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01/15/2007 02:19 PM

The Spread of Faith

Religion, Born Again

By Rainer Traub

Amid wrenching change worldwide, people are returning to old-time religion. In the name of God, terrorists are happily maiming and killing; in the United States, the Christian Right has a stranglehold on government. On this increasingly God-fearing globe, only Western Europe looks like the last bastion of secularism - or are the faithful here too returning to the fold?

Rome, April 2005. People stand shoulder to shoulder on St. Peter's Square. Pope John Paul II has passed away and the colorful crowds, including truant schoolgirls and dudes with dreadlocks - more like fans at a rock concert than churchgoers - have converged on the Vatican to pay their last respects.

Cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica.
DPA

Cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica.

The flood of visitors has hardly slowed in the year since, but the attraction now is the new Holy Father. Germans in particular are flocking to see "their" Pope, Benedict XVI, with some 50,000 seeking an audience during his first six months as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Are these signs of a religious renaissance in notoriously secular Europe - especially among the young? Or are the multitudes at the Holy See more groupies than true believers - a product of the same media hype that feeds our fixation with soccer icons, pop divas and Hollywood stars?

Nobody knows for sure, but one thing is clear. Churches might be emptier than ever, but on a planet that seems to be spinning madly out of control, more and more people are reflecting on the meaning of life - even in the Old World. In the wake of this reawakening, crude Danish caricatures of Mohammed, comments by the Pope in Germany, and an equally controversial production of Mozart's Idomeneo in Berlin in recent months have raised questions about how much religion we need and the values it reflects.

The triumph of modernity?

The resurgence of religion has been one of the most striking and dramatic phenomena of our time, and has taken some disturbing turns. Terrorists ignite bombs in the name of Allah. The White House is occupied by a U.S. president who calls himself a born-again Christian, prays in public, seeks divine guidance on policy matters, and wraps his policies up in religious garb.

At the dawn of the 21st century, religion is strutting onto the world stage as a powerful though volatile actor, playing in an ever-changing range of roles - a development that was inconceivable to most Westerners a generation ago. Then, the triumph of modernity was supposed to be accompanied by the inexorable demise of religion around the world.

That was flat wrong. Indeed, on the continents of Africa and Asia, where religion is gaining in influence, it was never the case.

An atlas of world faiths.
DER SPIEGEL

An atlas of world faiths.

Yet beyond a few big media events, the balance in Germany has tilted so far toward modernity that religion seems to have lost its moorings. "The day is no longer far off," prophesied Klaus Harpprecht in Germany's Die Zeit newspaper, "when the religious foundations of our civilizations will be as alien to most Germans as those of ancient Egypt and the Aztecs."

And there's no disputing it: Barring in Catholic Poland, membership in traditional Christian churches has declined dramatically in Europe, along with the awareness of the Continent's Christian heritage. Claims that religion is eroding are only partly true. The argument doesn't hold for most of the 15 million Muslims in Europe. If anything, Islam has surged in recent years. "Religious observance has increased among Muslims since September 11," says Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the German Islamic Council. Attendance at Friday prayers in the country was up by almost 50 percent in the millennium's first five years, according to the Islamic Archives in Germany.

Stoking the conflict

But the rebirth of religion in Europe has also ignited hostilities between faiths. For many secular Westerners, the headscarves of devout Muslim women have come to symbolize the spread of religious fundamentalism. Muslim organizations complain about constant insinuations that they have links with terrorism. Meanwhile, fundamentalist ideologues and Islamic preachers here and abroad are stoking the conflict between Western Europe's non-Muslim majorities and its Islamic communities.

Caricatures of the prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper sparked violent protests worldwide at the start of the year. The Danish consulates in Beirut and Damascus went up in flames, and several people died in riots in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Yet what may have looked like spontaneous outbursts of fury were in fact carefully orchestrated attacks.

After Pope Benedict XVI made reference to a centuries-old quotation critical of the teachings of Mohammed in a speech in September, further storms of protest erupted in many Muslim countries. The Pope swiftly expressed his respect for Islam, arguing that his words had been misunderstood. In Somalia, Islamic radicals responded to his speech by murdering a Catholic nun.

That same month, the unease unleashed by these developments in Germany resounded at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, one of the country's leading opera houses. City officials warned that its production of Idomeneo - which included beheadings of Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha - might incense Muslims. The opera was canceled at first, and only rescheduled for the end of 2006 after a heated public debate.

The consequences of the mounting mutual mistrust are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. A vicar in the eastern German city of Erfurt became so worried about the Islamization of Europe that he set himself ablaze, hoping that his death would alert Christians to the perceived threat. Meanwhile, people's ability to distinguish between the vast majority of Muslims, who aspire to peaceful lives within European societies, and a violent, fanatical fringe is fading fast. According to a report in the International Herald Tribune on the mood in six major European cities, a general wariness toward Islam, only found in extreme right-wing circles a few years back, is now gaining ground in the political center and even on the liberal left. "It has become politically correct," the paper quoted the Danish Muslim Wahid Pedersen, "to attack Islam, ... making it hard for moderates on both sides to remain reasonable."

Around the world, Islam is attracting more converts than any other religion, despite its own internal divisions. The majority of Muslim societies are located in less developed regions, where large families remain the rule. Islam is nevertheless unlikely to become the globe's biggest religion in the foreseeable future. In 1970, a seventh of the Earth's population was Muslim; today Muslims make up one-fifth.

Influx of new adherents

For similar demographic and cultural reasons, the global proportion of Hindus has also grown, but more slowly - from 12.5 percent in 1970 to 13.3 percent in 2002. Since the 1960s, increasingly aggressive fundamentalist currents have emerged in Hinduism, directing their venom above all against the Muslim minority in India.

Despite the expansion of these other world religions, Christianity still counts the largest number of followers worldwide. Just under one-third of the world's population belongs to the Catholic Church or another Christian denomination. But Christianity's people power varies from continent to continent. While the number of self-declared Christians in Europe is steadily shrinking, the ranks of new converts in Africa are all but exploding. In 1900, there were some 10 million Christians in Africa; today the figure is estimated at 390 million, almost half of the continent's entire population.

This ascent of Africa is due primarily to Christian missionaries. Pentecostal Protestants, who place greater emphasis on revivalism and ecstatic religious experience - like speaking in tongues - than on theology, have proved particularly successful. In South Korea and Latin America, Pentecostal Protestants have lured many millions of worshippers away from the Catholic Church, especially in Brazil.

In Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, the religious revival has spawned an enormous influx of new adherents to the Orthodox faith. After the collapse of communism - which had promised a "paradise on earth" - more traditional religions regained their appeal, in line with the global trend. "Experts agree that the huge rise in Islamic fundamentalist movements in recent decades is largely fueled by people who had expected communism to bring about justice and equality," according to German religious scholar Peter Antes (64).

But some other scholars would in fact disagree. Faith's comeback has less to do with disappointed hopes for a better society than with unanswered questions about the meaning of human existence: "The notion that religion would die out has proved an illusion. Religion, as a response to the transcendental origins of human existence, is a core feature of every culture," wrote academics in the German Lutheran Church in a recent white paper.

Even in Western civilization with its focus on reason and enlightenment, there are signs that faith in God and earthly knowledge are eminently compatible:

The term "fundamentalism" was coined some 100 years ago to describe an offshoot of American Protestantism - long before it was applied to other religions. During the last 30 years, the fundamentalism of the Christian Right has attracted sizable segments of the U.S. population.

Part II: Choose Your Own Religion

So, the question remains: Why is religion declining in much of Western Europe - seemingly confirming the thesis that religion is on its last legs - while it is taking off in the West's leading nation, the United States?

Religion has suffered a serious setback in Germany and France, the largest countries in Western Europe. In Germany, the two major churches - which receive state monies from taxes on members - had more than 5.5 million drop from the rolls since 1990 alone; the numbers of new adherents are far lower.

Muslim faithful converge each year in Mecca.
AFP

Muslim faithful converge each year in Mecca.

The resulting falloff in church income has led to cuts in the number of clerics, and reductions in the churches' charitable activities. Some churches are being closed outright; others can only fund urgent restoration work by posting commercial advertising on their façades. Arguably the most poignant symbol of the erosion of faith, this spectacle is even distasteful to people who have little interest in religion.

Some observers believe religion is not in decline at all; it is metamorphosing, becoming more individualistic and less ecclesiastical. The French historian Paul Veyne, for example, speaks of a transition "from religion as a set menu to religion à la carte, where everyone gets to choose the god or sect they like most."

Roland Biewald, professor of theology at Dresden Technical University, contends that secularization indeed explains the empty churches in Germany, but notes that "extra-ecclesiastical religiosity" is increasing at the same time. He adds that, by their own admission, almost threequarters of people leaving the church do so to avoid paying church tax, with fewer than one in five citing religious reasons. Simultaneously, Biewald argues, increasing anxieties about the future are leading to a renewed yearning for salvation: "This perceived faith is independent of conventional religions."

But what is "perceived faith"? The concept sounds unusually vague - and a bit like whistling in the dark. The results of a recent TNS-Infratest survey for DER SPIEGEL were also inconclusive. While 64 percent of respondents answered the question "Do you believe in a god?" in the affirmative (compared with 50 percent in 1992), only 42 percent said they believed in life after death, with 50 percent saying they did not.

Religious resurgence as a response to today’s world

Of the two-thirds of Germans who have not formally turned their backs on the Protestant and Catholic churches, the majority is indifferent to religious life and only attends church services at Christmas, if at all. British religion expert Grace Davie has argued that such indifference is typical of Western Europe.

A religion that is running out of steam can no longer be considered a viable social paradigm. Europe, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, has long grown accustomed to viewing its own development as the model for the rest of the world.

As early as the 19th century, socialist revolutionaries and bourgeois liberals were united in their conviction that a civil society would automatically lead to secularization. By secularization they meant not only the constitutional separation of church and state, but the extinction of religion over the long term.

Among leading sociologists, this expectation was based on the premise that faith was no more than a primitive form of knowledge. The nineteenth-century German economist Max Weber, summing this up succinctly, said the world had become "disenchanted" by science and technology. To him, anything that defied reason in the pre-modern era, and therefore fostered mystical and religious ideas, would automatically become explicable over time with advances in science and the application of natural laws. The power of gods and priests would gradually be taken over by secular institutions. According to this theory, this process of global transformation would inevitably culminate in the disappearance of all religion on Earth.

After all, the French Revolution - which had prompted the rise of the middle classes in Europe - had been directed against the antidemocratic alliance between the church and the state. Additionally, the Christian churches' initial rejection of Darwinian evolution, plus its distrust of the modern, secular state, added fuel to the ire of rationalists. While German Protestantism embraced the enlightenment and modernism in the 19th century, the Catholic Church stood firm well into the following century, until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Today, the marriage of reason and faith is central to the thinking of the German theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI.

Europe as the exception

But it was less than 40 years ago that the Holy See finally abolished the "Oath Against Modernism" of 1910, which all Catholic priests and theology professors were obliged to take. The separation of church and state only became the norm in European countries during the 20th century.

In 1968, internationally renowned religion expert Peter Berger dared to make this prediction in the New York Times: "By the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture."

Today, the prophesies of doom have lost their appeal, as has the old theory of secularization, to be replaced with a new slogan: "the re-enchantment of the world." Berger sees his former view in hindsight as a major error - and now speaks with no less conviction about the "de-secularization of the world." The special form of secularization that appeared in Europe, he now argues, is in no sense a model for the rest of the world. Rather, it is an exception. The rest of the world is as religious as ever - in some places more than ever. According to Berger, this is not only true of the three monotheistic religions, but also of Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto as well.

The Islamic movements around the world and the "new Christian Right" in the United States are the most striking examples of the religion revival. And it is no coincidence that both have emerged and spread simultaneously during the last 30 years.

Religious fundamentalism may appear sinister and disconcerting to many modern observers, but it is anything but a throwback to pre-modern times. Globalization is shattering and undermining the world as we know it, leaving people in a permanent state of anxiety. This feeling has served to energize movements that promise to restore trusted and dependable values. In this way, globalization and fundamentalism go together hand in glove. In his remarkable book The Return of Religion, sociologist Martin Riesebrodt of the University of Chicago defines fundamentalism as the contemporary form of resistance to aspects of modernity. Romanticism, as the counter-reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, had a similar influence on the way our world has developed.

Profound social crisis

According to Riesebrodt, fundamentalist trends are religious revival movements that take umbrage with today's society. They claim that the profound social crisis they diagnose can only be overcome by a return to the foundations of the respective religious tradition.

For example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 only succeeded because the country's dictator, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, plunged Iran into a deep social crisis. The autocrat - a member of the international jet set - had crafted policy along strictly secular lines, citing the West as his model. In foreign affairs, he was a staunch ally of the United States.

The regime collapsed because the middle and working classes blamed his policy for their social and economic woes. And by opposing modern Western values and society - particularly those espoused in the United States - the Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini garnered mass support for his fundamentalist causes. For years now, a new breed of fundamentalism - the global terrorism of al Qaeda and like-minded groups - has been keeping the world on tenterhooks. Osama bin Laden and his cohorts became what they are today after being armed by the CIA. As fanatical freedom fighters they earned a reputation as fearless defenders of the faith among many Muslims - by driving the atheist Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan. Since then, the former CIA protégés have refocused their fury and waged total war against the United States and its allies.

According to an article by the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington, the world is witnessing a Clash of Civilizations between Islamic and Western-oriented societies. The question mark that adorned this gripping title - when it was first published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993 - had disappeared in the subsequent book version. Although at that time Huntington talked about a cultural clash filling the power vacuum left with the end to the Cold War, his concept was hijacked to explain the terror attacks in 2001 - to become one of the most influential ideas of our time. Huntington, though, the creator of the "them versus us" hypothesis, refuses to view 9/11 in terms of his clash of civilizations.

Critics have accused Huntington of numerous errors. He made no distinction between mainstream Muslims and the jihadist fringe. He flatly ignored the enormous differences between such diverse Muslim countries as Indonesia and Bosnia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. For Huntington, "Islam" is a united global front, marching in closed ranks through the past, present and future: "So long as Islam remains Islam (which it will) and the West remains the West (which is more dubious), this fundamental conflict between two great civilizations and ways of life will continue to define their relations in the future, even as it has defined them for the past fourteen centuries."

Yet clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims erupt frequently (the two branches of Islam are currently embroiled in a bloody civil war in Iraq). And in the Iran-Iraq war, two states with Shiite majorities sent hundreds of thousands of their fellow Muslims to their death. Today, most victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslim too.

There may be some truth, however, to the "them versus us" scenario, in the headline-making tensions between the Islamic world and Western secularism. Politicians and religious leaders around the world are warning against presenting the world's second-largest religion as the antithesis to, and enemy of, the West. A recent open letter in which leading Islamic figures worldwide accepted Pope Benedict XVI's invitation to a dialog could signal the start of a much needed high-level exchange between the two global faiths.

Part III: Christian Fundamentalism in America

For many Europeans, Christian fundamentalism in the United States is almost as disturbing and alien as Islamic fanaticism.

According to American fundamentalists, people do not become born-again Christians through baptism or education, but through an intense conversion experience or a so-called personal encounter with God that obliges them to lead their lives according to more or less strict interpretations of the Bible. President George W. Bush and other members of his administration regard themselves as born-again in this sense, and take advice from evangelical ministers. This brand of Christianity, with its strict division of the world into good and evil, has influenced the policies of the global superpower for years.

Dormitories for Buddhist monks and nuns dot a hillside in China's Sichuan Province. It is the largest such conglomeration in Tibetan Buddhism.
Getty Images

Dormitories for Buddhist monks and nuns dot a hillside in China's Sichuan Province. It is the largest such conglomeration in Tibetan Buddhism.

The histories of religion in America and Europe could scarcely differ more. The nation of immigrants in which the pilgrims played such a defining role promised freedom from state interference to religious refugees and sects from every corner of the globe. The United States was secular from day one when it came to the strict separation of church and state - but not at all in the sense of relaxing religious ties. Unlike in post-Reformation Europe, Prot- estant and Catholic churches never secured territorial monopolies in the United States. This allowed a spectrum of denominations and their splinter groups to develop side by side within society.

The battle of Armageddon

While a minority of literalist Christians mobilized against Darwin's theory of evolution in the early 20th century, the majority of Americans never questioned the compatibility of science and religion. As a result, state secularism and religious pluralism were able to flourish unchallenged.

TV audiences around the world saw the two demonstrating compatibility on a global scale following the attacks of 9/11: Representatives of all the world's religions united as equals at the memorial service in New York. But the peaceful coexistence of secularism and pluralism is now threatened by the dramatic rise of Christian fundamentalism. In her book The Last Crusade, U.S. journalist and author Barbara Victor presents compelling demographic findings: Some 60 percent of U.S. residents say that religion plays "a very important role" in their lives - far more than in any other industrialized country; 86 percent profess allegiance to the Christian faith. Born-again Christians form the largest grouping among the country's predominantly Protestant Christians, and made up one in five of the more than 120 million voters in the 2004 presidential elections. According to the survey quoted by Victor, 58.7 percent of born-again Christians are convinced that the world will end with the battle of Armageddon between Jesus and Satan, while 40.9 percent want a constitutional amendment declaring the United States a "Christian nation."

The author points to the mutual stimulation of competing fundamentalisms. Above all, the profound sense of insecurity triggered by two events has contributed to a change in the inner structure of the United States and a religious renaissance during the past 30 years: the U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Strictly speaking, "evangelicals" and Christian "fundamentalists" are not identical, because personal conversion experiences are central to the first group, and the second is a subgroup that emphasizes fundamental dogmas. But on political and social issues, both usually voice similar fundamentalist views.

This can even bring them into conflict with conservative government policy, as shown earlier this year in a campaign by the many leading evangelicals who opposed the Bush administration's environmental policies. The positions taken by religious fundamentalists do not automatically defy secular reason - and can serve a purpose. The social role of religion in the United States extends far beyond its current political manifestations.

“The lost hope of resurrection has left behind a palpable void”

Alongside the conservative-cum-nationalist universe of the fundamentalists, there is a liberal-cum-universalist Christian movement that supports the civil rights tradition associated with Martin Luther King. Demonstrators on both sides of a political divide - whether it be the Iraq war, George W. Bush or the death penalty - can therefore cite their Christian beliefs as justification. The risk of political fanatics monopolizing religion in America is therefore remote.

So is Western Europe's fall from faith the exception in a globalized world where diverse forms of faith wield such power? Many observers argue the very opposite, suggesting that a "renaissance of religion" is palpable even in Germany. The emotional response to the death of Pope John Paul II and the enthusiasm greeting his successor at the World Youth Day in Cologne this year are often cited as evidence. But both may have had less to do with a wave of religious fervor than with the banal desire to be part of a well-staged historical event.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Chairman of the Council of the Lutheran Church in Germany, may also have been a victim of wishful thinking when he argued this year that there was "hardly any area of society or the arts" in Germany where "signs of a religious revival were not in evidence." To support his contention, Huber referred to religious motifs in new books, plays, movies and TV shows, and to the words of the new German president, Horst Köhler, who referred to religion ("God protect our country!") in his first public address. Such feeble evidence can hardly substantiate claims of a religious resurgence in Germany.

However, there is no convincing evidence either to back the opposing, traditionally secularist position that "we Westerners already inhabit a post-religious world" - a conclusion drawn by German philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach in the German weekly Die Zeit earlier this year.

There may be a different way to look at it, though. Just weeks after 9/11, Jürgen Habermas, Germany's most famous liberal thinker and leading proponent of reason on the international stage, took the opportunity to speak about secularism and religion when accepting the German Book Retailers Peace Prize. He described the tension between the twin powers as a deep conflict "between the productive forces unleashed by capitalism" and the "stabilizing forces of religion and the church."

Both sides of the debate had made the same mistake in viewing secularization as "a kind of zero-sum game," according to Habermas, where "one side can only win at the expense of the other." In fact, it was symptomatic of our "postsecular" society, he continued, that religious communities could flourish "in a progressively secularizing environment."

This observation is not as original as the term "post-secular" would seem to suggest. For many centuries, religions have existed in progressively secular environments. It is Habermas and his new line of thinking that are "post-secular," rather than the society itself.

Did Habermas get religion? No, but he, too, now views its demise with some regret: "When sin became guilt and the violation of God's commandments a breach of human laws, humankind lost something ... the lost hope of resurrection has left behind a palpable void."

Surprising affinities between reason and religion also came to light between Habermas, the philosopher of reason, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at their highprofile debate, the Munich Dialog in 2004. The now Pope Benedict XVI conceded that religion needed to be placed under the "tutelage of reason" wherever it helped legitimize terrorism. The secular Habermas, on the other hand, emphasized the social and moral force of religious communities as places where something could still be preserved, even if it had "been lost elsewhere: a sensitivity towards misspent lives, social pathologies, and failed life strategies."

Habermas is calling for a plussum game, where religious and secular worlds learn from each other to benefit mankind. In the uncertain age of globalization, this rapprochement may be the only hope for peaceful coexistence. One thing is certain: Strange bedmates they may be, but faith, reason and doubt will have to put up with each other for some time to come.

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