Evidence of Change

In terms of the topic itself (the visibility of religion in the modern world) it is generally agreed that the final decades of the twentieth century mark a turning point. Three pivotal events encapsulate this shift. These were the Iranian revolution of 1979, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. All of them raised questions - unexpected ones - about religion. Why was it, for example, that a pro-Western, relatively secularized Shah was obliged to flee before an Iranian Ayatollah clearly motivated by conservative readings of Islam? Such a scenario had not been anticipated. And why was it that an aggressively secular ideology, not a religious one, collapsed so comprehensively throughout the Soviet bloc - a part of the world that has seen subsequently a marked, if uneven, renaissance of both Christianity and Islam? And why, finally, did the terrifying events of 9/11 come as such a bolt from the blue ? Quite simply the unimaginable had happened, requiring - amongst many other things - a radical rethinking of the paradigms that are supposed to explain, indeed to predict, the events of the modern world.

Gilles Kepel, a distinguished French scholar writing in the 1990s, was one of the first to take note of this shift. He describes the evolving situation as follows:

Around 1975 the whole process [of secularization] went into reverse. A new religious approach took shape, aimed not only at adapting to secular values but at recovering a sacred foundation for the organization of society - by changing society if necessary. Expressed in a multitude of ways, this approach advocated moving on from a modernism that had failed, attributing its setbacks and dead ends to separation from God. The theme was no longer aggiornamento but a 'second evangelization of Europe': the aim was no longer to modernize Islam but to 'Islamize modernity'. Since that date this phenomenon has spread throughout the world. (Kepel 1994: 2)

Assuming for the time being that Kepel's analysis was correct, how were Western scholars to deal with this shift, given that their work was very largely premised not only on the understanding that modern societies would be secular societies, but that 'being secular' was, in itself, a good thing?

In terms of scholarship, one of the first things to emerge was a substantial body of work on both sides of the Atlantic concerned with 'fundamentalism' - a term that was widely, if not always wisely, used in public debate. Such an approach is nicely exemplified by an American example, which became known as the 'Fundamentalism Project' established at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s. The project gathered a distinguished team of scholars from many different parts of the world, brought together to document and to explain the rapid and unexpected growth of distinctive forms of religious life in almost every global region. The details of the team, their working methods and the impressive series of publications that emanated from the meetings are easily documented. [1]

Even more important, however, are the motivations that lay behind this work and the finance made available to execute the task. Clearly this hugely expensive endeavor was indicative of concern on the part of American academia, and the foundations that resource them, about the forms of religion that were increasingly visible on a global scale. Something had to be done. In this sense the 'Fundamentalism Project' is as much part of the sociological story as it is a body of knowledge about fundamentalism itself. Peter Berger (1999) is even more provocative in his comments: the assumption that we need both to document and to understand the nature of fundamentalism by means of a research project of this stature tells us as much about American academics as it does about fundamentalism itself. [2]

Their European equivalents were, if anything, even more perplexed.

Simplifying a necessarily complex story, the situation can be summarized as follows: by this stage, religion (in all its diversity) was no longer invisible to the academic community; it was, however, increasingly constructed as a 'problem'. The problem moreover was more and more present in Western societies, not least in Europe - brought there by immigration. And if it was one thing to acknowledge changes taking place on the other side of the world, it was quite another to admit that they were there on the doorstep. A related point follows from this: these very evident trends were initially seen in terms of ethnicity rather than religion. In other words, the consequences of immigration were acknowledged in some respects, but not in others. Racial or ethnic differences, moreover, were easier for social scientists to deal with within their existing paradigms than their religious equivalents. Bit by bit, however, the mismatch between the perceptions of Western scholars, and the preferred identities of the incoming communities that were establishing themselves, had to be acknowledged, a debate in which the presence of Islam was central. However unexpected, religion and religious differences became increasingly present in the public agendas of European societies. What followed was a delayed reaction. Denial gradually gave way to alarm, generating an impressive array of publicly-funded research programmes, a wide variety of government initiatives, and a flood of publications. A selection of these will be outlined in the following section.

Before embarking on this list, two interconnected issues require attention. The first relates to the difference between reality and perception. Is it the case that religion has 'returned' to a world from which it was absent for most of the twentieth century? Or is this primarily a question of perception? Western social scientists are now obliged to take notice of something that they had ignored for several decades. Or is it a combination of both these things ? My own view is that the third alternative comes closest to the truth: religion has been continually present in almost every part of the world, but it is currently asserting itself in innovative and very visible ways. This shift is nicely captured by looking at the evolution of the World Council of Churches (WCC) - a global organization that, by definition, has always paid attention to religion.

Officially founded in 1948, the WCC became the channel through which the varied streams of ecumenical life that already existed in the churches were brought together. At the same time, it was a movement that reflected a whole series of initiatives aimed at establishing and maintaining world peace. In its early years, the WCC was deeply influenced by the Cold War and its consequences for church life. It looked for ways to overcome the divisions between East and West, especially in Europe - encouraging, as far as this was possible, contacts with the churches in Central and East Europe. Post-1989, however, the context has altered radically. The Cold War has given way to a very different reading of international affairs, within which religion emerges as a highly significant variable. And to the surprise of many - not only the advocates of the ecumenical movement - it was the conservative, even reactionary forms of religion (both Christian and non-Christian) that were growing fastest in the final decades of the twentieth century.

Hence the dilemma for an organization founded on two assumptions: first that the world would become an increasingly secular place, and second, that the best way forward in this situation was for the churches most open to change and most attentive to the modern world (notably the liberal Protestants) to group together in order to sustain each other in a necessarily hostile environment. The churches that resisted 'the world' would automatically consign themselves to the past. Both assumptions were incorrect. The world is not 'an increasingly secular place'; it is full of very different forms of religious life, many of which are expanding rather than contracting. It is, moreover, the forms of religion least interested in ecumenism that are developing with the greatest confidence. Coming to terms with such shifts constitutes a major challenge to the WCC.

Social scientists are similarly discomfited. Not only must they acknowledge the renewed significance of religion in the modern world order, but they are obliged to accept the forms that it currently takes - whether or not they find these congenial. Such a statement brings us necessarily to the second issue. Is it possible for scholars of religion to move on from their present position? Is it possible in other words for religion, in all its inherent diversity, to cease to be a problem and to become instead an entirely 'normal' feature of the late modern world? In my own work I have tried to encourage this shift by arguing that it is as modern to draw from the religious to critique the secular, as it is to draw from the secular to critique the religious. It is the quality of the argument that counts (Davie 2002).

  • [1] See for example the introductory material contained in the first volume that appeared (Marty and Appleby 1991). In the end, five volumes were published in the original series; a further volume appeared in 2003, which drew on the material of the project as a whole (Almond et al. 2003).
  • [2] The following quotation sums up Berger's argument: 'The concern that must have led to this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which "fundamentalism" ... is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but knowledge of it. The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors - it might be worth a multi-million dollar project to try to explain that!' (Berger 1999: 2).
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