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Kicking the Secularist Habit

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    Kicking the Secularist Habit A six-step program by David Brooks
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 7, 2005
      Kicking the Secularist Habit
      A six-step program
      by David Brooks

      Like a lot of people these days, I'm a recovering secularist. Until
      September 11 I accepted the notion that as the world becomes richer
      and better educated, it becomes less religious. Extrapolating from a
      tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity (in Western Europe and
      parts of North America), this theory holds that as history moves
      forward, science displaces dogma and reason replaces unthinking
      obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation and an
      enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will.

      It's now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human
      race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and
      better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of
      scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we
      are in the midst of a religious boom.

      Islam is surging. Orthodox Judaism is growing among young people, and
      Israel has gotten more religious as it has become more affluent. The
      growth of Christianity surpasses that of all other faiths. In 1942
      this magazine published an essay called "Will the Christian Church
      Survive?" Sixty years later there are two billion Christians in the
      world; by 2050, according to some estimates, there will be three
      billion. As Philip Jenkins, a Distinguished Professor of History and
      Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, has observed,
      perhaps the most successful social movement of our age is
      Pentecostalism (see "The Next Christianity," October Atlantic). Having
      gotten its start in Los Angeles about a century ago, it now embraces
      400 million people—a number that, according to Jenkins, could reach a
      billion or more by the half-century mark.

      Moreover, it is the denominations that refuse to adapt to secularism
      that are growing the fastest, while those that try to be "modern" and
      "relevant" are withering. Ecstatic forms of Christianity and
      "anti-modern" Islam are thriving. The Christian population in Africa,
      which was about 10 million in 1900 and is currently about 360 million,
      is expected to grow to 633 million by 2025, with conservative,
      evangelical, and syncretistic groups dominating. In Africa churches
      are becoming more influential than many nations, with both good and
      bad effects.

      Secularism is not the future; it is yesterday's incorrect vision of
      the future. This realization sends us recovering secularists to the
      bookstore or the library in a desperate attempt to figure out what is
      going on in the world. I suspect I am not the only one who since
      September 11 has found himself reading a paperback edition of the
      Koran that was bought a few years ago in a fit of high-mindedness but
      was never actually opened. I'm probably not the only one boning up on
      the teachings of Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb, and Muhammad ibn Abd

      There are six steps in the recovery process. First you have to accept
      the fact that you are not the norm. Western foundations and
      universities send out squads of researchers to study and explain
      religious movements. But as the sociologist Peter Berger has pointed
      out, the phenomenon that really needs explaining is the habits of the
      American professoriat: religious groups should be sending out
      researchers to try to understand why there are pockets of people in
      the world who do not feel the constant presence of God in their lives,
      who do not fill their days with rituals and prayers and garments that
      bring them into contact with the divine, and who do not believe that
      God's will should shape their public lives.

      Once you accept this—which is like understanding that the earth
      revolves around the sun, not vice-versa—you can begin to see things in
      a new way.

      The second step toward recovery involves confronting fear. For a few
      years it seemed that we were all heading toward a benign end of
      history, one in which our biggest worry would be boredom. Liberal
      democracy had won the day. Yes, we had to contend with globalization
      and inequality, but these were material and measurable concepts. Now
      we are looking at fundamental clashes of belief and a truly scary
      situation—at least in the Southern Hemisphere—that brings to mind the
      Middle Ages, with weak governments, missionary armies, and rampant
      religious conflict.

      The third step is getting angry. I now get extremely annoyed by the
      secular fundamentalists who are content to remain smugly ignorant of
      enormous shifts occurring all around them. They haven't learned
      anything about religion, at home or abroad. They don't know who Tim
      LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are, even though those co-authors have
      sold 42 million copies of their books. They still don't know what
      makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal (you could walk through an American
      newsroom and ask that question, and the only people who might be able
      to answer would be the secretaries and the janitorial staff). They
      still don't know about Michel Aflaq, the mystical Arab nationalist who
      served as a guru to Saddam Hussein. A great Niagara of religious
      fervor is cascading down around them while they stand obtuse and dry
      in the little cave of their own parochialism—and many of them are
      journalists and policy analysts, who are paid to keep up with these

      The fourth step toward recovery is to resist the impulse to find a
      materialistic explanation for everything. During the centuries when
      secularism seemed the wave of the future, Western intellectuals
      developed social-science models of extraordinary persuasiveness. Marx
      explained history through class struggle, other economists explained
      it through profit maximization. Professors of international affairs
      used conflict-of-interest doctrines and game theory to predict the
      dynamics between nation-states.

      All these models are seductive and partly true. This country has built
      powerful institutions, such as the State Department and the CIA, that
      use them to try to develop sound policies. But none of the models can
      adequately account for religious ideas, impulses, and actions, because
      religious fervor can't be quantified and standardized. Religious
      motivations can't be explained by cost-benefit analysis.

      Over the past twenty years domestic-policy analysts have thought hard
      about the roles that religion and character play in public life. Our
      foreign-policy elites are at least two decades behind. They go for
      months ignoring the force of religion; then, when confronted with
      something inescapably religious, such as the Iranian revolution or the
      Taliban, they begin talking of religious zealotry and fanaticism,
      which suddenly explains everything. After a few days of shaking their
      heads over the fanatics, they revert to their usual secular analyses.
      We do not yet have, and sorely need, a mode of analysis that attempts
      to merge the spiritual and the material.

      The recovering secularist has to resist the temptation to treat
      religion as a mere conduit for thwarted economic impulses. For
      example, we often say that young Arab men who have no decent prospects
      turn to radical Islam. There's obviously some truth to this
      observation. But it's not the whole story: neither Mohammed Atta nor
      Osama bin Laden, for example, was poor or oppressed. And although it's
      possible to construct theories that explain their radicalism as the
      result of alienation or some other secular factor, it makes more sense
      to acknowledge that faith is its own force, independent of and perhaps
      greater than economic resentment.

      Human beings yearn for righteous rule, for a just world or a world
      that reflects God's will—in many cases at least as strongly as they
      yearn for money or success. Thinking about that yearning means moving
      away from scientific analysis and into the realm of moral judgment.
      The crucial question is not What incentives does this yearning respond
      to? but Do individuals pursue a moral vision of righteous rule? And do
      they do so in virtuous ways, or are they, like Saddam Hussein and
      Osama bin Laden, evil in their vision and methods?

      Fifth, the recovering secularist must acknowledge that he has been too
      easy on religion. Because he assumed that it was playing a diminishing
      role in public affairs, he patronized it. He condescendingly decided
      not to judge other creeds. They are all valid ways of approaching God,
      he told himself, and ultimately they fuse into one. After all, why
      stir up trouble by judging another's beliefs? It's not polite. The
      better option, when confronted by some nasty practice performed in the
      name of religion, is simply to avert one's eyes. Is Wahhabism a
      vicious sect that perverts Islam? Don't talk about it.

      But in a world in which religion plays an ever larger role, this
      approach is no longer acceptable. One has to try to separate right
      from wrong. The problem is that once we start doing that, it's hard to
      say where we will end up. Consider Pim Fortuyn, a left-leaning Dutch
      politician and gay-rights advocate who criticized Muslim immigrants
      for their attitudes toward women and gays. When he was assassinated,
      last year, the press described him, on the basis of those criticisms,
      as a rightist in the manner of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which was far from
      the truth. In the post-secular world today's categories of left and
      right will become inapt and obsolete.

      The sixth and final step for recovering secularists is to understand
      that this country was never very secular anyway. We Americans long for
      righteous rule as fervently as anybody else. We are inculcated with
      the notion that, in Abraham Lincoln's words, we represent the "last,
      best hope of earth." Many Americans have always sensed that we have a
      transcendent mission, although, fortunately, it is not a theological
      one. We instinctively feel, in ways that people from other places do
      not, that history is unfulfilled as long as there are nations in which
      people are not free. It is this instinctive belief that has led George
      W. Bush to respond so ambitiously to the events of September 11, and
      that has led most Americans to support him.

      Americans are as active as anyone else in the clash of eschatologies.
      Saddam Hussein sees history as ending with a united Arab nation
      globally dominant and with himself revered as the creator of a just
      world order. Osama bin Laden sees history as ending with the global
      imposition of sharia. Many Europeans see history as ending with the
      establishment of secular global institutions under which nationalism
      and religious passions will be quieted and nation-states will give way
      to international law and multilateral cooperation. Many Americans see
      history as ending in the triumph of freedom and constitutionalism,
      with religion not abandoned or suppressed but enriching democratic life.

      We are inescapably caught in a world of conflicting visions of
      historical destiny. This is not the same as saying that we are caught
      in a world of conflicting religions. But understanding this world
      means beating the secularist prejudices out of our minds every day.

      What do you think?

      David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent, is also a contributing editor
      of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political
      analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.



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