Book Review: 'God Is Back' by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

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By Diana Butler Bass
Sunday, July 12, 2009


How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World

By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Penguin Press. 405 pp. $27.95

Conventional analysis of contemporary faith divides the world into two camps of political engagement: liberal secularists, who reject any role for religion in public life, and conservative believers, who strive for a Christian or Muslim state. As a result, discussions on religion and politics degenerate into arguments over excising religion from or adding more religion to public life.

Readers who subscribe to this dualistic view will be surprised by "God Is Back." At first glance, the title gives the impression that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge are arguing for an international faith-based political agenda. But this is a cool-headed book, more analytical than partisan, marked by crisp prose and well-formed insights into politics and policy. Although the authors are sympathetic to religion, they recognize its limits and problems, especially the tensions between fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Islam. While explaining the worldwide renewal of faith, they also examine the flash points of religion and politics. In the end, they criticize both secularists and believers. They argue that the main fault lies not with religion but with the "union of religion and power," used coercively. They urge their readers to move beyond a good/bad view of religion toward a more thoughtful approach that considers the role of churches in strengthening economies, providing meaningful work and reducing poverty.

A historical question frames the book: Is modernity hostile to religion? The authors give two answers. First, the French revolution proposed that religion itself was problematic and that societies should embrace secularism. Second, America's founders envisioned that religious freedom and its resulting competition might foster a healthy interplay of faith and politics in public life. "God Is Back" argues that while Europe has followed the French model of secularism, the American model of religious tolerance seems to be prevailing in the world today.

The book opens with an American evangelical-style Bible study in Shanghai, where the pastor proclaims: "In Europe the church is old. Here it is modern. Religion is a sign of higher ideals and progress. Spiritual wealth and material wealth go together. That is why we will win." These words echo the American view that economic prosperity meshes with religious freedom. This vignette supports the book's main point: that religion and modernity are not at odds, that, in the American mode, they can function together to create prosperity and individual freedom.

Historians have been making similar arguments for several decades. But "God Is Back" moves beyond the standard analysis to argue that religion offers people a wide range of additional social rewards beyond economic ones, including comfort, community and meaning. Because modern life tends to cut people off from tradition, it creates a longing to reconnect that religion can satisfy. Thus, the more advanced a country becomes, the greater its people's need for faith to fill in the gaps left by cultural change.

But the atheists keep asking, Isn't religion the primary source of conflict in the world today? Wouldn't a secular world be less violent? Can radically different religions get along in the modern world? The authors say yes, no and yes. They admit the conflicts but insist that the American model provides a hopeful template for religious pluralism and mutual toleration.

I have a few quibbles with their argument. In the historical sections, they depend too heavily on evangelical historians, thus giving their overview of American religion -- and Christianity in general -- an overwhelmingly Protestant cast. In addition, they accept the theory that people choose religion rationally on the basis of its social benefits; this is a hotly debated topic in religious studies. As journalists, however, Micklethwait and Wooldridge excel: Their eye for detail, ability to see the other side of the story, sense of nuance and irony are all highly developed.

"God is Back" is an intelligent account of contemporary religion and the role it might play in making the modern world more open, tolerant and peaceful. In the end, the authors confess that their basic message "is a profoundly liberal one." Complete religious freedom -- including the freedom to reject religion -- is the best human path to the future.

To that it can be hoped that people say: Amen.

Diana Butler Bass is the author of "A People's History of Christianity."

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