Review: God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World

I recently finished reading, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, by John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge. One of the authors is a Catholic and the other an atheist. Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of The Economist and Wooldridge is head of that periodical’s Washington desk.

The book is a study of the relationship between modernity and religion. According to the authors, there are two main models for the future of this relationship -- which takes on added importance given the modernizing of India, China, S. America and parts of Africa. One is American the other is European. In the European one, modernity has crushed religion. Europe is highly and aggressively secularized. Religion may be tolerated as a very private affair, but is viewed with suspicion, its demise anticipated, and has no place in the broader culture (and especially not in politics). In America, on the other hand, religion and modernity not only co-exist, they are interrelated, bestowing benefits on each other. Religion remains a vital force in American culture, including in the political arena, though Americans have a more formal separation of church and state than Europe.

Western academics have assumed that the European model was the future and that as the rest of the world modernized, they would become as radically secular as Europe. America, it was believed, was an aberration and was likely just lagging behind the Euro phenomenon. The authors reject this conclusion and believe that the American model is likely to be the prevailing model.

The authors spend much time evaluating the role of religion in the United States, obviously focusing on Christianity. The ebb and flow of Christianity in the United States is examined from the nation's beginning to the present. Although fundamentalists clashed with modernist in the early 20th century, evangelicals have actually grown to embrace much of modernity and now boast higher educational achievements and greater cultural clout. Additionally, conservative Protestants have come to ally with intellectual Catholics and “neoconservatives” to resurrect their influence in American society. Conservative denominations have increased while liberal Protestant ones have declined. Catholics have held steady numbers in the U.S. but this is mostly a result of immigration. All told, church attendance is higher now than at most points in American history and the number of atheists has stayed about the same. More to the book’s point, Christians have become much more sophisticated in their use of the tools of modernity -- business modeling, communications, education -- and have employed those tools to flourish.

The authors attribute much of this success to the American founder’s solution to the “religion problem,” by separating formally church and state and allowing religions to compete with each other but without excluding religious sentiment and expression from the public square. The result is competition and a religion that empowers its practitioners. The authors also note that in the U.S. churches provide billions of dollars in social services that in Europe are viewed as the exclusive domain of the state.

In Europe, churches have been identified with the power of the monarch and other oppressive forces and accordingly were viewed with suspicion and hostility when revolutions displaced such authorities. Europeans also are much more likely to identify religion with the cause of strife and war given the history of religious wars on that continent. A history with which the U.S. has nothing to compare. Indeed, in the U.S., religions not only has placed a vital role in the delivery of social services but has also been identified with noble goals, such as the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.

Christianity has lost most of its influence in Europe and church attendance rates are abysmal, especially in Western Europe. Christianity appears to be making a come back in some former Warsaw Pact nations such as Poland and even Russia. But Christianity is not the only religious player in Europe. Not anymore. The authors explore the issue of Islam in Europe and evaluate how the influx of Muslim immigrants is forcing European countries to reevaluate their assumptions about religion and popular culture. This part of the book is informative, but not as in depth as the discussion of religion in the United States.

The authors also explore the development of Christianity in the rest of the world to see whether the European or America models seem to be prevailing. Their conclusion is that the American model -- with rising religiosity and rising modernism -- is the more common model. Even in places like China and South Korea, Christianity has surged among middle-class educated citizens. In South America and Africa, Pentecostalism has surged and has gained greatly in cultural and political influence. Much of this is attributed to the export of the American model, especially the mix of religion and modernity, using sophisticated methods to organize themselves and communicate their message to others. This has caused defections of lukewarm Catholics but has also motivated increased sophistication and competition by Catholic churches in the same regions. This increased competition is, to the authors, more affirmation of the American model’s ability to prosper religion in an age of modernity.

Islam is also examined, with some signs of using the tools of modernity to advance the message, including the use of the internet and other communications media. However, there is little sign that Islam has or will soon develop the tolerance and openness to competition that has been the hallmark of Christian success. I think this is likely true, but think the authors may underestimate the advantage Muslims have in birth rate growth and perhaps Islam’s ability to maintain fervor even when sanctioned by the state. Islam, for example, lacks the hierarchy the Catholic Church had as an established religion. Thus, even in states that officially endorse Islam and discriminate against other religions or sects, Islam may be more able maintain the fervor of its members than Christianity in similar conditions. Time will tell.

All told, the book is a remarkable examination of religion in the modern world. It is some ways similar to Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom, but broader in focus. Christianity is the main focus, with substantial time devoted to Islam, including how they are interacting in places like Nigeria. But space is also devoted to developments in Hinduism and Buddhism and their reactions to modernity.

Although the authors conclude that the American model is on the march, it warns against hastily concluding that the European model is dead. It will still exert influence and Europe is not experiencing wide-spread religious revival nor appears likely to in the near future. Nevertheless, Islamic birth rates will increase Islam’s influence in many European nations and this will likely cause increased fervor among lukewarm Christians. The authors warn about potential religious conflict between Islam and Christianity in Europe but more so in Africa. Although the threat is candidly acknowledged, the author’s correctly note that secularized conflict reached tremendously high levels in the 20th century and that the threat of religious conflicts does not appear close to reaching such levels. The authors also point out the role religion can play in helping alleviate tensions and in reducing violence levels. Interesting examples from Nigeria, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere are examined.

I highly recommend this book. In addition to helpfully examining the big picture, God is Back is full of anecdotes and witty observations that never fall to the level of condescension. A few comments seem under informed and some sections seemed a forced fit, but these are minor drawbacks of a highly informative and well written book.


Jay KTX said…
Insightful and encouraging.
So the recent newspaper headlines that seem to indicate otherwise, are just the liberal wool being pulled over our eyes? Bummer. Interesting stuff though. I wonder what the truth of the matter really is.

Someone is falling for the American trick of confusing "growth" with faith.

It is no great achievement to apply slick sales techniques to a duff product, especially in needy situations like the so-called "third world". Of course poverty-stricken Africans will flock to pentecostal churches promising them "success", "healing",
"wealth", "miracles".

Having just returned from six yrs in West Africa, I can vouch for the cynical sales-pressure being applied by American outfits, taking advantage of gullible, under-educated and terribly needy people.

Take a look in any Christian book-shop in W Africa. Stocked floor to ceiling with American books on financial growth, "leadership" (meaning getting as much money out of your flock as possible), helping yourself to success, maximising your product etc etc.

Faith is being presented as a road to wealth, with the church as a managerial organisation focussed on financial returns.

These sales-managers are wolves in sheep's clothing, and should be stopped before they destroy the Christian faith completely.

And as to the good effects of this process in Nigeria; the bloodshed between faiths has to be seen to be believed!!
Layman said…

A religious movement that overemphasizes material success is still a religious movement. The two economists who wrote the book are aware of the brand of Christianity that is succeeding in many modernizing countries. They do not see it as entirely negative, as they suggest the focus on hard work and accomplishment may in fact be helpful in such places.

As for Nigeria, the book is quite clear about the religious violence there. But it also noted some examples of religious leaders in some of the harder hit regions who have attempted to work together to reduce the tension and violence.
Sounds like an interesting read. I'll add it to my wish list. Thanks!

But my point was that my first-hand experience showed me that the US-style Christian inroads into Africa are almost wholly negative; setting up "ministries" that rob the faithful to finance international jaunts by pastors, supported by high-living in a society where most church members find it difficult to feed their families.

The only "hard work and accomplishment" I saw among these US ministries was the single-minded effort they devoted to extracting money from the congregations in return for contrived "wonders" and cynical promises of success and untold riches for those who contributed.

I would rather see all US involvement ended so that Africa can establish forms of Christianity more suited to their communal traditions and values.

It takes a theologian, rather than an economist, to see how Africa is (yet again) being led up the garden path.
Layman said…

First, the book does not claim that all religious development is good . It notes that it is happening.

Second, I personally know and worship with a missionary to Africa and she doesn't share your characterizations of the entire continent's worth of Christianity.

Third, you have elevated your knowledge from Nigeria to all of Africa now. I'm not willing to uncritically accept your opinions on faith. I have no idea where you are coming from.

None of us knows where each is coming from. We have to "read between the lines" picking up on give-away remarks, signs of genuine concern etc. That is what I did in the case of yr report of the American economists.

I have therefore offered my own hands-on experience as a counter-balance.

I do not demand you accept what I say, any more than I would be expected uncritically to accept your opinions.

But I can only speak from my own experience,as one who has lectured voluntarily in W Africa for the past 6 yrs, training pastors for the small indigenous African churches, and using some of my modest Civil Service pension to help Ghanaian NGOs ministering to deprived people in the unreached areas. Also, putting several Ghanaian students thru schooling & college.

That experience leads me to wish that the "gospel of success" and "miracle" ministries, which are the main US-funded groups seen in West Africa, and of which I have experience, "parachuting" in and out again, would stay away.

In my humble opinion they are doing more harm to faith than good.
And it is in the appeal of ministries such as these that the vast explosion of numbers mainly lies. My own contacts in Uganda and Kenya tell me that the same is true of those areas also.

As I said, we in the West have to learn to leave Africans to develop their own theological responses to faith, giving cautious and non-interventionist back-up when appropriate. Americans (and others) must learn from recent mistakes not to rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Layman said…

Since I post on a Christian Apologetics site, I think you probably have a pretty idea where I am coming from.

The economists are not American, they are British.

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