The Pope had barely stepped off the plane during his recent visit to Britain before he launched into the theme that was to define his trip. Britain, he warned, is like the rest of the Western world falling prey to an aggressive secularism that is driving faith to the margins of society. The marginalization of faith, he insisted, was creating a world dangerously shorn of proper values and moral norms.
The Pope’s assault on ‘aggressive secularism’ won considerable acclaim. Not just other faith leaders – such as the Archbishop of Canterbury – but many non-believers, too, have expressed concern at the growth of a belligerent anti-religious culture, embodied most notably in the work of the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.
Yet the Pope’s critique also expresses a conundrum. One of the abiding themes of the past decade has been that of the ‘return of religion’. Forty years ago Time Magazine ran one of its most famous covers – ‘Is God Dead?’ it asked in big bold red letters against an ominous black background. Today the idea of the death of God seems as believable as the story of Jesus’ resurrection. In America more than half the population apparently believe in the literal world of Genesis. Liberal academics such as the political theorist Eric Kaufmann warn that the higher birth rate of religious fundamentalists is leading to a ‘new era of religious politics’ and ‘an unprecedented European desecularization’. And, of course, the spectre that truly haunts our age is that of radical Islam. 9/11 and 7/7, Madrid and Bali – God’s calling cards seem all too easy to see and terrifying to witness.
How, then, do we square the fear of aggressive secularism on the one hand, with the fear of the rise of religion, on the one hand? To answer this we need to look more carefully both at the ideas both of ‘death of God’ and of the ‘return of religion’. In his book The Twilight of Atheism, the theologian Alister McGrath links the contemporary revival of religion to what he calls ‘The remarkable rise and subsequent fall of atheism’. Between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and that of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he suggests, lay a ‘Golden age of atheism’.
The trouble is, there was no such golden age. Atheism has never flourished as a significant social force, nor ever begun to displace faith in any real sense. Even scientists, until well into the twentieth century, were more likely to be believers than non-believers.
What developed between the Bastille and the Berlin Wall was not atheism but secularism - the uncoupling of faith and state, and of the public and private spheres, an uncoupling that came to define modernity. Political ideology rather than religious dogma became the source of social conflict. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity – these, rather than matters of faith, became the questions that divided Western societies. To understand why faith has once become the source of political and social conflict, and why this is experience both as the we need to go back in time and rethink the historical relationship between faith and secularism.
Three nineteenth century figures have come embody in their very different ways the changing attitudes to religion in the nineteenth century – Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche. Darwin provided for the first time a Godless account of Creation that made atheism not just conceivable but also plausible. Darwinism came also to represent a new relationship between science and religion in which faith and reason, traditionally seen as inextricably linked, came to be viewed as inevitably in conflict.
If Darwin embodied the scientific assault on faith, Marx embodied the political challenge. For Marx, religion was at one and the same time an expression of alienation and a comfort in the face of such alienation, a protest against oppression and the perpetuation of such oppression. The real battle, he suggested, was not against religion as such but against the social conditions that made religion both possible and necessary. ‘The struggle against religion’, Marx argued, ‘is a struggle against the world of which religion is the spiritual fragrance.’
Darwin and Marx both drew upon the spirit of the Enlightenment. Darwin represented one aspect of the Enlightenment challenge to faith – the importance of reason over revelation. Marx represented another – the celebration of human agency. But perhaps the biggest challenge to faith in the nineteenth century came from a philosopher who was as dismissive of the Enlightenment philosophes as he was of God - Nietzsche.
No philosopher is more associated with the ‘death of God’, having coined the very phrase. But if Nietzsche was the high priest at God’s funeral, he was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake. For the late nineteenth century experienced not simply a crisis of faith, but also what has been called ‘the crisis of reason’ - the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, disenchantment with ideas of progress and disbelief in concepts of truth. Nietzsche gave voice to the growing disaffection of the age with both faith and reason. His brilliance doing so would eventually turn him into a key figure of the postmodern assault on the so-called Enlightenment project.
The nineteenth century witnessed only the first glimmers of this estrangement from Enlightenment ideas. In the twentieth century that estrangement became a defining feature of social and political thought.
If the nineteenth century saw the death of God, the twentieth century witnessed the Fall of Man. The decoupling of politics and religion did not remove entirely the need for faith but rather called for a different kind of faith. Secular politics required faith that humans were capable of acting rationally and morally. That faith, too, began to be eaten away by the horrors of the twentieth century. Two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – it was a history that seemed to mock Enlightenment hopes and aspirations. ‘In a real sense’, the late ecologist Murray Bookchin observed, ‘we seem to be afraid of ourselves – of our uniquely human attributes. We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives that enrich humanity and the non-human world.’
This sentiment was underpinned by the transformation of politics itself. Over the past twenty years, the broad ideological divides that characterised politics in the previous two centuries have been all but erased. Politics has became less about competing visions of the kinds of society people than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system.
As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms - as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The politics of ideology, in other words, has given way to the politics of identity.
The rise of identity politics has helped transform religion itself. A religion comprises not just a set of beliefs but also a complex of social institutions, traditions and cultures that bind people in a special relationship to a particular conception of the sacred. What is striking about religion today is that religious belief has been wrenched apart from religious institutions, traditions and cultures.
Faith, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has observed, has become disembedded from its historical culture, and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’, forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy, not of historical tradition and collective worship, but of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the American writer Tom Wolfe called the ‘me generation’. In this sense contemporary forms of faith – whether radical Islam or the Pentecostal Church – signify not a return to traditional religion but a dramatic break with it.
In Spiritual Revolution, their empirical study of religious practices, the British sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead show that while traditional religious congregations are on the decline, ‘New Age’ forms of spirituality are beginning to fill the gap. But more than this, many once-traditional believers are beginning to adopt New Age attitudes and rituals, developing new forms of faith that often combine a literal reading of the Holy Book, and an insistence on the unchanging character of religious truths, with a God that celebrates the emotional aspects of spirituality and seems to speak to their individual, subjective needs. The new religions are crafted to help people feel good rather than do good. They are faiths fit for the age of Oprah.
A recent survey of religious knowledge by the Pew Research Centre produced some startling data. Half of US Christians cannot name the four New Testament Gospels, while almost 60 per cent did not know who Job was. A third could not name the first book of the Bible, only a quarter could name Jesus’ birthplace and fewer than half knew that Martin Luther had inspired the Reformation. Jews seemed equally ignorant of their faith. They were no more likely than Christians to know that the Bible opens with Genesis, and barely half recognised Maimonides as a Jewish philosopher. Atheists and agnostics had a far better knowledge of Christianity and Judaism – and of other faiths – than did believers.
These results should not surprise us. As faith has become disembedded, so traditional religious knowledge has eroded, particularly among believers. Religion has, ironically, become in a sense ‘secularised’, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. What contemporary believers yearn for is not knowledge of God, but a badge that says ‘I believe, therefore I am’.
As broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, and as traditional social networks, institutions of authority and moral codes have weakened, so the resultant atomisation of society has created both an intensely individual relationship to the world and a yearning for the restoration of strong identities and moral lines. The new forms of faith address both these needs. They are strongest in those communities that have most felt the dislocatory effects of the erosion of politics - migrants to Europe, African Americans and conservative white Americans who feel that the dominant liberal culture has left them voiceless. Faith has transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics.
All this explains why there is a perception both that religion is resurgent and that a new aggressive secularism is abroad – and why both perceptions are false. The reason that traditional forms of faith seem marginalized is not, as the Pope suggests, that it is being pushed aside by rampant secularism, but because people have become disenchanted with traditional religious institutions and mores. This is also why what we are witnessing is not the return of religion in any traditional sense but the rise of what the French sociologist Olivier Roy calls religiosity, a sensibility to be found not just in new forms of faith, but also in new forms of secular politics. The ‘new religions’ have more in common with each other than they do with more conventional forms of faith. They also have much in common with some contemporary secular movements such as anti-globalisation and environmentalism. And such secular movements, in turn, are often closer to the subjective, individualised outlooks of the new faiths than they are to traditional progressive ideologies.
It is not, however, simply religion that has become socially disembedded. The struggle against religion has too. Until recently, most atheists, liberal as well as Marxist, accepted the argument that the real struggle was not against religion as such but against the social conditions from which religion emerged. Their weapon of choice in promoting atheism was social transformation not theological critique. But as social transformation has more and more appeared implausible, so atheists have increasingly turned their ire on theology itself, leading to the perception on the one side of aggressive secularism, on the other of resurgent religion.
Another way of putting this is that the debate about religion has become depoliticised, wrenched away from the social conditions that originally gave meaning to the struggle between faith and reason. Both religion and anti-religion have, in their own ways, become defined by the politics of identity.