My essay on ‘The Myths of Muslim Rage’ sparked a debate about the relationship between religion and politics. Many challenged the idea that the conflicts over The Satanic Verses two decades ago, and over the Innocence of Muslims now, find their roots as much in political conflict as in religious belief. ‘Regardless of who may have been “pulling the strings” and for what reasons’, as one critic put it in commenting on the essay, ‘the fact that those strings can even be pulled in the first place has become a tragically predictable aspect of modern Islam. I would contend that religious sensibilities are firmly at the center of this situation.’
There are, I think, two problems with the insistence that these are primarily religious confrontations. The first is what I see as a literal reading of the clashes: that because religion is the language in which a particular conflict takes place, so that conflict must necessarily be religious in content as well as in form. I have observed before how those who are most hostile to religion often ‘take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves’.
The second problem is the failure of many to recognise that the very character of religion has changed in recent decades. There is a tendency to view the contemporary resurgence of religion as a throwback to the past, as simply the return of old-fashioned faith. In fact contemporary forms of religion are often very different from, and hostile to, traditional varieties. What we are witnessing is not so much the return of religion as its remaking. This was the theme of a talk I gave three years ago at a conference provocatively titled ‘The Return of Religion and Other Myths’ organized in the Netherlands by the Utrecht art centre BAK , as a part of an ongoing project on ‘post-secularism’. So, I am publishing here an edited version of the first part of that talk.
Half a century 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, the idea of the death of God seems as believable as the story of Resurrection itself. 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 no more as it may seem than 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.
The argument for the return of religion is, ironically, tied 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’.
The existence of the Golden Age of Atheism demonstrates to McGrath how miraculous, and necessary, has been the return of religion. The trouble is, the Golden Age is a convenient fiction; it never existed. Atheism has never flourished as a significant social force, nor ever even begun to displace faith in any real sense. What developed between the Bastille and the Berlin Wall was not atheism but secularism. And to understand why the contemporary return of religion is not quite as it often seems, we have to understand the changing character of secularism.
The philosopher Charles Taylor observes in his book A Secular Age that one can understand the meaning of secularism in a number of different ways. One is in the separation of the public and private spheres, of politics and religion. A second consists of the decline of religious belief and practice. A third lies in the transformation of the conditions of belief: the shift 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. In each of these senses, Western societies became, post-Enlightenment, more secular. And in each of these senses, Western societies have become, over the past three decades, less secular. Looking more carefully at these two sets of changes suggests that what we are witnessing today is not just the return of religion but also its remaking.
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, not completely anyway, and not even in the West, but belief in a wider sense began to decay.
Consider the three nineteenth century figures who between them embodied the changing attitudes 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. Darwinism expressed, however, much more than this. It became symbolic of a new relationship between science and religion, a new relationship that had been slowly maturing through the nineteenth century but now became far more publicly evident. Traditionally, faith and reason had been seen not just as not incompatible but also as inextricable. The concept of God as having created 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 through the nineteenth century science began developing a new identity, one that made increasingly clear the distinction between a scientific and a religious account of the universe. Scientists became increasingly willing to tackle questions that traditionally had been 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 another – 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. The real battle for Marx was not against religion as such but against the social conditions that made religion both possible and necessary. ‘The struggle against religion’, he argued, ‘is a struggle against the world of which religion is the spiritual fragrance.’
Darwin embodied the scientific assault on faith, Marx the political challenge to it. Both drew upon the spirit of the Enlightenment and both became highly influential over the next century and a 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 the Enlightenment but from one who was as dismissive of Enlightenment philosophes as he was of God – Nietzsche.
No philosopher is more associated with the ‘death of God’, having coined the very phrase. (Actually he didn’t. The phrase comes from, Johann Caspar Schmidt, a Young Hegelian better known by his nom-de-plum Max Stirner, who first wrote of ‘the death of God’ in his 1844 work The Ego and His Own. But it is now so associated in Nietzsche that he might as well have coined it.) But if Nietzsche was the high priest at God’s funeral, he was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake. The late nineteenth century experienced not simply a crisis of faith, but also what has been called ‘the crisis of reason’ – the beginnings of a set of trends that were to become highly significant in the twentieth century: the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, a disenchantment with ideas of progress, a disbelief in concepts of truth.
Nietzsche gave voice to the growing disaffection of the age with both faith and reason. His brilliance at 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 certain strands of contemporary theology. The rise of postmodernity, 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 the Enlightenment critique of faith – but also, in a certain sense, in traditional monotheistic religion itself. This is why the Great Separation was both a lot more and a lot less than the death of God. God did not truly die, but something more than God began to wither.
If the nineteenth century saw the death of God, the twentieth witnessed what we might call ‘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 – of 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 in 1989 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 become 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 of ideology, in other words, gave way to the politics of identity. It is not faith, but identity, that initially created the faultlines of contemporary conflicts.
‘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 50 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 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 once 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. This stands in stark contrast to traditional views of religion. ‘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 Facebook. 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 in a certain sense ‘secularised’, driven as it is by a search less for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. Faith has transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Contemporary radical Islam, the Turkish-born sociologist and director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, 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, as the pre-eminent French sociologist of religion, Olivier Roy, has observed, 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 as 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 as much as religious needs. Islam ‘today is constructed, reinterpreted and carried into public life’, 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. 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.
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. Fundamentalists are hostile to liberal democratic values. But they are also antagonistic towards 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 their holy books 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.
What we are witnessing in all this 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 many new forms of secular politics, such as, for instance, parts of the Green movement, or among many of those who embrace the politics of identity. As Roy says of studying radical Islam, what we need is a transverse understanding, exploring it not just in terms of specific Islamic history but also in comparison to other forms of contemporary faith, of New Age philosophies, of other identity movements and of contemporary forms of political radicalisation. The question we should ask is not just: ‘What is it about religion that makes people believe or behave in certain ways?’ It is also: ‘What is it about contemporary societies that draws many people, both religious and non-religious, towards nihilistic, narcissistic, anti-modern forms of belief?’