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the return of religion - and other myths

conference on 'post-secularism', utrecht, netherlands, 11 january 2009

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.  It was a feature on the so-called ‘death of God’ theologians who, despairing of ever reviving God, were attempting to rework Scripture for a Godless world. 

Forty years on, of course, the idea of the death of God seems as believable as the story of resurrection itself.  In America more than 50 per cent of the population apparently believe in the literal world of Genesis, while the Lord guides Presidential policy on everything from stem cells to Iraq. In India the Hindu fundamentalist party, the BJP, has formed a government. In Iraq, a once secular nation is now torn apart by sectarian religious conflict. In China and the former Soviet Empire the Gods that failed have been replaced by more ancient deities. 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. In this age of the worldwide jihad and the march of the Creationists, only the blind or the mad would deny the return of religion.

I don’t think I’m blind, and I hope I am not mad, but I do want to suggest that the return of religion is as illusory as was the death of God in the first place. God is no more alive now than he was dead then. Rather the very meaning of religion has changed. For the embrace of contemporary religion has little to do with God, and still less with theology, but is bound up with very secular ideas of identity.

The argument for the return of religion is, ironically, tied very closely to the argument for the death of God.  In his book The Twilight of Atheism, the theologian Alister McGrath links the revival of religion to what he calls  ‘The remarkable rise and subsequent fall of atheism’.   The rise and fall of atheism is, he suggests, framed by two pivotal events: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and that of the Berlin wall in 1989. In between the Bastille and the Berlin Wall lay what McGrath calls the ‘Golden age of atheism’.

In fact the Golden age of atheism is a convenient fiction for both sides in the contemporary God Wars. For atheists it demonstrates the possibility of a Godless world and the backwardness of contemporary faith. For believers, it shows how miraculous, and necessary, has been the return of religion. The trouble is, atheism has never flourished as a significant social force, nor ever even 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. And to understand why the return of religion is not really the return of religion, we have to understand the changing character of secularism.

Charles Taylor in his new book A Secular Age, observes that there are three meanings of secularism. The first is the separation of the public and private spheres, of politics and religion. The second consists of the falling off of religious belief and practice. And the third is a transformation in the conditions of belief: The shift to secularity in this sense consists of a move from a society in which belief in God is unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which it is understood as one option among many, and not necessarily the most acceptable option.

What I want to show is that in each of these senses, Western societies have, over the past two decades, become less secular without becoming more religious.

It was in the nineteenth century that the so-called Great Separation took place – the uncoupling of politics and faith, and of the public and the private, 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, are the questions that divided Western societies over much of the past two centuries. 

The Great Separation is often seen as evidence of the death of God.  It is in fact both a lot more and a lot less than that. God did not die, but belief in a wider sense began to decay. 

Consider the three nineteenth century figures who between them embodied the changing attitude to religion – Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche. Darwin provided for the first time a Godless account of Creation that made atheism not just conceivable but also plausible. But Darwinism expressed much more than this. It also embodied a new relationship between science and religion. Traditionally faith and reason had been seen not just as not incompatible but as inextricable. The concept of God as creating a lawful universe had played an important role in the development of science, one of the reasons that many of the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution had been deeply devout men. But in the nineteenth century science developed a new identity. It became a professional discipline (even though Darwin himself was the last of the old-fashioned gentlemen natural philosophers). One that was hostile to religion rather than embracing it.  And it was willing to tackle questions that traditionally were in the domain of theologians and philosophers - questions such as ‘What it is to be human?’ and ‘How do we define good and evil?’. As Darwin wrote in his notebook in 1838, ‘He who understands baboon will do more for metaphysics than Locke.’ 

If Darwin represented one aspect of the Enlightenment challenge to faith – the importance of reason over revelation -  Marx represented the other – the celebration of human agency. ‘Religious distress’, Marx wrote,  ‘is both an expression of real distress and a protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heatless world, and the soul of a soulless situation. It is the opium of the people.’

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. For Marx, the real battle was not against religion 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.’

Until the late twentieth century, most atheists, liberal as well as Marxist, respected this argument and their weapon of choice in promoting atheism was social transformation not theological critique. It was only when social transformation appeared implausible that atheists turned their ire on theology itself – and helped launch the new God Wars.

Darwin embodied the scientific assault on faith, Marx the political challenge. Both drew on the spirit of the Enlightenment and both became highly influential over the next century and half in determining attitudes to faith. But perhaps the biggest challenge to faith in the nineteenth century came not from a philosopher who carried the banner of Enlightenment but from one 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. It would also, ironically, make him indispensable to contemporary theology. The rise of postmodernity, the theologian Alister McGrath observes with relish, has robbed atheism of its ‘self-evident plausibility and appeal’ and made more appealing religion’s ‘confession of modesty and despair’.

The death of God, then, did not happen in isolation, but was part of a growing broader estrangement from classical notions of truth, reason and universal human values, notions that were embodied in both traditional religion and the Enlightenment critique of faith. This is why the Great Separation was both a lot more and a lot less than the death of God. God did not really die, but something more than God began to wither.

If the 19th century saw the death of God, the 20th century the Fall of Man. As politics and religion were decoupled, and religious belief became a private matter, so political theology based on God became replaced by political philosophy centred on humanity. But secular political philosophy also required faith, though of a different kind - faith that humans were capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond. That faith, too, began to be eaten away by the wider disenchantment with Enlightenment hopes and aspirations. The history of the twentieth century – two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further gnaw away at Enlightenment hope.

The fall of the Berlin Wall came to symbolise not just rejection of the tyranny of the Soviet Union but also disenchantment with the very idea of human-directed transformation. Many had come to feel that every impression that humanity made upon the world was for the worse.  The attempt to master nature had led to global warming and species depletion.  The attempt to master society had led to Auschwitz and the gulags. ‘In a real sense’, the late ecologist Murray Bookchin noted, ‘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. The broad ideological divides that characterised politics in the previous two hundred years 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 become squeezed, 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 or ideology, in other words, gave way to the politics of identity. It’s not faith, but identity, that has created the faultlines of contemporary conflicts.

At the heart of the politics of identity is a belief that culture, rather than class, was the defining feature of groups and the means by which one group differentiated itself from another. Every group, whether Cuban peasants, black Americans or women, had a specific culture, rooted in its particular history and experiences. That culture gave shape to an individual’s identity.

‘There is a certain way of being human that is my way’, wrote Charles Taylor in his much discussed essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way… Being true to myself means being true to my own originality’.  This sense of being ‘true to myself’ Taylor calls ‘the ideal of “authenticity”’.

For an individual identity to be authentic, collective identity must be too. ‘Just like individuals’, Charles Taylor has written, ‘a Volk should be true to itself, that is, its own culture.’ That required the group to be true to its own culture, to pursue faithfully the traditions that mark out that culture as unique and to rebuff the inauthentic advances of modernity and of other cultures.

The politics of identity developed in the 1960s through the growth of the New Social Movements - third world liberation movements, civil rights organisations, feminist groups, campaigns for gay rights, and so on. But over the past 40 years, it has moved from a response of marginalised groups to inequality and injustice to being a key aspect of mainstream social policy. It now lies at the heart of much multicultural policy. Summing up the argument Bhikhu Parekh argues that since ‘The liberal is in theory committed to equal respect for persons’, and ‘Since human beings are culturally embedded’ so ‘respect for people entails respect for their cultures and ways of life.’

The demand that cultural differences be given public recognition and affirmation is in reality a demand for the re-attachment of the public and the private. And there is the irony: the undoing of the nineteenth century Great Separation has been propelled not by pressure from resurgent religion but through secular arguments about the nature of culture and the importance of cultural differences.

It is against this background that we now talk of the return of religion. But religion itself has been transformed by these changes. As Marx faded from the picture, so Darwin’s star and that of Nietzsche have shone ever brighter. Scientific, or rather scientistic, explanations of the human condition have gained credibility, on the one hand, while postmodern cynicism, on the other, has seeped into wider culture. Both sides in the contemporary God Wars have been shaped by this.

A religion comprises both a set of beliefs, and 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 Charles Taylor observes, 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 of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the ‘me generation’. 

In Spiritual Revolution, their study of religious practices in a small town in northern England, the 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 celebrate the emotional aspects of spirituality and seek to fulfil the believer’s inner needs.

Such congregations often combine a literal reading of the Holy Book, and an insistence on the unchanging character of religious truths, with a God that speaks to their individual, subjective needs. ‘We don’t go to mass because we feel like it, or not go because we don’t feel like it, we go because the church gave us an obligation to go to mass’, an elderly Roman Catholic lady explained to Heelas and Woodhead. For all the literalism of the new forms of faith, such obligation is alien to them. Instead, they provide ‘more space for each every individual participant to explore and express his emotions in his own way, and to let those emotions set the agenda of the religion rather than vice versa.’

‘A one hour service on a Sunday morning?’ one of Heelas’ and Woodhead’s New Age interviewees snorted, ‘It’s not enough to explore your self-esteem issues is it!’. The new religions are crafted to help people feel good rather than do good. They are faiths fit for the age of Oprah. Such ‘congregations of experiential difference’ are burgeoning, Heelas and Woodhead suggest, while what they call traditional ‘congregations of humanity’, which feel a religious duty to serve wider society, face a struggle for existence.

The growth of many contemporary forms of faith, then, whether radical Islam or the Pentecostal Church, marks not a return to traditional religion but a break with it. A traditional Muslim would be as appalled by the rituals of radical Islam as that Catholic worshiper was by the New Ageishness of charismatic Christianity.

Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. Faith has transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Contemporary radical Islam, Nilufer Gole observes, is a ‘religious experience of a new kind; it is not directly handed over by community, religious or state institutions.’ Rather, it presents ‘an affirmative reconstruction of identity.’

Consider, for instance, the changing face of Islamic religious texts. For centuries such works were written by religious scholars, and carried titles such as The explanations of secrets and The pearls of knowledge. Contemporary texts are without precedent in Islamic history, penned as they are by laypeople and addressing issues such What does it mean to be Muslim? and How to experience Islam – questions the answers to which would have seemed self-evident in the past.

Today, though, the answers are far from clear because Islam, like all religions, is being reinvented and redefined to meet secular, not religious, needs.  Islam ‘today is constructed, reinterpreted and carried into public life’, Nilufer Gole writes, ‘not through religious institutions, but through political agency and cultural movements’.

This is true not just of Islam, but of all contemporary faiths. The ‘new religions’ – whether radical Islam or Pentecostal Christianity – have more in common with each other than they do with more conventional forms of faith. They also have much in common with some cotemporary secular movements such as anti-globalisation and environmentalism. And such secular movements, in turn, are often closer in outlook to the new faiths than they to traditional progressive ideologies.

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 leaves them voiceless.

The religious form most often regarded as a throwback to traditional faith – fundamentalism – signals, in fact, a tearing up of the past.  It expresses a kind of anti-modern nihilism that is, paradoxically, a peculiarly modern sensibility and is often also expressed through contemporary secular ideologies, such as environmentalism or anti-globalisation.

Fundamentalists put up two fingers to liberal democratic values.  But they are also hostile to traditional religious cultures. It is precisely the detachment of fundamentalism from traditional religious institutions and cultures that forces its adherents into a literal reading of the Holy book and to a strict observance of supposedly authentic religious norms. Without cultural or institutional embeddedness, fundamentalists look to the very word of the revealed text for anchorage and to rigid social, cultural and moral forms – such as, for instance, the veil – to mark themselves out as distinct and provide a collective identity.

Contemporary fundamentalism is very much a child of modern plural societies and the celebration ‘difference’ and ‘authenticity’. ‘The illusion held by Islamic radicals’, Olivier Roy writes, ‘is that they represent tradition when in fact they express a negative form of westernisation’. Non-Islamic observers hold exactly the same illusion.

Not only is contemporary fundamentalism a child of modern pluralism, it is also a child of modern scientific culture. A literal reading of the text only becomes both possible and necessary in a culture that has accepted scientific notions of evidence. The Book must tell the truth in a scientific, not allegorical or literary, fashion. Intelligent Design is a means of describing the Bible as providing not just revealed but also empirical truth. The Indian writer Meera Nanda has shown how Hinduvta, the philosophy of the modern Hindu fundamentalism movement, marries a postmodern sensibility to a seeming acceptance of a scientific concept of empirical truth to show that traditional Hinduism already contains the seeds of ‘a humane, ecological and non-reductionist science’.  

What we are witnessing in all is not the return of religion in any traditional sense but the rise of what Olivier Roy calls religiosity. A sensibility to be found not just in new forms of faith, but also in new forms of secular politics. As Roy says of studying radical Islam, what we need is a transverse understanding, exploring it not in terms of specific Islamic history but in comparison to other forms of contemporary faith, of New Age philosophies, of other identity movements and of contemporary forms of political radicalisation. It means that we should stop asking what is it about religion that makes people believe or behave in certain ways. And start asking: what is it about contemporary society that  leads people, the faithful and the secular, to believe or behave in certain ways.

What of the other side of the God Wars? If contemporary faith is not a throwback to the past, but a new phenomenon, does the same apply to atheism today?

Contemporary atheists view themselves as forging a new Enlightenment. Certainly, in an age in which the so-called ‘Enlightenment project’ has fallen into disrepute and in which reason is more often seen as a sin than as a virtue, the defence of Enlightenment values has never been of greater importance.  But the Enlightenment needs defending, not against its old foes, but against the contemporary assault upon it. Unfortunately, though, new atheists often appear to be fighting the old battles over religion, not the new ones.

There is a historical and political naivety about the new atheism that leads it to ignore the complexities of religious faith. Atheists today appear to take as literal a view of faith as religious fundamentalists themselves. 

Rather than delve beneath the surface and ask why it is that people increasingly take on religious identities, they take both the revealed texts and the pronouncements of believers at face value. If the Bible is written by an omniscient being, philosopher and neurologist Sam Harris taunts in Letter to Christian Nation, why does it not ‘say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer?’. This is the stuff, not of a rational response to faith, but of the village atheist.

If new wave atheists fail to understand that religion is not just an unchanging age-old belief written into revealed texts, but also a response to the political complexities and social estrangement of the modern world, they equally fail to recognise that people today are as likely to turn to secularist as to religious belief to find consolation in the face of such estrangement, or that secularist belief can be as irrational and misanthropic as any religious faith.

Many themes traditionally associated with religion – a sense of fatalism and of powerlessness in the face of cosmic forces, an embrace of eschatology, a view of the world in terms of good and evil, a belief in sin and, in deed, in Original Sin, guilt as motivation for action, the expression of penitence, a fear of human hubris, a retreat from reason into the comforts of myth – have now become secularised, and provide the building blocks of non-religious, and indeed of anti-religious, ideologies. From environmentalism to cultural relativism, from scientific naturalism to radical critiques of science, many secular ideologies are far more influential than religion in spreading scepticism about reason and disenchantment about human activity. But so bedazzled have new wave atheists become by the threat of religion that they have blinded themselves to the foolishness, irrationalism, and, indeed, immorality of secular ideology, and all too often embrace such ideologies.

The new atheism is, like the new forms of faith, also a response to the peculiarities of the 21st century. At the end of the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold spoke in his Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse, of being caught

…between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born
With nowhere yet to rest my head

A century later, this sense of dislocation has become even stronger, the product of disaffection not just with faith but also with politics, and of scepticism about the possibilities of social transformation.  Such scepticism has in turn changed perceptions not only of politics but of science and faith too. As faith in politics has drained away, so too has the political critique of faith, leaving simply a one-sided, politically-naïve scientific assault. Like faith, disbelief too has become disconnected from its social and political roots.

At the same time, science today is expected to provide not just a factual description of the world, but also a moral account of human existence. ‘People need a sacred narrative’, the sociobiologist EO Wilson  argues.  ‘They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or other, however intellectualised.’  Such a sacred narrative, he believes, can be either a religion or a science.  ‘The true evolutionary epic’, he writes, ‘retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic’. Evolutionary science ‘has brought new revelations of great moral importance… from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.’

As politics has withered, so science has stepped in to answer questions that previously were seen as purely political. ‘Can a Darwinian understanding of human nature help people reach their goals in life?’, the writer and populariser of evolutionary psychology Robert Wright asked in his book The Moral Animal.  ‘Indeed can it help them choose their goals?  Can it help distinguish between practical and impractical goals?  More profoundly, can it help in deciding which goals are worthy?  That is, does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic moral impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate?’  The answers, he believes ‘are yes, yes, yes, yes, and finally, yes.’

In an age of uncertainty, when many people feel a sense of alienation from social institutions and from each other, both faith and science appear to provide people with a form of anchorage, giving them a sense of who they are, where they have come from and where they are going.

The contemporary God Wars, then, are not simply about whether or not God exists. They are also about how best to respond to the political, social and moral dislocation of the post-Cold War world. In fact God Wars have never been a debate simply about the existence of God, but have always also been about the nature of Man.

Religion attempts to give meaning and a dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred. But in doing so, the sacred becomes a means of diminishing the sense of what it is to be human. Religion played a vital part in the development of civilised life because it made possible the belief that there was more to life than mere animal existence.  But the price of transcendence has been enslavement to the scared.  Religion, Leszek Kolokowski, the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, acknowledges, ‘is man’s way of accepting life as inevitable defeat’. ‘To reject the sacred’, he adds, ‘is to reject our own limits.’ 

This is the Tragic view that regards humans as inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue and demands that moral authority be alienated beyond the human sphere to God. The sacred protects Man from the flaws of his own nature. ‘The sacred order’, as Leszek Kolokowski observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

Radical Enlightenment philosophes rejected both the idea of human limits and the need for the sacred. They recognised that social transformation was impossible so long as belief in the sacred placed certain institutions, practices and beliefs beyond reason’s gaze. They argued, too, that religious traditions were the cause, not the consequence, of human limitations. Only by breaking the constraints of the sacred could society, and human beings themselves, develop along rational lines. This was the Utopian view of human nature and social progress.

If the opening exchanges of the God Wars in the eighteenth century were driven by the assault on the Tragic vision, the contemporary battlefield has been shaped largely by the failure of the Utopian spirit. Two centuries on, it is not just believers who view humans as fallen creatures and cleave to the Tragic view. ‘The new sciences of human nature’, evolutionary psychologist and atheist Steven Pinker suggests, ‘vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook.’

What divides the two sides in today’s God Wars is not, as in the Enlightenment, the question of human limits, or whether moral authority should be alienated to beyond the human sphere, but how to characterise those limits and in whom or what moral authority resides. Where believers look to God, atheists turn to Nature. ‘We are not free to choose what right and wrong are to be’, the philosopher Michael Ruse suggests, because ‘our moral ideas are thrust upon us as a function of our biology’. Or as James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA has put it, ‘We used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know, in large part, that our fate is in our genes’.

And here we have the other F word at the heart of the God Wars: not faith, but fate. Enlightenment philosophes rejected faith because they wanted to seize responsibility for human fate away from God’s hands so they could help shape their own future. Meaning and dignity derived not from the acceptance of fate, but from our capacity to defy it. Today, scepticism about our ability to shape the future for the better leads many atheists to reject faith and yet accept the idea of human fate, with Nature rather than God pulling the strings.

I want to finish this talk with Albert Camus’ meditation on faith and fate in The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in the embers of the Second World War, Camus confronts both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. So is the positivistic insistence that science can replace faith. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’

Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. Humans have to make their own meaning.  And that meaning can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus, who, having scorned the gods, was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain. 

The certainties of both God and scientific positivism provide false hope and in so doing undermine our humanity by denying human choice. For Camus, religious faith must be replaced not with faithlessness but with a different kind of faith: faith in our ability to live with the predicament of being human. And in so doing, Camus made fate a matter of human action, not of divine intervention or of natural cause. It was a courageous argument, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was also a challenge to both sides of the God Wars, a challenge that remains as important today as it was then.