Book Review – God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World
God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, Penguin Books, 2010, 405pp.
Reviewed by Ron Hay.
(Ron Hay, who lives in Castle Hill, is a former Anglican vicar and is now a writer on social and Christian issues.)
“Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” asks British academic, Terry Eagleton, in a recent book on the God debate. “Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century?”
The answer is not just the rise of radical Islam and the advent of the new atheists. Certainly the aftermath of 9/11 and the aggressive proselytising of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are factors thrusting the God question into public consciousness.
But even more significant, in the view of two Economist journalists, is the global resurgence of Christianity. John Micklethwait, the editor of The Economist, and the magazine’s Washington Bureau Chief, Adrian Wooldridge, have recently joined forces to produce a fascinating account of this phenomenon titled God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World.
After a study of the global scene and field trips to the Middle East, China, Africa, South America, South Korea and Turkey, they conclude that the secularisation thesis has failed. For years, Western commentators have predicted that the march of modernisation would result in the steady decline and ultimate demise of religion. Micklethwait and Wooldridge find, however, that “despite the most hectic modernisation in world history,” faith is flourishing, and Christian faith in particular.
The statistics are striking. Conservative estimates put the number of Christians in China at 77 million — more believers than there are members of the Communist Party; other estimates place the figure at over 100 million. In 1900 there were about 10 million Christians in Africa; today there are 400 million. A 2006 poll discovered that, despite decades of atheistic communist rule, 84 percent of the Russian population believe in God. In 1950 only 3 percent of South Korea was Christian; now the figure is close to 30 percent. Pentecostalism has grown like wildfire in South America and one third of the population of Brazil describe themselves as “charismatic” Christians (which can, of course, include Catholics as well as Protestants.)
It is not only the statistics that make less than cheery reading for the secularist. The authors of God is Back point out that the form of Christianity which is growing is a vigorous evangelicalism that is allied with American technological know-how and management savvy. Moreover, in much of the world, it is the upwardly mobile, educated middle classes — exactly the sort of people who were expected to leave faith behind — who are driving its advance. The authors begin their book with a portrait of just such a group in a Chinese house church in one of Shanghai’s gated communities.
Not only is religion thriving in many modernising countries, it is also excelling in harnessing the tools of modernity to advance its message: “The very things that were supposed to destroy religion — democracy and markets, technology and reason — are combining to make it stronger.”
What is the attraction of evangelical Christianity, and why are large churches doing so well? Since Micklethwait and Wooldridge are not seeking to promote Christianity — in fact, one of them is an atheist — their responses to these questions are all the more remarkable. They quote management guru Peter Drucker’s view that “large pastoral churches” have taken over from the company as the most significant organisational phenomenon in recent decades. They believe that churches provide community in an increasingly atomised world and a moral compass in a society of conflicting values. They refer to “a mountain of evidence” from social scientists that religion is good for us. The correlation between happiness and church attendance has remained steady since surveys began in the 1970s, and is clearer than the link between happiness and wealth.
Regarding the experience of community they write: “There are remarkably few places nowadays where adults can meet and take a trusting relationship for granted. The workplace is competitive. Neighbours are often strangers. The sort of local bars where ‘everyone knows your name’ are rarities in suburbs and bedroom communities. Many fraternal organisations are shadows of their former selves. 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.”
Academic research also reveals that church attendance correlates strongly with voluntary service and philanthropy. An American study found that, in 2000, “religious people gave about 3.5 times more money a year to charity than secular ones, and volunteered more than twice as often.” When the Asian tsunami struck, the Southern Baptist Convention in the US collected $16 billion for victims. Micklethwait and Wooldridge comment: “Religious charities have an impressive record of being the first to arrive in disaster zones and the last to leave.”
The authors of God is Back conclude from their study of the global scene that humanity is innately “theotropic”; that is, given the option, most people choose to believe in God. They also conclude that, in terms of intensity of belief, there seems to have been a significant increase in most places outside Europe in the last fifty years. That very much chimes with the New Zealand experience. Churches and denominations that are tepid in conviction are certainly in decline. Those with a robust and convinced faith are making head way even in our very secular culture.
All this begs one obvious question: what about the other faith that is growing in numbers and intensity on the world scene? The authors of God is Back acknowledge that Islam had a much better twentieth century than Christianity did, and that Muslim countries are deeply Muslim in a way that most Christian countries are no longer Christian. However, they believe that Islam is less well equipped to deal with modernity than Christianity is. The hallmark of modern societies is pluralism, and Islam is profoundly uncomfortable with pluralism. Historically it grew by conquest, not by persuasion. It is essentially theocratic, whereas Christianity has thrived best when it has been without political power. Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that the present difference between secular Europe and much more Christian America is in large part due to the fact that in Europe Christianity was associated with the establishment (and hence was a target of the French Revolution) whereas in America the separation of church and state gave Christianity the freedom to be its true self. Whether they are right in their belief that Christianity is better adapted to meet the challenges of modernity than Islam in the years to come, time will tell.