Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, By Eric Kaufmann

Reviewed,Ziauddin Sardar
Friday 09 April 2010 00:00 BST

This may come as a shock to secular sensibilities. Religious fundamentalism is set to bury the ghost of secularism. Secular liberalism is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions and the fundamentalists are about to take over the world. This is, says Eric Kaufmann, who teaches politics at University of London, not necessarily a bad thing. It may make us more secure, more grounded in our identities and communities, and much happier.

The main weapon in the fundamentalist armoury is demography. The world is going through an unparalleled shift from population growth to decline. The trend is led by Europe, where the numbers of people being born are hardly replacing those dying. India, South-east Asia and Latin America are also following the same path. Prosperity, urbanisation, birth control and female education have all contributed to the overall rate of decline in population.

Only fundamentalists are bucking the global trend. Everywhere you look, argues Kaufmann, the religious fundamentalists are multiplying. Consider the ultra-Orthodox Jews. Once a tiny minority in Israel, they now constitute one-third of all school-going children. By 2050, they will be the majority. In the Muslim world, fundamentalism has seen an extraordinary surge since the 1960s. Soon, the puritan Salafists, with their high birth rate and isolationist tendencies, will become the dominant majority.

The Mormons should have been a shrinking minority in Utah. But despite considerable non-Mormon immigration, they increased their share of the population from 60 per cent in 1920 to 75 per cent in 2000. The Quiverfull Protestants, who see children as a blessing, have formulated a "two hundred year plan" for demographic domination. And they are right on course.

Fundamentalists also have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Unlike the materialists who embrace the here and now, they are happy to make sacrifices. They are content with their non-consumerist lifestyles. They work hard to build a parallel world, away from the mainstream, with their own schools, universities, media and even separate beaches, hotels and shopping malls..

They have a stronger sense of community, marry within their own groups, and work together to promote the collective good. Strong religious ties also generate powerful motives for people to remain within the groups, and equally powerful disincentives to leave. So the secularists have little chance of luring away their children.

The rise of fundamentalism could fuel religious violence. But violence is not the main issue. In truth, fundamentalists are no more violent than anarchists, or Marxist-Leninists, or the neo-conservatives, or indeed greedy corporations or bankers who have brought the world to its knees. The greatest threat, says Kauffman, is cultural: fundamentalists which could replace reason and freedom with moral puritanism.

Even this threat is more a matter of perception than reality. It assumes that secular culture and notions of reason and freedom are inherently superior; and fundamentalists, by definition, are against all kinds of reason and freedom. It is based on the dogmatic belief that somehow the Enlightenment irrevocably changed everything and history now moves strictly in a linear fashion. Barring an odd ecological collapse, we are all heading towards a secular nirvana, the apex of human civilisation. Liberal secularists take these assumptions for granted and see the rise of fundamentalism as a step backwards.

However, secular, liberal theories of history are distinguished almost exclusively by failure. The success of liberalism is not based on some innate superiority of secular culture and ideas about freedom, as John Gray has pointed out, but was an accident of history. The presumption that human beings would cease to be religious was as arrogant as it has turned out to be wrong.

Far from making the world more just, liberal theories of justice have increased injustice manifold. Free markets only accumulate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Instrumental reason has been used to enslave and marginalise the people of the developing countries. Liberal and secular theories, says Kauffman, have a predictive value of zero.

History, that is history beyond Europe and the Enlightenment, tells a different story. As the medieval Muslim historian and sociologist ibn Khaldun pointed out, civilisations rise and fall in cycles. Nomadic incursions are necessary part of a cycle through which the social cohesion of a decadent civilisation is renewed.

We can clearly see the pattern in Roman conquest of Greece, Germanic barbarians sacking Rome, and the collapse of great Abbasid culture and civilisation after the onslaught of the Mongol hordes. It is time for Western civilisation to yield to the forces of history. The fundamentalists are modern-day nomads who will renew the decaying culture of contemporary society.

So the rise of fundamentalism need not trouble us too much. Western notions of freedom are way past their "sell by" date. Far from adding value to our culture, hedonism, sexual permissiveness and the worship of individual desires are leading us towards self-destruction. We need to show restraint and fundamentalists provide us with the appropriate example.

Moreover, far from being irrational, religion is more rational than unbelief. "As a utilitarian", Kaufmann writes, "I believe that the maximisation of collective happiness is the proper end of humanity; and on that score, religion seems more rational than irreligion." All the evidence of recent happiness research suggests that people who believe in God are far happier than atheists. This is equally true of individuals as of nations.

For the world's poor, religion is not just a source of meaning, identity and happiness; it is also a symbol of resistance. It points towards alternative possibilities beyond the greed, materialism and arrogance of secular societies. Those who believe that science, art, humanism, or a "love of life in this world" can replace God are totally removed from the overriding concerns of the rest of the world.

This is a powerful thesis; although it is not argued as cogently or coherently as it should be. Kaufmann often fudges his arguments; and we are not always sure of his exact position. The book is also full of contradictions and over-generalisations. The chapter on the Muslim world, based on secondary and tertiary sources, is riddled with elementary errors: sayings of the Prophet are credited to the Qur'an, no distinction is made between Salafists and other Muslim fundamentalists, tribal practices are attributed to Islam. The demographic analysis of the Muslim world, such as it is, is threadbare.

Nevertheless, there is considerable food for thought here. The secular abuse of religion has reached the point of diminishing returns. The religious, refusing to be meek, are fighting back and will probably inherit the earth. Though not all of them would be fundamentalists. Despite certain demographic trends, they are unlikely to outnumber the moderates, except perhaps in Israel and the US. But Kaufmann is surely right to suggest that it's time we stopped fearing and demonising the puritans.

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book is 'Balti Britain' (Granta)

People of the book: Mormons in Utah

One of the first modern "fundamentalist" groups to gain secular power was the Mormons, after members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fled to the Salt Lake City area of Utah in 1847. Mormons retain a leading political role in the state, and as it has attracted incomers a high birth-rate has kept up their proportion of the population. Mormons have also won influence elsewhere: Detroit-born Mormon Mitt Romney, a Republican hopeful in 2008, was Governor of Massachusetts.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in