Reflections on “God is back” and thoughts on Faith in the Secular West

John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge’s book God is back is gaining a lot of media attention at the moment. Miclethwait and Woolridge write,

By the end of the 20th century the intelligentsia had little doubt modern man had outgrown God. Most trend-setting books in the 1990s saw the world through secular lenses.Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man predicted the triumph of secularisation as well as liberalism. The word religion does not appear in the index of Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger’s 900-page masterpiece on statesmanship, published in 1994.

In 1980-99 only a half dozen of the articles in America’s four main international relations journals dealt with religion. The Economist was so confident of the Almighty’s demise that it published his obituary in its millennium issue. Today an unsettling worry nags at Western liberals: what if secular Europe (and for that matter secular Harvard and secular Manhattan) is the odd one out? They are right to be worried. It now seems that it is the American model that is spreading around the world: religion and modernity are going hand in hand, not just in China but throughout much of Asia, Africa, Arabia and Latin America. It is not just that religion is thriving in many modernising countries; it is also that religion is succeeding in harnessing the tools of modernity to propagate its message. The very things that were supposed to destroy religion – democracy and markets, technology and reason – are combining to make it stronger.

Almost everywhere you look, from the suburbs of Dallas to the slums of Sao Paulo to the back streets of Bradford, you can see religion returning to public life. Most dramatically, Americans and their allies would not be dying in Iraq and Afghanistan had 19 young Muslims not attacked the US on September 11, 2001. America’s next war could be against the Islamic Republic of Iran, or it could be dragged into a spat in Pakistan, where religious fanatics are determined to seize the country’s nuclear weapons, or perhaps in West Africa, where there is a monumental clash between evangelical Christianity surging northward and fundamentalist Islam heading south. Indeed, there are potential battlegrounds all around Islam’s southern perimeter, along the 10th parallel, stretching through Sudan to The Philippines. Nor is it just a matter of Christians and Muslims. In Burma, Buddhist monks nearly brought down an evil regime; in Sri Lankathey have prolonged a bloody conflict with Hindu Tamils.

On one hand Mickelthwait and Woolridge seem to be stating a very similair case to Phillip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom,  that is that in the two-thirds world religion is booming. However Mickelthwait and Woolridge go on to make the case the secularism is reversing in Europe,

Religion is even (re-) emerging as a force in the very heartland of secularisation. Europe is still a long way behind the US: for instance, only one in 10 French people say that religion plays an important role in their lives. But nevertheless there are signs that the same forces that are reviving religion in the US – the quest for community in an increasingly atomised world, the desire to counterbalance choice with a sense of moral certainty – are making headway in Europe. Across the Continent the loosening of the ties between church and state is opening the religious market. In France, the fastest growing creed is the most American of all, Pentecostalism.

Mickelthwait and Woolridgemake the point that part of this reversal has been triggered by increased Muslim immigration and by the events of September 11 which, forced many Europeans of Christian decent to take on a kind of Christian affiliation, in order to contrast themselves with their Muslim neighbours.

So should we as believers take heart from all of this? My answer is a small yes and a big no. Yes in the sense that it is becoming increasingly evident that the enlightenment project to distance God from the public sphere is failing. This however has been clear to any person who has taken the time to examine the issue in detail. The enlightenment project has one hand delivered the West relatively comfortable and stable cultures, yet this comfort has been accompanied by a gaping existential loss of meaning and increasing moral murkiness. One can only imagine what the architects of the englightement would say if they could see that the fruit of the culture that they dreamed up would not be the ‘heavenly queen of reason’ but rather Lady Gaga. So then it is little wonder that some are looking else where for frameworks of meaning. 

So we should be happy that people are looking elsewhere for a story to make sense of life. But (and this is a big but) whilst we are seeing an increased skepticism in regard to the role of religion in public life amongst some politicians and segments of the public, and an increased willingness of members of secular cultures to affiliate with Christianity, what we are not seeing is an increase in the Christian practice.

 In fact what we are seeing in the West is a continued dramatic decline in Church attendance and everyday practice. The figures looks slightly better due to the fact that the Church across the West the loss has been slightly offset by the growth of Christianity amongst migrants from non-European cultures. Even SouthKorea which has been held up as the prime example of religious revivalism is seeing the church decline in the face of contemporary culture. So what is going on then, more people seem to be affiliating with Christianity, faith is gaining more attention in the media, yet Church attendance is in decline?

In God’s Continent Jenkins makes the point is that what we are seeing is a re-negotiation of how people practice their Christian faith,in the same way that we have seen the West re-negotiate the idea of coupling from life long marriage to short term rolling bouts of de facto living. The dominance of individual autonomy means that the contemporary Christian looks not to the authorityof the church, the weight of tradition or the framework of scripture to make their life decisions, rather people are picking what they like from Christianity and mixing it with what suits them from the contemporary culture. This is the concept of multiphrenia (mulipleselves) in practice that sociologist Kenneth Gergen  described in The Saturated Self, and the plurality of self that theologian Jonathan R Wilson described in Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World .

This phenomenon is not just limited to Christians, Jenkins notes that the media has portrayed the European Muslim as a young and radical fundamentalists living in urban islands of Shariah law. The reality is more the image of a young man of Algerian decent listening to Lil Wayne on his Ipod hanging out in a mall in the suburbs of Paris, or a young woman minus veil dancing in a nightclub with her friends in Ankara. Recent research here in Australia amongst Muslim youth has shown that they hold almost the same relativist approaches to truth as their secular peers.

So the real question is how do we live as faithful disciples in the face of Western Culture? This is not just a question for the West but for the countries which are importing Western culture as well. What does a faithful community of believers look like in the West who are living lives that are wholly integrated with their faiths look like? These are questions that we must wrestle with as they are at key to the future of the Church in the West.


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