Books

The myth of progress has undermined religion. Yet I foresee a comeback

A worshipper at a Pentecostal church in Kinshasa (Getty)

The Plight of Western Religion
by Paul Gifford,
Hurst, 173pp, £25/$28.69

A familiar image of Western Christianity before modern times has been doing the rounds for quite a while. Back then, just about everyone took the supernatural for granted and God’s providence counted for a great deal. It was the fount of causation and it answered all the big questions.  

Paul Gifford, Emeritus Professor of Religion at SOAS University of London, stresses that matters could get a little more complicated (it was not for nothing that tempers flared in 13th-century Parisian lecture halls every other day). There were squabbles aplenty: about ritual, sources of authority, the contours of free will. If you think this was a golden age of Christian concord, just take a look at the bad-mouthing endured by future pillars of the Church such as Aquinas. But the broad brushstroke remains accurate enough: God was playing the lead role, arranging the scenery and printing off the playbills. We were all enchanted, in the positive sense of the word. 

Then something odd happened. It was neither as straightforward as the secularisation theories suggest, nor a neat and tidy sociological shift that can be captured by table upon table of bums-in-pews statistics. But fragmentation and doubt arrived on the stage. Perhaps we should blame science, but that would be silly. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) religion’s enemy. But one perception of the scientific project did cause havoc. Technology became king and the crazy idea of progress gained traction. Disruptive models of culture and education led the charge. Why worry about sacramental theology when you could measure the depths of the oceans? Disenchantment is easier. A tree is just a tree. Mystery is for mugs. 

An alternative was to let religion became something different: not the central cognitive task but just a peripheral part of the mishmash of art, politics, morality and society. It became wishy-washy: anything that, as Matthew Arnold put it, holds us to the practice of righteousness. Sweep snow off your neighbour’s driveway or go to Mass – what’s the difference? 

We all got spiritual, “religiousness” became a word. The New Age was here, and how dull, hazy and individualistic things became.  

Are we stuck with this? Should we be satisfied with believing (sort of) without belonging? Have we witnessed a masterful cultural adaptation or the evisceration of what came before? Perhaps we could look for different kinds of modernity.  

Not a bad idea, says Gifford, but it is best to ignore many of the trendy options. As one example, the hype about US religious exceptionalism – Evangelical passions on TV, the mega-churches or the prosperity gospel – is worrying. Religion, all too often, is just the designer label. Why not look at, say, African Christianity (Gifford’s area of expertise) instead: lots of rascals, to be sure, but the home, too, of good old-fashioned enchantment and, now and then, the polar opposite of a private undertaking. It recognises that, while it is impossible to turn back clocks, the clock can at least be kept on display.  

Christianity, after all, has an excellent track record when it comes to blossoming from unpromising situations. 

Gifford quotes JM Roberts: none of us alive today would “be what we are if a handful of Jews nearly 2,000 years ago had not believed that they had known a great teacher, seen him crucified, dead and buried and then rise again”. One suspects that Christianity, even its increasingly marginalised Western variants, still has a few twists and shouts up its sleeve.   

This all adds up to an elegant if poignant analysis. Times have been tough for religion, but I, for one, still see lots of enchantment. 

It is easy enough to get the crowds chanting on any given Sunday when you are playing at home, are a dozen points ahead, with a few minutes left in the game. Western Christianity luxuriated in such circumstances for a very long time and all sorts of wonders were wrought. But the so-called plight of modern religion, and the loss of homefield advantage, isn’t all bad. It forces you to play harder and, who knows, maybe the neutral observer will end up cheering for the underdog.