This Just In

Good journalism needs to be fast paced and colorful, and to base its broad-brush generalizations on vivid examples and stories. You need a strong thesis. Too many qualifications and attempts at careful analysis blur the outline and hold up the action. One way to get around this is to sell your product with startling figures and projections and then slip in a warning about the unreliability of statistics concerning religion. Or you can set up an alarming scenario of new wars of religion and then admit that “many of today’s so-called wars of religion” have other causes. This is all done without any serious attempt to understand the complex mix of factors—economic, geopolitical, ideological, nationalist, or whatever—that lie behind any religious conflict, either now or in the seventeenth century. That way you are covered and people will still buy your book and your basic thesis.

In the book under review, the basic thesis is that modernization and religion go together, above all in an American version based on pluralism and market choice. Today, turmoil and lack of basic social security will drive you to God, and more than likely to American-style religion, where megachurches and Silicon Valley go hand in hand.

With the air of discoverers in a New World, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist, announce that the “secularization thesis” put forward by sociologists like C. Wright Mills, which linked secularism to modernization, is wrong, at least as far as its universal application goes. Religion is back on the global agenda, practically and even intellectually. The profound secularization of society we see in Europe, which arose out of a history of close association between church and state, church and power, religion and reaction, is not the wave of the future, but the odd one out.

Is this a serious book or not? The answer to that question depends on the criteria of judgment you apply to it. Within sociology, there has been a prolonged critique of the strong version of the secularization thesis, and an extensive debate about whether the United States is the exception to the rule that equates modernity with the decline of religion, or whether the sharp decline in religious observance and identification in Europe is itself the exception. From reading this book one would never suspect that such a debate has preoccupied the sociology of religion for decades. Clearly the authors feel entitled to sound off with next to no knowledge of the academic literature. Or is it merely an insouciant indifference to the norms of intellectual practice? I hardly dare imagine the scorn that would greet me were I, so late in the day, to write a book announcing my novel insights into the global financial crisis. Apart from the historical accounts of the difference between the European and the American roads to modernity, this book is innocent of both long-standing critiques of the secularization thesis and trenchant defenses of it.

The introduction illustrates the problem. It begins with a story about a group of highflyers gathered for informal Christian worship in a comfortable apartment in a Shanghai gated community. You can find such groups all over the developing world, from Singapore to Seoul, São Paulo to Johannesburg, but it makes sense to begin in China because you can regard it as a particularly significant indicator of the future. But many of the authors’ eye-catching generalizations are extremely dubious, beginning with the statement that by 2050 China could well be the biggest Muslim nation as well as the biggest Christian one. This seems possible only if Indonesia or Brazil were to disappear from the map. Equally dubious is the bald statement that the core of Chinese Christianity is urban, when a great deal of its growth has been among poorly educated women in the countryside. At one point the growth in religious practice is said to draw “heavily on American and Korean Protestantism,” but then only a paragraph later we are told (and correctly) that “most Chinese churches are homegrown.” The same tactic is applied to Russia, where the authors cite a 2006 poll that “discovered” that 84 percent of Russians now believe in God. There has indeed been a revival of religion in Russia, but this figure is way above credible estimates.

I select just three prominent themes in this book to caution readers about: the trajectory of Western Europe, the supposed re-engagement of the intelligentsia with Christianity, and the rise of Pentecostalism. The authors seem to have little idea of the range of Enlightenments in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe—French, English, Scottish, German, Swiss, Dutch—or of the numerous and distinct trajectories of religion in different parts of Western Europe, let alone in Europe as a whole. Italy, for example, does not fit the pattern outlined by the authors. What is most needed to understand the varied contemporary religious landscape is some appreciation of the mutation that occurred in religious practice in the 1960s. On this score, God Is Back is almost silent.

As to the revival of interest in religion among the American intelligentsia, the authors cite some interesting evidence, the most persuasive of which concerns the “opening” of the Evangelical mind, exemplified by the success of journals such as Books and Culture. But I am not sure that the appearance of lively and intelligent publications like Books and Culture or First Things adds up to a revival. I am slightly alarmed to notice that I happen to know personally almost all the people cited!

Finally, the authors’ analysis of the role played by the export of American religion in the growth of global Pentecostalism is very misleading. Pentecostalism was in some ways multicentered in its origins, but the authors are not wrong to suggest that the now famous revival led by William Seymour, an itinerant black preacher, in Los Angeles in 1906 was a formative event. What is not properly canvassed is the way in which a combination of American black and white spirituality enabled Pentecostalism to cross any number of cultural barriers and become indigenous in countries all over the developing world. To talk about its expansion in terms of an “American export” seriously distorts what has happened and is happening, and betrays a gross ignorance of a vast literature detailing the various ways in which Pentecostal religion has adapted to its surroundings. In an important sense, its black American origins pre-adapted Pentecostalism to Africa, where people often find it more “authentically” African than mainstream Protestantism.

What motivates this type of journalistic writing? This book boldly asserts that something has changed globally in all religions. It is much more plausible, however, that the specific impact of Islamic reassertion has drawn the attention of the commentariat at the Economist to what had been there all along but had hitherto been ignored or filed in a separate box. Much of this book is understandably given over to a standard discussion of the reasons for Islamic resentment and resurgence, and of variations on the so-called clash-of-civilizations thesis. Then there is some discussion of how far Islam has engaged, or failed to engage, with the demands of modernity, above all with pluralism and choice. As for the reporting on the mobilization of the Evangelical constituency in the United States, that is no recent novelty. Nor does the emergence of the megachurches, much remarked on by the authors, count as breaking news.

Despite the authors’ claims, and despite declines in church attendance and the incidence of religious voting, the role of Christianity in its postwar formulation has remained consistently important in Europe up to the present. No doubt the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inclusion of formerly Communist countries in the European Union drew fresh attention to the continuing role of religion, but ethno-religion in Eastern and Central Europe has always been influential, above all in Poland and Romania. Philosophers like Jürgen Habermas may have noticed belatedly that religion matters, or, at any rate, that Islam poses problems in Europe, but the moral to be drawn is that what actually happens and what the intelligentsia and the commentariat talk about are not the same thing.


Related: Paul Moses reviews 'Blind Spot: What Journalists Don't Get About Religion'

Published in the 2009-06-05 issue: 

David Martin is emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and fellow of the British Academy. Among his many books is Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Blackwell).

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