For the past two hundred years, European thinkers such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber believed that religion was doomed and that God was dead. However, history always seems to surprise us. Few political leaders and academics in the past would have guessed that people of faith and their institutions would play such an important role in the world today. Even the events of September 11, 2001, demonstrate that what is taught in a religious school in Saudi Arabia is important to understand no matter where you live. Additionally, the 2008 US presidential election revealed that religious beliefs are still very important even though the American Constitution requires no religious test for those seeking office (Article VI, section 3 states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”).
One of the latest efforts to understand how and why faith is rebounding in the face of pervasive and profound secularism is John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009). Of interest, Latter-day Saints are mentioned on several occasions (see pp. 18, 19, 65, 115, 124, 229, 233, 350, 357, 371).
The authors describe their efforts as a “long journey” and add, “No doubt [this book’s] overall message will depress many secularists; at times it has depressed us too. Some terrible things have already happened in this century in God’s name. More are undoubtedly on the way.” They conclude, “Unevenly and gradually, religion is becoming a matter of choice—something that individuals decide or believe in (or not)” (372). This model, where choice plays a central role in the decision to believe or not believe, is thoroughly American. Hence, the wave of the future is the American model, in which there is no established state church and people decide on their own what they will believe.
- The book offers many surprising insights, including:
“By 2050, China could well be the world’s biggest Muslim nation as well as its biggest Christian one” (5).
- “Many older conflicts have acquired a religious edge. The poisonous sixty-year war over Palestine began as a largely secular affair. . . . Nowadays, in the era of Hamas, Jewish settlers and Christian Zionists, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has become a much more polarized, sectarian battle, with ever more people claiming that God is on their side” (13).
- “One poll in 2006—fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet regime—discovered the 84 percent of the Russian population believed in God while only 16 percent considered themselves atheist” (13).
- “Most [statistics] seem to indicate that the global drift toward secularism has been halted, and quite a few show religion to be on the increase. One estimate suggests that the proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005 and may reach 80 percent by 2050” (16). “However you look at it, faith is more likely to impinge on you than it once did, either because it is part of your life or because it is part of the lives of some of those around you—neighbors, colleagues at work, even your rulers or people seeking to topple them” (24).
- “The most thorough study of American religious beliefs . . . demonstrates clearly that the world’s most powerful country is one of the most religious. More than nine in ten Americans (92 percent) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit” (131).
- “Social scientists have produced a mountain of evidence that religion is good for you. . . . Daniel Hall, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has discovered that weekly church attendance can add two to three years to your life, . . . [resulting in] ‘a substantially longer life expectancy’” (146).
- “Religion also seems to be correlated with happiness. One of the most striking results of Pew’s regular survey is that Americans who attend religious services once or more a week are happier (43 percent very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31 percent) are seldom or never (26 percent)” (147).
- “Religion can combat bad behavior as well as promote well-being” (147).
- “Religion seems to provide social bonds. . . . Churches offer a safe place where people can get to know each other and pool information and expertise. They put people with problems in contact with people with solutions” (148–49).
In the end, the authors remind us how wrong past experts have been about God and religion, including Peter Berger, who assured the New York Times in 1968 that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture” (52).