News stories about religion, and especially Islam, have been so ubiquitous in the past few weeks that our cover story may appear to be stating the obvious. But the secular tide is actually still rising across most of Europe. It is the god-fearing who are more likely to feel embattled in western societies—with the famous exception of America. If, however, Eric Kaufmann’s thesis is correct, that secular tide will turn over the next few decades and the demographic currents will carry Europe, even godless Britain, in a more American direction.
This is not only because of the greater religiosity, and fertility, of recent immigrants. Even among established population groups, the religious have always had larger families; secularism has historically advanced because of the high rate of religious abandonment. It is this religious abandonment that is starting to slow. But secular liberals need not despair. Kaufmann is not predicting a resurgence of fundamentalism; in fact he predicts a continuing fall-off in religious attendance, but an increase in mild religious belief. This may indeed represent a cultural “soft landing” in a country like Britain: the public culture will remain secular but there will be a greater respect for religious belief, helping to ease relations with the growing Muslim minority. There may also be a retreat from some of the excesses of 1960s hedonism and a shift towards more socially conservative views, but without an unravelling of most of the liberalisation of the past 50 years. Altogether, a very Anglican compromise.
Secular humanism has conspicuously failed to create an alternative system of belief to organised religion, and in the process seems to have failed to give people sufficient reasons for having babies. Judging by John Lloyd’s report of a recent BBC seminar, the corporation itself is starting to feel the reverberations from this demographic decline of secularism. It has begun by acknowledging that its own liberal secularism is an ideology too—not the truth around which other ideologies must revolve.
Alleviating world poverty is one of liberal secularism’s few transcendental aspirations. It will, therefore, be a crushing blow if, as is quite likely, last year’s “big push” on foreign aid ends in failure. Hats off to Hilary Benn for being prepared to debate this possibility with Bill Easterly, the development economist. It is, alas, a rare thing for a serving minister to enter into a sustained public argument with one of his most effective critics.
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