Responding to “God is Back”

Pilgrim member Al Zumach responds to the book “God is Back:  How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World,” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist magazine. The jacket cover states that the authors show how and why religion is booming around the world and reveal its vast effects on the global economy, politics and more.
I am uncomfortable with the growing influence of religion which I associate (rightly or wrongly) with increasing violence and control.  I appreciate Pilgrim’s atmosphere of openness and acceptance and wish this for other religions. The book gave me a whole lot of things to think about … although it didn’t necessarily make me more comfortable. We humans have religious instincts and we need to learn to deal constructively with this part of our humanity. I heartily recommend “God is Back.” A paraphrased excerpt from the final chapter – Learning to Live with Religion – is printed below.
This book points out that modernity and religion are compatible. Religion has always thrived in the world’s most modern country (the U.S.). Now it is also thriving in much of the modernizing world, too. The great forces of modernity – technology and democracy, choice and freedom – are all strengthening religion rather than undermining it.
Give people the freedom to control their lives and, for better or worse, they frequently choose to give religion more power. Give religious people modern technology and they frequently use it to communicate God’s Word to an ever-growing band of the faithful.
While the world is generally moving in the American direction, where religion and modernity happily coexist, rather than in the European direction, where secularization marginalizes religion, there are three caveats.
First, the relationship between religion and modernity is far from smooth for many believers. If religious people are surprisingly keen on harvesting the fruits of capitalism, they are equally keen on rejecting what they regard as its thorns. For example evangelicals admiring the free market while rejecting stem-cell research, or Muslims using snazzy web sites to condemn liberalism.
The second caveat is that the triumph of the American model does not mean that the alternatives disappear. The American version of modernity may be first among “alternative modernities.”
The third and most important caveat is that the natural accompaniment of modernity is not religiosity but pluralism. A country can be modern and religious at the same time … or modern and irreligious. But it is exceedingly difficult to be modern without being pluralistic. Religious identities is something people craft rather than take for granted. The spirit of self-discovery changes the relationship between authority and worshipers. (Al says:  the previous two sentences could apply to Pilgrim.) It could have revolutionary consequences, especially in the Islamic world.
The triumph of pluralism means that all beliefs – religious and secular – become competitors in the marketplace. Much though some countries struggle against it, globalization is throwing different religions together. Many churches seem happy with this marketplace. But choice does not always promote tolerance and brotherly love. The more that people weave their own religious narratives, the more some fundamentalists insist on the unique virtue of their own narratives: they want to restore the taken-for-grantedness of traditional religion. That can mean, at its worst, resorting to coercion or violence to promote your vision of the holy.

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