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From the September/October, 2009 issue of Touchstone


Durable Divinity by Les Sillars

Durable Divinity

God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Will Change the World
by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
The Penguin Press, 2009
(416 pages, $27.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Les Sillars

The news that God Is Back will come as no surprise. Some of us, of course, were aware that he had never left. But since 9/11 even secularists have been noting, often with alarm, the growing strength of religion around the world, from the explosion of Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America to house churches in China. Meanwhile, the number of Muslims worldwide has rocketed from 200 million in 1900 to 1.2 billion today. Numbers aside, religion is moving back into public life with a vengeance, from Ankara to London, Shanghai to Moscow, Nairobi to Washington.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Secularists take it as a matter of faith that as societies become wealthier, more educated, more technologically advanced, and, of course, smarter, the influence of religion will wane. The “secularization theory” holds that reason will replace blind adherence to dogma and science will expose religion as a collection of myths fabricated to control the ignorant masses.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Economist, show how the secularization theory is not merely wrong (except in Europe and a few US enclaves), but utter nonsense. Religion and modernity not only can go together, they do go together. The authors, one a Catholic and the other an atheist, take a good shot at explaining why this is so, but they forget one thing.

A Religious Surge

The secularization theory is based largely on the European experience, where you can’t become modern “without throwing off religion’s yoke.” But most Americans have remained stubbornly religious. Secular intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic think this is peculiar but have imagined that the rest of the world would eventually follow Europe: “The people you met on the cocktail circuit in New York and San Francisco seemed like sensible sorts. Surely the rubes would eventually catch up?”

But the rubes, apparently, have been out in front all along. As historians of American religion, such as Rodney Stark, have shown, Christianity in America grew powerful largely because the American founders realized that true religious freedom meant that churches must be de-coupled from the state—hence the First Amendment—forcing American Christians to compete for converts, members, money, and resources. The effort made them strong and resilient and produced a large, vibrant, and influential (if often contentious) religious environment. The established churches of Europe, where tax revenues sheltered them from the need to behave like churches, became empty husks.

Today, write the authors, it is the American model that is spreading around the world, not the European one. Even worse, from a secularist perspective, this worldwide growth is driven to a significant degree by the upwardly mobile, educated middle classes. Developing countries are becoming more religious as they modernize, not less. God Is Back begins with a fascinating description of a house church in China. Its members are Blackberry-sporting management consultants, doctors, academics, entrepreneurs, and ballet dancers who meet in a gated Shanghai community. While studying Romans, they condemn Darwinism and discuss the “sin” of homosexuality.

What’s going on? The authors assert that the surge of religion is driven by competition and choice:

It is not just that religion is thriving in many modernizing countries; it is also that religion is succeeding in harnessing the tools of modernity to propagate its message. The very things that were supposed to destroy religion—democracy and markets, technology and reason—are combining to make it stronger.

A Christian Foundation

These are excellent observations, and Micklethwait and Wooldridge do a fine job charting the histories of the European and American approaches to the role of religion in public life, the different ways “soulcraft” meets real needs (many of these needs endemic to modernity itself), and the embrace of the tools of capitalism (especially communications media and pop culture) by religious entrepreneurs, who use them to promote Christianity and Islam around the globe.

And while American Evangelicals, in particular, export their faith, “American multinationals are doing an impressive job exporting the demand for faith,” the authors write. That is, people everywhere, but especially in the developing world, “are reacting to the hurricane of capitalism by taking cover under the canopy of religion.” One Muslim cleric looked out at the city of Medina, overrun with neon signs and American-style coffee shops, and concluded, “Modernity ravaged everything.” But it is revulsion combined with intoxification. They feel besieged by Tony Soprano and Abercrombie and Fitch but are pleased to find downloadable versions of the Koran or the Bible available for iPods.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are more right than they realize about why Christianity can accommodate modernity: Christianity, freedom, and reason go together both historically and doctrinally. God gave men free will and free minds to accept or reject Christ, to follow his commands or go their own way. Christianity teaches that faith and reason work together to find truth.

And as Dinesh D’Souza, author of What’s So Great About Christianity, has pointed out, concepts such as the right to dissent, the personal dignity of the individual, the equality of all men (including the equal dignity of men and women), and antipathy to oppression and slavery all have Christian origins. Further, Christianity made science possible in the first place by postulating that a rational God created a rational, predictable universe, governed by laws comprehensible in the language of mathematics. Without that foundation, empirical science would collapse. Liberal democracies are based on these ideas, and without them there would be no modern world.

Two Cheers

But Micklethwait and Wooldridge don’t quite get that this is a uniquely Christian foundation, and that may be why they’re oddly optimistic, in the last third of the book, about Islam’s relationship with modernity. They hope Islam will follow in Christianity’s footsteps, even as they acknowledge that Islam is hostile to the very idea of pluralism in the public square. They also describe plainly the conflicts between Christians and Muslims from Sudan to Indonesia, and they discuss the dangers of Islamic terrorism.

But they dispute the depth of the “clash of civilizations” (the most dangerous Islamic conflicts are sectarian, they say) and insist that there are “grounds for hope” that a reformed version of Islam will emerge. American Muslims, they note, are “linked to a powerful economy and imbued with the principles of pluralism and individual rights.” Right, and from which religion do those ideas come? And are those ideas gaining any traction in thoroughly Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia? No, not really.

The difference between Islam and Christianity in this regard is that Muslims reconcile with modernity only insofar as they become less Islamic. They may use websites and cell phones, but pluralism and individual rights are not part of the Muslim agenda of “submission.”

Christians can make peace with modernity itself because Christianity’s core ideas—love, justice, freedom, mercy—are at once transcendent and universal. In providing a philosophical and religious foundation on which to pursue reason and virtue, to value the individual, and to explore the natural world, Christianity has enabled its adherents to build societies that are free and prosperous.

So, two cheers to Micklethwait and Wooldridge for acknowledging the reality of religion in people’s lives and its power as a social force. But after criticizing liberal secularism for reducing everything to politics and economics, they then try to explain the power of faith in terms of “democracy and markets, technology and reason.” Ah, the irony. •

Les Sillars teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and lives in nearby Stephens City. He is on staff at World magazine and is also a contributing editor of Salvo.

“Durable Divinity” first appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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