By Rooholamin Saeidi

The resurgence of religion in the last modern century: prof. Scott Thomas (Part 1)

April 24, 2019 - 11:39

TEHRAN - Dr. Scott Thomas is an American who lectures in International Relations and the Politics of Developing Countries. He studied in the School of International Service at the American University, Washington, DC before going to the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics for his MSc and PhD. He taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and South Africa before coming to Bath in 1994 where he is a permanent member of the teaching staff. At Bath he teaches a variety of courses on international relations.

Following is the text of the part 1 of his interview with Asre-Andisheh Magazine:

Q: Why contrary to all predictions, hasn’t Western modernization led to the erosion and demise of religion even in developed countries?
A: It is true that we now live – especially for most Westerners, or Europeans, ‘We live in a world that is not supposed to exist.’ Why do we live in a world that is not supposed to exist – the short answer is that religion was supposed to decline with modernization and economic development, and this has not happened. The idea that there is such a relationship – is a product of (Western) social science, in which what happened to the West – socially, politically, economically, was thought to establish general principles, patterns, propositions, or relationships which were valid for all peoples and cultures in the world.  However, there may not be a set relationship between religion, secularization, and modernization, and the relationship between them might be related to specific cultures, religions, and civilizations.

The decline of religion as a part of modernization has been predicted since the 18th century Enlightenment: education, urbanization, science, technology, and the rise of literacy, and the middle class (i.e. better living standards) were all – allegedly – supposed to lead to the end of religion. This has not happened, and these factors have even contributed to the vitality of religion. 

A number of factors come together to shape the contours of the global  political and religious landscape in the 21st century: (i) the rise of the global South (demography), (ii) the rise of emerging powers (economy),  (iii) the rise of global urbanization (megacities in the global South), (iv) the rise of the global middle class (in the megacities, in the global South), (v) the rise of refugees, migrants, and diaspora communities, and (vi) how these contours intersect or come together in the ‘religious world of the global South.’  So, from Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Lagos, and Cairo, to Seoul, and Jakarta - contrary to secularization theory, and contrary to the European experience of modernization, megacities, mega-churches, mega-mosques, and being religious, educated, and middle class go together in the 21st century. Religion returning to public life, and religion and modernization can go hand in hand, especially in the global South, and dramatically so in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, where the state, the nation, religion, and modernization have gone together). Moreover, by 2050, if not before this time, China will have the largest number of Christians and Muslims in the world.

We do need to careful since the Middle Ages were not entirely the great ‘age of faith’ as it is often made out to be, so there also may not be a great age of decline. Moreover, these are factors which might link not necessarily be linked to all religions, but only Christianity and modernization, or perhaps only European Christianity and modernization, i.e. the close relationship between church and state (‘throne and altar’ in European history) is what contributed to the decline in religion, and this is not like Christianity in other parts of the world. It is often argued the separation of church and state has contributed to vitality of religion in the U.S. (an argument going back to Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, seeing the close relationship in Jacksonian America between religion, voluntary organizations, and civil society). 

A couple of other points may be relevant.  The idea of ‘decline in religion’ is often seen as synonymous with ‘decline in church attendance,’ membership figures, etc., but it is not clear this is an indication of the interest of people in spirituality (regardless of how this concept is defined). The number of people – even in what might be called ‘neo-pagan’ secular Britain, there is still a wide desire, thirst, for meaning, authenticity, spirituality, and transcendence. If this is the case, then it might be argued one part of the explanation has to do with the nature of religious institutions themselves. It is also not clear a decline of institutional religion is directly caused by cultural trends – since many institutions are struggling with members (e.g. political parties, trade unions, etc., and these are secular institutions).  

Q: Why do some thinkers name the 20th century as ‘The Last Modern Century’? Should we consider Western modernity as a linear process and generalize it to other parts of the world or can we think of ‘multiple modernities’?

A: The idea of the ‘last modern century’ is a recognition of the rise of the ‘postmodern’ and the ‘postsecular’ in the sense that toward the end of the 20th century there has been a growing lack of faith, even a collapse of faith, in a hegemonic narrative of (Western) modernity and modernization. In other words, a lack of faith in a single overall character, direction, and meaning of progress, modernity, and development, which would now spread around the world. What is now happening is postmodernity and postsecularity open up the possibilities for the rise of multiple modernities (i.e. the collapse of the hegemonic Western narrative), multiple ways of being religious and being modern in the 21st century. This connects with what I said earlier about the religious world of the global South or the religious world of the 21st century. 

I first examined this idea of the 20th century as the ‘last modern century’ in my book The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. I argued there that one of the aspects of the global resurgence of religion was the way (cultural) ‘authenticity has come to rival development as a key to understanding the political aspirations of the non-Western world.’ This referred to the ways societies, countries, want to gain economic prosperity, and organize their political, economic and social systems in ways that are consistent with their moral base, their cultural heritage, and religious traditions. Basically, it is one of the results of the failure of the secular, modernizing, state to produce democracy and development. Now I would add the failure of more and more people to share in the benefits of globalization.  It is also for these reasons why it would be misleading to view the global religious resurgence as the same as ‘fundamentalism’ or a ‘clash of civilizations.’ 

Moreover, given what I have said about the religious world of the global South, it is simply no longer the case that secularization is inherently a part of modernity and modernization. Modernity – as a type of social condition, and modernization - as a type of social process – yes, was a linear process, began in Europe, and now was spreading – or seemingly spreading, around the world. How much this ‘linearity’ is itself a product of a Judeo-Christian or really ‘Abrahamic’ view of history (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is an interesting question, but clearly for the West this linear view of history is a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

However, the alternative view is still with us - it is the idea that what happened in the West – a particular type of modernization and development, will happen in the rest of the world, or as V.S. Naipaul, the British write born in Trinidad who won the Nobel Prize for literature famously put it, ‘Western civilization is the universal civilization.’ However, what we can now see is that the European great power politics went together with the universal idea of the inevitability of the global spread of Western civilization (i.e. spread in the early ideas of European anthropology, sociology, etc.). This is also why today the decline in Western hegemony is accompanied by the increasing idea of multiple modernities to account for the ways of being modern and being religious in the rise of the global South. 

Q: Do you consider modernity or secularism as a universal theory or as a faith or myth?

A: I do not consider modernity or secularism to be a universal theory, or universal theory of modernization, but (like the sociologists Robert Bellah and Robert Wuthnow) I consider them to be a type of myth, or a type of faith, in a certain (Western/European) view of progress, modernization, and development (how the doctrine of progress is itself a secularization of the concept of Christian eschatology I will not examine now). What makes the theory of secularization ‘mythic,’ i.e. the idea that modernity, modernization, secularism, and secularization are inherently interrelated social processes, is that it does what myths have always done – for (so-called ‘traditional societies’ as well as ‘modern’ societies,’ myths are powerful stories we tell ourselves – who were are (identity), and who we want to be in the world (the ‘telos’ or end goal of ourselves, our societies, and what our countries, or civilizations can offer the world, which need not be based on arrogance, but on a genuine appreciation of others).

We have to remember that what are now regarded as the periods of Western or European history – what are now called ‘the dark ages,’ the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment began as ideological constructions to legitimate certain ideas, interests, groups, and institutions before they became merely the periods of time. The idea or concept of ‘the Renaissance’ - the way European history is divided up and characterized, is itself an ideological construction by Vasari, Petrarch, and other Renaissance artists and thinkers.  The point was to link Italy – and see all of Europe or Renaissance Europe (e.g. Henry XVIII as a renaissance Prince), as a ‘rebirth’ a ‘renaissance’ of classical Greece and Rome – derogatively, calling the period in between as ‘the dark ages’ or the ‘middle ages’ and the cultural rebirth of Greek and Roman heritage in the city-states of Italy.  Now the concept of the ‘global renaissance’ tries to connect the Italian Renaissance within ideas, events in international relations – trade, finance, commodities, patronage, imperial conflict, and encounters/exchanges between other cultures (esp. Islamic world of Levant, Middle East), which were also part of the Renaissance. In other words, the collapse of faith in (Western) modernization, and multiple modernities are opening up a new reading of history, even a new reading of Western history, one which tries to argue not necessarily against Western achievements, but towards a greater recognition of the interdependence of cultures and peoples around the world. 

Q: If Westphalian order led to the marginalization of religion in international relations, can we say that the emerging post-Westphalian order and the erosion of states’ absolute power has resulted in the return of religion to public sphere?

A: It is true that Westphalia – the treaty in 1648, which brought the (allegedly) religious wars or Thirty Years War to an end, frames the dominant narrative in the discipline of International Relations on the rise of the modern international system, and the rise of modern international relations. ‘Westphalia was the majestic portal which leads form the old world to the new world,’ as the conventional story is famously told. In this sense ‘Westphalia’ is the benchmark or template against which contemporary international political change or social and political change is assessed in international relations.

It is important to recognize that sovereignty is a legal condition, and autonomy (states’ absolute power) is a political condition. The U.S. after 1945 was in a uniquely powerful position – it was the most unique ‘unipolar’ movement, and yet the U.S. still worked to found the United Nations (rather than only ‘coalitions of the willing’), which arguably was established on the legal equality of states – even though the U.S. was one of the most powerful. European states also agreed to limit to some extent their sovereignty to found the European Community. I have argued that religion mattered in both instances - in the U.S. it was a kind of ‘Protestant’ hegemony, in which theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Christian realists, and Christian liberals (i.e. the mainline churches, at a time when American evangelicalism was in a low position), helped form the United Nations, and World Council of Churches. The Protestant churches in the 1940s actually produced Sunday School materials to support the founding of the U.N, something now, with the rise of conservative evangelicalism, would never take place. The point is that these early theologians constructed a ‘public theology of international order’ which supported international law and international institutions, and it was Christian Democrat leaders (de Gasperi in Italy, Adenauer in Germany), and Catholic social teaching which provided many of the ideas underlying the European Union. So, the idea of ‘the return of religion to the public square’ does need to be contextualized.