Alleluia, God goes global

September 2, 2005

The spread of Enlightenment ideas was expected to lead to a decline in world faiths and the triumph of secularisation. But religion is flourishing and evolving, especially in the developing world away from Western eyes, says Gregory Melleuish

There was not much public interest in the place of religion in the contemporary world until the presidency of George W. Bush and the events of September 11, 2001. True, Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis had generated some excitement about a possible conflict between the West and Islam. But, in general, with falling church membership and attendance, it was assumed that the developed world, with the US the only major exception, was inexorably set on the road to complete secularity. This meant that discussion of religion tended to focus on matters such as the decline of Christianity, female and gay priests and "moral" issues such as abortion.

The Western fixation, particularly among its intelligentsia, on secularisation as the inevitable fate of humanity has blinded it to the fact that we are living in a great age of religious vitality and mission in the Christian and in the Muslim worlds. Much of this is happening in Africa, Latin America and Asia, far from the eyes of the Western media. And much of the "clash of civilisations" between Christianity and Islam has occurred in places such as Nigeria and Sudan, often ignored by Western reporters. Over the past 40 years, both religions have become globalised. The consequences of that globalisation are only now coming to be appreciated.

The recent and sudden interest in Christianity and in Islam has been fuelled by the threat that their more robust forms, generically labelled "fundamentalism", are believed to pose to the stability and comfort of the secularised West. Consequently, today's debate has taken on a "them-and-us" character with "us" being seen as the calm and reasonable children of the Enlightenment and "them" as "fundamentalist" fanatics and barbarians, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew. This is not to say that a small hard core of extremists does not exist among them. Rather it is to point out that the use of a term such as fundamentalism obscures rather than illuminates when used to encompass the beliefs of perhaps billions of people.

Fundamentalism is in essence propositional in nature, that is to say it is founded on a number of propositions to which one is meant to give assent.

European and US Protestantism has often taken this form as it has focused on the Bible as the defining scripture supplying the fundamentals of belief. But alongside what can be a somewhat emotionally arid form of religion, other forms have developed that focus more on the immediacy of spiritual experience. Methodism, and in some ways its offspring, Pentecostalism, has such an emphasis.

Both forms are present in the Christian revival. But while evangelical fundamentalism is perhaps dominant in the US, it is charismatic Pentecostalism, with an estimated half a billion adherents globally, that has won over many in the Third World. It has been argued that Pentecostalism appeals to many Africans because they live in a world inhabited by spirits, including evil ones that can be subdued by Jesus.

Moreover, they are strongly attracted to the Old Testament, which many liberal Christians in the West find an embarrassment.

But, argues Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity , the heart of Christianity no longer lies in the West and there can be little doubt that the source of much of its vitality in the 21st century will come from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Pippa Norris, lecturer in comparative politics at Harvard University, and Ronald Inglehart, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, say that while the publics of virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving towards more secular orientations during the past 50 years, the world as a whole has more people with traditional religious views than ever before - and they constitute a growing proportion of the global population.

Norris and Inglehart relate religious belief to security and prosperity.

The more affluent and secure people are, the less need they have for things outside this world. One could, of course, put it another way: the more prosperity people have, the more likely they are to stray from the path of righteousness. Norris and Inglehart have also come up with interesting findings such as the Protestant work ethic being weakest in cultures derived from Protestantism and prevalent among Muslims.

While secularised countries are far more liberal on sexual matters and gender equality than religious countries, especially Muslim ones, they also have a much lower birth rate. Thus we are confronted by a secular, developed world with a decreasing appetite for hard work versus a faster-growing and religious developing world. Norris and Inglehart's implication is that this is primarily a function of relative security and that, when every human being lives in a European-style welfare state, what Marx termed the "opiate of the masses" will be no more.

It is interesting that holding extreme beliefs in no way impedes one's capacity to function in a technological society. One can be both a believer in creationism and a highly competent engineer; or a radical Islamist and an able computer scientist. Contemporary fundamentalists live, in effect, in a secular and scientific universe.

An answer to this apparent paradox can be found in the work of French philosopher Marcel Gauchet. In The Disenchantment of the World , he argues that humanity has been on a secular trajectory ever since it left the holistic spiritual world of the hunter-gatherer. Gauchet believes that the creation of the first states involved sundering that world into Heaven above and earth below with the consequential development of our secular society.

But even if the world is no longer religious, this does not imply that the people within it have ceased to be religious. Much of contemporary religion, especially in the West, makes sense when viewed in these terms.

Our world is a disenchanted and secular one. Our religion is no longer to be found in nature but in the hearts of men and women. And generally it is a religion that has been quarantined from the larger reality in which we live our lives. It has become just another specialised element of our rather fragmented culture in which individuals pursue a rather bewildering range of interests.

One consequence of this is that religious knowledge and training are no longer conducted within the context of the broader culture. Instead, like everything else, they are now a specialised form of technical training.

Modern forms of religion form their own subcultures, usually outside the radar of the media. Only when they have an impact on public life is any attention directed their way.

Like Christianity, Islam is being transformed through its global encounters. Just as the critical developments in contemporary Christianity may be occurring in Africa, so the crucial changes in Islam are taking place in the West. In his Globalized Islam , Olivier Roy, the French sociologist, points to the encounter with Western values in Western societies as the central transforming element that has led to the creation of Islamism.

Unlike Christians, Muslims were for a long time uneasy about living outside the realm of Islam. After all, how was it possible to live a righteous life in a society run by infidels? In recent times, however, there has been a significant number of Muslim migrants to both Europe and the US. And out of this encounter, much of contemporary radical Islam has been born.

According to Roy, radical Islam was in part created by an input of Western ideas and values into Islam. For example, traditionally, Islam was not particularly concerned with issues such as abortion and homosexuality but it has come to take over these moral questions. And, as with traditional Western religions, the religious training of Islamic clerics is no longer embedded in a particular cultural tradition.

The result is that Islam belongs nowhere and everywhere, a globalised faith that can be carried from place to place, just as it can be argued that there is now a globalised form of Christianity no longer linked to any particular culture. More important, it is not a "medieval" religion. In fact, like evangelical Christians seeking to convert Catholics to their version of Christianity, Islamists want to get rid of the traditional rural Islam founded on saints and Sufis.

Moreover, both contemporary Christianity and contemporary Islam have elements that can be described as "Jacobin"; they adhere to a series of propositions that define the good life, propositions that are not tied to a particular age, place or culture.

So what does this all mean for the 21st century? First, there will be a growing divergence between a developed world that is largely secular and demographically declining and a developing world that will grow in numbers and religiosity. Religious conflict will continue, much of it in the developing world between Christian and Muslim.

There will also be a growing divergence in the developed world between liberal Christians on the one hand and evangelicals and Pentecostalists on the other. And as the former slips into a position that is not clearly distinguishable from secularism, so the latter will become much more determined in its defence of orthodoxy.

Religion's biggest impact on the wider society will continue to be felt when moral issues are discussed in public, when Islam will line up with evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics. One should expect such political alliances between these groups to increase in those instances.

One final observation: from a Muslim and an evangelical Christian perspective, it is not they who are strange and perverted but the modern world. It is not between Muslim and Christian that the fundamental clash of civilisations is occurring in the 21st century. It is between the religious and non-religious.

Gregory Melleuish is head of the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong in Australia. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Policy , the journal of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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