“Religion is proving perfectly compatible with modernity in all its forms, high and low.” This conclusion by John Micklethwait, editor of the Economist, and Adrian Wooldridge, the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, seems calculated to enrage secular rationalists of all stripes.
Whether Marxian or Millian, socialist or liberal, secular rationalists have held one tenet in common: religion belongs to the infancy of the species; the more modern a society becomes, the less room there is for religious belief and practice. Never questioned, this is what lies behind the hot-gospel sermons of evangelical atheists: if you want to be modern, say goodbye to God.
At bottom, the assertion that religion is destined to die out is a confession of faith. No amount of evidence will persuade secular believers that they are on the wrong side of history, but one of the achievements of God Is Back is to show how implausible, if not ridiculous, their view of history actually is.
The notion that modernity and religion are at odds is a generalisation from the experience of some parts of Europe. Europe is now largely post-Christian and the majority no longer follows any conventional creed, but things are otherwise in much of the rest of the world, and notably so in the US, which, during most of its history, has been intensely religious and self-consciously modern.
European Enlightenment thinkers have tended to see the US as the exception that proves the rule – an unexplained lag in a universal trend towards secularisation.
Against this view, Micklethwait and Wooldridge show that modernisation and an increase in religiosity go together in much of the world. Some of the most powerful sections of the book feature narratives of religious communities in improbable places – prosperous, highly educated Chinese, among them scientists and academics, coming together in contemporary Shanghai to read and discuss the Christian Bible, for example.
If there is any trend that can be discerned in the parts of the world that are most rapidly modernising, it is that secular belief systems are in decline and the old faiths are being reborn.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge aim to do more than show that modernity and religion are compatible, however.
Arguing that “the great forces of modernity – technology and democracy, choice and freedom – are all strengthening religion rather than undermining it”, they go on to claim that one version of modernity is spreading nearly everywhere. “The world is generally moving in the American direction, where religion and modernity happily coexist,” they write. At this point the authors – one Catholic, the other atheist, we are told – emerge as missionaries for the American Way, and the argument becomes distinctly implausible.
It is one thing to argue that the model of universal secularisation is mistaken, and to show – as the authors do very effectively – that the decline of religion in Europe is not going to be repeated worldwide. It is another thing altogether to suggest that an American kind of religiosity is spreading nearly everywhere.
One problem is the conception of religion the authors deploy.
Nearly always, religion for them means monotheism – more specifically, Christianity and Islam. Polytheistic and non-theistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are allowed a few pages, but only in order to argue that “American methods can work” even for them.
Another is their assumption that modernity is a Good Thing. Like so many western commentators, the authors berate the Muslim world, supposedly stuck in medieval torpor, for its failure to modernise. One had hoped that it was now understood that Lenin, Stalin and Hitler were not throwbacks to the Middle Ages. In their different ways, all three were radically modern – just like al-Qaeda today. If a certain type of pluralism appears only in modern times, the same is true of totalitarianism. There are many ways of being modern, some of them far from benign.
A larger problem is the authors’ Americocentric world-view. It might be argued that this does not matter, as the book is plainly directed chiefly at American readers. Yet it does matter if the authors aim to say something useful about the way the world is actually moving.
A part of their argument is the claim that religions have done well by adopting modern corporate practices.
Religion has become a competitive business, they point out, with faith entrepreneurs actively creating and serving their customer base. They describe a Hindu temple in Bangalore that “uses every modern method to entice and service believers”, including “a website that is as user-friendly as that of any American mega-church”.
No doubt these are valid observations, but the authors use them to argue for “American-style pastorpreneurship” as a universal model. They acknowledge that although the American way of religion is spreading faster than the European, “that does not mean it will conquer every corner of the world”.
They are nonetheless insistent that the American model is better adapted than any other to the modern world.
Here Micklethwait and Wooldridge repeat the canonical fallacy of American theorists of globalisation such as Thomas Friedman. It is true that some American business methods have been widely adopted. That does not mean humankind is embracing an American model of capitalism, or of religion.
Hypermodern Japan has many new religions, some of them very obviously organised as businesses, but it remains a country still largely untouched by individualism. Hinduism is now practised worldwide, but in India its revival has been linked with nationalism rather than pluralism. The same is true of the revival of Orthodoxy in Russia, and the resurgence of Confucianism that is under way in China.
Religion is advancing in many parts of the world, but it is no more likely that a single dominant model of religious practice will emerge from this process than that a single version of capitalism has emerged from globalisation.
Modernity can coexist with religion in many ways, none of which is going to be adopted universally. The authors promote a US-style secular constitution as a global panacea and shake their heads sternly at Britain’s archaic religious establishment, not pausing to ask whether it may have played a part in protecting us from the fundamentalism that has poisoned the American political process.
More generally, they assume that ideas which emerged from within western Christian traditions can be applied anywhere. But as energy and power flows eastwards, the secular ideologies that developed from Christianity are likely to dwindle in influence.
Rightly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge note that the grand secular belief systems of the past two centuries continued Christian ways of thinking: “Marx found it impossible not to think in terms of grand eschatologies . . . He employed numerous religious tropes – communists are latter-day gnostics, communism is heaven on earth, the revolution is the Last Judgement, workers are saved and capitalism is damned.”
In other words, God never really went away, for secular political projects were continuations of Christianity by other means. But if Marxism is a post-Christian creed that is now obsolete, why should liberalism – in its militant, proselytising form – be any different? In fact, it has been in decline for some time, a process that began with the fall of communism.
The Soviet collapse was hailed as a triumph for the west. But communism is a prototypical western ideology, and there was never any prospect that Russia – a country which has always straddled Europe and Asia – would convert to neoliberalism, another western confection. It was naive to expect that post-communist Russia would embrace a western model of government and the economy in the 1990s, and it is even more misguided to look forward to the Americanisation of religion at the present time.
If it is true that faith is now a branch of business, religion may opt to follow the money – a journey that no longer leads in the direction of the United States. While there will be no universal pattern, the rediscovery of Confucianism is probably a better clue to the way the world will look a few decades from now than the proliferation of mega-churches.
God Is Back may not show that the American way of religion is uniquely well suited to the modern condition. Where this urgently relevant book succeeds triumphantly is in demolishing the myth of an emerging secular civilisation.
Evangelising rationalists will continue to deny the fact, but religion – in all its varieties – is shaping the future, much as it shaped the past.
John Gray’s latest book is “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Allen Lane, £20). He will be in conversation with John Micklethwait on 1 June at the London School of Economics, London WC2
God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
Allen Lane, 405pp, £25