by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
Penguin Press, 2009, 416 pp., $27.95
God Is Back is a book bound to intrigue and annoy just about everybody. The work of two leading British journalists, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge—editor-in-chief and Washington bureau chief at The Economist, respectively—the book displays the strengths of that trade. The writing is clear, fast paced and vivid, combining an avalanche of statistics with an abundance of apt anecdotes. The authors are also a well-practiced team, this being the fifth book of their collaboration, each on a grander theme than the last (though it’s hard to see where they go from here). God Is Back sweeps you right along, seems shorter than it is, and manages to be not the chore you would expect a lengthy work of social science to be but actually a (guiltless) pleasure.
So much for the book’s style; what of its substance? Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s essential argument is two-fold: that religion is back as a powerful force in the world, and that, on balance, this is a good thing.
Now as to the first of these claims, you might suppose that only a myopic ideologue could be surprised to learn that God is back, or indeed could suppose that He had ever left. It’s been more than twenty years since the work of Martin Marty and others began to instruct us otherwise, and lately the evidence has grown overwhelming. True enough, and of course the obstreperous atheists whose works have enjoyed such a vogue lately—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.—don’t deny that God remains powerful; rather they are protesting that fact. At the same time, they find this incomprehensible, which is why their rage is so towering. Hadn’t modernity refuted religion long ago? How can it possibly have lingered and even renewed itself, such a stew of superstition and gibberish?
Which is to say that these writers, like the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment whose caricatures and epigones they are, cling to the “secularization thesis.” This is the supposition, so long cherished by so many Westerners, including (as they admit) Micklethwait and Wooldridge themselves, that as modernity waxed religion would wane. This, our authors insist, has now been proven spectacularly false. Yes, modernity advances relentlessly—ultimately, that is much of what we mean by globalization—but faith hasn’t retreated before it. Instead religion, or a certain kind of it, is flourishing as never before—not in tension with globalization, but in harmony with it.1
Which brings us to the second and more interesting of their claims. They want to persuade us all (yes, even the Dawkinses and the Hitchenses) not only that this resurgence of religion is real, powerful and entirely comprehensible, but that it’s not, as secularists are apt to think, simply alarming. The Good News of Christianity is also, on balance, good news for friends of progress, because the sort of religion that is growing fastest is favorable not only to modernization in general but to modern liberty in particular.
God Is Modern
Micklethwait and Wooldridge see nothing historically odd about the synergy between religion and modernization. Its current phrase is merely the global flowering of a long-standing relationship between faith and progress. True, in the dominant contemporary European model of the relationship between religion and modernity, the latter supersedes the former. Religion comes to be perceived as unmodern by definition, at best irrelevant and at worst repressive; modernity comes to be defined, reciprocally, as irreligious. To those who cling to this model, the resurgence of religion must indeed seem both odd and ominous. There is also, however, the American model, according to which modernity and religion are not only compatible but complementary. And now we come to the kicker: The Christian religious revival sweeping the world has followed this “American” model rather than the “European” one.
The authors offer an elegant argument as to the relation between religion and globalized capitalism. On the one hand, they endorse Marx’s view that, as capitalism churns relentlessly onward, “everything solid melts into air”, including traditional structures of belief. This is, of course, a variant of the secularization thesis: (irreligious) modernity bodes (premodern) religion’s destruction. On the other hand, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge, precisely by destroying older religions modernity creates a market for new ones. It also creates ever more effective technologies for serving this market.
Implicit in Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s position, then, is that while (premodern) forms of religion may wither, the religious impulse remains. Spiritual consumers continue to crave meaning; spiritual entrepreneurs arise to provide it. Capitalism taketh away, and capitalism giveth.
Religion as fully subject to the market, while relatively new in most of the world, is of long standing in America. Much of the credit for its emergence belongs to the wisdom of the Founders. It was by disestablishing religion that they forced it to become enterprising. They could have done it no greater favor. New, market-savvy sects arose, first Methodism, then Evangelicalism and Mormonism, and finally Pentecostalism. The older or “mainstream” sects, including even Catholicism, had to adapt to this model. It has continued to dominate the American scene, and the more modernity has advanced, creating ever more of a domestic market for this kind of religion and ever more powerful technologies for promoting it, the more the model has flourished.
Now, however, entrepreneurial religion has gone global, sallying forth from America to conquer the world. Because success in the global marketplace requires versatility, the forms of this religion vary widely. (In Brazil, for example, mass exorcisms are de rigueur.) What these forms share is that they represent adaptations to a market situation in which religion is a personal choice, multiple competitors therefore arise to bid for this choice, and lucre awaits the successful while oblivion takes the hindmost.
The prophet of this new faith is the “pastorpreneur”, a term the authors have borrowed from California Pastor John Jackson, who coined it to describe himself. His gospel is a version of self-help through God’s help, and his preferred pulpit is the “megachurch” or, even better, a whole chain of them. Everything about this model is entrepreneurial, not least in that, where successful, it issues in the founding of a corporation. Earlier versions of Christianity may have impressed by their piety or wit, but where this one surpasses its predecessors is in marketing. Its forte is the use of new technologies both for netting clients and for retaining them.
Like most religious models, this one has its defects. The gross materialism of the pastors and their promises can repel the snobbish or sensitive. Their mastery of the divine hard-sell is not for the faint-hearted. These churches are theologically threadbare, and their erstwhile Christianity often degenerates into some version of Pastor Feelgood.
Still, Micklethwait and Wooldridge defend this new Christianity. These churches, they claim, do provide their parishioners with meaning (whatever that may mean) and a sense of communal belonging in milieus, whether slum or suburb, largely bereft of it. They often deliver social services that the government does not, or do so more effectively than government. (It has been estimated that the churches of Philadelphia annually provide services that would cost the city government $250 million to duplicate.) Theirs is a zeal that no social worker’s can match.
Last but not least, these churches preach not that the meek will inherit the earth, but that the hard-working will. Behind all the hoopla and hype, they promote upward mobility through education and training, good work habits, avoidance of disabling addictions, and devotion to family and community. This is the silver lining of the cloud of their otherwise dubious promise that piety will bring material benefits.
This general model of Christianity has proved amazingly adaptable. Consider the example with which Micklethwait and Wooldridge begin their book. The “house churches” of China, illegal but tolerated and spreading like Blackberries, could hardly be more “American.” Their members are drawn from the business/professional/technical classes. They are as earnest about interpreting the Apocalypse as they are about advancing their careers through networking. Christian and also completely up-to-date otherwise: That’s how the Chinese house church member sees herself, and that’s the wave that’s sweeping the world. Having originated in America, this style of Christianity has struck deep indigenous roots in every continent but Antarctica and the equally frigid Western Europe. Micklethwait and Wooldridge suppose that even Europe will eventually thaw at least slightly. They cast the surprising piety of Tony Blair as the first violet of this pale spring.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge recognize that there’s at least something to Christopher Hitchens’s claim that “religion poisons everything.” They grant that much of the resurgence of religion in the world is of sects that employ modern forms of marketing, communication and psychological manipulation to promote deeply regressive ends. They chart the religious struggles roiling the world, between Christians and Muslims as well as among rival sects of Islam. They note that certain previously secular struggles, such as that between Israelis and Palestinians, have become more intransigent for having taken on a religious tinge. They are aware that intolerant religion has set itself against the tolerant variety. They are not so oblivious as to deny that terrible calamities may loom.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge do profess an underlying optimism, however. They think that even within non-Christian faiths, including Islam, the tolerant style of religion is making headway against the intolerant. They have seen the future of Islam—Turkey under the Justice and Development Party—and it works. They argue that throughout the world, “unevenly and gradually, religion is becoming a matter of choice—something that individuals decide to believe in (or not). . . . In the end, the message of this book is a profoundly liberal one.” While mindful of the warts of the American solution of separation of church and state, they conclude the book with a strong affirmation of it, calling for the universal disestablishment of religion.
In their final chapter the authors reflect on “learning to live with religion.” They argue that religion and politics must each learn to accommodate the other, under a general umbrella of pluralism. Religious participation in politics, on the vast spectrum of issues important to believers of whatever stripe, is only to be expected. The problems that it poses may sometimes be messy, but they are not practically speaking insoluble, where there is a will on both sides to solve them. They become intransigent only where the state seeks to deny religion its say or religion rejects pluralism, seeking to make of the state an instrument of coercion on its behalf.
Questions without Answers
As might be expected of a book with both so audacious a thesis and something to offend everyone, God Is Back has attracted mixed reviews. Hanna Rosin for one, writing in the New York Times, finds much to praise in the work, but questions the authors’ upbeat conclusion:
Despite the dark side, the authors ultimately conclude that ‘God is back, for better.’ By this they mean that religion is now a matter of choice for most people, and not a forced or inherited identity. But if that choice can lead you to either buy a sweatshirt or blow up a building, the conclusion itself seems a little forced. The reality is that God is back, for better or worse.
British reviewers have been more prone than American ones to question the book’s whole approach to religion. Dominic Lawson, writing in the Sunday Times, complains that Micklethwait and Wooldridge see everything in terms of business, making no attempt to delve into the intensely personal experience of religion. Christopher Howse, in the Daily Telegraph, elaborates:
Micklethwait and Wooldridge explain the success of a creed by whether “individuals decide to believe” in it or not. They warn us that they are not writing about “whether religion is good or bad.” Private judgment is their ideal, and this, they think, means that “the basic message of this book is a profoundly liberal one.”
Liberal it may be, but it is dangerously unrealistic. Religion is a social system; it is not like choosing the colour of your socks. Just as language is not something that a growing child decides to speak or not, so religion is not a sudden option, like taking up golf. Why, for example, are young Muslim girls in Britain adopting the headscarf? Not because they have by chance each individually decided to do so.
It is indeed a weakness of God Is Back that its authors seem to regard even such elementary reflections on the nature of religion as foreign to their task. The notion that we choose the meaning in our life from a marketplace of options, while it may remind us of Mill, rests on a fallacy. I have not chosen to believe, or you to disbelieve. Neither of us experiences our faith or incredulity as a choice, but as a compulsion (or, as the faithful would say, a calling). You can’t say no to God (or yes to what you regard as an illusion of him).2 Nor is the existence or non-existence of God a matter of rational determination, however much Hitchens et al. might kid themselves that it is.
Consider the Pentecostals, the main protagonists of Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s tale. Yes, they “accepted” Christ or “decided for” him, but only by virtue of His call and His grace. As they see it, the “personal choice” was His, for which they can never be too grateful.
It would be more accurate, then, to say not that we choose the meaning of our lives but that this meaning chooses us. On the fundamental questions of life, we are what we believe; there is no rational self behind our convictions that has chosen them. And this means also that such beliefs are, as Howse suggests, socially conditioned. While his notion of religion as a “social system” may itself be somewhat reductionist, he’s right in noting that most of us “choose” as we’ve been taught to choose. Liberal, tolerant religion, no less than other strains, is a feature of a certain way of life, which like all ways of life is not the choice of those who practice it but the sea in which they swim, the formative influence on them that conditions all their choices.
This isn’t to say that there is no difference between despotism and toleration in spiritual matters, or that freedom of religion isn’t a fine thing as far as it goes. Nor is it to deny that it may make excellent sense in worldly terms for those ambitious to improve their station to join a church, whether mega- or mini-. It isn’t even to deny that the spread of Pentecostalism through the world may promote political and economic liberalism. It is to say, however, that the very notion of a religion founded on rational choice seems psychologically naive.
One would have to dig much deeper into the human soul than Micklethwait and Wooldridge have done to vindicate their hope that, in the long run, liberal religion will prove more attractive than its higher-octane illiberal rivals. If the radical modern attempt to dethrone religious authority in favor of a godless world of personal choice has failed, we may doubt that the religion most likely to succeed will be one that defers to the primacy of such choice. The paradox of globalized radical Islam is precisely that millions of Muslims throughout the world, cut adrift from their traditional moorings, are exercising their personal choice in favor of a strain of Islam that rejects the authority of choice. Here at least this dubious version of Islam rests firmly on tradition: In Islam the penalty for apostasy has always been death.
A somewhat different criticism of the book has been offered by the British political theorist John Gray. Writing in the New Statesman, he argues (with evident relish) that what is unfolding before our eyes is not the Americanization of the world and therefore of religion but rather their de-Americanization. With America in steep decline and its wealth and power flowing to Asia, the “Asianization” of religion is the likely prospect. Not greater homogeneity but greater heterogeneity in religion will shape the global future.
Gray is just a little too eager for America’s demise for his prognosis to inspire full confidence. Yet he does suggest the following question. If Micklethwait and Wooldridge are right that the genius of “American” pastorpreneurship lies in its ability to adapt to a wide variety of situations, why privilege the homogeneity of its bag of tricks over the heterogeneity of the situations to which it must adapt? The same corporate promotional approach that yields “affinity prayer groups” for Harley-Davidson buffs in Houston delivers mass exorcisms in Brazil, but are these really six of one and half a dozen of the other? And as the center of gravity in religion continues to shift to non-Western cultures, who will be setting the tone for whom? As the authors themselves note, there is already a major problem for the Anglican Communion on issues like gay marriage. It can only increase with the ongoing colonization of America itself by Third World Christianity.
So Gray’s criticism serves to strengthen Howse’s. What the new churches allegedly deliver is meaning to those both starved for it and in a position to exercise personal choice as to which version of it to adopt. So be it. Yet doesn’t meaning remain culturally specific? And aren’t there two fundamental kingdoms of meaning on offer in this world in which modernization cum capitalism cum globalization has destroyed all traditional ones? There is the modern kingdom of meaning and there is the antimodern one. Both are equally “matters of choice” in our authors’ sense, but the one is liberal and the other authoritarian. The former has prevailed in America, but is that really what is exploding along with Pentecostalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America? These have arisen, after all, not in tolerant North America but in regions of the world seething with instability and religious warfare. We have already noted the paradox of radical Islam, the authoritarian system freely chosen by so many displaced and deracinated Muslims. Nor is the preponderance of news from the rest of Dar al-Islam encouraging. As for China and India, can we do more than guess what their futures hold?
We might see in Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s argument Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, with a wrinkle. Their premise is that as capitalism and therefore globalization are ultimately irresistible, so too is the stripe of religion that thrives on them. This is to be welcomed because this religion is an engine of genuine progress due to its embrace of modernity and emphasis on personal choice. While Fukuyama argued that the world was tending toward (secularist) liberal democracy, Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest a global movement toward Pentecostalism and its non-Christian counterparts—still toward liberalism, but liberalism no longer conceived as secularist.
For now it’s easier to agree with the authors of God Is Back that the defining struggle of the coming decades will be that between modern and antimodern “religions of choice” than it is to share their optimism that the mullahs in white hats will prevail. Let the last word for now be Rosin’s: Religion is back, “for better or worse.”
1See Peter Berger, “Born-Again Modernity”, The American Interest (July/August 2009).
2Not even future Presidents say no to God. Consider Barack Obama’s description of his own conversion, which is all the more striking in that he, too, begins by presenting it as a matter of choice: “[My affirmation of my Christian faith] came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath the cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth.” (Call to Renewal Conference Keynote Address, June 28, 2006).