Demise of religion exaggerated

Journalist David Vincent comments on a new book demonstrating the fallacy of the media's view that religion is in terminal decline.
David Vincent | Aug 26 2009 | comment  

Perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the media of the 21st century has been exposed in a new book by two of the world’s leading journalists -- Editor-in-chief of The Economist magazine, John Micklethwait, and the magazine’s former Washington correspondent, Adrian Wooldridge. The book, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, points out that outside a few developed nations, particularly in Europe, religious faith has not only been growing, but growing rapidly.

"If you look around the world . . . throughout America, most of Asia, Africa, Latin America, God is doing well," Micklethwaite told one interviewer. He says the reason he and his colleague wrote the book was because the truth challenges the assumption that many people in developed countries have been brought up with -- "the more modern a country gets, the less religious it gets, the more secular it gets".

When you look around the world, says Micklethwait, this view just isn’t true.

God is Back cover"It’s true of Western Europe and it’s true of Australia," he says, "but it’s not true of most of the world. In most of the other areas of the world, religion is doing very well, and very much following the American model. If you want a brilliant example of that, . . . go to China. It has close to 100 million Christians now, compared to 70 million members of the Communist Party. It’s a big change and it’s symbolic of what’s been happening around the world."

Micklethwait is not just talking statistics here. He travelled the world to get a first-hand look at what is taking place. For instance he travelled around China, mixing with those who have had a faith conversion. He visited house churches, including one in Shanghai, to see what was taking place. He came away with the belief that as Christianity spreads throughout China, "really incredibly quickly", it will certainly become the world’s biggest Christian country. He believes it may even become the world’s biggest Muslim country as well -- "there are already more Muslims there than there are in Saudi Arabia".

Essentially, through the book Micklethwait says he is calling on Western intellectuals and journalists to at least recognise the facts: "Religion is there whether we like it or not."

Why should he need to do such a thing? The reason will be obvious to any experienced journalist -- the fact is that the fourth estate has tended to be a breeding ground for cynicism. Apart from columnists, particularly those dedicated to taking up controversial positions on social questions, to embrace or to promote religion is tantamount to a betrayal of an unwritten code. In my own experience extending over more than three decades, most journalists know next to nothing about religion. In one case I know of, a prominent newspaper appointed one journalist as religious affairs correspondent simply because he had a passing interest in Buddhism. The journalist in question knew almost nothing about the largest religion he would be covering -- Christianity, and even less about the other great religions, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam.

That is not to say that all religious correspondents that I have known over the years have been ignornant of religion. Some have been very well informed, including a minister of religion who had very good relations with religious leaders from many other faiths. But in more recent times, this has not been the case. Even the journalists on some radio and television religious programs have shown little understanding of the subject about which they are meant to have some expertise. Some even appear to be dedicated to disparaging, rather than informing about, religion.

But moving away from those journalists who are meant to specialise in religious reporting to general reporters, the view that I have formed over many years is that their ignorance about religion is nothing more than a form of professional snobbery. It often seems to be based on the conception that all real power in modern democratic societies resides in politics and business.

Journalists from The Economist have not been any different -- at the very least, the magazine has had a very secular world view. But the two authors of God is Back seem to be better informed than most of their predecessors. At the same time, they are in no way espousing religious belief. They assert that theirs is purely a work of journalism, meant to inform readers about one of the biggest sociological developments of our time. And for those who consider religion as the preserve of backward peasants they have a clear message. Micklethwait sums it up: "One of the oddest things is it’s precisely the most modern go-ahead people who are often turning towards religion. Just as in China, you have the prosperous bourgeoisie finding this new thing."

Even within the Chinese Government, says Micklethwait, views differ: "One bit is keen to have some sort of glue to keep their country together. Another group, though, are very frightened by the fact that churches are the biggest NGO in the country already. You have already got things like the Falun Gong which they were frightened of, you have some of the rebellions of the 19th century led by Christians. And at the most extreme I’ve even heard Chinese people talk about John Paul II bringing down the Soviet Union. So they are worried by this new thing which is growing within them. On the other hand they sometimes want to promote it, because they see it as a glue to bring things together."

And for those journalists who still believe religion is some kind of aberration which does harm, Micklethwait believes that the opposite view is more consistent with the facts: "Man is essentially quite a theotropic creature," he says. "If you leave people to it, give them a decent supply of religions, the chances are they will probably grasp one. It’s true everywhere outside that Western Europe-plus-Australian phenomenon. The second reason is there are a lot of sociological reasons why people would want to be religious. There ‘s a wealth of evidence that religious people are healthier, wealthier and wiser . . ."

David Vincent is at present a Sydney-based freelance journalist. He has worked on many newspapers and magazines over the past 35 years. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in Perspective magazine.

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