The global war for souls

Prospect Magazine

The global war for souls


Religion is once again one of the most urgent fields of human experience. Now an important new book has startling things to tell us about its future

The triumph of mega-religion: over 40,000 members of Lakewood Church celebrate the opening of their Houston facility

God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Allen Lane, £25)

“God is dead” proclaimed Nietzsche, without fanfare, more than a century ago. In the post-cold war era, Francis Fukuyama’s Nietzschean End of History described “last men” whose faith would fail when exposed to the cosmopolitan reality that their creed was merely one among many. Religion, it seemed, was being consigned to the past by serious western thinkers.

In 1993, however, the late Samuel Huntington poured cold water on Fukuyama’s argument. And since then, a host of others—Philip Jenkins, David Martin, Peter Berger, Rod Stark, Tim Shah and Monica Toft, to name but a few—have charted the global revival of religion and the retreat of the secular, something that has rapidly become one of the most pressing intellectual themes of our times. Now, in God is Back, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge—both leading lights at the Economist—have synthesised these arguments into a vivid and important volume.

Most original is their attempt to frame their story as a clash between European and American forms of modernity. America, they write, hit upon a winning formula for reconciling religion with liberty, equality and rationality. The new republic, prodded by both its fractious dissenting sects and deistic founders, like Jefferson, did away with its established church and separated religion from politics. This arrangement forced religions to compete for souls in an open market, stimulating religious vitality. Divorced from the state, religions could both champion equality and adapt to capitalism and individualism without fear.

Conversely, in Canada and Europe, religious establishments cosied up to the state in order to protect themselves from competitors. This limited innovation and reined in religious entrepreneurialism. The result—much as with socialism—was a poor product that failed consumers. In addition, religion came to be viewed by the general public as something reactionary and elitist: the enemy of liberty and modernity. Little wonder that modernity took on anti-religious form in much of Europe while it thrived in America.

This “religious markets” argument was first advanced by Rod Stark and Lawrence Iannaccone and is, in itself, a familiar one. But God is Back breaks fresh ground by hitching this wagon to the global scene. Outside the west, its authors contend, America’s particular brand of religious modernity is enjoying far more success than Europe’s secular variant.

Half the book consists of a whirlwind tour of religious America at its brashest. From the Great Awakenings, tent revivalists and Methodist circuit riders of the 19th century to the Pentecostalists of the 20th, few historical stones are left unturned. These waters flow into our time, with detailed descriptions of megachurches, televangelists, religious shopping malls and “pastorpreneurs.” Whole cities—Colorado Springs is one of the best known—benefit from serving as centres of the “God business.” These are the Silicon Valleys of religious production, innovation and distribution.

Religious entrepreneurs, in their drive for consumers, promiscuously borrow techniques from the secular media, marketing, pop psychology and pop culture. This religious ferment is primarily an evangelical Protestant phenomenon, but Catholics and Jews have also been touched by its dynamism. In turn, evangelicals are beginning to follow the lead of Catholic theocons and Jewish neocons by entering the world of intellectual debate. Evangelicals have a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, linked to their humble social roots, emotive faith and the opprobrium heaped upon them by secular intellectuals. Today, however, evangelicals are upwardly mobile and form the fastest growing group among the American undergraduate student body. Even in the Ivy League, 10 per cent of undergraduates are now estimated to be evangelical. Cases such as that of Mark Noll—a prominent historian who published a wake-up call to evangelicals to enter the life of the mind—prove that “evangelical intellectual” can no longer be considered an oxymoron.

God is Back next takes its story overseas, with American missionaries and other religious exporters who have found success abroad. In religious terms, China is the world’s wild west, and the authors note that—at current religious growth rates—it could be both the world’s biggest Muslim and Christian country by 2050. Middle class Chinese are flocking to Christianity, largely because they view evangelical Christianity from an American perspective—as a modern pursuit that enhances success. The same is true in Korea, where Protestantism grew from little more than 2 per cent of the population in 1950 to 20 per cent today. Throughout the developing world, in fact, the “hotter,” more emotional forms of Christianity are enjoying a resurgence, with Pentecostalism in the lead. An eighth of Brazil and 20 per cent of Guatemala is now theirs.

In response, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism have rediscovered the needs of their parishioners, spawning their own charismatic movements that seek to imitate evangelical Protestants’ emotional, literalist style. Their influence even extends outside Christianity: witness Hindu mega-temples in India and the rise of Muslim televangelists like Egypt’s hugely influential Amr Khaled. These developments, the authors argue, are a triumph for the American way of faith, which has emerged from its home market to conquer the world.

This still leaves the thorny question of which proselytising faith will win: Christianity or Islam? Here, the authors unequivocally argue that Christianity is better suited to the needs of the modern world than Islam. Muhammad was a ruler, warrior and lawmaker. His faith therefore intrudes more deeply into the secular realm. Furthermore, there has been no Muslim Reformation, no Peace of Westphalia nor a Muslim Enlightenment to decisively separate religion from politics. Islam thus finds it harder to adapt to unregulated religious markets, the separation of religion and state, and today’s liberal-egalitarian ethos. The blood-soaked conflict between religion and the state in the Muslim world and the poor economic performance and alienation of European Muslims speak, they argue, to this failure.

In many ways, God is Back represents the successful translation of its authors’ laissez-faire optimism about globalisation and the American neoliberal model to religion. At times, they seem positively in thrall to American evangelicalism, though this is partly a mischievous ruse designed to jar the sensibilities of their secular European and coastal American audience. But are they right? For a book whose central argument is that secularism has failed, there is little consideration of secularisation. How is it, for instance, that religiosity has fared so poorly in northern and western Europe, where there is more religious freedom and less regulation than in the religiously resurgent Muslim world? What explains the simultaneous revival of both austere Islamic fundamentalism and touchy-feely evangelical Protestantism? More importantly, what of Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart’s claim that human development—income, education, the welfare state—leads to religious decline?

The secularisation argument has many problems, but religious revival in the developing world does not contradict it. More to the point, the dramatic drop in religious affiliation among young Americans, which this book glosses over somewhat, seems to confirm it. Finally, if religion is driven by the modern world’s dislocations, why are Europeans—people as much corroded by modern individualism as anyone—so reluctant to embrace it? There is no question that religion is enjoying a global revival, but only China, Korea and parts of Latin America truly fit the authors’ paradigm.

Worldwide, in fact, most people inherit their faith, rather than receiving it via conversion. The strongest driver of religious growth is thus demography, which the authors mention only in passing. Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion because Muslim countries tend to be more prolific than their competitors. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken over Jerusalem because they have more children. The next most important factor is politics. The demise of communism and postcolonial nationalism has legitimated religious actors who resist corrupt states and provide social welfare. This is especially true in the Muslim world. This does not mean the authors are wrong in their predictions. European secularism will weaken, and one day religion may become deregulated and experience true revival even in rich countries. But that day has not yet arrived.

It’s always tempting to point to a book’s flaws, but the strengths of God is Back vastly outweigh its weaknesses. It is a magnificent read: a page-turner in a field dominated by hair-splitting tomes. It deftly covers an immense conceptual and empirical terrain; and it also advances the contentious argument that the end of history will look more like middle America than the Île de France. For these reasons alone, it deserves to be read.

  1. August 12, 2009

    Splurging Onions

    religion is great in the US because of people like Abraham Lincoln – who was born in a log cabin that he built himself.

  2. April 14, 2010


    Organised religion is a mind-control tool and for that reason will always attract those who wish to exert control over others.

Leave a comment


E Kaufmann

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London He is currently working on a joint ESRC-Demos project on "Diversity and the White Working Class" 

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia