After a period in which it seemed to be a declining force religion is once again a deciding factor in world affairs. The revival of the Rushdie affair, the Bush administration’s opposition to stem cell research and the militant clericalism of the current Polish government are only a few examples of a trend that shows no sign of reversing in the foreseeable future. Far from fading away, or retreating into private life, religion is once again at the heart of politics.
In many countries, politicians and opinion-formers seem baffled by this development. A belief in an ongoing process of secularisation has been part of western intellectual life for generations. From the Marquis de Condorcet to Karl Marx and up to the present day, Enlightenment thinkers have argued that religion is a by-product of backwardness. In this view, as knowledge, wealth, education and democracy spread, the power of religion is bound to dwindle. Our view of the world will be increasingly shaped by science, and rather than looking for solace in the afterlife we will hope for continuing improvement in the human condition. At some point, human beings will no longer need religion at all.
The trouble with this still influential view is that there is no sign of any such ongoing process of secularisation. Over the past decade or so the Church has lost ground in parts of Catholic Europe such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal, while Britain has been a post-Christian country for some time. Yet the US – for many the paradigm of a modern democracy – remains much as it was when Alexis de Tocqueville commented on its intense, all-pervading religiosity after his visit in 1831. In post-communist Russia, after more than 70 years of religious persecution, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin have all claimed to be believers and the Orthodox Church is as much a part of the state as it was in tsarist times.
There is, in fact, no reason to believe that religion is becoming any less central in human life. The idea that there ever was a secular era is questionable. The political mass movements that shaped so much of the past century served many of the psychological and social functions of religion. For a time communism gave a meaning to the lives of those – mostly in western countries, where the ugly realities of communism in practice could be safely ignored – who believed its Utopian promise of a radiant future. Now that the prospect of Utopia has faded, many are returning to religion. The political religions of the past century are being given up in favour of varieties – often, sadly, fundamentalist caricatures – of traditional faiths.
Far from moving towards a world in which religion is absent or marginal, it would be truer to say that the secular era is in the past. The mass movements of the past have melted away, and visionary projects of a new world order are no longer credible. Regime change in Iraq looks like being the last Utopian project to be attempted for a long time. Instead of a secular liberal democracy, it has produced a mix of anarchy and Islamist theocracy. Now as in the past, religion – mixed with struggles for power and natural resources – is a potent factor in war.
History shows the dangers that follow when religion has unrestrained power. However – contrary to evangelical unbelievers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – instituting a secular state does not diminish these risks. In the US, where church and state are constitutionally separate, fundamentalism has a formative influence on politics unknown in any other advanced country. Nor does a secular regime reduce conflict over questions of faith – as has been shown in France, where the effect of the policy of laïcité has been to make issues such as the wearing of Islamic headdress in schools intractably divisive.
In a pluralistic society no single religion can be established to the exclusion of others. Yet it surely makes sense to integrate religions into public life rather than forever trying to exclude them. Given different histories and circumstances, how this is done is bound to vary widely. There is no simple, universal solution. What is clear is that secular fundamentalism, which seeks to cordon off religion from public life, is a dead end. Religion is a primary human need, and denying this fact is futile and counter-productive. After so many vain attempts, it is time we accepted that the issue is not how to exorcise religion from society. It is how rival faiths can learn to live together in peace.
The author’s book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia is published by Penguin