November 12, 2007
The Economist on Religion
— Martin E. Marty
The Economist, our favorite weekly (still-)news magazine, published
a keeper on November 3rd in the form of a sixteen-page "special report
on religion and public life." As many of you know, our Center's early
"public religion" efforts presumed that we would have to squint
when searching for tiny, fine-print media references to religion. This
week again, however, we are nearly blinded by the coverage. The editors
drew on substantial figures, from old-pro sociologist Peter Berger, who
provided the liveliest lines, to younger-pro Philip Jenkins, currently
the most notable interpreter of what global Christianity means for the
A key Berger line: "We made a category mistake. We thought that the relationship was between modernisation and secularisation. In fact it was between modernisation and pluralism." Because pluralism implies "choice," it becomes a major theme. The editors and the people they quote depict religious offerings almost on the model of a cafeteria line. It's a buyer's market, and both growth and vitality patterns pretty much follow the lines of those who package the most attractive offerings. Scriptures of the faiths discuss such approaches as threatening to spiritual integrity, but those who resist tend to be left behind.
A reader seeking balance might fault The Economist for featuring "religious wars" on the cover, when it set out to cover "religion." Inevitable distortion results when the accent is on "wars of religion," "religious politics at its worst," how "the world's most religious country is still battling with its demons," et cetera. One does not learn from topics like these why so many people remain religiously involved in a time when religious forces are so lethal. There's not much here on the spiritual side of raising children, or on what faith means when one is in doubt, on a deathbed, or seeking comfort. But, admit it: the religions that come out of hiding and present themselves in the public fray are often violent and unfair.
One can note that most coverage of religion occurs when "in God's name" people take advantage of religion for malign purposes. The editors here are engrossed in surveying the awesome varieties of religion that are in the public eye, and do some justice to them. Unsurprisingly, given the UK base of their magazine, the editors spend time on Europe and offer "a heretical thought about it," namely that there is a potential for recovery on a continent with largely empty churches.
An alert from the editors: "If you gather together a group of self-professed foreign-policy experts—whether they be neoconservatives, realpolitickers or urban European diplomats—you can count on a sneer if you mention 'inter-faith dialogue.' At best, they say, it is liberal waffle; at worst it is naive appeasement. But who is being naive?" And then The Economist comes out swinging against the sneerers, pointing to the fruits of tough inter-faith interactions around the world. The sneers will continue, and so will mis-portrayals of the enemy.
What this weekly magazine does is go against the grain of sophisticated opinion, as it discerns how much anti-waffle strength characterizes those who take the risk of not contributing to the climate in which religious groups have to be absolutist, sure of themselves, ready to shoot—and shooting.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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