President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, not usually a reliable authority on current affairs, got it right in an open letter to George Bush: “Whether we like it or not,” he wrote, “the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty.” Whether this prospect is frightening or inspiring is the subject of a special report in this week’s issue of The Economist, on newsstands from November 2nd.
The report, written by The Economist’s Editor-in-Chief, John Micklethwait, considers the factors driving the return of religion and attempts to understand the tensions between religions and the clash between secular authority and religious allegiance. The report explains that the idea that religion has re-emerged in public life is to some extent an illusion.
It never really went away, certainly not to the extent that French politicians and American college professors imagined. Its new power is mostly the consequence of two changes. The first is the failure of secular creeds: religion’s political comeback started during the 1970s, when faith in government everywhere was crumbling. Second, although some theocracies survive in the Islamic world, religion has returned to the stage as a much more democratic, individualistic affair: a bottom-up marketing success, surprisingly in tune with globalization. Secularism was not as modern as many intellectuals imagined, but pluralism is. Free up religion and ardent believers and ardent atheists both do well.
Ultimately, Micklethwait argues that America holds the key to this debate- the superpower may have mastered the politics of religion at home, but not abroad.