Special Report

Huntington’s Disease

When God and Mammon collide, who wins?

By 2.28.08

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Counter-intuitive ideas make great headlines, especially ones like "The Coming Religious Peace." Alan Wolfe's essay that appeared in the March Atlantic, was written in response to the November Economist story "The New Wars of Religion." (Not much of a grabber there.) The Economist predicts religion will play a central role in public life in the 21st century, and that "faith will unsettle politics everywhere." Dr. Wolfe preaches the gospel of peace and harmony to come. Who is right?

While most of us long for peace among faiths and sects, we are less than convinced that the world is headed in that direction. Outside of Europe, spirituality is more popular than ever. And with the exception of Muslims, those seeking salvation are far freer to choose their brand of religion than were their fathers and grandfathers. And boy are they. Almost half of Americans have switched religious affiliations at least once, according to a new Pew survey.

In fact as people become more consumer-oriented in regard to religion, faith becomes more, and not less, intertwined with politics, notes the Economist. Certainly the burgeoning presence of political Islam, political Hinduism, and political Christianity makes prospects for a peaceful coexistence less, and not more likely.

Like the smarter elder brother of Alfred E. Neuman, Wolfe considers the state of religion worldwide and asks, "What, we should worry?" He allows that some religions are gaining in popularity, but the good news -- and this seems to be his main point -- is that where faith is flourishing, it is also evolving in ways that allow it to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken it as a politically disruptive force.

Still Dr. Wolfe (no doubt grudgingly) admits that some societies -- EU candidate Turkey comes to mind -- are becoming less secular. Indeed, thanks to the rise of Islam in Europe (or "Eurabia" is a term Wolfe dismisses derisively), much of that continent too is becoming less secular.

IT WOULD BE FOOLISH to bet against the power of the Enlightenment, says Wolfe. Besides the forces of industrialization, democracy, science, gender equity, and especially material progress will soon make religion a thing of the past. "When god and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins," he argues.

Wolfe contends that as nations or peoples grow wealthier they leave religion (or at least fundamentalist religion) behind, and adopt secular, or mature faith systems. This leaves him at a loss to explain why some of the world's wealthiest nations -- the United States, South Korea, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia -- are wealthy and deeply religious.

The essayist Wolfe not only has a hard time predicting the future, he seems a bit foggy regarding what is going on around him at present. Few Pakistanis, Turks, and North Africans that have come to Western Europe have adopted the West's secularist culture, and many of their children have been radicalized thanks to cash-heavy Saudi Wahhabist outreach programs.

As Bernard Lewis wrote nearly two decades ago, "Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people." Those who might be amenable to integration have found host society's unwelcoming, and this has made already resentful Muslims even more resentful toward the West (particularly in France). Europe's prisons teem with young, formerly nonreligious, Muslims, who have become radicalized in the clink.

What's more Islamic nations (with the exception of a few Asian countries) seem unlikely candidates to make substantial material progress. Indeed, as Arab oil dries up and cleaner, more plentiful energy resources are created, Arab proselytizers are likely to find their propaganda funds drying up a well. A betting man probably wouldn't gamble the farm on the prospective prosperity of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, etc. Continued trouble and strife is where the smart money lies.

WHILE WOLFE SEES the world moving toward secularization, the rest of us see the world moving toward Islamification. In a few decades Islam will become the world�s dominant religion. Elsewhere the most radical, fundamental forms of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism are getting the most adherents.

As Christian churches continue to adopt cafeteria-style doctrines and dogmas designed to not to offend any one, they lose adherents. As Islam becomes more radical, it gains members. The reasons are obvious. Believers long for a religion that offers them answers, and fundamental forms of religion can provide more answers than new, wishy-washy all-inclusive sects.

Wolfe himself admits that the Catholic Church's resurgence is due largely to Pope Benedict XVI's hardline refusal to give in to touchy-feely Catholic worker spirituality. As the New York Times reports, "the evangelical sects gaining ground are more morally demanding, not less."

Ultimately, "The Coming Religious Peace" provides little reason to think that the wars of faith are over. Man, it is said, is a theotropic beast. While some may pray for absolute secularlization, geneticists think that outcome rather unlikely. Anthropologists suggest that rather than being a convenient way to explain the mysteries of the natural world, religion developed as a survival instinct, and such instincts are not easily lost. If if there is a "god gene," as some geneticists believe, secularization is in for a long battle.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington wrote, "the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future." I suspect Huntington's faults will continue to widen no matter how much material progress Tajiks or Tamils achieve.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.