The Economist admits that God is not dead

Not very long ago, many people assumed that religion around the world was in a gradual decline. In full Nietzschean mode, The Economist even went so far as to run God’s obituary in its millennium issue. Surely, in the 21st century, fire and brimstone and holy wars would be left in history’s dustbin for good, ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
598401_071101_sistine_05.jpg
598401_071101_sistine_05.jpg

Not very long ago, many people assumed that religion around the world was in a gradual decline. In full Nietzschean mode, The Economist even went so far as to run God's obituary in its millennium issue. Surely, in the 21st century, fire and brimstone and holy wars would be left in history's dustbin for good, the thinking went. But seven years later, The Economist, along with the rest of the world, has changed its tune.

Not very long ago, many people assumed that religion around the world was in a gradual decline. In full Nietzschean mode, The Economist even went so far as to run God’s obituary in its millennium issue. Surely, in the 21st century, fire and brimstone and holy wars would be left in history’s dustbin for good, the thinking went. But seven years later, The Economist, along with the rest of the world, has changed its tune.

In a just-released survey of religion in public life (not yet online now online), the magazine finds that the most extreme, strict forms of religion, such as Wahhabist Islam and Pentecostalism, are thriving around the world, whereas more moderate forms are dying out. The Economist attributes this to the free market: as established religious hierarchies break down, people are free to choose their form of observance and naturally gravitate toward more charismatic preachers and visceral experience. This is as true in Brazil’s favelas as it is in the suburbs of the American Midwest.

The special report, which profiles the U.S, Europe, India, Turkey, South Korea, and Nigeria among others, begins by warning readers that no matter how you feel about religion, “some of what follows will offend you.” For many, this will certainly be true of the report’s assertion that the United States should be an, ahem, object of emulation in terms of its religious life. Secular Americans and Europeans accustomed to turning up their noses at a United States they see as increasingly dominated by backward fundamentalists will likely scoff at this notion. At the same time, U.S. religious conservatives feel that their values are under assault by an increasingly secular and immoral culture. According to The Economist, however, the separation clause of America’s First Amendment, which was designed to keep religion out of politics, has also been enormously helpful in allowing religious life to flourish.

Unlike France’s avowedly secularist laïcité, which is written into the legal code, America has been content to let religious people get on with their business… If the intention is to create a pluralistic society, America’s church-state divide has the same advantage as democracy under Winston Churchill’s definition: it is the worst way for a modern society to deal with religion, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The authors lament that the United States has not been more active in promoting this model abroad. Such a model, however, may have limited application to Islam, which “stands out as the religion that brooks the least difference between church and state”:

Islam has always left less room for the secular. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was a ruler, warrior and lawmaker. Islam, which means submission, teaches that the primary unit of society is the umma, the brotherhood of believers, and it provides a system of laws, sharia, for people to live by.

This is another assertion that is likely to offend, but it helps to explain why so many Islamic societies turn toward either strict sharia or enforced secularism, à la Turkey. 

The report is not all bad news for secularists. The authors find atheism around the world to be thriving to a greater extent than ever before and in the midst of something of an intellectual renaissance. (See the recent books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al.) Atheism could now even qualify as the world’s fourth largest religion. Could it be that “the new atheism’s” more aggressive tone was what was needed to be heard over the din of religious rhetoric? A laissez-faire approach might be right tactic for governments in dealing with religion, as the survey suggests. But in the marketplace of ideas, a little selective intolerance is a lot easier to sell.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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