Us philosophers and bards do love our little spritzing contests, don’t we?
Well, what better a Titanic tussle upon which to frivolously feast our ever-curious inner-eyes and intellects, than two of the most flamboyantly theatrical philosophical demolition men of the past two centuries?!
The old jests are always the most exciting ones, so we’ll begin with a frosty little snark from the Dangerously Daemonical Dionysios of Turin!
The much-vaunted Death of God greatly amused the formidable ego (and almost as formidable intellect!) of the world-historically mad, bad and dangerous to know Tipsily Teutonic Titan, Friedrich Nietzsche, who is widely worshipped and scapegoated for the following ex cathedra Prussianly-Pontificating Sermon to the Dead:
God is Dead, and we have killed Him.
Yet one of his dizzyingly dilettantish disciple-and-punishers, Monsieur Merry(lye-Brandbucked) Michel Foucault, was later to provide his own sceptical incantation to this disenchanted world of footloose Alpine nymphs and fancy-free elfs of Avignon, in the following dazzlingly-De Maistrean indictment of the Memorably-Meta-Myriadic-Masterless-Master of Leipzig:
Discourse is not life; its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don’t imagine that, with all that you are saying you will make a man that will live longer than he.
Who had the better of this tussle?
Well, if numbers are anything to go by, it looks like a classic case of ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King!’
It may be over half a decade since the truly epochal study by Pew Research on worldwide religious demographic trends was first released, and yet it often feels as though the significance of this study has yet to truly sink in with many of the self-proclaimed towering intellectual heavyweights of the day!
And while the construction of long term demographic projections has ever been a notoriously challenging endeavour, the runaway growth of religious demographics worldwide, compared to the stubborn decline of non-religious demographics, is far more likely to create the kind of feedback loop that will accentuate the coming tendency of incremental desecularisation of the world, rather than increasing it.
But before going into the rationale for this rather striking assertion, let’s have a closer look at the findings themselves, shall we?
Firstly, one of the most intriguing findings of all is this:
Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.
But what about relative growth in religions?
The worldwide Buddhist population is likely to not only stagnate but even decline somewhat, but Hindu and Jewish populations will continue to grow. Christianity and Islam will both grow significantly, but high birth rates means Islam will draw nearly even with Christianity.
There are various interesting points about the global distribution of world faiths too. For example, as the UK journalist Giles Fraser in 2016, Christianity is not ‘in decline’ worldwide, but more in the Western world, and the centre of gravity of the faith is shifting to the global south.
Christianity is currently dying in Europe and the US may gradually follow suit. Pew Research predictions have US Christianity declining from three-quarters today to two-thirds in 2050. But Christianity has been around for centuries, and it remains by far the largest ideological collective the world has ever known. This hasn’t died at all. It has simply shifted its global centre of gravity south and east. And the future is China.
A more specific point in the Pew Research data is this one:
Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
All of these points are of extraordinary historical significance, as they threaten to fatally undermine the triumphalist victory hurrahs of the Church of Dawkins and their ever more pale and tattered Good-Ol’-Bougie’s banner: the Everlasting Whig March of Secular Conquest!
Now of course, anyone who knows anything at all about history can clearly see that Liberalism and Marxism have both founded much of their legitimacy on the notion that Progress (as they define it) is an unstoppable force that is destined to burn away every last vestige of corrupt, reactionary deadwood in its path.
Yet what the renowned historian Herbert Butterfield has famously named the ‘Whig Theory of History’ actually faces an existential threat from the demographic figures discussed by Pew.
And it really does seem pretty clear from where I’m standing in 2021 that whether it’s the Moderate Enlightenment of Washington or the Radical Enlightenment of Paris (a very handy conceptional distinction from my somewhat more widely-known and considerably less notorious namesake Jonathan Israel!) the Veno, Vidi, Vici of Fundamental Rationalism has undergoing one helluvah historical hangover!
(Though nowadays it might be more a jolly-jesuitical In Vino Veritas, as the ancients burped and bargled).
Times was, the entire Kosmos was promised some pristinely-pedantic and plentipotentiarily-priggish New Jerusalem, emancipated from the proverbial soul-forg’d miracle-manacles of the Pestiferously Priestly Pox and Rabbinically Robespierre-Renouncing Rheumatism of superstition, irrationality and intellectual Alzheimer’s!
And yet it would appear the frivolously flitty goddess ‘Reason,’ the blushing bride of bloodshed’s bounty, O-so-graciously and chivalrous enthroned by Randy Robespierre an’ all as she was, well she’s been caught with her coquettish-culottes well and truly down…
As a world-historically humiliating Exhibit A of nonsense on stilts!
(Yes-yes, bit of a joke-of-art again, hoooo-de-hum. You wouldn’t understand… MUCH!)
Whisper it decorously, but one might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the Pol Pots, Mao-Tse-Tungs, Auguste Comtes and Héberts of this world might have spoken a little soon when they said religion was destined to wither away and be replaced by…
Well never mind, I guess that would spoil the surprise then, wouldn’t it!
Well, in any case, it looks like the results are in.
It’s a knockout, in today’s world-historical jeux sans frontières contest!
The Ayes have it, and the Nays don’t.
Foucault was right, to the degree some delectably effervescent ’60s Parisian flâneur can ever be correct or incorrect, as such.
(Don’t I know it!)
Yet having genially plundered the erstwhile Evershimmerously-Edenic Temple of Faith with the true velocity of a Fastless Thief, the tremorously tricyclic triceratopses of Jurassic Humanism took good care to cover their back, and on the back of a most impressively rudimentary brown envelope, made bold to install a ‘Humanity’ (code name: HOME OECONOMICUS) of a certain cold-blooded reptilian rationalism, torturously tick-tocking technocracy and vacuously never-say-ever nihilism that is finally, in the fulness of time, depart to meet its non-existent maker…
Insofar, as the scorched earth tactics of its puritanical acolytes have made the soil just that little pinch too dry and lifeless for anything to flourish, except by some kind of unseen miracle; but as miracles do not exist (or so we’re told) then I guess we don’t have to worry too much about that one, do we?!
Yet from where we are standing, y’know, we loony-laiquelos of every faith on earth who somehow presume the temerity to affirm that the bizarrely exotic vision of history atheist fundamentalism has to offer us takes more faith that anyone we every know concerned…
Well, some of us think the return of faith really isn’t such a bad thing as the grand catechists of insanely rationalistic humanistic misanthropy might the world believe!
For… well, here’s a thought!
What if what really died at the hands of antisemitic mobs in Paris, Christophobic intellectuals in Germany, and colonial warmongers and anti-imperialist backlash dictators wasn’t really God, or Ha-Shem, or Allah, or Buddha, or Waheguru at all, but only the idolatrous pre-modern vision of Divinity that was often so averse to pluralism?
… Thinking is dangerous.
Then again, I suppose life is dangerous, so we better get used to it!
What if the ikonoklasm of the Enlightenment didn’t kill God, or really any deity at all?
What if it simply killed an image that was based on deeply autocratic tendencies?
And the tricky thing about smashing the ikons, as some of us will know no doubt, is that there’s always a new one being painted somewhere else.
Now by all means you can call this another hysterical little hunch of mine (nah yer welcome mush, I’m used to it!) but something tells me that by the time we reach the year 2050, neither theocracy nor secularism will be that much of a thing any more.
Religion is back, and as far as the long run of history is concerned, disenchantment is on the wane!
So, why not simply take the courage to embrace the objective tendency of history, and to perceive the re-enchantment and the sacralisation of civic space as an opportunity to live authentically and to increase the mutual understanding, care, solidarity and self-sacrificial love of people between every faith?
Why not reject the pessimism of both theocracy and secularism alike, seeing as both tendencies treat religious pluralism as a political and social liability rather than an asset, acting as though all or most religions were somehow some particularly deadly virus strain from which the country and indeed the world must be quarantined, on pain of death?
Watch the world and see: come back to me in a few years or decades and tell me that I’m wrong to say that country by country, breaking the commonly-held taboo on religion in public life will actually be of some assistance in healing beleaguered countries like France, who once were so proud and haughty, but now continually awash in a cynical self-despair and excruciating self-doubt!
Of course, there will always be those who try to quibble and dibble some desperate dents and doesie-Mc-dab-a-lots upon the existing scholarship of this topic.
But it’s just desperately difficult to see how they can succeed now, isn’t it?
And as religious demographics grow and secular demographics wane, discontent with secularist chauvinism will grow, and religious voices will not only be more numerous, but more assertive; no longer will truth be determined by who is speaking, but rather, ideas will be judged on their own merits; a truly ennobling goal that is surely every bit as difficult to assure in the insidiously anti-pluralistic environment of today’s secular bigotry as in the overtly monistic theocracies of the past.
And over time, politicians will feel increasingly nervous, and they will gradually begin to chip away at pre-existing secular superstitions; while more and more so, the media and the academic worlds will see a shifting of the Overton window, and one in which many of their colleagues are themselves increasingly participating!
And so it is that the increasingly emboldened post-secular democracies (or democracies that never went as far with secularism as some Western countries did to start with!) will begin to exert soft power influences, and the remaining old-school nation-states will feel increasingly embarrassed to be behind the curve.
Parents will be passing on the teachings of their religion to their children, and not only will religious families produce more numerous offspring on the average than non-religious ones, but the more traditional forms of each religion will grow as well.
To name but one example, Israel is seeing considerable long-term growth in Orthodox Jews, including the highly conservative Haredim.
Meanwhile Arabs (many of whom belong to Islam or to traditional forms of Christianity) will grow more than the non-religious.
In any given country, those who hold to a more traditional form of religion are likely to have somewhat higher birth rates than those with a more modern form of the same religion, given the divergence of norms around sex, marriage and family; so not only will religious demographics get larger over time, but also within each religion, those with the most traditional understanding of each religion will be the ones with the highest birth rates.
So regardless of how hard people try to suggest that existing demographic projections from Pew are somehow overblown and exaggerated, it seems pretty clear that none of the highly artificial and technocratic ideologies of political manipulation and control either of left, right and centre, have any final staying power in the world.
The real question is not ‘Is the future post-secular?’ but rather, ‘What kinds of post-secular futures are open to the world?’
For contrary to centuries of ill-informed arrogance and hubris, it really does appear overwhelmingly likely that secularism is not going to be the End of History, as the more superstitious and credulous of the intellectuals have so commonly claimed.
This, in turn, means two very different futures lie ahead for the human race globally, regionally, nationally, and locally:
One possible future is a Hobbesian state of totalitarian anarchy, with constant feuding between autocratic, dictatorial, clerical fascist regimes.
A proliferation of postmodern theocracies, hostile and averse to pluralism of all kinds, religious and otherwise; constant metastatising and mutating like cancerous tumours and pandemic plagues of hatred and vitriol and unrelenting viciousness and ressentiment!
Another future is much brighter, and indeed unprecedentedly radiant in its undying beauty, for its light is the light of every human person who has come into the world..
It is a light that is annunciated by first giving way for it.
The hour of decision will be the informal, de facto, (OFTEN!) unspoken taboo against comprehensive involvement of people of all faiths in the public and private spheres will lead to a renewal of pluralism and universalism alike; rather than to the negation and diminution of universal values and respect for differences, as the secularist community of course will claim.
When people of all faiths and none take the courage to strike out and to co-operate on common ground and seek to forge a new consensus, and any disagreements are resolved peacefully and democratically instead of being swept under the carpet, or rather into the pressure cooker of fundamentalist fear and hatred and hostility and suspicion, then there can be more harmony and solidarity and consensus and justice and love and compassion, not less.
This may not be easy, but the basic principle is simple.
If people stubbornly cling to secularism, and such authentically universalistic and pluralistic post-secular, post-liberal, multi-faith democracies do not have their chance to emerge, then the only future the world has ahead of it is clerical fascist dictatorships.
An eruption of postmodern theocracies of any kind, no matter what the religion, would surely be an unprecedented threat to human dignity and any fleeting, infinitesimal measure of civilisation.
The only way to avoid a cascading Neo-Dominionist’s Dominican-Domino-Palooza of totalitarian theocracies across the entire globe, and the only way, again, to avoid the better nature of religion being diverted into some kind of autocratic dystopian global and national hellscape, is to guard against it in advance, and welcome every religion into all areas of the public sphere.
This prospect still leave a tough challenge ahead for religious authorities of the major world faiths: but as many of them have been compelled to accustom themselves to the secular age, this is just another grand-scale challenge that might help each faith grow in its own individual self-understanding, as well as in mutual understanding with all the rest.
Legislators will of course have the task of ensuring that in the coming era of post-secular, multi-faith democracies, there will be no collusion of larger faiths against smaller faiths, and that a higher degree of religious pluralism does not undermine other forms of pluralism also.
The coming era will most certainly not be completely and utterly flawless in all respects, but it will surely be a great improvement on anything that has come before!
I am perhaps about take a fearful liberty here (and not for the first time!), but I pray it will not be considered too impious to sing with Rumi, deftly furnishing a nifty modulation of his words:
Out beyond ideas of Progress and Regress,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Perhaps beyond the early 20s rage and arrogance of youth and its commendable-catastrophes of those who are ‘crass enough to care,’ and all its admirably-inane-and-aleatory-ire for half-baked ‘Progress,’ the human race is about to reach true ‘Maturation’ instead.
They say Love is different in your 30s than in yours 20s.
Well maybe then, for We the 8 Billion…
Our best is truly yet to come!
But for those of us who feel stifled in today’s all-encompassing, austere and arid climate of alienation, anomie and despair…
This one is for you…
FOR WE THE 8 BILLION.