The Economist on the resurgence of religion

religion in the economistIf there is one edition of The Economist you should pick up off the newsstand, it is this week's because of its special report on the state of religion in the world. Quite appropriately, The Economist notes that it was wrong when it wrote in December 1999 that God's career was over. If any other journalists felt the same way lately, they should have reconsidered that thought a long time ago.

There is so much that could be said about this report. Generally from what I have read they get it. The general message is that religion matters in the world. Moreover, you have to get it to function.

As you can see from the cover, the big issue of the day is why religion has inspired violence in the modern era. Much of the leading report discusses how the world should "deal with" religion as if all its readers are secular and are frustrated with religion's role in the world. To me that's a flawed approach, but not that surprising from The Economist:

Part of that secular fury, especially in Europe, comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity -- that heady combination of science, learning and democracy -- would kill religion. Plainly, this has not happened. Numbers about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, but most of them seem to indicate that any drift towards secularism has been halted, and some show religion to be on the increase. The proportion of people attached to the world's four biggest religions -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism -- rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and may reach 80% by 2050 (see chart 2).

Moreover, from a secularist point of view, the wrong sorts of religion are flourishing, and in the wrong places. In general, it is the tougher versions of religion that are doing best -- the sort that claim Adam and Eve met 6,003 years ago. Some of the new converts are from the ranks of the underprivileged (Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in the favelas of Brazil), but many are not. American evangelicals tend to be well-educated and well-off. In India and Turkey religious parties have been driven by the up-and-coming bourgeoisie.

With modernity now religion's friend, an eternal subject has become fashionable. Father Richard John Neuhaus points out that when he founded his Centre for Religion and Society in 1984, there were only four centres of religion and public life in America; now, he thinks, there are more than 200. Religious people are getting more vocal in all sorts of fields, including business. Religion is also cropping up in economics. Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian, re-examined Max Weber's theory of the Protestant work ethic to explain why Europeans work less than Americans.

One of the things I enjoy most about reading The Economist is its respect and understanding of the broad scope of history. If there is a news report from a far-off place, such as Pakistan, The Economist generally makes the background of the story, particularly if there is a long history behind it, fairly clear. You can debate the conclusions, but at least something is there and it's generally fairly sound.

In this instance, the report takes a step back and tries to pinpoint when religion in the world decided it was not going anywhere:

In retrospect, the turning point came long before Osama bin Laden declared his jihad on Jews and Crusaders. For Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who is writing a book on secularism, the symbolic turning point was the six-day war of 1967. It marked a crushing defeat for secular pan-Arabism; meanwhile Israel's "miraculous" triumph gave God a stronger voice in its politics, emboldening the settler movement. In the same year a Hindu nationalist party won 9.4% of the vote in India.

By the end of the 1970s this counter-revolution was in full swing. America had elected its first proudly born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter; Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority; Iran had replaced the worldly shah with Ayatollah Khomeini; Zia ul Haq was busy Islamising Pakistan; Buddhism had been formally granted the foremost place in Sri Lanka's constitution; and an anti-communist Pole had become head of the Catholic church.

Is it fair and accurate to lump those religious movements together like that? Are they responding in unity to the first revolution of the 1960s?

If you do not have time to read the entire special report or cannot find a place to buy it, check out this free audio interview with John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist and author of the special report. This is Micklethwait's first special report, and he says he chose religion because of the demand for religion news and commentary.

I hope other journalists are hearing that. If a leading numbers-crunching, libertarian-leaning publication finds religion news in demand and important in today's society, how can other newspapers serving a more general interest see otherwise?

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