That religion remains a vital force in the contemporary world seems an obvious enough observation in 2009. However, it contradicts one of the master narratives of twentieth-century thought. Psychoanalysis was just one species of a widespread conviction among twentieth-century western European and American intellectuals that in the modern world religion would steadily retreat and secular reason would triumph. Adherents of this belief could draw legitimacy from science’s evident conquest of domains formerly claimed by faith. They could point to a distinguished pedigree, including the heroes of the scientific revolution, the philosophes of the Enlightenment, and a pantheon of nineteenth-century giants, including Karl Marx , Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Contrary to Nietzsche’s famous declaration, God may not have been dead, but He certainly observed the dominant philosophical debates of the twentieth century from the margins. That was as true of Oxford logicians carving into received belief like a roast at High Table as it was of Parisian existentialists urging us to shoulder responsibility for a godless world. Among social scientists and historians, it became a veritable article of faith that organized religion’s presence in public life was dwindling and faith was becoming more and more a matter of private conscience. In the sweeping liberal imagination of mid-century American social science, secularization was virtually synonymous with modernization. Insofar as historians studied religion, it was almost invariably inserted into a narrative of decline. Political scientists routinely described the modern ideologies—communism and fascism, or even the liberal belief in progress—as ersatz secular religions, and that description took for granted that the real thing had left the stage of history. The theology departments of many American universities discretely evolved into religious studies, a rainbow coalition that acknowledged religion as an anthropological, historical, and social fact without compelling anyone to take oaths. Within academia, outward professions of faith, insistence on the persistent power of religion, or explicit calls for religion to play a public role seemed not just awkward infractions against scholarly politeness but also violations of the taken-for-granted normal order of modern reality.
Measured against so many trends in the intellectual history of the twentieth century, the return of religion to the halls of academe must be considered a sea change in the intellectual life of America and Europe. Religion is in. Across the spectrum of the humanities and social sciences, scholars are studying religious phenomena, and there is a new willingness to open a dialogue between philosophy and theology. This does not necessarily mean that scholars themselves have had a conversion on the road to Damascus. With the exception of evangelical universities and the occasional individual faculty member, universities remain staunchly secular zones. I would dare say that for most professional scholars, religion reclaims their attention not because faith reasserts its ancestral claim but because the secularist narrative has gotten snagged in contradictions and complexities. Among these snags must count the weakening of confidence in the oppositional terms that structured the secular worldview: irrational versus rational, faith versus knowledge, and the most basic dichotomy, religious versus secular. It is unlikely that diminishing confidence among secularist intellectuals would have occurred had it not coincided with the robust return of religion in cultures around the globe. Quite simply, the world has refused to cooperate with the expectations and divinations of the secularists.
Western Europe is more or less the only region of the world that witnesses low reported levels of individual belief. Not surprisingly, western Europeans frequently look on with dismay and incomprehension at America, where broad swaths of life never ceased to be religious. In America, secularists never denied that believers would remain, but they did expect their numbers to decline and the holdouts to settle into a private style of faith. The first assumption is obviously contradicted by the roughly 92 percent of Americans who currently profess belief in God or a universal spirit. Then, too, there are the growing numbers of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual,” a nebulous term that could mean almost anything, and clearly an ongoing trend.
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