01 March 2008

Mammon bites god

In this month's Atlantic, the unassailable Alan Wolfe argues that secularism is winning the new religious wars, even though not everyone notices:
the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. Last October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious belief, gauged by the responses to several questions about faith (a rendition of the Pew data appears on the opposite page). The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.
This is not just because the wealthier and better educated reject the faith of their fathers, but more fundamentally because modernity makes that faith but one among many in a marketplace of belief. Unable to compel adherence to the One True Way, the many ways are forced to compete for adherents. This encounter with modernity, Wolfe shows, can have a profound moderating influence.
As religious leaders recognize that they are more likely to swell their ranks through persuasion than through coercion, they find themselves accepting such secular ideas as free will and individual autonomy. And even religions that are culturally dominant and closely linked with the state must worry about holding on to the allegiance of the young, as well as retaining the loyalties—and the money—of those who have moved abroad and been exposed to religious pluralism and tolerance. As one part of the world becomes modern, those parts it touches also gain exposure to modern ideas. Few places remain where old-fashioned, rigidly dogmatic forms of religion are isolated.
In his monumental A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes a similar point, although unlike Wolfe he often sounds nostalgic for a pre-secular age. Once belief becomes one choice among many, standing in need of vindication, secularism's work has already been done.


Rob Sica said...

An elegant and richly suggestive work directly related to the contemporary marketplace phenomenon is James C. Edwards' THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS: THE FATE OF RELIGION IN AN AGE OF NORMAL NIHILISM:


The Flying Trilobite said...

It will be interesting to see in another ten years if the current religious entitlements in the West will have subsided again.

I'm looking forward to your talk at the CFI in Toronto tomorrow!

Rob Sica said...

Wolfe offers further analysis and speculation in this Chronicle of Higher Ed piece:

"In some ways, the major achievement of the Pew study is to bring to the attention of the public what is conventional wisdom among academics. Yet other findings in the study shed new light on issues around which there has been no scholarly consensus. Three in particular are worthy of attention: the size and composition of minority faiths, the winners and losers in the religious marketplace, and the potential prospects of the religious right. Some scholarly thinking — and rethinking — is clearly in order."