The Fundamentalists

February 23, 2011 Topic: IdeologyReligionSociety Regions: United StatesSaudi Arabia

The Fundamentalists

Mini Teaser: What do Saudi Arabia and America have in common? Why, religion of course. Hinterland faiths are on the rise, and there’s nothing the Western humanists can do about it.

by Author(s): Richard W. Bulliet

MANY PEOPLE believe the world is—or should be—reaching a consensus on the universal and inevitable superiority of the rationalistic, humane and rights-based values of Western civilization. 

In stark contrast, the “end-time is nigh, secular humanism seduces people from their faith, and personal behavior with respect to God is (or should be) our primary concern” school of thought is attracting an increasing number of adherents.

The secularists’ vision of the world’s future fits the uplifting story of the past few centuries contained in most American history books. The venerable Great Books curriculum of Columbia University, for example, exposes undergraduates to the key thoughts of the greatest Western thinkers. Plato and Aristotle rub shoulders with Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and we continue reading both secular and religious texts up to the time of Luther and Calvin. Then we turn a page. No more readings about religion. Instead we follow the path of reason from Hobbes to Locke to Kant to Marx to Nietzsche to Freud.

Did debates about faith come to an end three hundred years ago? No. But the readings are not intended to chronicle the history of Western thought; they are intended to teach the lesson of admiration for rationality and the liberal values suitable to our times. This is the Western-civilization-trumps-all narrative.

Our schools teach that “modernity” (whatever that is) took shape at a certain point in European history. Secularism, democracy, human rights, gender parity and opposition to racism constitute the bright side of modernity. Consumerism, imperialist domination, genocide and the decay of social institutions constitute the dark side. Historical studies have illuminated both the rough and the smooth.

But as this historical narrative meets the present, it expresses a less and less positive view of people with strong religious beliefs. If religious adherents hold their peace and don’t make a fuss about their faith, it treats them as the dwindling remnant of a once-important, and indeed honorable, tradition which reminds us that Judeo-Christian civilization at one time involved religion. If, on the other hand, they carry on about things the march-of-rationality believers do not like, they are branded with the mark of Cain: irrational religious zealots, enemies of freedom, violators of human rights or, at the furthest extreme, terrorist fanatics.

Yet, doesn’t all of that put good Christian people who feel that abortion and homosexuality are abominations in the same basket with Muslim terrorists who decapitate hostages, burn American flags and blow up American embassies?

Though historians do tip their hats to those few believers, nowadays termed “moderates” or “reformers,” who contrive to accommodate the noble ends of modernity to the tenets of their faith—bold voices speaking out against obscurantism and fanaticism!—more commonly people of faith who fail to embark on the modernity cruise ship are portrayed as missing the boat—or is it the juggernaut?—of history.

THE PHRASE “teleological history” encapsulates the search for roots. In Greek, a telos is an “end,” so “teleological” denotes the “study of an end.” Of course, different people think of ends differently. For a follower of Hegel, the flow of history leads toward maximizing the principle of freedom; for a Marxist, it leads to a communist utopia.

For ordinary historians, however, teleological history is more mundane. They stick their thumbs in the air, guess where their society is headed, and then ransack archives and half-forgotten tomes to cobble together the story of where and with whom this heading originated. Thus a world careening toward a telos imbued with Western liberal values and economic success—call it globalization, for short—demands a historical narrative that reveals the roots of these prized qualities.

When Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle East historians, saw how many Muslims were choosing not to follow the Christians and Jews of Europe down the garden path of modernity, he famously asked: “What went wrong?” Teleological history makes this an acceptable question—if not a very useful one. It takes for granted that history is headed in a certain direction. So if some people have strayed from the path, something must have gone wrong.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington, Lewis’s ideological soul mate, put forward an alternative approach in his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. For him, modernity is not for everyone. If you belong to the wrong civilization, which in his view Muslims certainly do, you can never grasp the key values that underlie Western modernity. He doesn’t ask how the Muslims went wrong. Being Muslims, they just couldn’t help it.

But does this mean that everyone in Western civilization is on the right track? Huntington confronted this awkward assumption in 2004 in a book entitled Who Are We? Secularized Protestants, he opined, have been more adept than anyone else at following the trail of liberal and rational thought blazed by our Founding Fathers. Americans from other backgrounds must learn to try harder.

Thinkers who are captivated by the dream of world-embracing modernity cannot account for faith-based conviction. At least not in civil language. Those who believe they answer to God do not fit into the history in which the modernist teleologists believe. Being out of step with the times, it is a group that should have disappeared long ago. Their beliefs have caused them to lose track of where the world is headed. Yet the inexorable-Western-thrust-of-history adherents’ categorical dismissal of religion as a force in today’s world is about as effective as whistling past a graveyard to ward off ghosts. The standard presentation of history from the Enlightenment to the present day is persuasive; but there may be other ways to relate the history of the past few centuries. This does not mean ditching the theme of modernity. The tale is too well worked out for that. But complementary histories might illuminate those contemporary forces that don’t quite fit the saga of modernity. After all, these forces had to come from somewhere.

So where did the activist-religious domain come from? Why is it that the domain of activist-religious conservatives, of whatever sectarian label, is growing rather than diminishing? And where is this movement headed?

THE SCRIPTURES revered by those who believe in the inevitable superiority of Western values, particularly the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, have not been hallowed by millennia of worship, chanting and incense burning. So how do the apostles of modernity sell their wares? They would say that modernity sells itself to anyone who has escaped the dead hand of religion and become open to reason. But we could also try following the money.

From the Industrial Revolution onward, according to the standard history of the modern world, Europeans have grown richer and richer and attended church less and less often. Accordingly, a 2010 Gallup poll correlates abysmal poverty with countries where 98–99 percent of the population describe religion as important in their daily lives. Of the most devout eight, five—Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen, Malawi and Burundi—are among the poorest 20 percent of the world in per capita income. Two others, Indonesia and Djibouti, do slightly better; and one, Sri Lanka, achieves a ranking in the middle quintile.

At the other end of the scale, the eight countries with the least religious citizenry—from 34 percent for Russia and Belarus to 16 percent for Estonia—include those three post-Soviet (i.e., postatheist) states in the second wealth quintile, while four others—Denmark, Sweden, France and the United Kingdom—rank above them in the first quintile. Only one, Vietnam, falls as low as the fourth quintile.

Does religion automatically recede when people earn enough money to be active consumers in the modern world economy? Does buying supplant believing? This is what American modernization theorists of the 1960s predicted. Yet some of the world’s richest nations are strongly religious. It’s no surprise, of course, that four countries bordering the Persian Gulf—Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates—boast religiosity rates of over 90 percent and also belong to the top quintile of nations by wealth. Nor that their larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, scores over 90 percent on the religiosity scale and falls into the second wealth quintile. This is what most Americans would expect given the zealotry we associate with Saudi Arabia.

A less obvious, and indeed surprising, Gallup finding is that the United States stands strikingly alone among non-Gulf countries in its combination of high religiosity, 65 percent, and high per capita income. It is not unusual, therefore, to find people who look like ordinary folks from my hometown in Illinois as numerous in the worldwide contingent of the faithful as those wearing white gowns and Arab
headdresses.

In their melding of piety with wealth, Saudi Arabia and the United States are the Odd Couple of the twenty-first century. One a monarchy, the other a democracy. One founded on a restrictive faith, the other a beacon of religious freedom. One blessed by vast petroleum resources, the other cursed by a gargantuan appetite for oil. Their governments bound to each other by ties of money, armament and elite partying, but their populations distrustful of each other’s political designs, disdainful of their respective faiths and angry about the violent deeds each attributes to the other.

Image: Pullquote: That many Wahhabi and Protestant missionaries see nothing but evil in their counterparts serves to conceal the similarity of their social and religious roots.Essay Types: Essay