God is back

Despite the predictions of some of the best minds of the past five hundred years, religion remains. In fact, from the rise of Islamic extremism to American evangelism, the twenty-first century is seeing a religious renaissance.

mosque iran god is back
Iran, Isfahan, Imam Square, Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. Credit: Tuul & Bruno Morandi via Getty Images

This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

If the world’s great thinkers have agreed on anything for the past 150 years, it is that religion and modernity are incompatible. The more advanced society becomes, the more religion melts like snow in the sun. Voltaire gave religion no more than 50 years to live. Karl Marx predicted that the imminent triumph of the proletariat would put an end to the disgusting trade in the ‘opium of the masses‘. Emile Durkheim and Max Weber argued that an iron law of history was leading to ‘secularisation’ or, in his more poetic phrase, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced that, ‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ Sigmund Freud dismissed religion as a neurosis that was designed to divert people’s attention from more earthly interests. ‘The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to man,’ he argued, ‘the more widespread is the decline of religious faith.’

For some, God’s disappearance was a source of angst rather than celebration. Matthew Arnold lamented the ‘long withdrawing roar’ of faith. Thomas Hardy portrayed ‘God’s funeral’ as a profoundly melancholy occasion. ‘When people stop believing in God’, G.K. Chesterton argued, ‘they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.’ T.S. Eliot warned: ‘If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God), you should pay your regards to Hitler or Stalin.’ A few tried to have it both ways: ‘God doesn’t exist – the bastard’ was Jean-Paul Sartre’s verdict. But everyone who was anyone agreed that religion was on its deathbed.

The gospel according to secularists has always struggled with America’s peculiar religiosity. How could the world’s most advanced country also be one of its most religious? Yet this could be dealt with by a mixture of condescension and prediction. America was an evolutionary freak, the argument went: the sociological equivalent of the duck-billed platypus. Religion flourished in the backward Bible Belt rather than progressive New York and San Francisco. The duck-billed platypus would soon evolve into a more normal-looking creature. By the end of the Eisenhower era, great sociologists such as C Wright Mills and Daniel Bell confidently pronounced the death of the sacred. In 1966, Time magazine asked ‘Is God Dead?’ on the cover of its Easter issue and Thomas Altizer, a theologian, published The Gospel of Christian Atheism to great acclaim. A year later, an American reached the moon, metaphorically conquering the heavens.

By the end of the 20th century, the intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic had little doubt that the question was settled. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man predicted the triumph of secularisation as well as liberalism. Religion does not appear in the index of Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger’s 900-page masterpiece on statesmanship, published in 1994. From 1980–99, only half a dozen of the articles in America’s four main international relations journals dealt with religion. The Economist was so confident of the Almighty’s demise that it published His obituary in its millennium issue.

But look around the world and you can see religion everywhere. The pivotal political event of the 21st century – the attacks on America on September 11 2001 – was an exercise in religious fanaticism: 19 Muslims shaved their bodies, hijacked planes and flew them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon (as well as into a field in Pennsylvania) in the name of Allah. The Americans responded to this horror by trying to plant a democratic and secular regime in the heart of the troubled Middle East. But Iraq is now being torn apart by religious strife with a group of Sunnis, who have given themselves the grandiloquent name of Isis, leading a holy war against the Shia majority. Isis has proclaimed the territory that it controls a caliphate and elevated its leader, Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former theology student, to the position of Commander of the Faithful, a title that was only truly potent, given religion’s fissiparous nature, in the first decades of Islam, 1,400 years ago.

In Iran, a Shia regime is pledged to wipe out the big Satan (America) and the little Satan (Israel). In sub-Saharan Africa, there is a simmering religious war between Evangelical Christianity surging northwards and fundamentalist Islam heading south. Al-Qaeda offshoots such as Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria think nothing of blowing up shopping malls or kidnapping schoolgirls in the name of God. In Pakistan, religious fanatics, many of them closely linked with the security services, plot to seize the country’s nuclear weapons.

Once-secular conflicts are acquiring a new religious edge. The poisonous 60-year war over Palestine began as a largely secular affair. Many of the pioneering Zionists in the early 20th century saw the Middle East as an escape from the suffocating religiosity of East European village life. Even after the Holocaust, the new ‘Jewish state’ at first deemed religion a distraction: after Israel’s founding in 1948, the secular David Ben-Gurion agreed that rabbinical law would prevail in matters such as marriage and divorce, partly because he assumed the Orthodox would melt away. On the Palestinian side, many of the leaders of the PLO were Christian socialists; in Egypt, the spiritual champion of Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, clamped down on the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Nowadays, in the era of Hamas, Jewish settlers and Christian Zionists, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is supercharged with religious passions, with ever more people claiming that God is on their side.

The two countries that tried their hardest to abolish religion in the 20th century, Russia and China, are finding that religion is flooding back in. Vladimir Putin, that hardheaded product of the Soviet security apparatus, decks himself in symbols of religion in much the same way as Russian Tsars once did: he never takes off his baptismal cross, maintains a small chapel next door to his office in the Kremlin, makes regular visits to churches and rails against Western decadence in the forms of gay marriage and pornography.

The world’s great religions are currently engaged in a ‘scramble for China’. There are probably more Christians than members of the Communist Party: a conservative estimate puts the number at 65 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics; some Christians put the figure much higher, at over 100 million. Xinhua, the distinctly secular state news agency, suggests that that there are about 100 million Buddhists. The evidence of the revival of this ancient faith can be seen everywhere, particularly in the countryside: every summer, some 200,000 people visit the Black Dragon Temple in Yulin, a city in Guangxi province, for its ten-day festival.

Meanwhile, Islam is also surging, especially among the Hui and Uighur peoples in Ningxia and Xinjiang provinces. Official numbers indicate that there are about 20 million Muslims. That is probably an underestimate, but even if you accept that figure, China has almost as many Muslims as Saudi Arabia and nearly twice as many as the European Union’s 27 countries. By 2050, China could well be the world’s biggest Muslim nation, as well as its biggest Christian one.

Other bastions of secularism are crumbling too. Atatürk’s Turkey is now in the hands of an avowedly Islamist party. The prime minister, Recep Erdogan, does what he can to stamp out signs of secular decadence; his wife wears a headscarf, once regarded as a symbol of backwardness. Secular India is now run by a Hindu Nationalist Party whose leader, Narendra Modi, has taken a vow of chastity and, according to his critics, turned a blind eye to religious violence against Muslims when he was the chief executive of Gujarat in 2001.

Religion is even reappearing in secularism’s European heartland. A continent that does not ‘do God’ – to borrow a phrase from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s sometime press spokesman – is being transformed by the influx of millions of devout Muslims. Mosques are being built across Europe. Women wear burkas to conceal themselves from the prying eyes of modernity. Young men from Bradford and Brussels travel to Syria to engage in Holy War. The march of Islam is sparking off fierce debates about the role of religion in the public sphere. The French have tried to ban burkas. The British have launched investigations into religious extremism in schools in Birmingham. The march of Islam is also reminding many secular Europeans of the profound role that the Christian religion played in shaping their civilisation, even in its secular, liberal form. Some two million Britons have taken the Alpha Course of religious instruction, run by an Anglican church, Holy Trinity Brompton.

The problem for the secularisation theorists is not limited to the public sphere. In the 1960s, most thinkers imagined that, if it was to survive at all, religion would only cling on in its most reasonable and ecumenical guise, mild Anglicanism, say, or Graham Greene’s doubting Catholicism. In fact, certainty has proved much easier to market: the sort of religions that claim Adam and Eve met exactly 6,005 years ago or that take a particularly bloody interpretation of jihad. In America, the tolerant-to-a- fault Episcopal Church has been in relentless decline. The Southern Baptists have boomed. Altogether conservative Christians now make up a quarter of America’s population, significantly more than 50 years ago.

The most remarkable religious success story of the past century has been the most emotional religion of all. Pentecostalism was founded just over a century ago in a scruffy part of Los Angeles by a one-eyed black preacher, convinced that God would send a new Pentecost if only people would pray hard enough. Today there are at least 500 million renewalists around the world. Their beliefs are not for the fainthearted. Most adherents have witnessed divine healing, exorcisms or speaking in tongues. The hotter bits of Islam have also gained ground. This is partly a matter of Saudi money, to be sure: Saudi billionaires, locked in a devil’s pact with Wahhabi preachers, have poured billions of petro-dollars into fundamentalist madrasahs across the world and paid for millions of copies of the Qur’an with Wahhabi interpretations (for instance, stressing jihad, in the warlike sense, not just as personal striving, as an extra pillar of Islam). But it is also a matter of choice. In the Arab heartlands, fundamentalism has become a refuge for anyone worried by the spread of Western culture and power. In overseas communities, where Muslims are in a minority, notably Europe, it has become a badge of identity, with Western-born Muslim girls choosing to wear the headscarf that their mothers jettisoned on their arrival from Pakistan and Morocco. There are plenty of reasons to think that this trend will continue.

Demography is one. From Salt Lake City to Jerusalem, orthodox people marry younger and reproduce more prodigiously than non-religious ones. An ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel will produce nearly three times as many children as her secular counterpart. A second reason is conversion. The hot religions are constantly trying to spread the word: more than half the members of the world’s most American religion, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, live outside the United States. Even climate change may be on God’s side. Philip Jenkins, an American scholar, points out that, by 2050, most of the largest Christian countries, other than the United States, will be located in the global south, which could become a vortex of climate-related disasters. Environmental change could spark inter-communal rivalry, recalling the ‘little Ice Age’ at the end of the 13th century, which caused starvation and pogroms, with Christians turning on Jews and Muslims turning on Christians in Africa and Asia.

Another fatal problem for secularisation theorists is that the wrong sorts of people are turning to God. The secular gospel held that religion would only survive among the weak and ignorant – among stump-toothed inbreds in the Mississippi swamps and illiterate peasants in the third world. In fact, religion is doing a remarkably good job of attracting the educated and affluent. Exactly the sort of people that Marx and Weber presumed would shed such superstitions are driving the global explosion of faith. In both Turkey and India, modernisation has helped to turn yesterday’s peasants into the sort of up-and-coming bourgeoisie that Atatürk and Nehru prayed for; but these people are the most fervent supporters of Erdogan and Modi. In urban China, where religion is a symbol of post-Maoist modernity rather than, as in parts of Europe, ancient tradition, the Christian house churches are full of educated knowledge workers. In much of Latin America, Pentecostalism is playing much the same role that Protestantism did in the early modern period in Europe: it is spreading the doctrines of self-help and self-discipline, thereby laying the cultural foundations of capitalism.

Why has the sacred re-emerged as such a powerful force in modern society? It is tempting to put Osama bin Laden’s horrific acts on September 11 at the heart of any account of religion’s re-emergence, at least in public life. That certainly changed geopolitics for good – and forced most secular intellectuals to rethink their faith in the death of God. But religion’s re-emergence as a political force came long before the scion of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful construction dynasty declared his jihad on Jews and Crusaders. The great turning point was the Six-Day War of 1967. The Arab world’s crushing defeat persuaded many embittered Arabs to turn from Nasser’s secular pan-Arabism to radical Islam. (In 1967, under Nasser, the Egyptian army went into battle crying, ‘Land! Sea! Air!’; six years later, under Anwar Sadat, their new battle cry was ‘Allahu Akhbar’.) At the same time, Israel’s ‘miraculous’ triumph gave God a stronger voice in its politics, emboldening the settler movement. Faith gathered pace in politics in the 1970s. By the end of that decade, America had elected its first proudly born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter; Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority; Iran had replaced the worldly shah with Ayatollah Khomeini; Zia-ul-Haq was busy Islamising Pakistan; Buddhism had been formally granted the foremost place in Sri Lanka’s constitution; and an anti-communist Pole had become head of the Catholic Church.

The sea change in the 1970s was partly driven by a populist revolt against the overreach of elitist secularism, be it America’s Supreme Court legalising abortion or Indira Gandhi harrying Hindus, and partly by a general political malaise. John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian, points out that the religious revival of the 1970s coincided with the collapse of secularisms. By then, the Soviet Union’s evils had made a mockery of Marxism and capitalism had hit some buffers, with the oil shocks, hyperinflation and a general economic malaise. More generally, politicians’ ability to solve problems such as crime or unemployment was thrown into doubt: faith in government tumbled just about everywhere in the 1970s – and has stayed low since.

But there is also something deeper going on. The biggest problem for the prophets of secularisation is that the surge of religion is being driven by the very things which were supposed to destroy it: choice and competition, change and technology, globalisation and economic progress. It turns out that modernisation is not the enemy of religion, but its friend.

Technological innovation is making it easier for religious people to get their message across. American Evangelicals have been leaders in this ever since Aimee Semple McPherson established a mega-church bookended by two massive radio antennae in Los Angeles in the 1920s. They can boast giant empires of radio and television that project their message across the world. The ‘Jesus’ film, put out by Campus Crusade for Christ, has supposedly been seen by more than a billion people in 80 languages. They are also pioneering ‘godcasting’ and other innovative uses of the internet.

Other religious groups are learning that technology is their friend. The Islamic world boasts several television channels and radio stations that do nothing but broadcast the Qur’an. Many of these preachers, particularly in Saudi Arabia, are state-supported dullards. But Islam is producing its own breed of talented televangelists, such as Amr Khaled, a former accountant from Egypt, who preaches to millions in Europe and the Middle East. Imams have even taken to putting their fatwas online (and in English) at eFatwa.com, MuftiSays.com or Askimam.com.

Modernisation is turning religion from an inheritance into a choice. For most of history, religion was a matter of time-honoured tradition: you simply adopted the norms of wider society. In Europe after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, religion operated under a system of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever rules sets the religious norm). Today, tradition is giving way to conscience. Europeans and Americans pick and choose between a smörgåsbord of faiths. Latin Americans weigh the competing appeals of (relatively new) Pentecostalism and traditional Roman Catholicism. Members of the Islamic diaspora choose to affirm their faith rather than to blend in with their host societies. The more people choose their faith, the more they are likely to believe in it fervently.

Choice produces competition. Across the world different faiths – and different sects within faiths – are competing ever-more vigorously for market share. The Roman Catholic Church chose an Argentinian Jesuit to succeed the lacklustre Benedict XVI in part because it was losing customers in one of its biggest markets, Latin America. Sunnis and Shias are competing for souls as well as political influence.

At the same time, modernisation is stimulating demand for religion as well as supply. The modern world is one of constant change and turmoil – a world in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s phrase, in which a storm of ‘creative destruction’ sweeps through the world, in Joseph Schumpeter’s. For a growing number of people, religion provides a source of solidity and a shelter from the storm. Many religious people proudly claim that they are well-ahead of their secular brethren in grappling with consumer capitalism’s most profound problems: how do you preserve virtue in a society that offers infinite choice? How do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow when you are constantly beset by temptations? How do you raise your children in a world where an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing catalogue looks like something that ought to be kept on the top shelf?

American Evangelicals are often in the forefront of this competition for souls, in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, even in some Muslim countries, for the simple reason that it can boast the world’s most competitive religious market-place. American Evangelicals planted the seeds of the Pentecostal revival in Latin America and provided the models for the booming mega-churches that now litter the continent. They are also in the forefront of the re-evangelisation of sub-Saharan Africa, training the troops for what they see as a great show-down with Islam. America is in the forefront of putting God back into modernity, because it put modernity, or at least choice and competition, back into God.

The evidence is now abundantly clear: for the past 150 years, our great thinkers have grappled with the wrong question. The big question is not how to live in a world without God – whether to celebrate it like Marx, or lament it like Kierkegaard. The great question is how to live in a world that contains both God and modernity. How do we channel religion into peaceful ends? How do we make sure that religious fanatics do not fight religious wars with nuclear weapons? How do we make religion safe for the world – and the world safe for religion?

The return of God demands a recalibration of thinking about foreign policy. During the centuries of religious peace that followed the Treaty of Westphalia, the foreign policy elite was thoroughly secularised. Diplomats have had a few messianic beliefs to deal with, notably communism and fascism, but those beliefs were largely secular, rather than religious. Even as religion surged back into public life from the 1970s onwards, they remained locked in their Westphalia box: the few diplomats who preserved a lively interest in religion regarded it as a purely private affair – rather like a taste for bondage – and certainly not something that ought to feature in their policy calculations. Madeleine Albright, a former American Secretary of State, says that she cannot remember during her adult years any leading American diplomat (even the born-again Christian Jimmy Carter) speaking in depth about the role of religion in shaping the world. Thomas Farr, an American diplomat who spent several frustrating years working for the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, describes the department as ‘one of America’s most avowedly secular institutions’.

The mistakes that flowered from this were costly. American analysts underestimated the opposition to the Shah of Iran: indeed, senior figures in the CIA dismissed the only intelligence analysis of Iran in the 1970s that avowed a stirring of religious passion against the Shah as ‘sociology’, the ultimate term of contempt. They also ignored the religious basis of politics in Lebanon for years, treating it as a left-right split, even though Hezbollah means ‘Party of God’. Nobody in the Western foreign policy establishment predicted that John Paul II, a fiercely anti-communist Pole, would play a central role in bringing down communism, attracting huge crowds across Eastern Europe and stiffening the spines of activists. The secular Israeli security establishment initially underestimated the rise of Islamic radicalism, encouraging it as a way to destabilise Yasser Arafat. Even the theocratic Saudis followed the secular line, nurturing radical Islam as a creature to bite global communism.

This secular mind-set even survived the great wake-up call of September 11. American neoconservatives laboured under the illusion that exporting democracy to the Middle East might calm creedal passions. When Canon Andrew P.B. White, an Anglican clergyman known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, urged the Coalition Provisional Authority to pay close attention to religious passions, he was told that ‘Iraq is a secular nation, so religion should only be thought about after water and electricity are dealt with.’ In 2005, Gary Bald, then the FBI’s counter-terrorism chief, drew a blank when asked, during a legal deposition, whether he understood the difference between Sunnis and Shias. In his defence, he added that such expertise was not as important as being a good manager. This bathetic episode inspired Jeff Stein of the Congressional Quarterly to conduct an exhaustive study of what exactly official Washington knew about Islam. He discovered that most of the officials and politicians he interviewed were clueless. The head of the FBI’s new national security branch acknowledged that it was important to recognise the difference between Sunnis and Shias. He then misidentified Iran as a Sunni country. Scott Thomas, a British academic, has remarked that ‘we live in a world that is not supposed to exist’. Alas, most foreign policy specialists have not woken up to this fact.

The return of God also demands a revision of our thinking about political power – or rather, it demands a revival of some old thinking. This is the thinking of America’s Founding Fathers, drawing on such liberal giants as John Locke and David Hume in the late 18th century. The American Founders understood the appeal of religion: they did not want to abolish or marginalise it. But they also understood how dangerous it is when mixed with political power. They talked about the horrors of the European wars of religion in much the same way that people today talk about the horrors of the First and Second World Wars and they wanted to make sure that religion did not bring the same problems to the new world, with its combustible variety of sects and faiths. The best way to do this was to build a wall between faith and power.

John Adams argued that ‘sacerdotal tyrants have been the worst of aristocratical tyrants in all ages and nations.’ One of his principles was to ‘mix religion with politics as little as possible’. Thomas Jefferson referred to the ‘loathsome combination of church and state’. ‘History’, he said, ‘furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.’ William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey, pointed out that ‘whenever men have sufferanced their consciences to be enslaved by their superiors and taken their religion upon trust, the world has been over-run with superstition and held in fetters by a tyrannising juncto of civil and ecclesiastical plunderers.’ This inspired the Founders to produce one of the great paradigm shifts in the history of religious thought: breaking up that ‘juncto’ on the grounds that the separation of church and state could be good for both religion and the state.

The religious settlement embodied in the constitution has never been easy. There is a permanent tension between a godless constitution and an overwhelmingly godly people. There are unavoidable arguments about how to draw the line between church and state. How high should the wall be? (Secularists want it as ‘high and eternal as the Andes’, as one 19th-century figure put it.) And what exactly constitutes a hole in the wall? The Supreme Court spends a lot of time on issues such as whether a Christmas crib in a public place can be rendered secular by the presence of a plastic reindeer. Or where a state court can display the Ten Commandments (the garden is fine; the building not).

But it nevertheless achieves its two great goals. The constitution allows religious people to compete vigorously for converts. But at the same time, it keeps churches firmly apart from the state. There are no bishops in the upper chamber, as in Britain, no church taxes, as in Germany. The constitution protects non-believers with a wall between church and state. But at the same time it eschews the obsessive laïcité of the French state. The two greatest social movements of the past two centuries – the antislavery movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century – were both religious at heart, led by religious people, nurtured in churches, justified in religious language.

The secular intelligentsia thought that the problem of religion would solve itself, given enough time. They proved to be wrong. Many religious fundamentalists think that the problem of doubt will solve itself, given enough preaching (and worse). People across much of the world are paying a high price for their fanaticism. The beauty of the American solution is that it is good for all concerns – for religious people who want to propagate their faith, for secular people who want to be undisturbed by God and for society as a whole which, if properly governed, can accommodate the beliefs of multitudes. America is a shining example to the world that it is not only possible to live in a world in which God and modernity are both present. It is possible to flourish.


Adrian Wooldridge