OVERVIEW. God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, by Micklethwait and Woolridge, is a long, but easy-to-read and fascinating book. Authors Micklethwaite and Wooldridge are editors for The Economist. They take a journalistic rather than academic approach, although the authors' Oxford University background emerges in their philosophical and historical commentary.
The authors first show the gradual rise of secularism from the ashes of the Wars of Religion in Europe in the 1600s. From that trend toward secularism arose the secular thesis, the expectation that modernity—the advent of democracy, respect for reason, rising prosperity, and advancing technology—would marginalize religion, pushing it gradually into a private realm and out of the "public square." Europe exported this secular view through colonialism and trade. The worldwide secular movement peaked in the 1950s and has been slowly retreating in the face of renewed enthusiasm for religion among Christians, Muslims, and others. This enthusiasm could lead to new wars of religion, but now on a global scale. The book does not stop with description of resurgent religion. It goes further.
When religionists force their ideas onto other individuals, they attack individual rights. Politically that is the problem commonly caused by resurgent religion. The solutions that the authors offer range from proven to failed. The most sensible prescription by these two British authors is their recommendation to adopt the American ideal of separation of Church and State, a relationship that leaves religious movements free to compete with each other for adherents. The authors' faulty prescriptions are many. Essentially they consist of applying religion as a solution to the problem of religious threats to liberty: Seeking compromises with religionists and "interfaith dialogues" between religionists, for example, do not work to protect individual rights. In a nutshell, the value of the book is in its descriptions, not in its prescriptions.
ORGANIZATION OF THE BOOK. The complexity of the book is demonstrated by the authors' own description of the plan of the book:
The first part of the book tries to explain why Europe and America have evolved in such different ways over the past two hundred or so years. The second part examines the way that religion (and especially [religious] pluralism) is thriving in today's America—as an economic force, an intellectual catalyst and a political influence. The third part examines how America is exporting its version of religion. The fourth part examines the spread of wars of religion, in various guises, from the battles for people's souls to culture wars to terrorism and violence. In the conclusion we look for the best formulas for avoiding future explosions. (p. 26)
In the Introduction, the authors make a rapid but vivid tour of religious developments around the world, but the heart of the book is about religion in America. The authors propose an ironic theme: Separation of Church and State leads to vibrant religious movements.
The Founding Fathers' clever compromise over religion not only allowed God to survive and prosper in America, it also provided a way of living with religion—of ensuring that different faiths can coexist, and of taming a passion that so often turns the religious beast to savagery. This was one of the Founders' greatest gifts to man: getting rid of the established church, establishing a firm distinction between public reason and private faith, and consigning theocracy to the past along with monarchy and aristocracy. Our instinct is that this is a lesson that people the world over—believers, atheists and agnostics—need now more than ever. (p. 27)
Besides geographic breadth, the book has historical depth too. In the four chapters of Part One, "Two Roads to Modernity," the authors examine the long roads that have led to today's religious and secular movements, roads that started back 300 years in the Enlightenment and ran in diverging ways through European and American history up to today. For the authors, the milestones along the way were the thinkers and their thoughts: Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, Comte, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and others. To the authors of God is Back, ideas matter because ideas lead individuals to actions. Ultimately, actions are the authors' main concern: positively, the freedom for individuals to pursue their religious interests, and, negatively, avoiding wars of religion that range from verbal conflicts to slaughter.
Beyond the historical background and the geographic survey, the main value of the book is the author's skill in selecting individuals, past and present, who represent ideas in action, and then in presenting a concise, vivid profile of each. The reader meets Wang, a management consultant living in an apartment in a gated community in Shanghai. He is also the organizer of a quasi-legal Christian "house church," a group of rising, mostly young professionals who meet to discuss passages from the Bible, and, along the way, to denounce homosexuality and the theory of evolution. (pp. 1-2)
The reader sees Bill Hybels, a "pastorpreneur" who applied business techniques to founding Willow Creek Community Church, an Evangelical group that has built a "church" that contains food courts, basketball courts, coffee shops, parking spaces for 3,850 cars, meeting rooms for specialized groups such as Christian motorcyclists, and large auditoriums for sermons. (pp. 183-185)
The reader meets Amr Khaled, the world's most popular Islamic preacher:
Amr Khaled is an even more American [influenced] figure. He turned himself first into Egypt's most popular [Muslim] preacher and then into Islam's answer to [Christian evangelist] Billy Graham by eschewing almost everything associated with traditional imams. He has no official religious credentials or position. He dresses in Western clothes—suits and polo shirts mostly—rather than religious robes. He performs on television and in cavernous conference chambers rather than in mosques—and he puts on a dramatic performance, raising and lowering his voice and sometimes bursting into tears.… He urges his audience to take control of their lives and make sure that they succeed in business.… Hopeful Westerners regard Khaled as a possible bridge to the Islamic world. But in fact, much as with Billy Graham, there is a hard core to his soft-edged faith. He tells people that Allah loves them… [b]ut he also insists on the literal truth of the Koran. He talks about women's empowerment. But he also supports sharia and is an important force behind the growing fashion for the veil. (pp. 240 and 241)
THEMES. What is the point of the authors' descriptions of the individuals, organizations, and movements that are reviving religion today? The authors emphasize several subthemes throughout the book. These subthemes lay the groundwork for the authors' final conclusions. First, the authors emphasize the failure of the theory long held by secular intellectuals, that modernity—which the authors define as the culture of secularity, technology, the marketplace, and material prosperity—will steadily displace religion from the public square and into the sphere of private belief, if any.
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 modernizing 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. (p. 12)
The authors do demonstrate that "democracy," (representative government respecting basic rights), adoption of business techniques for spreading ideas, and the use of technology created in a market economy are fueling the growth of enthusiastic religious movements. The authors do not demonstrate that reason—as distinct from mysticism—is making religion stronger. However, the authors do show that the Evangelical movement, formerly noted mostly for its "hot" behavior, that is, its emotional displays, is now moving toward more intellectualism. (That is bad news for advocates of reason; a veneer of intellectualism laid over mysticism gives mysticism an unearned place in public discussion.)
The authors' portrait of King's College, an evangelical school located in the Empire State Building at the time of writing the book, is one piece of evidence the authors use to show the intellectualism and ambition of the growing religious movement. The authors quote Stan Oakes, the chancellor of the college, to show the movement's ambition in activism:
The stated mission of King's College is to create 'ambassadors of Jesus Christ to lead and serve the world': it wants its students to leave with a biblical worldview but also prepared to beat the best and brightest from the secular world. It offers two majors, business and what Oxfordians call PPE (politics, philosophy and economics). It focuses on 'three freedoms', spiritual freedom, political freedom, and economic freedom. Indeed Oakes is almost as enthusiastic about Adam Smith as he is about the Almighty. (pp. 352-353)
King's College deliberately brings young Christians to the heart of the beast. 'Every sin in the world is within five blocks of The Empire State Building', [Oakes] says. Where better to strengthen your faith than a city that is rife with temptations? And where better to train people to exercise influence on the world than the capital of the media and financial world, not to mention the home to the United Nations? (p. 353)
Another subtheme of the book is the authors' view that global capitalism, which the authors appear to support in a vague way, inevitably causes problems—but religion can solve those problems, the authors say. One of the problems is "quest for community in an increasingly atomized world." Throughout the book the authors show that successful churches create an active social life for the religious. A second problem that the authors think arises from global capitalism is the religionists' "desire to counter-balance choice," which the global market brings in great abundance, "with a sense of moral certainty" (p. 139) which is missing from conventional, relativistic secular culture. The authors explain:
In a world of greater competition, displacement and opportunity, faith has become a useful (though obviously not necessary) attribute for prosperous people. But religion also fulfills a role lower down in society, providing support for those who have lost out in global capitalism or feel bewildered by it. Faith acts as a storm shelter. (p. 145)
The authors seem to be unaware of a third alternative: neither relying on mysticism (faith, revelation, holy scripture) for moral guidance, nor abandoning absolute morality through relativism, but an absolute morality drawn by reason from observation of man and the world.
FLAWS. God is Back contains other flaws. They range from the particular, such as misidentifying philosopher Immanuel Kant as a supporter of the Enlightenment instead of marking him as a destroyer of it (p. 33), to misunderstanding concepts crucial to a free society. For instance, the authors say: "Americans have surprisingly little difficulty in reconciling their [religious] faith with their country's secular creed of individualism. More than one in four American adults (28 percent) have swapped the religious tradition in which they were raised for another tradition (e.g., Catholicism to Protestantism or Judaism to 'no religion')" (p. 132). Having the freedom to change one's religion, a worldview that holds that God or some supernatural dimension is sovereign, is not the same as individualism, which is the ethical view that the human individual is sovereign in making decisions about his own life.
Some of the authors' proposed solutions to the foreign policy problems raised by revived religion are seriously flawed. For example, the authors suggest that Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (which is now bringing sharia to Egypt) should be part of the discussion of the future of the Middle East: "The cost of excluding Islamist groups from discussion is often higher than that of letting them in" (p. 364). The authors also recommend "interfaith dialogue" (pp. 364 and 365-366) as a way to reduce conflict between religious groups. The authors seem to downplay an Islamist threat when they object to calls for military action against Iran because, they say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, "has closer relationships with secular-minded populists in Latin America, particularly Hugo Chavez [dictator of Venezuela], than he does with coreligionists next door [to Iran]" (p. 363). Also, the authors see a "substantial difference" between "nihilist groups like Al Qaeda, with whom there is little room for compromise" and the "more territorially minded ones like Hamas" (361), which continues to attack Israel, an ally of the United States.
VALUE FOR PRO-REASON ACTIVISTS. What matters most about God is Back is not the authors' prescriptions for dealing with the renewal of religion but their descriptions of the modern religious mentality, in its various forms, the movements that are competing for followers, and the intellectual basis that the modern religionists have for their aspirations and their demands. All of that provides useful background to those who are consistently pro-reason and working for a completely secular political system.
In particular, God is Back aids secular activists who want to learn to be more effective in their activism by selectively adopting techniques that have worked for religionists and probably will work as well for their opponents. For example, the authors explain the quiet but long-term rise of "theocons" in the decades after World War II. An example of a theocon is Michael Novak, author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). Novak "argued that capitalism is based on theological underpinnings" (p. 201).
The theocons started from a tricky position. As Americans, they were treated with suspicion by the curia in Rome; as Roman Catholics, they were treated with suspicion in America by both the Evangelicals, who dominated the religious right, and the secular Jews, who wielded growing influence on the intellectual right. Yet again, like the neocons, they succeeded in making their influence felt both nationally and internationally by founding magazines and think tanks, by writing books, by forging working alliances with other conservatives and, above all, by producing new ideas. (pp. 200-201)
[O]ne of the theocons' achievements was to fashion a nondenominational language that allowed conservatives to talk about religion and morality in the public square. This was an area where Evangelicals had struggled. [Christian activist Jerry] Falwell found it hard to discuss a political issue like gay rights without bringing in scripture and indeed sin almost immediately. [Theocon] Richard John Neuhaus discussed it in terms of philosophy and social policy. This made it more difficult for secularists to hide behind [Harvard philosophy professor] John Rawl's idea that religion was too private and personal to influence public debate. And it made it easier for Jews and Christians, Catholics and Protestants, to make their way back into the public square together. (p. 203)
CONCLUSION. God is Back is worth reading for anyone who is a serious student of global and particularly U.S. culture today. Secular activists—in fields ranging from philosophy to "bioethics" to politics—will gain doubly, partly from knowing better the nature of today's general religious revival, and partly from analyzing the techniques that religious "renewalists" have used to push their way back into the "public square." They may talk about their religion in general or they may campaign for particular issues such as a ban on abortion, but the underlying principles of religious activism are always the same: supernaturalism and mysticism.