Sunday, May 31, 2009

Message to secularists: curb your enthusiasm

My recent posts on the downside of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam must not be taken as an endorsement of the current revival of the old view that religion is on the way out, because it is incompatible with modernity. For one thing, religion must not be simply equated with the trio just mentioned. There are Buddhism and many intriguing forms of polytheism, including Hinduism and Amerindian religions. I am aware that some deny that Buddhism is a religion. They are wrong, because it recognizes life after death (in the form of Samsara or “reincarnation”), the supremacy of the transcendental, heavens and hells, prayer and ritual, and even divine beings.

Still, the Abrahamics retain their numbers. They also show continuing, increasing vitality, even in surprising places.

Recent reports indicate a rise of Calvinism in mainland China. As Bryan Applegate tartly comments: “I don't think that was in the secular-progressive game plan. It gives a timely endorsement to [a] book review by John Gray [excerpted below] . . . [T]he point is that the humanist fantasy that modernity necessarily entailed the decline of religion was always absurd, now it is demonstrably so. As John points out, religion is on the rise among the most defiantly modern people. You can say this is a bad thing, but you can't say it can't happen, as so many have done. This is an important point. Dawkins's The God Delusion was attacked because he plainly knew nothing about theology. His defenders said that was not the point, theology was irrelevant if God was, indeed, no more than a delusion. Okay, but as Calvinism in China (and many other resurgent faiths) demonstrate, to say God doesn't exist therefore I'm not going to think about him in any detail is to cut yourself from the world as it is. Or, to put it another way, to say that God is merely a delusion - and no more than that - is to imply you have some higher standard of understanding than the merely human. But there is no super-human realm in which ranks of Dawkins's 'brights' bask in the brilliant glare of unbelief. They're here, in this world, and they also have their delusions of which the most bizarre and eccentric is their faith in the imminent death of religion.”

John N. Gray, the insightful British academic, must not be confused with the American self-help guru John Gray, who is the author of “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

John Gray’s review of “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge appeared in the New Statesman on May 21, 2009. The authors state their conclusions boldly: “Religion is proving perfectly compatible with modernity in all its forms, high and low.”

Here are some of Gray’s comments:

“Contrary to what evangelical rationalists preach, it is perfectly possible both to be modern and to believe in God. But there is no reason to assume that the American religious model will prevail.


“Whether Marxian or Millian, socialist or liberal, secular rationalists have held one tenet in common: religion belongs to the infancy of the species; the more modern a society becomes, the less room there is for religious belief and practice. Never questioned, this is what lies behind the hot-gospel sermons of evangelical atheists: if you want to be modern, say goodbye to God.

“At bottom, the assertion that religion is destined to die out is a confession of faith. No amount of evidence will persuade secular believers that they are on the wrong side of history, but one of the achievements of God Is Back is to show how implausible, if not ridiculous, their view of history actually is.

“The notion that modernity and religion are at odds is a generalisation from the experience of some parts of Europe. Europe is now largely post-Christian and the majority no longer follows any conventional creed, but things are otherwise in much of the rest of the world, and notably so in the US, which, during most of its history, has been intensely religious and self-consciously modern.

“European Enlightenment thinkers have tended to see the US as the exception that proves the rule – an unexplained lag in a universal trend towards secularisation.

“Against this view, Micklethwait and Wooldridge show that modernisation and an increase in religiosity go together in much of the world. Some of the most powerful sections of the book feature narratives of religious communities in improbable places – prosperous, highly educated Chinese, among them scientists and academics, coming together in contemporary Shanghai to read and discuss the Christian Bible, for example.

“If there is any trend that can be discerned in the parts of the world that are most rapidly modernising, it is that secular belief systems are in decline and the old faiths are being reborn.


“[Yet] the authors – one Catholic, the other atheist, we are told – emerge as missionaries for the American Way, and the argument becomes distinctly implausible.

“It is one thing to argue that the model of universal secularisation is mistaken, and to show – as the authors do very effectively – that the decline of religion in Europe is not going to be repeated worldwide. It is another thing altogether to suggest that an American kind of religiosity is spreading nearly everywhere.

“One problem is the conception of religion the authors deploy.

“Nearly always, religion for them means monotheism – more specifically, Christianity and Islam. Polytheistic and non-theistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are allowed a few pages, but only in order to argue that “American methods can work” even for them.

“Another is their assumption that modernity is a Good Thing. Like so many western commentators, the authors berate the Muslim world, supposedly stuck in medieval torpor, for its failure to modernise. One had hoped that it was now understood that Lenin, Stalin and Hitler were not throwbacks to the Middle Ages. In their different ways, all three were radically modern – just like al-Qaeda today. If a certain type of pluralism appears only in modern times, the same is true of totalitarianism. There are many ways of being modern, some of them far from benign.


“A part of their argument is the claim that religions have done well by adopting modern corporate practices.

“Religion has become a competitive business, they point out, with faith entrepreneurs actively creating and serving their customer base. They describe a Hindu temple in Bangalore that “uses every modern method to entice and service believers,” including “a website that is as user-friendly as that of any American megachurch.”

“No doubt these are valid observations, but the authors use them to argue for “American-style pastorpreneurship” as a universal model. They acknowledge that although the American way of religion is spreading faster than the European, “that does not mean it will conquer every corner of the world.”

“They are nonetheless insistent that the American model is better adapted than any other to the modern world.

“Here Micklethwait and Wooldridge repeat the canonical fallacy of American theorists of globalisation such as Thomas Friedman. It is true that some American business methods have been widely adopted. That does not mean humankind is embracing an American model of capitalism, or of religion.

“Hypermodern Japan has many new religions, some of them very obviously organised as businesses, but it remains a country still largely untouched by individualism. Hinduism is now practised worldwide, but in India its revival has been linked with nationalism rather than pluralism. The same is true of the revival of Orthodoxy in Russia, and the resurgence of Confucianism that is under way in China.

“Religion is advancing in many parts of the world, but it is no more likely that a single dominant model of religious practice will emerge from this process than that a single version of capitalism has emerged from globalisation.

“Modernity can coexist with religion in many ways, none of which is going to be adopted universally. The authors promote a US-style secular constitution as a global panacea and shake their heads sternly at Britain’s archaic religious establishment, not pausing to ask whether it may have played a part in protecting us from the fundamentalism that has poisoned the American political process.

“More generally, they assume that ideas which emerged from within western Christian traditions can be applied anywhere. But as energy and power flows eastwards, the secular ideologies that developed from Christianity are likely to dwindle in influence.

"Rightly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge note that the grand secular belief systems of the past two centuries continued Christian ways of thinking: “Marx found it impossible not to think in terms of grand eschatologies . . . He employed numerous religious tropes – communists are latter-day gnostics, communism is heaven on earth, the revolution is the Last Judgement, workers are saved and capitalism is damned.”

“In other words, God never really went away, for secular political projects were continuations of Christianity by other means. But if Marxism is a post-Christian creed that is now obsolete, why should liberalism – in its militant, proselytising form – be any different? In fact, it has been in decline for some time, a process that began with the fall of communism.

“The Soviet collapse was hailed as a triumph for the west. But communism is a prototypical western ideology, and there was never any prospect that Russia – a country which has always straddled Europe and Asia – would convert to neoliberalism, another western confection. It was naive to expect that post-communist Russia would embrace a western model of government and the economy in the 1990s, and it is even more misguided to look forward to the Americanisation of religion at the present time.

“If it is true that faith is now a branch of business, religion may opt to follow the money – a journey that no longer leads in the direction of the United States. While there will be no universal pattern, the rediscovery of Confucianism is probably a better clue to the way the world will look a few decades from now than the proliferation of megachurches.

“God Is Back may not show that the American way of religion is uniquely well suited to the modern condition. Where this urgently relevant book succeeds triumphantly is in demolishing the myth of an emerging secular civilisation.

“Evangelising rationalists will continue to deny the fact, but religion – in all its varieties – is shaping the future, much as it shaped the past.”

Thus John Gray.

Some respondents to Gray’s piece seem disturbed by his acknowledgement that religion and secularism rest on the same fideistic foundations. "At bottom, the assertion that religion is destined to die out is a confession of faith."

As a teenager I read a number of atheist tracts and was repeatedly struck by how the self-important certainty and dogmatism of the writers mirrored the views they were attacking. There was even hymns to rally the faithful, including “Onward Atheist Soldiers.” To be sure, the atheist soldiers slogged on, but they seem no nearer to victory that they were sixty years ago.

Not so, say some commentators who cite the truism that religion is dying out in Western Europe. Yes, but it is flourishing in much of the rest of the world. Demographically, those smug European secularists are not reproducing, and they are having to cope with increasing numbers of faith-based Muslims in their midst.

These complacent secularists need to wake up and smell the coffee.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an admirer of John Gray, but I beg to differ that atheism, or non-religion, is built on the same kind of foundation as theism.

First, theism and religion overlap, for sure, but are distinct categories. Second, one can be religious, such as unitarians, and not be theistic. Third, one can adopt a theistic and religious perspective and moderation in practice that serves fringe, rather than primal, needs. The Church of England is an example, as are most "national" churches.

The concern that liberals have with religious freedom is their sense of entitlement, to impose their religious beliefs and practices onto the society at large, regardless of its extremist beliefs. The liberal hopes to provide the space for religious practice as part of his identification with "tolerance," but "tolerance of intolerance" is self-defeating, and if religion of any and all kind can be succinctly described, "intolerant" is among the chief complaints.

The recent attacks on religion by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris is not for their "private religious beliefs," but their bellicosity and stridency in imposing their superstition and irrational beliefs onto "society as a whole." Ireland and Spain have finally come out from the hegemony of Rome, while Italy lingers.

The "issue" is not religion or theism, but the imposition of intolerant dogmatic superstitions onto others, whether a "different believer" or a "non-believer." A non-believer is not epistemologically identical to a theist, but rather one who looks at a theist's premises and conclusions, and finds them all lacking. "Absence" is not to be confused with a "different" faith, but with no faith at all. A nil set, a non-set, a claim without substance, merit, or content.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Mr. Dynes

Just ran across your review, and was puzzled by it. Don't you have a analytical framework to evaluate these questions? If Stalinism were sweeping the world, would you gleefully welcome its advent and pronounce all those Liberte-Fraternite-Egalite democrats to be deluded idiots? Is success the only measure of correctness?

As a secularist and atheist and humanist, I am happy to stipulate the facts of religious adherence. We might quibble about the strength of adherence in this new world where people switch their allegiances and beliefs at the drop of a hat, or the opening of a new coffee counter at the local megachurch. But such issues aside, the core issue was never one of popularity, but one of logic and thorough appreciation of anthopology, psychology, and other scientific fields appropriate to studying religion and reality (throwing in physics and biology for good measure).

Is religion true? If not, then it follows that it should die out as people become more educated and capable of adopting a critical, rational perspective. This has nothing to do with the acquirement of modern technological conveniences, but with intellectual attainment. The fact that religion has become more popular in the face of its patent falsity is not a testament to its correctness, but to its deep emotional hold/place in the human psyche, combined perhaps with indifferent systems of education, such as those found frequently here in the US.

How can that be shown? One sign is the correlation of religiosity with education in the US. This is not terribly strong, but indicative. Second are, as mentioned above, basic findings in anthropology, psychology, physics, etc. Which indicate that miracles do not occur and can not have occurred in the past, and that our minds are wired towards supernatural/irrational belief. Throw in a childhood of indoctrination, a culture of respect for "belief" (or the thrill of discovering esoteric "truths" that fly in the face of official doctrine, as in the case of China), and popularity is not such a surprise, however disappointing to a secularist perspective.

8:54 AM  

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