will be painful and protracted. But the outcome is not in doubt. As private observance, religion will of course survive among minorities; as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last—characteristically bloody—fling.