November 2, 2015

YEHUDAH MIRSKY: The Religious Fate Of Secular Liberation.

Once upon a time, a not-so-very-old story went, there was religion. A powerful phenomenon in its time, it had since become tamed in the cool light of reason and evolved, according to the generous of spirit and historically minded, into an intermittently helpful and mostly harmless handmaiden to the great projects of secularism and modernity as they barreled their way along the train tracks of history. There were, to be sure, some who tried to hop off the train, or even to attempt to turn it around. These were called “fundamentalists”, rear-guard atavists who were to be pitied and, when really necessary, put in their place.

This culturally single-lane story of inevitable modernist secularism is in retrospect so unconnected from reality that one can hardly believe how commonplace it was—and occasionally still is—in Western elite circles, where the claims of religious actors were instinctively translated into something “real”—which is to say, into the bloodless and pliant language of economics, political science, or social psychology.

But it just doesn’t work. Observe our world today. In looking at the vast mess sprawling from western China through Central and South Asia, from Turkey to Sudan, and from Iran to Algiers, the salience of Islam is inescapable. Islam and Christianity alike thrive in sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity holds sway in the Americas, regularly in Evangelical and Pentecostal dispensation, and, in the Orthodox, is nearly as omnipresent in Russia these days, as well as in much of Eastern Europe. In Israel, traditional Judaism in its various forms is as powerful as ever. If one allows for non-Abrahamic and non-deistic forms of religion, most of Asia counts as well. Note that religion of one kind or another is alive and kicking not just in traditional societies, but also in societies that look modern—indeed in societies whose political and legal institutions are paragons of what Weber called formal rationality. Religious commitment and passion, whatever one thinks of them, are powerful political forces that must be reckoned with.

As I’ve mentioned before, my colleague Rosalind Hackett thinks that militant Christianity is likely to be the big religious force of the 21st Century. Increasingly, I think she’s likely to be right.

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