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“Religion is proving perfectly compatible with modernity in all its forms, high and low.” This conclusion by John Micklethwait, editor of the.
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The World Youth Day that was held in Sydney in is as good an example as any to illustrate how the practice of politics and the practice of religion intersect. But I will come to that in a minute. Let me begin, however, by making an assertion and then posing a question. The assertion: God is back. The question: So what? First, the assertion that God is back. Micklethwait and Woolridge place Europe's secularist idea "that you cannot become modern without throwing off religion's yoke" alongside the American model of religion, based on choice rather than on state fiat.
And America, they say, is winning. America has put God back into modernity partly because it put modernity, or at least choice and competition, back into God. In brief, they argue, that the rise of competition, choice, free market capitalism and democracy across the globe is also giving rise to freedom of choice of religion, and competition among churches for believers.
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And that element of choice is important:. The main weapon is the ballot box. Around the world, people have repeatedly chosen to exercise their new freedoms by increasing, not decreasing, the role of religion in politics. The newly democratised, from Moscow to Cairo to Beijing, have reinserted God back into the public square - and the profoundly secular foreign policy establishment in the west has struggled to deal with it.
Now, admittedly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge's book does not consider the state of religious faith and religion in the public square in Australia. Australia and America are quite different: our origins, our founding stories, our patterns of migration, our relationship with Europe. America's practice of choice and competition in religion couldn't be more different from Australia, where pretty much everyone was either a rock-chopper or a proddy dog for the first years of our history. But, if God is back in the rest of the world, is God coming back in Australia?
In many ways, yes. Australia is not immune to what is happening globally, particularly as we increase immigration intake. According to the census, the fastest growing religions are Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. To be sure, the number of people choosing "no religion" in the census also grew, and Chrisitanity showed a slight negative growth.
Nonetheless, as God is fighting back into the modern world, she fights her way back into Australia. The Bertelsmann Foundation study also found that Australians had a largely positive perception of God. Most Australians thought of God as "loving, kind-hearted. According to the project's leader, Martin Rieger:.
Almost half of those under 30 said that they partake in prayer on a more or less regular basis and the same proportion see God as a personal being. These figures clearly refute the assumption that religious belief is dwindling.
The assumption that religious belief in Australia is dwindling, especially among young people, is still very strong - no matter what his study says. In the lead up to World Youth Day in , I spent most of my time as Government spokesperson defending the Government's decision to support the event with taxpayer dollars. There were several lines of attack I had to fend off - including one that argued that Australians are not a religious lot, and therefore the Government should not be supporting this event.
That view seemed particularly strong among journalists and talk back radio hosts, most of whom just refused to believe that crowds of any number were actually going to turn up to World Youth Day. Never mind that World Youth Day would be the biggest global event after the Olympics in World Youth Day came close to evoking some of the worst in anti-Catholic bigotry and fear-mongering - or, as I called it in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald , "libertarian moral panic.
Provisions for crowd control and protests that are used for every other event held in NSW were portrayed by the media as a sudden threat perpetrated by the Catholic Church to control our movements. Normal commercial provisions to protect sponsors' rights, used at every sporting event in the country, were condemned by the media as Catholic attempts to block free speech.
The media even resorted to outright lies, like the claim that the police were going to pre-approve protestors t-shirts. This was run on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald without any attempt by the newspaper to check if it was true. It was not. I'm recounting all this to make a point: Micklethwait and Wooldridge say that the foreign policy establishment in the West has struggled to deal with God in the public square.
It seems to me that the media establishment in Australia faces the same struggle. It was not without some irony and amusement that I watched the media coverage of World Youth Day transform, almost immediately from the point at which the first plane load of pilgrims arrived from overseas. As Sydney's streets and trains and buses and public spaces were filled with hundreds of thousands of young people, our city became a very happy place.
How Did God Get Started?
Thousands of Sydneysiders came out to join in the event, or to host pilgrims, or just revel in the joyful nature of the celebration. The media did everything it possibly could to condemn World Youth Day, but it would seem the young people of the world and the people of Sydney didn't listen.
In fact, as the week of World Youth Day unfolded, the media instead found themselves following public opinion rather than leading it. World Youth Day is perhaps a very large and unique example of God in the public square, but in Australia we are seeing God coming back into public discussion.
Religion can be found in public debates ranging from stem cell research to development applications to a local council. Discussions about school chaplains, ethics classes, and same sex adoption all invite and include church involvement. But religious leaders also get involved in discussions about climate change and the proposed mandatory pre-commitment scheme for pokie machines.
Modernity arrived and improvised new starring roles for God. In rich countries and poorer ones, democratic and undemocratic, primarily Islamic and primarily Christian — everywhere, basically, except Europe — devotion to God has remained surprisingly robust. To anyone who lives outside Europe, the Harvard campus or Manhattan all faith-free zones singled out by the authors , this conclusion is not exactly startling. In most of the United States, for example, God is always back in one form or another.
And various religion-stoked conflicts in the Middle East and Africa make the modern era sometimes feel like a replay of the Crusades. Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not display the usual horror at overt religiosity that we heard in abundance from British and other European writers during the Bush years.
Starting with the cheerful ad-speak of the title, they are instead astute social observers in the Tocquevillean mode, reporting from a distance in a tone just short of admiring. When it comes to American religion, they marvel mostly at its astounding success at replicating itself all over the world. While fundamentalists of all kinds get most of the attention, the authors zero in on another phenomenon: the growth and global spread of the American megachurch.
Church became a place to form social bonds, get dates, meet fellow moms isolated in suburbia, lose weight. Christian America spawned a parallel world of popular culture, with books and movies telling people how to live meaningful lives. The most original parts of the book come when they follow the trail overseas, where homegrown Rick Warrens are popping up in unlikely places.
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Only this is taking place in Shanghai, one of the many places where the casual, personalized, distinctly American style of worship is thriving. They do the same thing a group of American evangelicals would do: debate homosexuality and Darwin, vow to spread the Word, and then check their BlackBerrys before heading home. View all New York Times newsletters.
The American style even has converts in the Muslim world. His TV show features testimonials from sports stars and actresses, and he peddles cassettes and sweatshirts on his Web site. Much like their American models, this new generation of religious leaders is an interesting mix of modern style and traditional message. In many Muslim regions, democracy and the markets are leading to an explosion of religion in the opposite way, as fundamentalists react against sexual promiscuity and other excesses they see in modern life in general and American-style capitalism in particular.
There is no Koran equivalent of the various Bible zines that tailor their message to teenagers or hip-hop fans in America. There has never been a Muslim equivalent of the Enlightenment. The result is a modern era that seems to be replaying the religious wars of the 17th century in a slightly altered form. Nigeria is split along religious lines. But if that choice can lead you to either buy a sweatshirt or blow up a building, the conclusion itself seems a little forced.