Abraham’s children on the march

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?
By Eric Kaufmann
Profile Books, £15

The militantly atheist authors – Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens in the lead – are right, thinks Eric Kaufmann: religion is on the rise and threatens secular liberalism. They are wrong, though, in lumping together fundamentalists and moderates of the Abrahamic faiths. The atheists believe that both are on the same slippery slope, the meek legitimising the fervent. “Even if,” writes Kaufmann, “moderate religion can hang on, its atheist detractors are as determined as the fundamentalists to kick it in the teeth.”

But the quite different contempt in which religious fundamentalists hold moderates – or at least the analysis that it implies – may be closer to the mark. For the godly, the moderates are “near heretics”. By fundamentalist lights, they are: for “a moderate faith that combines a belief in God with an allegorical approach to holy texts poses no threat to the Enlightenment – even if it becomes the norm”. The key difference, for Kaufmann, is not the possession of a faith in God but whether it incorporates the values and practices of rational thought. Atheists and the moderately religious can live together; increasingly, they cannot live with fundamentalists.

Kaufmann sees enthusiastic religion on the march not just in the US but also in Muslim states (and in Muslim communities in non-Muslim states), in Israel (and among diaspora Jews) and even in Europe. He leaves out, still, most of the world. There are only passing mentions of Christian and other faiths in China; of Catholicism in Vietnam; of militant Hinduism in India; of Pentecostalism in many parts of Africa. He sites his story in the historic centres of the Abrahamic faiths: but the evidence is that of religious faith advancing everywhere, as the great secular movements of nationalism, socialism, pan-Arabism, communism and liberalism lose their strength and lustre.

The view that wealth and ease reduce the fervency of religion once seemed to be well attested. But the middle-class godly, Kaufmann believes, are often as zealous as the poor – and often as prolific, as among fundamentalist US Christians who follow the “Quiverfull” doctrine and choose to have large families dedicated to the glory of God.

Kaufmann has a tendency to implicitly equate all fundamentalisms. He makes insufficient distinction between militant Islamist groups and those, such as American Pentecostalists and Mormons, that seek to halt liberal reforms in an attempt, as Kaufmann sees it, to “resacralise the state”. Still, even a generally peaceable movement can develop a terrorist edge: US anti-abortion activists have killed nine people in the past two decades and are responsible for between 10,000 and 15,000 violent actions.

Something even more important is happening – in the US first, but with capacity to spread – as fundamentalists seek out their soul brothers and sisters in other Abrahamic faiths. This is most evident in the explicit alliance between evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Judaism, but it is spreading to those who had been, for centuries, deeply opposed to each other – Protestants and Catholics who now tend to back the same candidates for political office.

Demography is the great driver of this resacralisation of the world. The secular bits – especially Europe – are shrinking fast, certainly relatively and even absolutely. “The west” will soon represent only 10 per cent of the world’s population – with the obvious and already observable result of a diminution of its power, and the clear advantage going to those religiously inclined communities whose birthrates are much higher, and which often remain so even when they move from poverty to relative comfort. Intermarriage is, to be sure, becoming more common; but so too is an insistence that marriages should be within the religion.

Europe was supposed to be the exception to all this. But if it is now, Kaufmann thinks, it will not be soon. Within a few decades, he writes, Europe is likely to follow the US pattern. New political alliances will “set the stage for a new era of religious politics, an unprecedented European desecularisation”.

This is, as he admits, speculative: the temptations of the west are very great. Its appeals flow “through the soft power of secular forms and modern art, which urge us to forget and limit the depth of our reflection so that we can experience and achieve in this world, right now”. Many believe life is better lived that way, with the large questions simply forgotten or ignored. But their hegemony may now be drawing to a close.

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