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Is Secularisation Dead?

Christianity Today’s weblog rounds up a few “revenge of God” stories about a resurgence of Christian religiosity. First up, Ruth Gledhill of The Times:

The rapid growth of evangelical and Pentecostal congregations in Britain and the United States has astonished almost everyone, save the evangelicals and Pentecostals themselves.

The UK revival began in the 19th century and in the US at the start of the 20th century. This week, Pentecostals have overtaken Methodists and shot into third place in the country’s ecclesiastical ranks, after Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

…When evangelicalism did come to public notice, as with Britain’s Alpha Course or the US mega-church phenomenon, it was often seen by the mainstream as at the eccentric end of fringe.

That’s still the case in some quarters: a report in last week’s Observer explained Alpha as a “controversial” organisation which apparently “opposes homosexual acts and sex before marriage”.

But why the alleged “revival”?

…As the liberals theologised themselves out of existence (destroying their reason for existing), the void was filled by hundreds of thousands of Bible-toting US Christians eager to swap the turgid relativism and multiculturalism of the past with a more vibrant approach to faith…More than one third of Church of England worshippers is now evangelical, as are more than 80 per cent of the largest churches.

So, does this mean sociologist Steve “God is Dead” Bruce has got it wrong? Or that church statistician Peter “The Tide is Running Out” Brierley needn’t worry so much after all? We’ll probably never know, since Gledhill a) doesn’t bother to call up either person, and b) gives us only relative percentages rather than absolute figures. Just how impressive is “more than 80 per cent of the largest churches”, when she doesn’t tell us how big these “largest churches” actually are?

And insofar as there has been a conservative “revival” in the US, to what extent is that down to liberal “relativism and multiculturalism”? It’s an ever-popular diagnosis for complacent conservative columnists: liberal Christians sell out to the “spirit of the age” while conservatives hold fast to timeless truths, but the complaint can just as easily be turned back on itself. Which segment of Christianity is it that relies on celebrity-like pastors? Which is it that has churches that resemble shopping malls? That offers pop-like “Praise and Worship” music to its congregants? That has a large consumer sub-culture of novels, computer games, CDs and “Jesus Junk”? If the Alpha Course is indeed “controversial”, it’s not because it has unremarkable conservative views on sex – it’s because critics accuse it of offering up a shallow “McDonaldized” Christianity which caters to “Alphaholics” who keep on retaking the course. (By the way, does anyone remember when “multicultural” wasn’t a dirty word?)

Even the supposed rejection of relativism is, well, relative. Recall the confrontation between Ted Haggard and Richard Dawkins in January – Haggard told Dawkins that he (Dawkins) was arrogant to claim he knew more about science than other people just because he’s studied it a lot more than many of his opponents. Conservative columnists like Joseph Farah will glibly pronounce that intelligent design, or some other form of Creationism, has clearly trounced evolutionary biology, and that qualified scientists who say otherwise are either “brainwashed” or serving some ideological agenda. Such columnists feel no need to get to grips with scientific literature, because their repudiation of “Darwinism” is not based on scientific evaluation. Rather, Creationism provides a sense of comfort and justification which the difficult subject of evolutionary biology does not offer. In the case of someone like Ann Coulter, support for Creationism is primarily an exultation in the strength conservative political power, and belongs to the anti-intellectual tradition in American life. Although not recognised as such, this is relativism: something is true because it feels true.

Moving on, Zenit reports that French anthropologist René Girard has turned prophet:

In a book published recently in Italian, “Verità o fede debole. Dialogo su cristianesimo e relativismo” (Truth or Weak Faith: Dialogue on Christianity and Relativism), the anthropologist states that “we will live in a world that will seem and be as Christian as today it seems scientific.”

Girard, recently elected to be one of the 40 “immortals” of the French Academy, said: “I believe we are on the eve of a revolution in our culture that will go beyond any expectation, and that the world is heading toward a change in respect of which the Renaissance will seem like nothing.”

Girard argues that the problem (again) is relativism, and that Christianity is the solution:

“Anthropology has failed because it has not succeeded in explaining the different human cultures as a unitary phenomenon, and that is why we are bogged down in relativism.

“In my opinion, Christianity proposes a solution to these problems precisely because it demonstrates that the obstacles, the limits that individuals put on one another serve to avoid a certain type of conflicts.”

The French academic continues: “If it was really understood that Jesus is the universal victim who came precisely to surmount these conflicts, the problem would be solved.”

There’s actually a subtlety of thought there which possibly eludes positivistic critics of religion like Dawkins; but are such intellectual musings really likely to lead to a sea-change in western culture?

In the book, the French professor states that “religion conquers philosophy and surpasses it. Philosophies in fact are almost dead. Ideologies are virtually deceased; political theories are almost altogether spent. Confidence in the fact that science can replace religion has already been surmounted. There is in the world a new need for religion.”

Well, there may be a “new need” if you’re a French intellectual who worries about whether one’s theories are “deceased” or “spent” – but is that the case for the average person enjoying consumer society and making the odd donation to charity? And insofar as some feel this “new need”, why is Christianity going to be the answer rather than, say, the New Age movement? But this is not the only commonplace platitude served up by Girard:

…The French anthropologist criticizes the “politically correct world” which considers “the Judeo-Christian tradition as the only impure tradition, whereas all the others are exempt from any possible criticism.”

What’s the point here? No-one is stopping Girard from criticising other religious traditions. Or perhaps he means rather that the “Judeo-Christian” tradition should be criticised less – in which case his complaint is that there is not enough “political correctness”.

We now turn to Holland, where Joshua Livestro explores increased signs of religiosity for the Weekly Standard:

…The idea that secularization is the irreversible wave of the future is still the conventional wisdom in intellectual circles here. They would be bemused, to say the least, at a Dutch relapse into religiosity. But as the authors of a recently published study called De Toekomst van God (The Future of God) point out, organized prayer in the workplace is just one among several pieces of evidence suggesting that Holland is on the threshold of a new era–one we might call the age of “post-secularization.” In their book, Adjiedj Bakas, a professional trend-watcher, and Minne Buwalda, a journalist, argue that Holland is experiencing a fundamental shift in religious orientation: “Throughout Western Europe, and also in Holland, liberal Protestantism is in its death throes. It will be replaced by a new orthodoxy.”

Signs include prayer groups in companies and literary prizes going to religiously-themed books:

Calvinist Jan Siebelink’s Knielen op een bed violen (Kneeling on a Bed of Violets)…sold nearly 350,000 copies in its first year, making it the single bestselling Dutch-language book of the past decade–apart, that is, from a new Bible translation…

One wonders how this compares to Dutch sales of The Da Vinci Code, which would no doubt be repudiated in a Europe under the sway of this mysterious “new orthodoxy”.

And – once again – we come across the Alpha Course:

Since its inception in 1997, 120,000 people have taken the Dutch version of the course. The number of related courses is growing by around one hundred a year. Prison Alpha, Business Alpha, Student Alpha, Youth Alpha, and more recently the Alpha Marriage Course: Collectively, they seem to have struck a chord in Holland’s secular society.

The Standard also notes one trend which ought to be more-widely known about:

An SCP [Social and Cultural Planning Agency] estimate puts the number of Christian immigrants in Holland at around 700,000– and rising fast. Recent immigration reports suggest that for every new Muslim moving to Holland, there are at least two new Christian immigrants…In the meantime, Islam is already finding itself in a difficult position fighting off another threat, namely that of apostasy.

This is a welcome corrective to the lazy “Muslims are taking over Europe” hysteria currently popular in the US – theo-con George Wiegel is so obsessed with the subject that in a recent short article on Christian books for the Wall Street Journal he raised the subject of “the magnitude of Chartres’ stained glass and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes” for no other reason than to tell us that “jihadist Islam” wants to destroy it all.

Livestro certainly has some interesting data: he interviews Stanley Hofwijks, a Surinamese pastor who featured on this blog a while back, and explores the rise of house churches and Christian youth groups.

Clearly, there’s more overt religion about in Europe and the US now than there was a few years ago, and religion serves as more of an identity-marker than in the past. But just how many people, especially in Europe, are really caught up in any sort of religious “revival”, much less one that will establish a “new orthodoxy”? Even in the US, the “faith based” presidency is on the ropes, while the inroads of Creationism into schools have been largely beaten back.

Maybe we are indeed about to see “a change in respect of which the Renaissance will seem like nothing.” But based on the evidence, these obituaries for secularisation are somewhat premature.