x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fifty-seven varieties of religious experience

Books A new book surveys the bustling free market in religion and concludes that faith and modernity are made for each other.

Rev Larry Deitch holds aloft a goblet of wine during service at the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Rev Larry Deitch holds aloft a goblet of wine during service at the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church in Daytona Beach, Florida.

A new book surveys the bustling free market in religion and concludes that faith and modernity are made for each other. Benjamin Dueholm wonders whether God will settle for a niche in the private sector. God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Penguin Press Dh152 The human mind, wrote the French theologian John Calvin, "is a permanent factory of idols". We are instinctively religious, Calvin believed, but because we are unable to perceive God according to His nature, we invent inferior deities to suit our needs - a "great crowd of gods" that sweeps in wherever human intelligence is at work. For Calvin, the sovereignty of God and the truth of scripture were objective facts. The problem was the human mind, which was variable, error-plagued and hopelessly perplexed.

In Calvin's time, a Christian worldview held sway throughout Europe; but as the Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, various secular ideologies seized some of the ground once held by churches. They did so as much by imitation as by critique: nationalism, Rationalism, Communism, Fascism, high art and the cult of science all strove to uproot and replace traditional religion. Yet they were all, many scholars agree today, quasi-religious phenomena themselves. These ideologies produced sacred texts (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), clerics (the "new priesthood" of scientists envisioned by social Darwinists), temples (Beaux-Arts museums), rituals (Soviet "red christenings"), saints (Lenin, enshrined in Red Square), and reliquaries (the "blood flag" carried by the first "martyrs" of the Nazi party). Religion was ushered out the front door with great fanfare, then quietly admitted through the back.

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and America, religion was understood to be in terminal decline. Hobbled by associations with old regimes, defeated in political revolutions and dethroned in universities by new intellectual movements, the traditional churches withdrew from the centre of western life. Even in the United States, long distinguished for its lingering piety, it was widely argued that the process of secularisation was proceeding inexorably. The unreliable and inconstant human mind of Calvin's day became the measure of all things. Meanwhile, the institutions of religion and the very idea of God needed to be explained and defended.

In its various forms, the "secularisation thesis" held that, as a society developed economically, politically and scientifically, religion would lose its hold over life. A world "disenchanted" by science and "rationalised" by bureaucracy and commerce would have no room for the mysterious forces and eternal longings of religious life. From the West, imperialism - political, economic, and cultural - would extend this process across the globe. Gradually, the world would accept that natural science needed no religious premises to be true and social order needed no religious sanctification to be legitimate.

Recent decades have, however, witnessed Calvin's revenge. American religiosity, while more diverse and less doctrinaire than in the past, has persisted with vigour. Political Islam has advanced in the Muslim world as Arab nationalism and Communism have receded. Pentecostalism, a version of Christianity emphasising ecstatic spiritual experience, healing, self-improvement and propulsive worship, has exploded in South America, Africa and the Pacific Rim. Hindu nationalism has asserted itself in India. Around the world, old conflicts have taken on religious meanings. And the rhetoric of secularist polemics, once confident and even condescending, has given way to the shrill and combative tone of the "New Atheism," a reaction to the withering of the grand narratives that have substituted for religion and the strange persistence of the original.

This story of the fall and rise of global religion is at the centre of God is Back: How the Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both journalists at The Economist. They argue that proponents of the secularisation thesis did not grasp the resilience of religion, which has evolved and flourished in the modern era. Old religious monopolies - state churches in Europe, the Catholic Church in South America, the official atheism of the Communist states - have been broken up, forcing religions to compete for allegiance, often against newer, more charismatic forms. In this "free market" in religion, pioneered in the United States, religious "firms" have no choice but to adapt to their circumstances and appeal to their potential "customers" or they will fail. Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that this free market model has been responsible for the persistence of American religiosity - and that it is becoming more and more typical of the rest of the world.

The conditions of modernity, once seen as diametrically opposed to the persistence of religion, have both spurred the dissemination of religious messages and stoked the demand for them. American evangelicals have made early and extensive use of innovations in publishing and broadcasting to gain and mobilise believers. At the same time, the economic stress and cultural dislocations of modern life "conspire to create so much alienation and anomie" that religion proposes to help the faithful endure and understand. Religious communities, once widely seen as havens of neurosis and retrogression, provide valuable "social capital" and a breadth of personal relationships conducive to both prosperity and happiness. Meanwhile, neuroscientists and people of faith - once set at odds - have co-operated in laboratory experiments to understand what's happening in the brain during prayer.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge do their best work when they take the reader directly into the far-flung communities that put old-time religion in a multifarious, entrepreneurial global context. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, they visit an exorcism service at a Pentecostal church. Mostly middle-class Paulistas file in with children and shopping bags in tow, past the sounds of Guns N' Roses coming from a nearby cafe. After the throes of ecstatic prayer pass, the authors compare the pastor to "a professional surgeon who has just emerged from an operating theatre." Whether the scene is a Hindu "megatemple" catering to the upwardly-mobile in Bangalore, a Chinese "house church" where the liturgy is projected on PowerPoint or a vast, technologically advanced, and politically conservative Pentecostal movement in South Korea, God is Back excels at juxtaposing the religious and the postmodern - the world of angels and demons within the world of Angels and Demons. The reporting in these moments is so vivid that one wishes they had gone farther, finding more in these diverse and distracted populations of faithful than agglomerations of statistical data and unmet social needs.

The authors indulge in some methodological dodginess throughout, relying on numbers without much context and patching theories onto newsy anecdotes. Their wide reading does not always pay off when they turn to interpretation. It has, for instance, proven consistently difficult for western writers to understand the Islamic world in anything but their own terms. Muslims are accused of failing to arrive at the same religion-state accommodation that took Europe many bloody centuries and many unique twists and turns to reach. The authors propose familiar questions. Does Islam need a Reformation, or perhaps an Enlightenment? There may be Muslim Gorbachevs, but where are the Muslim Voltaires? These are questions we have grown accustomed to hearing in the years since the September 11 attacks. The condescension of the analogies overwhelms the modest analytical weight they carry. Moreover, the authors' attitude towards Islam in these passages lays bare the fundamentally secular premises for their generally upbeat account of the postmodern religious revival.

In his landmark 2007 book A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor identifies three different ways of defining secularism. Typically, he writes, we define a society as "secular" insofar as the state has separated itself from religion, or we check to see whether the population's religious beliefs and practices have declined. But perhaps, Taylor writes, we should define secularisation more epistemically - in terms of its effect on the very conditions of belief. Across most of Europe and America, he writes, religious faith is simply one human option among others, even for the very devout. This, Taylor suggests, is what secularism really means.

The world that Micklethwait and Wooldridge are describing - and in a sense, advocating - is one where secularism prevails in Taylor's first and third senses: a place where religion has ceded its hold on state power and its societal monopoly on truth, but where large swathes of people can still line up in a veritable supermarket of faith options. The authors see a free market in religion (and in non-religious alternatives for organising one's life) as the best way both to preserve the astonishing diversity and depth of religious life and to keep that diversity from leading to intractable struggle within and between countries. This vision is based, in essence, on the church-state settlement that prevails in the United States: a diversely pious population knit together by a secular state and culture.

This state of affairs, in which private belief flourishes while the institutions and assumptions of society become ever more secular, is precisely what is at stake in the global revival of religion. Modern capitalism, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out, radically transforms human experience, subordinating ritual and sacred space to production schedules and commercial zones. The modern bureaucratic state has eroded the powers and privileges of religious societies and local communities. Globalised mass culture has spread images of sexuality that oppose and sometimes overwhelm traditional social and familial relationships.

While these trends have, contrary to the classic secularisation thesis, promoted religious attachments, they are also precisely what intransigent religious leaders are mobilising against. The Vatican has issued several recent pronouncements - on defining civil marriage, on the proposed European constitution, and even on environmental destruction - which all argue that society must take its moral bearings from something higher than the sum of its individual commitments. Likewise, traditionalist Islamic movements resist the idea that their religion stands alongside the open sexuality and consumerism of global mass culture as merely one possible way to live. Such voices describe the secular state and the free market not as protectors of equal religious liberty, but as the forces that invade as religion withdraws from its role as guide and guardian of culture - a role that, once lost, is nearly impossible to recover. As the economic downturn subjects secular institutions and ideologies to unknown and unexpected stresses, how these confessional elites appeal to the faithful will be a matter of great consequence.

The 16th century Christian culture that produced John Calvin was, in its way, already undergoing secularisation. The independence of the state from the Church was being fought out on the page and in the world. International commerce was flourishing apart from the restrictions Catholicism tried to impose. Humanistic learning and the optimism that accompanied it seemed poised to transform both Church and state. Calvin himself was a cosmopolitan man of letters. Yet he saw that the idea of God has a charisma that supersedes the partial claims of state and commerce. God is not in a watchtower, Calvin argued, but rather active everywhere in the world, which is "the theatre of His glory". When obedience to human authority conflicts with the demands of religion, Calvin famously warned: "Let the princes hear and be afraid." If God is indeed back, He might not be willing to play an ensemble role on the world's stage.

Benjamin Dueholm is a Lutheran pastor and writer living in Chicago.