God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59420-213-1) 416 pp. Cloth $27.95
It’s a bit strange—if not audacious—that The Economist’s editor in chief, John Micklethwait, and its Washington bureau chief, Adrian Wooldridge, would choose to coauthor a free-market explanation of religion’s growth and fortitude in the midst of our era’s greatest economic recession. Stranger still is that they should use the ill-timed tome to rail against a position that blew its final smoke in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, namely that advancing modernity will inevitably trample religion into the dustbin of history. Yet this is exactly what Micklethwait and Wooldridge have done, arguing over the four hundred-odd pages of God Is Back that, contrary to their notion of common secular belief, religion is actually alive and well—even growing—in most parts of the world.
So wait, the Reagan–Bush II years, when heads were piously bowed over the button, weren’t just a bad dream? Thanks for waking up, guys.
Their lagging premise might be excusable if it merely formed the basis of the book’s introduction or led to new and interesting conclusions. But, sadly, it’s the foundation of the entire book, and even at that is wasted on supporting a drab, one-story edifice whose long halls lead to something akin to a rear service-entrance, its rusted door opening onto a flat, undeveloped patch of dirt. As much as Micklethwait and Wooldridge would have us believe otherwise, they just haven’t added much new to the religious-secular dialogue. Certainly not enough to warrant a book.
Starting with an anecdotal look at a rather intolerant and ignorant “house church” in present-day China, the authors turn their eyes to secular Europe (a region they view as an anomaly in the global religious landscape) and the powerful and exportable religiosity of the United States. Guided by the basic economic principles of Adam Smith (i.e., that freedom of competition plus self-interest equals growth) and evolutionary psychology (“Man . . . is a theotropic beast: given the option, he is inclined to believe in a God”), the authors argue that as more countries open up to democracy and market capitalism, the increased freedom will naturally cause religion to flourish. Religion is here, and it ain’t going away, they tell us. Better just learn to live with it. In a nutshell, that’s the book. Its premise, argument, and conclusion are pretty much handled by its cover.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t any interesting nuggets within God’s pages. In fact, what makes the book so frustrating is that as soon as the authors unearth a tempting gem, they toss it aside like archaeologists on a quantitative rather than qualitative dig. They can’t wait to check the next subject off their list. There’s little time to assess the value of any unexpected, inconvenient rubble scraped up by their shovels. This is perhaps a result of their commitment to remain—or, at least, appear to remain—unbiased in their quest. Professing an initial hope that “whatever biases we bring have canceled each other out,” the Roman Catholic and atheist authors proceed to play a calculated and unsatisfying game of tug-of-war, finding moments to drape a sarcastic flag over both the religious and secular fields. With their “neutrality” thus well secured they are freed from having to ask any truly interesting questions, most notably “Why?” and “How?” Why was an admittedly religious president like George W. Bush blind to the religious turmoil that his invasion of Iraq would unleash, and what does that say about religion’s power to blind and divide? How can religious growth be both a product of freewheeling market capitalism and also serve as the balm that, to paraphrase the authors, protects us from capitalism’s thorns? If neurobiology has demonstrated the positive effect praying has on the brain, why seek purely extraphysical explanations as to why this is so? And, most important, why, simply because religion continues to exist, should we pull at the weeds that seek to temper its growth? After all, a large chorus of naysayers dismissed climate change, too. Yet global warming continues to expand in the modern world. Should we simply give in and learn to live with that as well?
In the end, Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s lack of inquiry exposes their greatest bias of all: that of belief in the free market’s ability to keep itself in balance on a never-ending road of growth. (While airing their religious affiliations, it would have been nice for them to come clean about their economic allegiances as well.) With the skyscrapers of the global economy teetering around them, the authors confidently tout the merits of simply letting “religious people get on with their business.” Sure, they admit, religion can be dangerous, evenly deadly, and preachers have been known to bilk and abuse their flocks as predictably as multinational corporate CEOs, but what’s the alternative? (Be assured, this is a rhetorical question.) Their inability to see beyond religion’s glow (the atheist among them is surely of the “I’m an atheist, but . . .” nature that Richard Dawkins despises) causes them to make a willful slide into the comfortable, steaming pool of ignorant bliss. So proud are they, in fact, of their exhilarating immersion that they give in to the scholarly hubris of branding it. No doubt they are hoping their term soulcraft, by which is meant “religion’s ability to provide purpose where life might seem purposeless, and community where community is lacking,” will soon be bandied about with the likes of “Islamofascism” and “theocon.” Why the nonbeliever among them couldn’t suggest an alternative to this religious remedy is a mystery. But it smacks of one who posits himself above the huddled masses: “Sure, I can find meaning without belief,” we can hear him saying. “But you can hardly expect the rest of the ignorant rabble to do so.”
Feeling quite justified within their don’t-knock-it-if-it-works Garden of Eden, our Economist friends are happy to prance off into any number of glossy meadows. After repeatedly likening America’s megachurches to Wal-Mart shopping centers (and not derisively), the authors cite Pew statistics in arguing that churchgoing makes a person happier and “is a lot easier to do” than accumulating the wealth it would take to make that person equally content. This is followed by such jaw-dropping conclusions as finding that Pentecostalism is “a great force for social progress and upward mobility,” as if the two were inherently inseparable, and, without seriously addressing the effects of religious repression on women, that “women are notable gainers” from Pentecostalism. They also suggest that megachurch sprawl provides “social bonds for otherwise atomized suburban man,” without considering that a move back to city life would not only accomplish the same thing but would likewise help in the fight against climate change, transportation and energy woes, and other problems that face us collectively. It comes as little surprise when they see high birthrates among the religious only in terms of how they will expand belief without considering overpopulation.
The United States is Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s supreme test case, showing, they argue, how religious pluralism leads to a prosperous, democratic, and happy society. With their economic mindset, they naturally—and not wrongly—expect such a market to spread. But they refuse to examine, let alone become alarmed at, how other American and religious traditions might well tag along on this journey around the world, seeding and/or supporting high rates of violence and depression, a widening gap between rich and poor, a penchant for treating addicts as moral and not medical cases, and the wrongheaded insistence that religious choice offsets any ill effects of childhood indoctrination (to name but a few). As indicated, this is a book that wears its heart on its cover—its disingenuous argument is immediately apparent. Secularists know all too well that God never went away. And Micklethwait and Wooldridge are less than convincing in pitching him as a prodigal son.