Caspar Melville of the New Humanist, which describes itself as "The magazine for free thinkers," interviews John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, authors of God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. Religion, they argue, can be dangerous, but its opponents ignore the positive good it does, especially in the American model that separates religion and the state and protects religious liberty:
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.... Modernity doesn't usher in secularisation, it actively promotes religious pluralism. They then train their sights on the equally popular notion that religion contaminates all those who subscribe to its bogus myths and stories. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Religion brings out both the best and worst in man, and secularists need to come to terms with the positive role religions have played in providing meaningful care and support for the oppressed as well as in the nurturing of aspirations for political freedom from Poland to Burma to El Salvador. Secularists should therefore recognise the corollary of these two facts. While it is perfectly appropriate to demand that religionists should accept the separation of church and mosque from state as a guarantee of freedom of conscience for all, secularists should play their part by accepting that religion is here to stay.Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily for the reference.
Consider the United States. It is both the most modern and one of the most religious countries in the world. It also provides solid evidence of how religions can provide a commendable array of social services in the absence of an effective welfare state. But it is also a perfect example of how religion can be kept separate from the state. If we could all become more like America, the book argues, we could all get along famously. ....
Wooldridge took up the question of what we can learn from American religious pluralism: "European secularists assume that the church is on the side of the ancien régime, of the establishment, that it's against reason and democracy and liberal emancipation, and there is a lot of evidence for that in Europe. But in America the evangelical movement advanced alongside democracy and liberal enlightened values. They were not oppositional forces but comrades in arms. If you give people more freedom and more democracy they will talk about what they want to talk about and obviously for many people that is God. Religion itself has also been important for advancing democracy - it's an example of the little platoons of civil society. Churches nurture certain civic values, that's why the Chinese government, and all totalitarian governments, have been very suspicious of them and have tried to crush them."
Micklethwait was quick to provide reinforcement. "In Eastern Europe religion has served as a battering ram for opening up the post-communist world because it serves as a focus for discontent. In Poland or Latin America even the Catholic Church has been a focus for dissent. The church can act as a barrier to democratisation, as the Catholic Church did for a long time in Europe, but it can also inspire democratisation." ....
Adrian Wooldridge: "If you look at the world of social services, religion provides two things very well. One is you have people who are willing to make sacrifices and do things that it is hard to believe that secular-minded people would do. People like Pastor Richard Smith from the Faith Assembly of God in Philadelphia, who would just walk into crack houses where people were pointing guns at him and try and close them down. No rational person, let alone any social services bureaucrat, would do that sort of thing. He was absolutely convinced that God would protect him. He devoted his entire time to helping the poor, the homeless, drug-addicted people, with very few resources. His story is remarkable but I think it is multiplied in a lot of different places. If you took away the work that is done by the church in Philadelphia alone it would represent about half a billion dollars of social services cost a year."
But wasn't there some traditional Economist bias against the welfare state here? Weren't the churches in the US merely compensating for the fact that US welfare is so threadbare? Wouldn't it be preferable if such care was provided by the state and not delivered in the context of faith? Wooldridge, the atheist, was having none of that. "Care is actually better if it is provided in a faith context. If you look at social services you have to fill in forms, people are antagonistic or they do it because they have to, whereas if you go to church for help you know you are talking to another human being who actually cares. Its not just in the US - the same is true in China or Russia and part of the Middle East. If you look around the world you have weak welfare states that don't provide, and it is unlikely that they will provide in the future. Most people who become welfare-dependent do so because of lack of skills, lack of opportunities, but also because of a lack of self-worth or a lack of a sense of meaning or purpose. These are things that religion is very good at, that bureaucratic welfare systems can't do. So yes, I think they are a good in themselves."
Though the tone at times tends toward the celebratory, the authors recognise the catastrophic damage religion can do too. "We disagree with European secularists in the idea that God is dead or unimportant, or that modernity and religion are incompatible," says Wooldridge. "Where we strongly agree with them is with the idea that religion can be dangerous, and we think that this happens when you get a fusion between political power and religion". And they think they've found the solution. "The lesson other countries should learn from America," Wooldridge continues, "is that the separation between church and state is the basis for a flourishing civil society.".... [more]
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