When the Entire World Got Religion

Book Argues We Should Take Faith Seriously

Posted May 4, 2009 at 4:18pm

It’s a good thing John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge weren’t setting out to make friends when they wrote their new book, “God Is Back.—

In fact, as Wooldridge told an audience recently, claiming that there is a resurgence in worldwide religious fervor is the fastest way to gain the ire of people on both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, he said, you have people who vehemently reject such an idea. On the other, there are those who take great offense at such a statement and demand to know when God ever left.

But “God Is Back— is not an argument for the existence of a divine being and does not take a stand for or against organized religion, a point about which Wooldridge is adamant. Nonetheless, writing a book that examines the question of religious influence is inflammatory.

“One really does step into one of the most violent culture wars in the United States and around the world,— he said.

The Economist editors tackle the question of religious revival from historical, cultural and even economic perspectives. (Roll Call is owned by the Economist Group.) What began as a book about spirituality in America quickly turned into an examination of what they see as a worldwide phenomenon that is unlikely to slow down anytime soon, according to Wooldridge.

“The book is not an attempt to say God is true, God is false,— he said in an interview. “It is an attempt to explain religion as a social phenomenon, which it is, among other things.—

That explanation is a dense and engaging look at the question of religious influence that touches on culture wars, the explosion of mega-churches in the United States and around the world, and the violent conflicts that are often caused by clashes of faith.

The book is methodical in its examination of these issues, beginning with the history of religious fanaticism, intolerance, manipulation and rejection in Europe and the United States. Wooldridge said he and Micklethwait originally set out to write about Christian culture in America, an idea that stemmed from their previous book, “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America.—

Initially convinced that the enthusiasm in the United States was an exception to the idea that religion was fading, the two soon found that the opposite was true. In fact, after talking with a variety of religious communities, they concluded that it was Europe that was the oddity. The rest of the world, they write, is moving toward an American model of freedom and tolerance.

“The more you examine American exceptionalism, it turns out that religion is central to the answer,— Wooldridge said. “Religion is something that could flourish along with modernity.—

These two entities have been able to flourish in the United States because of the country’s structure, the authors write. The separation of church and state means that people of all faiths can practice freely, without interference from the government.

“In this free market, religion flourished,— Wooldridge said.

Indeed, in their descriptions, certain religious establishments sound more like business enterprises than faith-based institutions. Some churches are set up like strip malls or recreation centers, complete with restaurants, shops and basketball courts, becoming one-stop shops for members of their congregations.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge devote some time in the book to the phenomenon of mega-churches in the United States and the flourishing of “hotter— religions, such as Pentecostalism. America may have pioneered this model, but it is being replicated around the world.

Wooldridge visited a temple in Bangalore, India, and was surprised to find that the chief monk also acted as CEO. The congregation there employed a business model to fulfill their mission of feeding the hungry, creating a structure that allowed them to reach out into communities, rather than having the poor come to them.

Further proof that religion and modernity are not in opposition is that many religious organizations are using technology to spread their message and engage their members.

The authors give several possibilities for why people are turning to religion in uncertain and fast-changing times.

“Religion may be a revelation of the church, but it is also a social phenomenon,— Wooldridge said. In places like China, which is rapidly modernizing, or Africa, where conflict tears apart many countries, people seek a sense of community and sources of aid and comfort. Churches and other religious organizations provide those things.

And belief is something that is central to many people’s interests and lives, according to Wooldridge. “When people are given the freedom to talk, they often want to talk about God,— he said.

Of course, with a revival in religion comes an increase in conflicts. The authors acknowledge that more attention must be paid to regions where faith fuels violence and unrest.

Wooldridge was critical of the foreign policy establishment for not taking the religious question more seriously in some of the hottest conflicts in the world. He said that even after 9/11, the U.S. government still isn’t looking at the war on terror in an effective way. And that is only one example, as many governments do not know how to deal with religious wars and grievances.

The blame doesn’t lie only with Americans, however. Even his country, the United Kingdom, has been slow to recognize the significance in its own problems.

“It took the British a long time to recognize that they needed to reach out to Protestant and Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland,— he said.

The depth of these issues is evident throughout the book. Even in the dense final chapter, Micklethwait and Wooldridge attempt to address how to deal with religion in the modern world, with results both productive and troubling. But with a seemingly never-ending list of examples of tensions and successes, it is a complex topic with no easy solutions.

“God Is Back— is an informative read, written in a straightforward journalistic style with the occasional side comment injected for commentary or humor. It is a thoughtful overview of a topic that will be at the forefront of world events for a long time to come, offering a look at how we got to this point and why we can’t afford to avoid the conversation any longer.