The Spread of Faith Religion, Born Again

By Rainer Traub

Part 2: 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.

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.

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