Religion: It just won’t go away

The Economist surveys the impact of religion and modern culture, and finds that modernism and religion are uneasy bedfellows.

Many secular intellectuals think that the real “clash of civilisations” is not between different religions but between superstition and modernity. A succession of bestselling books have torn into religion—Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith”, Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’s “God is not Great—How Religion Poisons Everything”. This counterattack already shows a religious intensity. Mr Dawkins has set up an organisation to help atheists around the world.

Part of that secular fury, especially in Europe, comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity—that heady combination of science, learning and democracy—would kill religion. Plainly, this has not happened. Numbers about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, but most of them seem to indicate that any drift towards secularism has been halted, and some show religion to be on the increase. The proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and may reach 80% by 2050.

Moreover, from a secularist point of view, the wrong sorts of religion are flourishing, and in the wrong places.

One effect of a globalizing economy is the culture wars have also gone global.

Pious people are shouting “Stop!” (or at least “Slow down!”) to things liberals regard as progress. The three main battlefields are culture, science and economics.

Such a sweeping generalisation requires an immediate caveat. The three battlefields are reasonably well defined, but the people fighting on them are not. On the secular side, progressive Parisians and New Yorkers may both be modern, but often have very different attitudes to economics. The religious side is even more fragmented. Conservative American churches tend to embrace modern capitalism, but are suspicious of biotechnology and modern culture; by contrast, leftish American evangelicals are much more bothered about globalisation than about stem cells. The technophobic Catholic hierarchy in Europe is mildly hostile to modern culture, science and capitalism, and technophile Muslim fundamentalists loathe all three.

Anyone who has taken a high school or freshman Western Civilization survey course may have been taught believe that religious wars are a thing of the past, but religious conflict is all too common.

Faith is once again prolonging conflict. Religion is seldom the casus belli: indeed, in many struggles, notably the Middle East in modern times, it is amazing how long it took for religion to become a big part of the argument. But once there, it makes conflicts harder to resolve. A squabble over land (which can be divided) or power (which can be shared) or rules (that can be fudged) becomes a dispute over non-negotiable absolutes. If you believe that God granted you the West Bank, or that any form of abortion is murder, compromise is not really possible.

But not all religious conflict leads to war or violence. They can have a transforming, even democratizing effect.

Yet the foremost way in which religion has expressed itself around the world has been more peaceful: the ballot box. Religious people have either formed religious parties (such as India’s BJP) or converted secular ones into more faith-driven outfits (such as America’s Republican Party). In places where religion was frowned upon by the state, such as Mexico or Turkey, greater freedom has allowed the pious to form parties, such as the Catholic-oriented PAN party or the Islamic AK Party.

And it has not just been a case of democracy helping religion. Timothy Shah of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it can go the other way too. By his calculation, more than 30 of the 80 or so countries that became freer in 1972-2000 owed some of the improvement to religion. Sometimes established churches helped to push for democracy (eg, the Catholic church in Poland), but more often it was pressure from the grassroots: religious people usually look for a degree of freedom (if only to pursue their faith).

The most significant change driving religion today–and the impact of religion on culture– is that more and more dynamic religion is chosen religion. In the past, religion was defined pretty much by where and to whom one was born. Today, the more modernized the culture, the more likely that religion is chosen, and a religion that one chooses is held more tightly than religion one inherits.

Choice is the most “modern” thing about contemporary religion. “We made a category mistake,” admits Peter Berger, the Boston sociologist, who was once one of the foremost champions of secularisation but changed his mind in the 1980s. “We thought that the relationship was between modernisation and secularisation. In fact it was between modernisation and pluralism.” Religion is no longer taken for granted or inherited; it is based around adults making a choice, going to a synagogue, temple, church or mosque.

This has a profound affect on public life. The more that people choose their religion, rather than just inherit it, the more likely they are to make a noise about it. Miroslav Volf, director of Yale’s Centre for Faith and Culture, says this is showing up in the workplace too: “It used to be that workers hung their religion on a coat rack alongside their coats. At home, their religion mattered. At work, it was idle. That is no longer the case. For many people religion has something to say about all aspects of life, work included.”

This look at religion from the economists’ standpoint–how religion and culture intersect and impacts peoples choices–calls us to look at the impact of faith in new ways and may challenge long-held assumptions about how the Gospel is proclaimed in an increasingly global, connected world.

Past Posts