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The Fall And Rise Of Religion?

By Jonathan Fox

Since the 1990s there have been repeated declarations that religion is experiencing a global resurgence. One example is The Economist Editor-in Chief John Micklethwait’s new book God is Back. Others like Charles Taylor would dispute this claim, arguing that secularism remains potent. Many who consider themselves religious would question whether religion ever declined. I argue that this supposed decline and resurgence actually represents shifts in western perceptions of systems of beliefs more than any actual rise or fall of religion itself.

Predictions of religion’s demise

Some of the most influential western intellectuals made the argument that religion would not survive modernity; Weber, Marx, Voltaire, Freud and Nietzsche among many others held firm to this thesis. They believed that rationalism and science were superior to religion and would eventually win out. For instance, modern psychology would soothe the soul – or more properly, psychological problems – more effectively than faith and prayer, and laws based on rationalism and science would better organize society, the economy and government than religious dogma. In addition, modern processes such as urbanization would undermine the traditional communities which served as bastions of religion.

These views formed one of the bases for the modern social sciences and a major body of sociological theory known as secularization theory. The ‘fact’ of religion’s growing irrelevance was an integral part of social science education in western universities, which trained western and non-western elites alike. Generations of political leaders, journalists and intellectuals were essentially schooled to ignore religion.

Religion’s intrusion into a secular world

By the late 20th century it was becoming increasingly clear that religion could not be ignored. Ronald Regan won the US presidency with the support of the religious right, beginning a long relationship between the movement and the Republican Party. In Latin America, liberation theology – a grassroots movement based on Catholicism – became popular. The Iranian revolution ushered in an era of violent militant Islamic opposition movements in countries including Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan and Somalia. International religion-based terrorist movements such as al-Qaida became increasingly active and visible. Buddhist clergy began taking part in conflicts in Tibet and Myanmar. These examples demonstrate that it is no longer possible to ignore religion on the world scene.

Many attributed such examples to a resurgence of religion. In 1993, Samuel Huntington controversially predicted that with the end of the Cold War – an essentially secular world conflict would be primarily between several religious-based civilizations. Mark Juergensmeyer attributed this phenomenon to the failure of modern western ideologies – such as liberalism, communism, fascism and socialism – in the Third World, which forced people to return to a local and authentic alternative: religion. Policymakers such as former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright are now openly discussing the role of God and faith in world affairs.

Alternate views of history

While it is clear that religion is an integral part of world politics, the reason for this remains unclear ‘why’: Is it actually due to a resurgence of religion, or has it always been present but unseen by some? In the West, religion’s influence in the public sphere has been seemingly on the wane for centuries. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended the last of Europe’s religious wars and established that religion does not merit international conflict. It also created the basis for the modern state and the concept of sovereignty, principles, which dominate the world system today. The 1683 defeat of the Ottomans in Vienna ended the Islamic threat to the West. The Enlightenment ushered in an era where science and rationalism were dominant, at least among mainstream intellectual elites. Finally, secular political ideologies including nationalism, communism, socialism, liberalism and fascism became the dominant basis for western government.

Elsewhere, however, religion has remained significant. For Muslims, 1683 marked the beginning of centuries of defeat at the hands of the Christian West. Christian countries took over formerly Muslim-dominated regions in the Balkans. Christian colonialists took over Muslim regions in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Even after most of the western colonial apparatus was dismantled, the continued influence of the West in the Muslim world and the influence of western ideologies and education on ruling elites was seen as a continuation of Christian colonialism by proxy. Thus, militant Islamic movements such as al-Qaida see themselves as fighting the most recent battle in a centuries-long religious war, not as bringing religion back to world politics.

Religion in the West

The argument that religion has waned in the West, if not elsewhere, is also a dubious one. Research shows that the population of the West remains largely connected to religion, and most western governments actively support religion. Polling data from the World Values Survey shows that even in the most secular of western countries, at least 10 percent of the population report attending religious services regularly, and in many countries including Austria, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the US, more than a third do so. In western countries, a clear majority report believing in God.

Religion is also present in western public policy. The Religion and State project (which for purposes of full disclosure is directed by myself) reports that among 27 western democracies, nine (33.3 percent) have official religions and an additional 11 (40.7 percent) support some religions more than others. All 27 fund religious educational institutions or religious education. Twenty-two (81.5 percent) support religious education in public schools. Eleven (40.7 percent) collect religious taxes, and 18 (66.7 percent) place restrictions on the religious practices or institutions of minority religions.

Modern religion

Given 19th and 20th century intellectual elites’ certainty of religion’s demise, why is religion still with us? After all, these thinkers were not completely wrong: Modernity is a challenge to religion; Rationality and science do compete with religion; Modern processes including urbanization and universal literacy and education clearly undermine the traditional role of religion in society.

However, this has not led to the death of religion, but rather to its evolution. Individuals have been left with three options in this clash between religion and modernity. The first is to reject religion in favor of modernity– the secular option. The second is to reject modernity in favor of religion. This is the option that has led to religious fundamentalism, which seeks to build a society excluding modern secular ideas, philosophies, values and culture, though not necessarily modern technology. The final option is to find a way to embrace both religion and modernity. According to the World Values Survey, among those who consider themselves religious people (71.7 percent of those who answered the question) 75.7 percent believe that “[s]cience and technology are making our lives healthier and easier.” Seventy percent believe that they shape their own lives more than fate, and 79.5 percent do not believe that religious leaders should influence the government. Given this, it is fair to conclude that the majority of those who are religious today are also embracing modernity.

In sum, I believe the question of religion’s resurgence is one of perception. Western intellectual ideologies predicted the demise of religion and blinded many to the fact of its continued vitality and evolution in the modern world. Certainly some strains have declined while others are in ascendance, but this is part of the normal process of religious beliefs and institutions evolving with society.

Jonathan Fox is an associate professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He has written extensively on the topic of religion and politics. His most recent book is A World Survey of Religion and the State (Cambridge University Press, 2008). He holds a PhD from the University of Maryland, US. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), which published this article. Creative Commons


About the Author

ISN Security Watch
ISN Security Watch
The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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