The varied and complex relations between religion and power can be understood only by means of extensive comparisons, between nations and across time. Who better to demonstrate this than Prof. David Martin, the doyen of the comparative sociology of religion?
Martin’s first achievement is to refute “the general theory of secularisation,” which has enjoyed so much popular appeal among progressive intellectuals. It is essentially a European theory based on the steady decline of faith in most of that continent from a peak in the late 19th century to the bleakness of Scandinavia today, and the almost total lack of religion in Estonia and the Czech Republic. Europe stands on Dover Beach. The once unbendingly Catholic countries of Western Europe, such as Spain and Ireland, are now haunted by anticlericalism; Ireland’s recent vote for same-sex “marriage” was a manifestation of this.
Martin’s great achievement was to recognize far earlier than others the massive countercurrents to this trend, and he did so long before the resurgence of Islam. He noted in particular the strong growth of Pentecostalism in South America and the continued vitality of religion in such highly advanced countries as the United States and South Korea, countries whose modernity is beyond question. In this, his most recent book, he is also able to point to the revival of Orthodox Christianity in Russia after the collapse of the oppressive and antireligious Soviet socialist regime. Forced secularization failed. Martin charts the return of religion to many of the countries of Eastern Europe and discusses in detail the differences in the extent and nature of this revival, notably with regard to Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. He has been assiduous in linking these differences to questions of history and national identity and to the changing political and economic fortunes of these peoples. Just as secularization varied strongly according to circumstances, so, too, has desecularization. The master has put each part of the puzzle into place, and the full picture emerges.
The second major theme of the book is best stated by the author himself:
How could Christianity, which in its foundation documents has no honour code and categorically rejects reciprocal violence, become implicated in what it most vehemently rejects? How could the Sermon on the Mount become the Sacred Scripture of the crusaders without the evident contradiction sparking a social convulsion or the direct and unequivocal repudiation of Christianity by the principals and the powers? How could aristocracies based on blood ties and feudal obligations of service owed by serf to lord tolerate a liturgy that in the Magnificat daily promises “to put down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble and meek”?
It is a puzzle for the believer, but not for the sociologist who recognizes that “exigencies of power . . . inflect and deflect the religious template” to fit the requirements of dominant elites. It is a puzzle not just for Christians but for Buddhists too, for their sacred texts are thoroughly peaceable, yet both in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar (Burma), Buddhist monks have been the leaders of violent forms of nationalism that have persecuted and murdered religious outsiders. Churches become worldly because that is what happens to all institutions. Institutions develop hierarchies of power and a thirst for the accumulation of wealth. We can never fully escape our human nature, whether as a fallen or as an evolved people.
Without power there can be no survival, and yet all power tends to corrupt. When the savage Muslim hordes attacked the relatively placid Christians of the Middle East, the Zoroastrians of Persia, and the Buddhists of what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan, these succumbed. They live on only as tiny fragments, often at the periphery, as with the Copts in Egypt, the Parsees in Mumbai, and the Buddhists of Ladakh. The personal martyrdom of the Christian tradition reinforces the faith of others, but it is not always forceful enough when evil threatens. It was Charles Martel, a brutal French warrior, and later Sobieski’s Polish army, who saved Christian Europe from Islam. Pacifists, such as the Quakers, are the conscience of the Christian world and should be honored for it, but it was not they who held back the Nazis and the Soviets. It is worth reminding our militant born-again atheists that these two great evils of the 20th century were both secular. The Soviets set out openly to destroy the Christian religion, and Hitler secretly planned to do so.
I would argue that we can apply Martin’s thesis to Islam, but it would work in exactly the reverse order. Islam from its inception was the religion of the conquering warrior. Christian pacifists provide the evidence that Christianity is a religion of peace. There are no Muslim pacifists. We may conclude that Islam is not in any sense a religion of peace. Islam is suited to those who seek power. It is the ideal legitimation for a pious oriental despot. Yet in practice, Muslims often fail to live up to the vicious ideals of their founder and become peaceable settled folk, all fury spent, who devote their main energies and attentions to the harmless pursuits of irrigation, algebra and architecture, chemistry and pharmacy, and secular literature and philosophy. What went wrong? As the original Arabs conquered more sophisticated civilizations, from the Christians to the Zoroastrians, they adopted many of their ways. Yet as Ibn Khaldun has shown, there is a cyclical dynamic in Muslim history in which the true Muslims, the ones who still adhere to warrior asceticism, regularly return and suppress peaceful Muslim civilizations that they see as decadent. The terrorists of the Islamic State are merely the most recent version of this. They are living up to the ideals of their founder in much the same way as Christian pacifists or medical missionaries are living up to the ideals of their Lord.
David Martin is, as his title suggests, much concerned with attacks on religion from rationalists; he shows how they deceive themselves into ignoring the way narratives rooted in history and the social order have shaped the context within which they exercise their faculty for reasoning. It is a bad joke for German philosophers of the Frankfurt School to want to exclude religion from the public sphere because it lacks rationality, given that the school’s originators were either Marxists or Freudians—or, even more absurdly, both. (The two are clearly incompatible.) Both of these secular schools of thought use dishonest trickery to evade proper empirical evaluation. How could their followers be so impudent as to champion rationality? How can they be so irrational as to claim without proof that they alone stand in a privileged position from which to declare that their ideology alone can stand outside of history, or that they alone can explain our more primitive impulses?
These ideologues fail to see that history is contingent, and that our secular ideal of the intrinsic worth of each individual and of his capacity to use his own reason and to make choices could only have arisen in a Christian civilization. The notion that all men have inalienable rights could only seem self-evident to those who, Christian or not, were embedded in a particular Christian tradition. It is impossible to imagine such ideas emerging in a Muslim society or one based on caste; they are to be found in the constitution of India because it was drafted by people under the influence of Christianity. The truth has set us free. The logos comes later, when we come to place our intuitions within a reasoned framework and to test them against those aspects of the material and social world that we are able to measure. I do not know whether Professor Martin would agree, but that is the moral I have drawn from his very thorough study. His is a better approach than the fatuities of Richard Dawkins, who (in The Selfish Gene, as cited by Martin) applies mechanical analogies taken from genetics to explain the social world: “The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.”
Rarely have I seen such a crass attempt at sociological understanding, or indeed at communication. The meme is nebulous. It is unfalsifiable. It is based on a mere and misleading metaphor of what genes do. It is a metaphysical unit of culture that is taken seriously only on Dawkins’s authority in an unrelated field. Mimetics is pseudoscientific nonsense, and David Martin’s lengthy demolition of it is a pleasure to read.
This is a very rich book indeed, full of ideas and observations about the world that, only upon reflection, seem obvious. It covers not just history and language but architecture and the layout of cities, including Washington, D.C., Boston, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv, and always in relation to the significance of religion. Religion is always there. It is embedded in a framework of external power and in the institutions of the nation.
[Religion and Power: No Logos Without Mythos, by David Martin (Burlington VT: Ashgate) 272 pp., $39.95]