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The Economist’s editor in chief on Lateline

John Micklethwait discusses global faith revival
ABC TV Broadcast: 30/06/2009

The Economist’s editor in chief John Micklethwait joins the program to discuss his new book – God is Back: how the global revival of faith is changing the world.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: In 2006 an ambitious opposition frontbencher surprised many with a call for churches to be more involved in politics. His name was Kevin Rudd and he called for Labor to fight for Australia’s religious voters who he said had been co-opted by the conservative Christians in the Howard government. Mr Rudd evoked what he called the Christian socialist tradition in the gospels, with a strong emphasis on the impoverished, the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast and the oppressed.

Well you could argue that fight-back is one of the things which helped elevate him to the highest office in the land. Kevin Rudd took his cues from a similar fight-back by American Christians mobilising against the electoral lock that President George W. Bush appeared to have on religious voters in the US courtesy of the highly organised Christian Right.

I’m sure tonight’s guest will agree that the irresistible rise of Kevin Rudd is further evidence of the thesis in his new book “God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World”.

Joining us live from London is the author and editor-in-chief of “The Economist” John Micklethwait.

Does the rise of Kevin Rudd actually fit your theory by the way?

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE ECONOMIST: I think it does in a way. He’s part of a new generation of politicians who in quite secular countries like Australia or Britain who are suddenly getting more interested in religion. Tony Blair famously said he wouldn’t do God and now spends the entire time doing God. Sarkozy is another one who’s actually written about it. Rudd’s interested in religion, so he fits into that to some extent.

TONY JONES: Rudd is genuinely religious like Blair, I don’t know about Sarkozy.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: I think Sarkozy’s interested in religion. I don’t actually know what his personal persuasion is.

TONY JONES: There are highly organised blocs of religious voters in the United States, there’s some evidence of a similar but weaker phenomenon in Australia. But beyond that anecdotal evidence is of low and falling attendances in the traditional churches. So is there something wrong with that picture considering what you’re saying.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: I think, if you look around the world, and in this case I have included Australia within Western Europe, we are the exceptions. What has basically happened throughout America, most of Asia, Africa, Latin America, God is doing well. The reason we wrote the book is because very much from a journalistic perspective, the more we look around the world, the more we saw it challenging the assumption we had been brought up with, which is that the more a modern a country gets, the less religious it gets, the more secular it gets.

And you look around the world – that isn’t true. It’s true of Western Europe and it’s true of Australia, but it’s not true of most of the world. Most of the other areas of the world, religion is doing very well, and very much following the American model.

If you want a brilliant example of that, one of Rudd’s favourite countries, got to China. It’s close to 100 million Christians now, compared to 70 million members of the Communist Party. It’s a big change and it’s symbolic of what’s been happening around the world.

TONY JONES: The book does begin with an extraordinary house church in Shanghai that you visit. Tell us about it and tell us how Christianity is growing so fast in a Communist country that doesn’t encourage organised religion at all – in fact, discourages it.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: One reason is the Government has cleverly hit on the one formula to make religion grow. It’s something the ancient Romans did to Christianity, and it was a brilliant way inadvertently to cause religion to grow. The Chinese have set a limit on the number of people that can meet in a place, basically 25. Once you reach 25 people meeting in one of these house churches, which take place in somebody’s home, once it’s at that level the church has to split and start again. Automatically it’s almost a formula for amoeba-like growth.

What’s interesting though is as Christianity spreads throughout China, really incredibly quickly. I think China will certainly become the world’s biggest Christian country and probably become the world’s biggest Muslim country. It’s already more Muslims there than there are in Saudi Arabia.

The attitude of the Government is interesting. This is a book which says: “Look at the facts, religion is there whether we like it or not.” It’s a work of journalism, but there’s consequences of that. China is a really good example, because if you look at the Chinese Government they are more split than you implied. One bit is keen to have some sort of glue to keep their country together. Another group though are very frightened by the fact that churches are the biggest NGO in the country already. You have already got things like the Falun Gong which they were frightened of, you have some of the rebellions of the 19th century led by Christians. And at the most extreme I’ve even heard Chinese people talk about John Paul II bringing down the Soviet Union. So they are worried by this new thing which is growing within them. On the other hand they sometimes want to promote it, because they see it as a glue to bring things together.

TONY JONES: What’s the social spread of the house churches in terms of the people who are going to them? I think the one that you went to were actually prosperous people.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: That’s the really interesting bit. Catholicism is quite strong in the Chinese countryside. But the evangelical Protestantism which is taking off the cities, they are very prosperous. The one I went to there was three chief executives, a stem cell scientist, there was quite a well known dancer, a professor, and that is very typical, because one of the other odd things about that world in which I grew up and probably you may well have done is the general assumptions that the world will get more secular.

One of the oddest things is it’s precisely the most modern go-ahead people who are often turning towards religion. Just as in China you have the prosperous bourgeoisie finding this new thing. In America, people talking about mega-churches, those aren’t built in the boon docks. Those are built in the gleaming suburbs. I think you’ve got one or two in Australia as well.

It’s a phenomenon very much of the well-to-do. Sometimes religion is a phenomenon of the poor and oppressed, people looking for a storm shelter against globalisation. In many many more places, though, we tended to find it was something which people who wanted to get ahead in the world used as a way to get ahead.

TONY JONES: We’ll come back to that. But I want to go back to the central thesis you’ve just talked about. It was the tenant of most western intellectuals and many others, political leaders from Mao to Ataturk, that modernity would eventually destroy or dilute religion significantly – why has that not happened?

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: I think for a few reasons. One of them is actually we are, whether we like it or not, this is very much a book written from the middle, it’s not saying religion is good or bad. Man is essentially quite a theotropic creature. If you leave people to it, give them a decent supply of religions, the chances are they will probably grasp one. It’s true everywhere outside that Western Europe-plus-Australian phenomenon.

The second reason is there’s a lot of sociological reasons why people would want to be religious. There’s a wealth of evidence that religious people are healthier, wealthier and wiser – at least in America. They tend to live longer than other people, they tend to be better educated and they tend to be richer as I indicated earlier. So there’s an advantage in hanging out with similar people like that.

What is interesting about the science at the moment is one group of scientists is following Richard Dawkins and coming up with ever more elaborate reasons why God shouldn’t exist and all the ontological reasons about how the universe started.

Another group of social scientists are actually trying to examine why religion does so well doing weird experiments. They put nuns and Buddhist meditators into MRI machines – not together I should stress – looking at their brains, whilst they’re praying, to work out the effect on their general conditions. It’s a phenomenon there, and once you look around the world, you see it wasn’t going the way you expected, then actually it’s a quite reasonable question to ask: “Why does it do so as well?”

TONY JONES: You do put it into an historical perspective in the book, and in fact you reckon the turning point came in the 1970s, why is that?

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: Well, I think what happened in the 1970s, you look at that period. Up to then, before then, it was not just a question of religion out of people’s lives, but seemed to be the other end of politics. Even things associated with religious disputes, like the Palestinian-Israeli one began as a pretty secular one. Ben Gurion was a very secular form of Jew. By contrast, PLO was for a long time led by Christians. It wasn’t nearly as sharp a divide.

What happened in the 1970s, if you look back now in retrospect, you can see a whole series of things happened. You had the moral majority in America. You had Jimmy Carter who was the first born-again president. You had the Iranian revolution; you have John Paul II, the emergence of the BJP in India. You have all these things going on, and the best guess as to why it began to get obvious is most of the secularisms ran into trouble. The seventies was a time when capitalism had a huge amount of trouble. Remember the oil shocks but also communism and left-wing ideologies transparently began to run out of steam. People began to turn back.

I can’t stress this too much, it’s only very much in retrospect when we look back and you suddenly begin to think: well, that is what happened, because certainly throughout most of the 1990s people couldn’t really see what religion had to do with the modern world, and that I think is a big change.

TONY JONES: You also look back at the rise of Islam. We didn’t talk much about that. You say that Islam had a very good 20th century.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: The two great, successful religions – I’m sorry to brand it in such market-driven terms – of the 20th century were Islam, which grew pretty astronomically from about 300 million to around about a billion. The other one which is arguably even more successful was Pentecostalism, which went from nobody in 1900 to close to 500 to 600 million by the end of the century.

Our guess, which is against the experience of the 20th century, is that Islam will have a tougher 21st century than Christianity, and one reason why is that we think evangelical Christianity, and Christianity in general, have had more the acids of modernity, if you want to call it that, it’s been tempered by that, it’s easier to get on with it. And Islam faces some limitations in terms of being able to spread around the world, not least the fact that you can’t translate the Koran in the same way that you can translate the Bible, and it doesn’t have the same degree of flexibility. Obviously it’s dangerous to predict anything about religion, but it would seem from our perspective at least that Christianity is the one which is forging ahead.

TONY JONES: You said Christians are much better at using the tools of modernity to spread their faith: television, radio, podcasts, the Internet, translations as you’ve pointed out. But of course radical Islam has been very successful in exploiting the same things, particularly the Internet.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: Very much so. Very very much so. I should add this is a book saying this phenomenon is happening, live with it, and then it goes through some of the good and bad things. There’s some very good things coming from religion. A huge amount of social services are delivered by religious people which otherwise wouldn’t be. But there are bad consequences. One of them is the spread of radicalism, and the way that once religion gets into politics it makes things much harder to solve. You can argue about a disputed bit of land but if you really think that God gave it to you it gets much much harder.

Looking at Al Qaeda, for instance, at how it’s gone ahead it has done it very much using technology. And there’s some sense of almost going back a long, long period in time. We look at some of the things Ahmadinejad says and go look at what Oliver Cromwell said in the 17th century, you’ll discover a lot of similarities, and for me almost the most spooky bit is one of the 7/7 bombers in London was a Yorkshire-born British Pakistani. If you listen to his video, talking about how he is going to take vengeance on society, that has to me great similarities with Guy Fawkes, another person who left his country to go overseas to get radical, came back and tried to plot an act of terrorism. So there’s undercurrents of this that everybody, people who are believers and not, should take account of.

TONY JONES: You predict an intensification of the disputes between Islam and Christianity particularly as Christianity starts growing faster and they start encroaching on each other’s territory, you predict an intensification of culture and real wars.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: In terms of real wars, it’s dangerous to say. In terms of cultural conflict, I think that is likely.

I’ll give you an example. If you go to Africa, forgive the simplification, you have evangelical Christianity heading northwards sponsored very much by American collection-plate money, and from the North you have fundamentalist Islam coming down pushed by Saudi money. You go to a place like Nigeria and you can see this. 30,000 people have died over the past 30 years in Nigeria in religious conflicts of one sort or another, that’s off the scale compared with most other forms of conflict.

If you want to be very pessimistic, if you look at the major flashpoints of the world, where you could have a big disaster, you sort of look at India, Pakistan; you look at Israel, Iran and America; you look at Israel-Palestine and you look at North Korea, and out of those flashpoints only one, the last one, North Korea, is secular. All the others have religion involved. Unless you understand what is happening to do with religion, it’s very difficult to not to understand the politics.

TONY JONES: Finally, I can’t let you go without referring to your country Great Britain, where there’s no separation between the church and state. If Prince Charles were ever to become King that might change, but would he then be under threat from anti-disestablishment-tarianism.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: You wanted to get that word in didn’t you?

The answer is if Prince Charles becomes King, then good luck to him. The issue of the fact that we have an established church I think has been very bad both for religion and for the state. Bad for religion, again the example of America and everywhere else is where you have competitive religion, that’s where religion does really well. Adam Smith spotted this way back in the 17th century telling people repeatedly, if you don’t establish a clergy they won’t work as hard as ones that have to go out and bring people in.

But it’s also bad for the state. It cannot be a good idea that Britain and Iran are the only two countries where we have bishops in our legislatures. Not bishops in Iran… That I think is a bad idea, making it difficult to deal with this world I’m describing, which fundamentally is one we all have to live with, that was the starting point for the book.

TONY JONES: If nothing else, thank you for the chance for saying that word, the longest word in the English language as I believe it. But we thank you for everything else you have imparted during the interview.

Full transcript here


About steveblizard

Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News


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