The West Needs a Spiritual Surge

February 28, 2007 Topic: Society Region: Americas

The West Needs a Spiritual Surge

The West’s lack of responses to transcendental questions is the main reason it will continue to fall behind in the global clash of belief systems.


The spell of the Enlightenment so profoundly distracts many Western opinion makers that the worldwide rise of religion is either ignored or it is viewed as major threat rather than an important source for the re-moralization of society. True, many observers have noted, especially after September 11, that the rise of a religiously ferocious Islam is not limited to the Arab world, but is very much in evidence in all Muslim nations from Indonesia to Turkey. But few have paid mind to the importance of the crowded churches in former communist countries in Eastern Europe and Russia; to the many scores of millions who are finding religion in China; and to the rapidly growing followings of a variety of religious denominations, cults and sects all over the world.  

The global significance of these developments is highlighted in what otherwise would be an almost trivial development: the U.S. Agency for International Development is revising the textbooks used in Afghan and Iraqi schools. Its staff has been tearing out of these texts the passages that extol the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but they have been stymied in finding what other values to install, deciding instead to focus on teaching math, science and English. However, such secular teachings do not address profound issues that religions do speak to: What is a virtuous life? What are our obligations to our family members, friends and other community members? Is death a threatening end we all must fear or merely a passing to a better place?  Are we truly better off as we command ever more goods? And can those of us who do not "make it" in the marketplace-still find deep sources of self-respect?


Western secularism largely avoids these issues. Its consumer hedonism has an appeal of its own, but more and more people find that they cannot keep up with the Joneses. Hence the growing alienation in the countryside and among urban migrants-among the majority of the people-in developing nations such as India and China. The West does well when it extols the dignity of the individual, the value of autonomy and human rights. However these are basically ideologies that serve as compelling antidotes to excessive governmental intrusions and celebrate self-government. They do not address the questions that a person faces once he is free to choose, free to set his own course of destiny and purpose.

The lack of responses to these transcendental questions is the main reason the West will continue to fall behind in the global clash of belief systems. Theoretically the West can evolve a much richer set of values by drawing on secular humanism, as long as it accords much more weight to the affirmative moral categories of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls' conception of social justice, rather than focusing on libertarian notions of free choice. However, the religious revival sweeping all the world-except Western Europe-strongly suggests that the West will also have to draw on religious sources in seeking to speak to the profound questions that gnaw at people, especially once they have secured their basic creature comforts.

Rather than treating religion, as so many enlightened people do, as a relic of the past, long on passion and short on reason, the enemy of progress and freedom, the West will best learn to differentiate between moderate, civil religious interpretations and violence-prone, fundamentalist ones. The first kind address key transcendental questions that concern our obligations to one another and our cosmic destiny, while seeking to persuade people rather than to coerce them to abide by the religious tenets. Among Christians there are indeed those who believe that their religion "comes not to bring peace, but a sword," but many more who would rather "turn the other cheek"; some Jews also believe that God bequeathed to them the West Bank, but most believe that they ought to trade land for peace. Similarly there are Muslims who view jihad as a call to holy war, but there are others who follow the widely held interpretation of jihad as a spiritual journey of self-improvement, and who favor consultation with the community as the arbiter of religious norms (shura) over a mullah-led theocracy.

The West may well have to draw on both enriched secular humanism and on moderate religious beliefs, if it is not to lose the struggle over the hearts and minds of the majority of the people of the world. It needs a spiritual rather a military surge.

Amitai Etzioni's book Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy will be published by Yale University Press in March 2007. He teaches sociology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.