Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, Roberta Green Ahmanson, OUP New York 220 pages
Notable for ignorance of religion are the atheist authors of several recent books (Richard Dawkins is one of the crop) who have written against it at length with less knowledge than they’d dare bring to any other topic. Their justifiable disdain for belief in the supernatural blinds them to the importance of this set of ideas that has helped to shape history. But a critic’s scorn is valuable only if he knows what he’s scorning. (If you wanted advice on wines, would you consult a teetotaler?) Atheists can make a perfectly good case for rejecting the idea of a deity without immersing themselves in theology; but if they want to criticize actual religions, they should study them.
Now comes a book by religious authors objecting, with justice, to the ignorance of journalists who fail to see the importance of religion in current world affairs. It is true that journalists don’t know enough about religion. But very few people do, actually, including the religious. Besides, most journalists don’t know much about anything, especially the stories they cover.
One of the essays, Religion and Terrorism: Misreading al Qaeda by Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute, concerns the essentially religious motivation of al Qaeda. It is true and clear. Every reporter and commentator on world affairs should know what it teaches.
Very different is God is Winning by Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft. It contains a message so at odds with Paul Marshall’s that I wonder why he, as one of the editors of the collection, included it.
Here we are told that religion has become increasingly influential of late in global politics. Well, yes and no. It is true of one religion only, Islam: and wherever the authors cite a true instance of what they are trying to prove, it is an example of Islamic activity. What they don’t say – or see? – is that this religious surge is a terrible aggression.
The attack of 9/11 was a profoundly religious act. It was perpetrated in the name of Islam, the religion that is steadily, determinedly, and all too successfully advancing through the world with the intention of dominating it. This dark threat by one of the old established ‘revealed’ religions (which is the sort of religion the authors are talking about rather than the new kind such as Socialism or Global-Warmism) is a force that needs to be confronted and defeated. What makes it formidable is that it’s engaged in a victory-or-death struggle for survival. It is itself under existential threat because its time has long since ended. The plain truth is that this is not an age of religion. Religion is not a fertile field any more, nor has been for a long time. The last ‘new’ idea in religion that affected the course of events on any significant scale was eighteenth-century Methodism, which was a revivalist movement rather than a real innovation. Religion now is sterile. What characterizes our time chiefly, and in terms of its achievements uniquely, is scientific enquiry. This is the Age of Science. It makes no difference how many people believe in a god or gods, worship in temples, perform rites and ceremonies, or declare their faith to be important to them; or that certain creeds are gaining converts; the fact remains that religion is no longer a fertile field. In such a time as this a set of irrational beliefs claiming to encapsulate all truth and knowledge, conceived in the Dark Ages, which is what Islam is, cannot but be engaged in an existential struggle; and unless it is totally victorious, so that it can impose its darkness on the whole earth, stop Science in its tracks, destroy all that Science has achieved along with the technologies it has fathered, and utterly expunge scientific discovery from memory and record (as the Catholic Church once tried to do), Islam is doomed to be a fossil in the museum of archaic ideas.
To the authors of God is Winning, religion is evergreen and intrinsically good: and any religion is better than none. This can only mean that they would rather Islam predominated over the whole globe than a religion-free secularism. Yet they do not declare themselves to be against freedom and democracy – which a triumphant Islam would certainly snuff out – but insist that ‘as the world has become more free, more enlightened, and more prosperous, it has also become more religious’; that ‘democracy and democratization have empowered religion’; that ‘believers in a “march by history” toward some secular end-state are headed for more disappointment than most’; and that ‘modernization, democratization, and globalization have made [God] stronger’. Yet the only examples of world-affecting religious acts that they refer to are Islamic, and to the danger of Islam they seem as blind as any journalist.
How informed are they in general about the world we live in? Has it become more free? It’s hard to see that it has. Most Africans are not free. The North Koreans cannot be described as free; nor the majority of nations under Islamic rule; nor China, the biggest nation, where the religious are persecuted. And as for Europe, it blatantly disproves the authors’ thesis, though they do not seem to understand this. They note that as Europeans have become increasingly enlightened and prosperous they have become not more but less religious. They also notice that Europe’s native populations are shrinking, which brings them to declare (with a touch of Schadenfreude?) that ‘secularization is its own gravedigger’. But their observation of the fact that a lethal secularism arose from freedom and democracy, not a fresh bloom of religious belief, does not negate, alter, or even qualify their wistful conviction.
Among the Western, educated, prosperous nations, the United States of America is an exception that the authors happily cite. Most people here (we are told authoritatively by pollsters and statisticians) are and always have been religious to some degree at least, and here – perhaps as a result – the birthrate is stable (so it’s not digging its own grave). Yet not even the US proves the author’s case: for the US, though shaped by the influence of Christian values, remains a secular state. Its past and present can be said to demonstrate that free people may continue to be religious in the Age of Science, but not that religion naturally arises out of freedom, democracy, enlightenment and prosperity. Archaisms, like antiques, can be enjoyed. They can be freshened up and displayed as ‘neo-orthodoxies’, to use an oxymoronic expression of Shah’s and Toft’s. What they cannot do is reverse the arrow of time.
Shah and Toft repeatedly speak of ‘vitality’ in contemporary religion, and claim that it has given rise to a ‘resurgence in prophetic politics’. What they mean by ‘prophetic politics’, it emerges, is any political movement with a moral cause, or a jumble of causes, some of them familiar as pretexts for left-wing activism. Certain nationalist movements are counted as ‘prophetic politics’ if the people concerned share a religion. ‘Hindu nationalism’ is mentioned. (Mentioning is deemed sufficient, discursive argument is lacking.) They are probably referring to the territorial dispute over Kashmir that mainly-Hindu India, growing in wealth and power, has with its Muslim neighbor Pakistan. This dispute is certainly national, with origins in old and persistent religious conflict, but no new religious fervor is driving it. ‘Jewish Zionism’ (is there any other kind?) is also thrown in. But Zionism has nothing to do with religion. It was conceived as, and continues to be, an entirely secular movement, concerned with the recovery of the ancestral homeland of the Jews as a people, albeit a people uniquely defined by a specific religion.
Even localized revolutionary movements that notoriously claim to be Christian but are actually Marxist, are adduced by Shah and Toft as proof of religious resurgence. Indeed many terrorist organizations, particularly in South America, have been encouraged and even led by priests and pastors, who sanctify their incitement to murder by calling their ideology ‘liberation theology’ (if they’re Catholic) or ‘liberal theology’ (if they’re Protestant). The authors of God is Winning imply, whether they mean to or not, that this is fine with them because anything done in the name of religion is a good thing. Logically then – contrary to Paul Marshall’s judgment – al Qaeda is a good thing! But no: it is part of the worst political evil of our time. A nod to God is not worth any price.
Jillian Becker December 2008