God is Back- John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Part I

Here is the first of several guest posts by diverse authors. This one is by Benzion N. Chinn, former student, who is an ABD in Jewish History at Ohio State. He generally blogs at his own blog Izgad. He reviews God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, which is one of the best introductory books on religion of the last few years. The book written by two journalists from the Economist who provide an easy to read overview of the current state of religion. They show how the secularization theory is dead, but without the technical details of Peter Berger, Jose Casanova, or Talal Asad. The book presents the role of religion everywhere in our lives. Unlike 25 years ago., religion now seems to be a factor in everything. Rather than the ritual, myth, symbol, and mysticism of older studies of religion, this book provides insight into topics of current interest such as religion and politics, religion and violence, religion and media. They view the current champion as the evangelical model that mixes free-enterprise, self-help, and family life. Benzion N. Chinn offers his review in two parts. The first part of Chinn’s review here is a general overview of the book and the second part is on its application for Modern Orthodoxy. So be patient for the second part.

In the course of studying the contemporary religious resurgence, we must step back and review the Enlightenment ideology its presumptive attractions and strengths as well as its defects and disadvantages. If Schleiermacher aimed to reconstruct theology in the wake of the Enlightenment, today we need to reconsider the Enlightenment in view of recent religious developments. They include liberal theology as well as a variety of neoorthodox and existential ideologies. The return to religion may to some extent be rooted in and related to the inadequacies or oversimplifications of earlier thought.
One corollary of this development would be that we should seek to engage not only people who are formally in the field of religious studies but religiously committed people who are reflective and articulate and who would be able to describe in general nonconfessional terms the nature of their commitment, the meaning and impact of their religious experience, the views they have of secularism or other antireligious ideologies. (Prof. Isadore Twersky, Random Thoughts)

The traditional narrative of the Enlightenment was that the Enlightenment came in and defeated the forces of “superstitious” religion. Such a narrative still retains a certain cultural currency (particularly in the hands of the like of Richard Dawkins), but fails to offer a convincing explanation as to the continued success of organized religion in the United States and, even more devastatingly, the role that religion is playing in the modernization of the developing world. I have no reason to assume that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge were familiar with the work of the late Prof. Twersky, but their book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, is certainly an admirable attempt to carry through precisely this charge. It offers a narrative that covers both the Enlightenment encounter with religion and how it continues to play itself out today. Furthermore, the book both challenges the traditional Enlightenment narrative of religion and seeks to understand religion by engaging in a dialogue with its modern practitioners.
The basic narrative of God is Back is one that should be familiar to students of American religious history. While in France (and eventually Western Europe as a whole) a radical version of the Enlightenment, which saw modernity as being in opposition to religion, triumphed, in the United States it was a moderate Enlightenment, which saw religion as the natural ally of progress, which proved dominant. Because of this, today Christianity remains an active force in American politics, while Western Europe has become a collection of post-Christian countries.
This does not mean that the United States was founded as a Christian country. The authors are careful to debunk that myth to show that, in the eighteenth century the young United State was not that different from Western Europe in terms of religiosity. It was plausible that the situations could have been reversed. As to why this did not happen, the authors argue that the lack of strong State supported churches created an opening for niche churches and the sort of religious innovation necessary to thrive in the open climate of modernity. A religious free market forced clergymen to actively seek congregants to fill their pews by catering to popular needs. As the authors openly admit, this thesis comes from Tocqueville; they are merely updating it for the twenty-first century.

While the authors spend the early part of the book giving an overview of the diverging histories of religion in the United States and Western Europe, the most worthwhile part of the book is when the authors move away from the United States to places like the Philippines, China, South Korea, and Nigeria as they struggle to embrace modernity. This path to modernity is increasingly not one of secularization, but on the contrary an embracement some pretty conservative brands of religion. I particularly recommend the anecdote in the introduction, describing a home bible study and worship session by a group of middle-class Christians in Shanghai.

If there is one central thesis at the heart of this wide ranging discussion of religion it is more than just that organized religion is here to stay as an essential part of the modern world, it is that there is a distinctively American brand of religion that is winning in the battle for the soul of modernity. This is no longer just in the United States; the American model is sweeping across the developing world and is even making inroads in the secular bastions of Western Europe. The basic features of this model are, despite a conservative exterior, a move away from top down hierarchal structures, emphasizing hard theology, toward social communities, with an emphasis on personal experience and growth. This is not just Christianity we are dealing with; the authors spend much of the later parts of the book charting how this model has moved into Hinduism and even Islam.  The authors, furthermore, consider the implications of this shift for the future of Islamic relations with the West. Could it be that American style religion, as opposed to American bombs and American style secularism, will be what brings down radical Islam?

The success of this American brand of religion, across confessional lines, is not contrary to the narrative of modernity or peripheral to it, but at the heart of modernity. Modernity has given us choice, but at the same time has disrupted traditional values and community. It should therefore be no surprise that there would be an attraction to a system that offers a surface reaffirmation of traditional values, the sort of community that modernity leaves wanting, all while allowing one to enjoy the freedom, independence and personal choice that are the fruits of modernity. In the struggle between religion and modernity, the American model allows one to eat one’s cake and have it to.
God is Back offers a general picture of the issue, which, while not particularly innovative, offers a readable and much needed statement as to where we are at today in terms of religion and modernity.

4 responses to “God is Back- John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Part I

  1. What’s your opinion of Karen Armstrong’s works? I find her scattered, too self-conscious perhaps but informative.

    • She is a former nun who rejected her past and currently thinks that all we need is ethics and liberal theism. She aims for a popular audience and writes a book a year. This book by Micklethwait and Wooldrid is borderline popular-high culture like the Economist and takes more seriously various Orthodoxies.

  2. Thank you Dr. Brill! The review works better with the introduction.

    As for Karen Armstrong, I have recommended her Battle for God in the past to students when talking about religious fundamentalism with the caveat that they should take her “the fundies are coming” hysterics with a grain of salt. At least she offers a more nuanced popular discussion of religion than the truly awful CNN miniseries God’s Warriors. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are much better than Armstrong so I’ll be sending students to them.

    What books on the present day status of religion would try to get into the hands of high school and freshmen college students?

  3. Abraham Silberstein

    I believe you are correct when you assert that the enlightenment did not, “defeat superstition”. I do however think, and I hope you can agree, that it transitioned us out of using religious reasoning for many matters. Especially ethics, from Spinoza to Kant’s deontological system of ethics. If you were to ask the average person on the street why he does not murder his neighbor, the answer will be more fulfilling than, “because the Bible tells me so”.

    Regarding the future of religion in the US and the world, I recommend (if you have not read them already) “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright and “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon” by Daniel Dennett.

    Abe

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