April 6, 2009
God Is Back
— Martin E. Marty
God is Back is the title of a richly detailed new book by John Micklethwait, editor, and Adrian Wooldridge, Washington bureau chief, of The Economist, the news magazine so welcomed at our house. I profited from reading the book, but, in our self-imposed, self-enforced rules of the game, I don't regularly review books here; instead I review reviews or other print and electronic comments which become part of the "public religion" record. See, therefore, Michiko Kakutani's comment in the New York Times, on which I now comment.
First, some background: the title God is Back is misleading. This is not a book about God, who is hard to find here, but about religion; not about "spirituality" but about "religiosity." Title it "The Secularization Theory Was Wrong" or "'Choice' Has Won." Only in Western Europe, where the theory was born, has "secularization," for now, won out, though it may be winning in the Northeast and the Northwest of the United States, plus, say the co-authors, in American higher education. (The returns aren't all in). On all other continents, religion, if it ever went away, is back, and now booms, for better and for worse, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge readily point out. Globally, one would be ill-advised to invest in atheism, unbelief, or secularism, say the two, who specifically mention China, much of Asia, Africa, Arabia, and Latin America as religious boomers.
The book is really about "choice," which historians of American religion have long seen as the center of the plot in this pluralistic and religiously sectored society, where "Adam Smith's insight that in a free market vibrant religious 'firms' will grow and lethargic one's contract." Kakutani finds the authors finding a "Golgotha Fun Park (talk about oxymorons!) in Kentucky," along with endless examples of religious entrepreneurs ("pastorpreneurs," here) finding myriad market niches, and filling them in "Disneyfied" ways. They do find a megachurch which advertises that it believes "the entire Bible is inspired by God, without error." In general their anecdotes and documentation do not confirm the once-fashionable thesis of Dean Kelley in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, that to grow, a religious body has to be doctrinally strict and to make high demands. The instances here show that in a market scene, whoever offers most, wins.
The two show how appealing are all kinds of groups who offer religious healing, or wealth at the expense of " the competition." Kakutani calls the book "unpersuasive" because of the authors' highly selective use of evidence to illustrate the points about choice, entrepreneurship, and prosperity. The reviewer in a not-nice line reminds how the two authors in their previous book, The Right Nation, made "sweeping generalizations that were proven almost comically wrong" by elections in 2004 and 2008, times of the "last chance for Democrats."
In this book, says the reviewer, they downplay evidence of religious decline and the survival of secularity and secularism. And the last chapter title, "God is Back, for Better" irritates the reviewer, who looks out on a world in which religions also inspire terrorism, war, repression, conflict, and more. Those of us who consider ourselves friendly to religion may rejoice in some of the positive signs pointed to by the authors, and can find ammunition here to use against ideological secularists. But, in their terms, "religiosity" and "secularism" both prosper. So: much ideological secularism, they are right, looks like religion, and so much of the religion that they recognize looks like secularism. Wherever one looks, both offer blessings and banes. Your choice.
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World (The Penguin Press, 2009).
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.