God Is Back

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By John Micklethwait and Adrian WooldridgeAuthors, "God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World"

Do you regard the Easter weekend as a religious festival rather than just an opportunity to pick up bargains at the mall and stuff yourself with chocolate? Do you attend church on a Sunday rather than just lounging in bed? Do you sometimes pray or read the Bible? And do you believe in God or life after death?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", then, according to some of the greatest minds that Europe has produced, you really ought not to exist. From the 18thcentury onwards a succession of European sages predicted that modernization would produce the end of religion.


By the 1960s it looked as if the prophets of secularization were being proved right. Christianity was withering in the former heartland of Christendom-- Europe. Developing countries from India to Iran were in the hands of avowedly secular governments. And two of the world's biggest countries -- Russia and China -- were run by Communist Parties that were dedicated to proving that Marx was right.

The one big exception to the secularization rule was America. This was a pretty big exception, to be sure. But European intellectuals regarded America as a freak of social evolution -- a sociological version of the duck-billed platypus. And American intellectuals began to see signs that America was going the same way as Europe.

In 1966 the Easter edition of Time magazine put Nietzsche's statement on the cover in the form of a question: "Is God Dead?" Trendy theologians pronounced themselves atheists. America was going the same way as Europe -- it was just taking a little bit longer.

Today it is secularization theory that is dead rather than religion. Religion continues to flourish in the United States. Megachurches across the country are full to overflowing. Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold almost thirty million copies. Granted, the latest religious surveys show a rise in the number of non-believers, to around 15% of the population. But that is a tiny portion by European standards. The reason why so many atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have written books attacking God is that they feel on the defensive. You do not engage in battles that you think that you won years ago.

Religion is flourishing elsewhere too. China is full of house churches, much like the ones in the early Christian era, that attract the rising middle classes. A 2006 poll in once-atheist Russia discovered that 84% of Russians believed in God while only 16% considered themselves atheists. Christianity is on the rise across Africa and Asia. Far from disappearing from the public square, some of the world's biggest political problems come from an excess of religious zeal: look at the theocracy that rules Iran or the religious divisions between Sunnis and Shias that threatened to tear Iraq apart.

From the political perspective, the turning point was the 1970s. That was when secularization theory finally hit the buffers and religion returned to public life. Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran. The Mujahedeen drained the blood out of the Soviet Empire in Afghanistan. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict gained a more distinctly religious edge. The American religious right became a force in political life. The great secular "isms"-socialism, capitalism and Pan-Arabism -- all lost their luster.

But in fact secularization theory always underestimated the power of religion. Man is a theotropic beast -- some men always crave the consolations of religion. Religion answers questions that have always troubled people -- why am I here and what is the purpose of life? It also provides the comforts of community and belonging, comforts that are increasingly valuable in a turbulent and atomistic world. A bevy of studies have demonstrated that religious people are, on average, happier and even healthier than their secular counterparts. (Consider the gap between Ned Flanders and Homer Simpson)

The reason why America refused to follow Europe down the path to secularization was not that America was born religious. The immigrants who made up the American population contained plenty of criminals, who were shipped off to America by the courts, as well as upright Puritans. America was not born religious: it became religious.

The First Amendment introduced something that was new in human history: a political regime that separated church from state and made membership of a religious congregation completely voluntary. This not only institutionalized toleration. It also put competition at the heart of American religion: churches could not rely on government subsidies. They could only survive if they recruited souls. This unleashed a succession of waves of evangelization: churches embraced all the tools of business and popular culture to get their message across to the people. By the mid-19thcentury America had become the most religious rich country in the world.

Which raises an intriguing possibility: that the reason why religion withered in Europe was not because people lose their appetite for religion as they get more modern but because European churches were entwined with European states. The alliance between the church and the state dulled the church's competitive instincts: why bother fishing for souls when you could rely on a stipend from the establishment? It also meant that the poor saw the church as an arm of the establishment.

The deeper reason why God is back is that the American religious model is spreading around the world: religious establishments are being weakened and upstart religious groups are using all the tools of modernity, from megachurches to radio and television to spread the world. Pentecostalism is spreading like wildfire around the world, with more than 500 million adherents. Five of the world's ten biggest megachurches are in South Korea. There is even an upsurge of Evangelical Christianity in Europe.

The answer to Time magazine's question back in 1966 -- Is God Dead? -- is thus an emphatic "no". God has not only survived the acids of modernity. He has learned how to use the tools of modernity to spread His message.

John Micklethwait is the editor in chief of The Economist; Adrian Wooldridge is its Washington bureau chief. They are the authors of "God is back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World", published this week by the Penguin Press