Several weeks ago, I and about two dozen other people of a nontheist persuasion attended a meeting of the local freethought association to hear a regional author speak about his career as a writer of secular humanist e-books. Our meeting place was Atlanta Freethought Hall, a structure that had been a Primitive Baptist church in another life and now functions as a gathering place for Dixie’s heathen masses.
The idea of a former church being taken over by atheists in the heart of the Bible Belt would normally have tickled my sense of irony. But as I listened to the talk, I thought about an article in The New York Times that I had read earlier in the day about the enthusiastic reaction of Nigerians to the passing of a new slate of draconian antigay laws (I say “new” because homosexuality was already illegal in Nigeria). I wasn’t sure which was more disturbing: the fact that the law denies LGBT people basic human rights or that so many Nigerians, especially in the Muslim North, were complaining that the laws weren’t stringent enough.
Perhaps if I were of a more optimistic nature, I could have taken comfort in the proliferation of atheist groups such as the one I attended and in daring to hope that such groups might one day help take down the seemingly impenetrable fortress of religion that is the Deep South. But none of this could hide the fact that while the West may be getting more secular, the rest of the world is becoming more, not less, religious—and the religions that are capturing the imaginations of the wretched of the earth are not liberal Anglicanism or Wicca but Islam and evangelical Christianity.
During the nineteenth century, the general consensus among elites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America was that freedom from European domination necessitated taking certain Western ideas such as nationalism, public education, modern military technology, and skepticism toward traditional beliefs and authority figures and adopting them for use in their respective cultural environments. The ways in which these ideas would be implemented varied widely, as did the results. Mainland China, for example, experienced a tumultuous twentieth century as it lurched from being an absolute monarchy to a fascist-tinged republic to a utopian Maoist dictatorship before settling into its present technocratic autocracy headed by the Chinese Communist Party. While China’s experiments with modernization eventually led to economic success and rising superpower status, most developing-world countries experienced disappointment with their experiments in secularization and modernization, as secular elites failed to deliver on their promises of material wealth, international prestige, and military strength. When the appeal of secular ideologies such as nationalism, socialism, and liberal democracy began to wane, the masses found solace in religion—especially Charismatic and Pentecostal forms of evangelical Christianity and Islam.
What makes evangelical Christianity and Islam so attractive to those in the developing world? The popularity of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity, in particular, can be explained by the fact that the more than three billion people around the world who are forced to live on less than $2.50 a day are actively looking for miracles to brighten an otherwise dire existence. Members of the global poor lack access to evidence-based medicine, proper employment, and the ability to participate in the political processes of their respective countries. If they have access to education, it is probably affiliated with a church or another religious organization. The chance that they will be able to improve their lot is slim, while the probability of dying early is high. The Charismatic or Pentecostal preacher promises to heal the sick, make the crippled walk, and make the blind see—if only the audience is willing to have faith and fill up the collection plate. Because sickness and death are omnipresent in many developing countries, a bad outcome after a failed miracle is not as surprising or as much a cause of outrage as it would be in a Western nation. Charismatic/Pentecostal churches also provide their congregants with a deep-seated need for catharsis. At these services, people who have to stoically endure the indignities of being poor and marginalized can let out their frustrations in a socially acceptable fashion through speaking in tongues, being “slain in the spirit,” or simply singing and dancing in a lively communal atmosphere.
Not only do the global poor suffer from material wants, they also fear the effects of the supernatural, especially of sorcery and witchcraft. While witchcraft ceased to be considered a major social problem in North America after the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, a belief in the ability of malevolent humans to affect changes in the physical world via magic remains common in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. To many denizens of the developing world, the reality of individuals practicing malevolent magic against unsuspecting innocents is as real a concern as child sexual abuse is for Westerners. Churches take advantage of this anxiety by offering exorcisms, charms, prayers, and other products and services designed to protect their members against the supernatural onslaughts of Satan and his human minions.
In addition to providing “protection” from supernatural predators, Christian churches that preach the “prosperity gospel” (the belief that the Christian life will lead to health and wealth) also promise a better earthly life for their congregants. The prosperity gospel is particularly popular in the developing world, where the idea that positive thinking and faith in God will lead to material blessings is a welcome alternative to the fatalistic acceptance of a lifetime of poverty. While prosperity churches can empower people to better themselves through entrepreneurship and hard work, these institutions also breed get-rich-quick schemes and authoritarian pastors for whom the proverbial widow’s mite funds over-the-top lifestyles.
The popularity of Islam stems from a general revival of religious sentiment throughout the Muslim world that has its roots in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pan-Muslim, anticolonialist nationalists such as Jamal al-Din Afgani, Rashid Rida, and Hassan al-Banna. However, politically minded Islamic movements did not emerge as serious challengers to the secular political status quo until the 1970s. This renewed interest in Islam occurred among both the Sunni and the Shia, albeit under different conditions. For Sunnis, the sudden windfall of oil revenues that Saudi Arabia received during the oil crises of the 1970s appeared to be a sign of divine favor for the country’s Wahhabi theocracy. Not only did the oil crisis transform Saudi Arabia from an isolated backwater into the most influential Arab country, it also enabled the Wahhabist religious establishment to spread its religious views to Muslims throughout the world via the Muslim World League and its many affiliated organizations. In the Shia world, the unexpected elevation of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in Iran demonstrated that an Islamic movement could depose a secular Western-backed regime. The rise of Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers in the 1970s led to increased Sunni-Shia tensions, as both countries claimed to be the only true Islamic state. The Saudis sought to contain Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf by financing anti-Shia militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, while Iran funded Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. This newest phase of the Islamic revival can be seen as a mutant variation of earlier third-world anti-imperialist movements, with the language of the ummah and jihad replacing that of the international proletariat and class warfare; had many of the young men who are currently attr
acted to waging jihad been born during the Cold War, they probably would have gravitated to revolutionary Marxist-Leninism rather than Islam.
From the perspective of political leaders in the developing world, it is often easier to build a consensus through shared religious values than by appealing to a common national identity that doesn’t exist. Nigeria, for example, is a country with more than four hundred ethnic groups and five hundred languages. Prior to the formation of the Royal Niger Company in the early twentieth century, most of the ethnic groups that comprise modern-day Nigeria lived in their own societies and had little contact with one another. When Nigeria was under colonial rule, the British conferred economic and social favors on Christian Nigerians at the expense of their Muslim and animist neighbors, setting the basis for many of the ethno-religious conflicts that the country has suffered in the postcolonial period. Despite the ethnic politics that undergird religious membership, Muslim and Christian groups aggressively court new adherents, and it is not uncommon for Nigerians to go back and forth between Christian, Islamic, and animist sects throughout their lives. The perceived capitulation of many mainline Western Christian churches to the LGBT rights movement has given Nigerian Muslims an advantage in the religious wars, because they can frame their Christian opponents as being morally soft. The eagerness of Nigeria’s Christian community to pass antigay legislation can be seen as part of a competition between Christians and Muslims to show that they are the toughest on encroaching Western norms of human rights. Meanwhile, Muslims in northern Nigeria have taken their anti-homosexuality sentiments one step further by instituting stoning for homosexuality, as per Sharia law. Christian and Muslim Nigerians might not be able to agree on how to divide resources, on what it means to be Nigerian (as opposed to Hausa, Fulani, or Igbo), or on how to improve economic opportunities for the poor, but they can all agree on the distastefulness of homosexuality and the Western LGBT-rights movement.
The biggest advantage that religious movements have over secular movements is that by virtue of being faith-based, they don’t have to bring tangible benefits to their constituents. If a long-hoped-for miracle fails to materialize for adherents of a Nigerian prosperity church, for example, the negative outcome can be blamed on a lack of faith or the caprices of God’s will. Religious movements can also redefine the meaning of success in a way that enables them to maintain their hold on their followers even when adherence to the religion in question does not lead to increased power and prestige in the conventional sense. Economist Jean-Paul Carvalho notes that pride in the moral rigor of Islam helps individuals in Muslim lands to cope with the cultural and economic stagnation of their societies vis-à-vis the West. The most obvious example of this is the Taliban, for whom the prospect of living in the same manner as the prophet Muhammad and his companions is considered more important than improving the material health and well-being of the Afghani people. This belief in the moral superiority of religious believers in the developing world versus the degeneracy of the West is found among Christians in the developing world as well, with African ministers such as Peter Akinola trumpeting the “purity” of African Christianity for its unwillingness to capitulate to the demands of the LGBT movement as many Western churches have. By redefining political, economic, and social freedoms as “sinful” or “forbidden,” possible envy at Western success can be transformed into moral disdain.
This renewed sense of religious identity is not limited to Christianity and Islam. Although India is officially a secular state, religious violence between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs has been a problem since the establishment of the country in 1948 and its subsequent partitions into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Penguin Books’ recent capitulation to the demands of Hindu nationalists that Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History not be released in India so as to avoid offending religious sensibilities illustrates the ability of Hindu nationalists to shape discourse about the nature of Indian identity. Though Westerners often perceive Buddhism as the most peaceful of the world’s major religions, Buddhist-monk-led violence against Muslim minority groups has been increasing in Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar/Burma and Thailand. Orthodox Jewish groups such as Aish HaTorah, Project Genesis, and the Chabad Hasidic sect have been mounting aggressive recruitment campaigns to convince their secular brethren to return to religious observance. While American ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to keep to themselves in segregated enclaves, their Israeli counterparts often engage in violent and very public clashes with secular Jews over such issues as Sabbath observance, gender segregation in public facilities, draft-dodging, and widespread welfare dependency among ultra-Orthodox men who study religious texts full time rather than enter the workforce.
Globalization has been an unexpected boon to religionists, in part because innovations in communications technology have facilitated the transmission of religious ideas at a rate that would have been unthinkable in the past. Although large religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church or the network of Islamic universities were already transnational institutions before these innovations, in the pre-Internet world only high-ranking clerics would have had the resources to engage in regular communication with their coreligionists in other countries. With the Internet, rank-and-file members of the Church Militant, universal Ummah, or global sangha can discuss the minutiae of their respective belief-systems with fellow believers wherever they might live. While atheists tend to think that the easy availability of skeptical information on the Internet will help break the spell of religion and dogma, more often than not the opposite is true; people who are already inclined toward conservative interpretations of religion use the Internet to create their own virtual enclaves in which they never have to confront a dissenting opinion and can be encouraged by their coreligionists to further separate themselves from secular norms and values.
For religionists who aren’t content to keep their rhetoric in the virtual world, the relative ease of international travel allows them to hobnob and even plot with their confrères about how to put their beliefs into action. While the transnational character of the jihadist movement has received much attention in the post 9/11 world, the exportation of the American culture wars by evangelicals has not. American evangelicals have helped to bring schools, hospitals, and social services to many underserved African communities, but they have also bequeathed to the beneficiaries of their aid a toxic obsession with homosexuality. International Christian organizations such as World Vision, Bread for Life, and Uganda Partners use their extensive network of churches, ministers, and media outlets in Africa to spread the message that the LGBT-rights movement seeks to harm African families and children. The ties between American conservatives and African Christians are particularly ironic given that the former supported colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid in the twentieth century. Yet conservatives now claim that it is really the LGBT-rights movement that is making imperialist demands on Africa! Similarly, the outrage from the West over a new law scapegoating the LGBT community in Russia has not extended to leaders of the American Family Association and the Family Research Council, who were invited by the Russian Duma to help craft the anti-homosexuality law in question. While one would think that the people of Nigeria, Russia, and Uganda would have more pressing matters with whi
ch to concern themselves than the persecution of an unpopular minority, the breathless hysteria of American evangelicals on culture-war issues has made the suppression of homosexuality more important than tackling real economic or political change. While some observers call it paternalistic to blame the current spate of antigay legislation in Africa on American evangelicals, it would be foolish not to think that African ministers fighting their own culture wars against Islam wouldn’t welcome an influx of cash and personnel from their American peers.
This renewed sense of religious fervor is not just confined to the poorest nations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East; it is also occurring in middle-income and wealthy nations in Asia. Although Buddhism and Confucianism are the traditional religions of the Korean peninsula, Christianity, particularly in its evangelical form, has made significant inroads into South Korean culture. The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, is the world’s largest church with a membership of over one million people. To put this in perspective, there are probably more people in the Yoido Full Gospel Church on any given Sunday than there are in every church in Western Europe combined.
South Korean pastors are also active in propaganda efforts against the North Korean regime and in resettling defectors from the North into South Korean society. Christianity also enjoys increasing popularity in neighboring China, notwithstanding that China is officially an atheist country. The Chinese government estimates that there are an estimated twenty-five million Christians in mainland China, although independent scholars agree that the actual number is much higher. Protestant Christianity appeals to the rising middle classes in Asia who consider it more “modern” and “Western” than indigenous religious traditions and therefore more appropriate for a twenty-first-century society.
When examined against a global backdrop of religious revivalism and renewed evangelistic vigor, the reach of secular humanism seems feeble in comparison. However, humanism’s marginal status in 2014 does not necessarily correlate into a similarly dire future. Who living during the reign of Augustus Caesar could have imagined that an obscure Jewish apocalyptic cult would become the official religion of the Western world in less than 350 years, developing into a powerful transnational organization that would suppress the classical Olympics, extinguish the flames that the Vestal Virgins had lovingly tended for nearly a millennium, raze the sacred groves of the druids, and dismantle the elaborate temple complexes of Isis and Amun-Ra? Perhaps we humanists are transitional figures like Augustine of Hippo, described by historian Thomas Cahill as being the last classical man and the first medieval man; we stand between the era of Christendom and a future whose exact character cannot yet be ascertained, rejecting much of our Judeo-Christian heritage while still being undeniably influenced by it.
Despite the barbaric resurgence of fundamentalism and antirationalism, we secular humanists should build the foundations of a kinder, more rational future in whatever ways we can. And who knows? Maybe my local freethought group will be the seed of a transnational freethought network. One can only hope.
Gardam, Tim. “Christians in China: Is the Country in Spiritual Crisis?” BBC News Magazine, September 12, 2011. Accessed March 3, 2014, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14838749.
Hundal, Sunny. “Hindu Nationalists Are Gaining Power in India—and Silencing Enemies Along the Way.” The Independent, February 26, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2014, at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/hindu-nationalists-are-gaining-power-in-india-and-silencing-enemies-along-the-way-9155591.html.
Kapya, Kaoma. Political Research Associates. “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches & Homosexuality.” Last modified 2009. Accessed February 22, 2014, at http://www.publiceye.org/publications/globalizing-the-culture-wars/pdf/africa-full-report.pdf.
Nossiter, Adam. “Wielding Whip and a Hard New Law, Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays.” The New York Times, February 8, 2014. Steinberg, Guido. 2009. Jihadi-Salafism and the Shi’is: Remarks about the Intellectual Roots of anti-Shi’ism. Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, edited by Roel Meijer. New York: Columbia University Press.
Leah Mickens has degrees in library science and digital media. She has conducted research at major repositories of Southern U.S. history, some of which formed the basis for her last article for Free Inquiry, “We’ve Come This Far—in Spite of Faith: Debunking the Myth of Civil Rights as a Church Movement” (June/July 2014).