[Paleopsych] Wilson Quarterly: Os Guinness: On Faith

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Os Guinness: On Faith
Wilson Quarterly, 2005 Spring

     Religion and Politics Worldwide.
     By Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. Cambridge Univ. Press. 329 pp.

     Reviewed by Os Guinness

     Religion is the key to history, Lord Acton wrote. In today's
     intellectual circles, however, it's more like the skunk at the garden
     party. To many intellectuals, religion is a private matter at best,
     and most appropriately considered in terms of its functions rather
     than the significance of its beliefs, let alone its truth claims. At
     worst, it's the main source of the world's conflicts and
     violence--what Gore Vidal, in his Lowell Lecture at Harvard University
     in 1992, called "the great unmentionable evil" at the heart of our

     Such grim assessments are certainly debatable. It's a simple fact, for
     example, that, contrary to the current scapegoating of religion, more
     people were slaughtered during the 20th century under secularist
     regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of
     secularist ideologies, than in all the religious persecutions in
     Western history. But there is little point in bandying about charges
     and countercharges. If we hope to transcend the seemingly endless
     culture-warring over religion, we need detailed, objective data about
     the state of religion in today's world, and wise, dispassionate
     discussion of what this evidence means for our common life.

     Is religion central or peripheral? Is it disappearing, as Auguste
     Comte, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim,
     Sigmund Freud, and other proponents of the strong secularization
     thesis have claimed? Or is religion actually resurgent, as more recent
     observers such as Peter Berger, David Martin, Rodney Stark, and Philip
     Jenkins have claimed? Is it a positive force, as some have argued from
     the evidence of the "South African miracle," the peaceful transition
     from apartheid to equality? Or is it pathological, as much of the
     post-9/11 commentary has assumed without argument?

     In their new book, political scientists Pippa Norris, of Harvard, and
     Ronald Inglehart, of the University of Michigan, contribute three
     things to the old debate: first, a summary of the present state of
     academic analysis of religion; second, new evidence on the state of
     religion in the modern world; and third, a new theoretical framework
     that they claim makes better sense of the evidence than previous

     The massive and detailed evidence of religion's significance worldwide
     is unquestionably the chief benefit of the book, helpful even for
     those who will disagree with the authors' conclusions. The data come
     from World Values Surveys, an international cooperative overseen by
     Inglehart, for which social scientists polled residents of more than
     80 countries  between 1981 and 2001. The findings cover a
     comprehensive sweep of topics, ranging from the personal importance of
     religion to the electoral strength of religious parties in national

     The weight of all the data, interestingly, points somewhere between
     the extremes of the debate. Religion is far from dead, and it
     certainly hasn't disappeared--even in Europe, where the evidence for
     its demise is most powerful. But there is strong evidence that it has
     lost its decisive authority over the lives of adherents in the
     developed world--even in the United States, where American
     exceptionalism has long defied European trends toward secularization.
     There was certainly too much of an unacknowledged secularist bias in
     secularization theory, but at the same time much of the talk of the
     unabashed resurgence of religion is premature. For those who take
     faith seriously, the general trends in the modern world are sobering;
     the still-potent role of religion in the global south offers only
     false comfort, as most of the region is still premodern and has yet to
     go through the "fiery brook" of modernity.

     Norris and Inglehart's theoretical explanation of religion's current
     condition will be more controversial: a revised version of the
     secularization thesis, which they base on the "existential security"
     offered by religion. In contrast to Weber's view of modernization as
     "rationalization," or Durkheim's as "differentiation," they trace the
     growing irrelevance of religion in the modern world to the fact that
     people can take security for granted. The more secure people become in
     the developed world, the more they loosen their hold on religion;
     religion, meanwhile, retains its authority among the less secure but
     faster-growing populations of the less developed world. "The result of
     these combined trends," the authors conclude, "is that rich societies
     are becoming more secular but the world as a whole is becoming more

     The main response to this theory will properly come from Norris and
     Inglehart's fellow scholars, and is likely to focus on three aspects:
     the authors' interpretation of the data they offer, their critiques of
     some of the currently flourishing theories, and their view of
     secularization as driven by the accrual of "existential security."
     Their articulation of the last seems to me particularly disappointing,
     little more than a restatement of Lucretius's "Fear made the gods,"
     and a crude explanation for the crisis of religion, which could be
     explained as easily by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's simple observation,
     "Men have forgotten God."

     What really ought to be addressed, however, are the implications of
     Norris and Inglehart's findings for the Western democracies. They
     nowhere discuss religion as having more than a generic, functional
     role in assuring existential security. Such a view is inadequate for
     those who take the specific content of faith seriously, and who argue
     that faiths of a certain shape produce citizens of a certain shape,
     who in turn produce societies of a certain shape--in other words, that
     faith must be considered as a set of beliefs with particular
     consequences and not others. Weber's magisterial work led the way in
     this direction, and Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark's
     important work on monotheism adds to it currently.

     The condition of religion in the modern world is especially crucial to
     a society that links religion and public life in any way--and nowhere
     more crucial than in the United States. Religion in America has
     flourished not so much in spite of the separation of church and state
     as because of it. Far from setting up "Christian America," or
     establishing any orthodoxy, religious or secular, the Framers
     envisioned the relationship of faith and freedom in what might be
     called a golden triangle: Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires
     faith (of some sort), and faith requires freedom. If the Framers were
     right, then as faiths go, so goes freedom--and so goes the Republic.

     America has yet to experience the discussion of religion in
     21st-century national life that "the great experiment" requires and
     deserves, not just from scholars but from a host of
     Americans--schoolteachers and political leaders alike. Norris and
     Inglehart provide data and arguments that will be an invaluable part
     of that discussion.
     Os Guinness is a writer and speaker living in Virginia. His books
     include The American Hour (1993), Time for Truth (2000), and the newly
     published Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and

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