The Economist on religion

By Simon Barrow
November 2, 2007

The Economist has today (2 November 2007) published a special report which examines religion's place "in today's modern society" - the role it is likely to play in this century's politics and "how we should deal with it". But is it saying anything new?

Newness isn't a virtue in itself. But I can't help thinking that a lot of this is very well-trodden territory on the road to nowhere. It is perfectly clear that the 'religion versus secularism', 'extremism versus moderation', 'separation versus theocracy' and 'clash of civilisations' frameworks aren't delivering. They are comfort blankets for self-interested contention, not ways forward.

The reason so many analysts failed to spot religion's global rise ten years ago are intimately related to the reason why the attempt to chart a way beyond our current fractures through containment and containerisation isn't working - it misunderstands what is at stake and does not recognise what the alternative possibilities are.

I have made an initial comment on The Economist report here:

I should stress that it has some very interesting articles. But the question of what 'religion' is, where it came from, and whether as a category it really helps at all needs to be explored much more. Trying to deal with a range of complex and contradictory phenomena (different kinds of beliefs, convictions, histories and communities) as if they all somehow fit under the same umbrella is a key part of the problem - as Nicholas Lash points out in The Beginning and The End of 'Religion' (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and elsewhere.

As he commented recently in the journal New Blackfriars: "In contemporary religious studies there is, notoriously, immense and irresolvable confusion as to what "religion" might mean. The word now carries a range of meanings all the way from Durkheim's definition: "the system of symbols by means of which society becomes conscious of itself" to the incoherent, but still widespread, survival of seventeenth-century attempts to "privatise" the notion.

We are still quite often told that we must keep "religion" out of "politics", which is interpreted as a requirement to keep private passions and personal beliefs out of the cool rationality of the "public square". Setting aside this curiously unreal account of how, in fact, the political process works, consider its incoherence from another angle. We speak of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as "religions", and yet the history of these three peoples, and of the relationships between them, constitutes a large part of the history of Europe and the near East (and, in recent centuries, of many other parts of the world as well). And whatever is to be said of those Indian traditions which we usually lump together as "Hinduism", the Kumbh Mela, the gathering, every twelve years, of up to thirty million people, for a month, at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers – a gathering so immense that it is clearly visible from space – is a curious expression of the "private" character of religion.

There are, then, a vast variety of traditions, communities, patterns of behaviour, which may – in a range of often contradictory ways – be said to be "religions". But there is certainly no single enterprise which would count as "religion".

That there is a problem with certain kinds of religiousness and certain kinds of politics is beyond doubt. But if we are to confront these problems in a way that offers hope to humanity and the planet, simple differentiation between the two will not do. The narrative of The Economist's report illustrates this, even if not all the eminences it name-checks do.

See also my: Redeeming Religion in the Public Square -

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