No subject seems to generate more heated discussion these days than religion. And this is by no means confined to Comment is Free, where articles on God, atheism, secularism, evolution and creationism consistently attract floods of comments within hours of being published. Books exploring religion and spirituality top bestseller lists, too. According to Amazon, religious publishing has grown by 50% in the last three years, surpassing sales of books in categories such as history and politics.
The same story is repeated by universities and colleges throughout the UK. The Institute of Directors reported that religious studies A-level showed the biggest percentage increase in candidates of any subject, up from 12.671 in 2003 to 19.006 this year.
Far from fading away, religion is on the ascendancy. This is not only true of African and Asian Muslim societies; there are signs of its revival even in secularity’s western European heartlands. Institutionalised religion continues to decline steadily, with church attendance rates dropping below 20% even in Catholic Spain, Italy and Ireland, and priests dying out – with only one ordained in the whole of Dublin in 2004. But this is not the whole story. Individual interest in religion is booming. Every year, some 100,000 hikers make the trek across Europe to Santiago de Compostela in Spain; six million people visit Lourdes and four million go to Jasna Góra in Poland.
More than two million Britons have now taken the Alpha course, described as “an opportunity to explore the meaning of life”. Forms of alternative spirituality such as Alexander technique, Buddhist groups, Islamic Sufism, herbalism, reiki, and yoga are also thriving.
No one has captured the prophecy of religion’s evaporation better than Nietzsche’s madman, who stands in the middle of a packed marketplace and cries out: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”. The disappearance of God, or what Max Weber termed the “disenchantment of the world” became the spirit of the modern age. The trend was meant to be irreversible. The more urbanised, industrialised, and educated our society would get, the less religious, and the more secularised it would be.
But reality has not lived up to the secularist prophecy. The cost of modernisation in the era of advanced capitalism was much too heavy to be borne by the individual and society alike. Modernity broke shackles of gods, tradition, and family and created new ones. In its iron cage the individual turned into a tiny insignificant cog in a machine over which s/he has no control. Stripped of the protection of relatives, clan, church, and increasingly welfare state, s/he stands naked at the mercy of the market and its rampant forces.
The process of secularisation has no doubt succeeded in dramatically transforming the face of religion and its public status. Religion no longer lays down the blueprint for the socio-political order. But it has not withered away as predicted. Instead, it has assumed a more personalised form, one intimately connected to the individual’s inner needs and concerns.
Of course, this statement needs to be qualified. For in the British context religion has never really completely withdrawn to the private sphere. The church remains closely entangled with the monarchy, with archbishops and bishops still appointed by the monarch, and the latter still referred to as “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. With a powerful network of charities and voluntary organisations and a long list of affiliated schools, the church’s role in civil society should not be underestimated.
It is ironic that the further modern humans seem to move from religion and its many constraints, the more they thirst for it; the greater their sense of emptiness, and meaninglessness, the deeper their need for spiritual fullness and a moral horizon. In the certainty and coherence of religious belief, they find a way out of the wasteland of nihilism and the ruins of meaning.
The truth is that while a few individuals, intellectuals and academics might co-exist with nihilism and even celebrate it as affirmative and Dionysian, the majority are unable to bear its icy grip on their souls or crushing burden on their lives. Not everyone can be a Nietzsche or a Kafka.
But the recent calm “return” to religion has been accompanied with two more aggressive trends. The first is a Christian right rising in many parts of Europe – such as Switzerland and France – which across the Atlantic finds its most sinister expression in the evangelicals allied to neoconservatives.
The other is no less totalitarian in its claims, but is secular rather than religious. It preaches absolute belief in science, reason and progress and calls for the eradication of religion and its “evil superstitions”. Its proponents, who in Britain include Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling, are the new Jacobins, who are every bit as dogmatic and militant as their 18th century predecessors.
Europe cannot turn back the wheel of time and revert to the days when the church held sway. But whether we like it or not, religion is also an undeniable fact of contemporary European reality. The challenge for Europe is how it can foster a tolerant religion and an open secularity, beyond the frenzied zealousness of the religious and the secular.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 9 November 2007