Friday, 30 May 2008

Welcome to the religion century

Tony Blair made some interesting comments at a fundraising dinner in Toronto last night. Coming on the eve of the launch of his new Faith Foundation, which was unveiled to the world today in New York, it offered a stark and blunt assessment of the century we are entering. While probably true, his comments will no doubt be quite troubling to secular Europe.

Speaking at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Blair described the impetus behind his new faith foundation as an effort to “get faith in action,” saying that the goal of his new foundation is to help various religions work together to make the process of globalisation more humane. Sounds innocuous enough. But it was his blunt assessment of the power religion will have over the world over the next century that got my attention. Spoke Blair:

“Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century.”

In essence what he is saying is that though the 20th century was dominated by the rise and conflict between various political ideologies – Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, and Socialism – the 21st century is going to be dominated by religion. Religion will be the force that inspires people to mass movement and action, the way that political movements once did.

It would be hard to argue that this is not the direction in which the world is currently headed. As the 21st century dawns, political movements across the world have died, and are now hulking skeletons of their former selves. Communism was delegitimized and dismantled. Fascism was discredited by the horrors it unleashed. European Democratic Socialism is on the way out, with young people increasingly turning away from a socialised government. And even capitalism, that stalwart of American empire, has lost much of its legitimacy as Americans (and the world at large) have become disillusioned with US government. In short, we are living in a time of apathy For people of my generation, the political movements which inspired our parents and grandparents are no more, and we no longer have larger causes to believe in.

In steps religion to fill the void. Whether it’s the rise of political Islam in the Middle East, the ascendancy of political evangelicalism in the United States, or the increasing Hindu Nationalism of South Asia, religion is becoming an increasingly powerful force on Earth. Today, religion is the only force that can motivate people in great numbers. It is the only conceivable motivator that could drive people to kill themselves for their cause, as is the case with Islamic jihadism. It is the only force that can motivate mass collective action on a grand scale.

If you told an intellectual living at the beginning of the 20th century that this would be the case 100 years in the future, he would have said you were mad. At the time religion was increasingly losing its hold over people’s lives, and people were turning to larger social movements with charismatic leaders like Hitler and Lennon (and…money?) to replace the void. Now that those movements are gone, people are turning back to religion to fill the void that has once again been formed.

But though Mr. Blair seems to think that this rise of religiosity in the world will bring a future of peace and tranquillity, most of secular Europe would probably disagree. They would see the growing influence of Islam as, at best, a cause of conflict between recent immigrants and native citizens and, at worst, a motivator for acts of terrorism which kill their citizens. They would see the way Christianity has entrenched itself in American government as a threat to rationalism and humanism.

No matter how you feel about religion, it's hard to envision how this glorious future Mr. Blair describes, with the various powerful religions of the world working together to create world peace, could possibly be a reality. The 20th century was wracked by the conflicts between various competing ideologies that grabbed people’s imaginations and motivated them to do terrible things to one another in the name of their cause. And this was only a conflict over how governments should be run! The idea that the 21st century is going to be dominated by the rising influence of competing religions, which as a basic precept hold that competing religions are wrong and lead people to damnation, is not something I find very comforting. If we thought political wars in the age of modern warfare were terrifying, just try religious wars in such an age.

Perhaps Tony Blair and I should sit down for a spot of tea and discuss this. Because at the moment, I can't understand what he's on about.


Jon said...

Blair's ideas are truly absurd. Any student of history would tell you that a growing influence and importance of major religions in the 21st century would lead to more conflict, not less of it.

Grahnlaw said...

How about two alternative categories for Tony Blair and others to think about?

One, inclusive liberal representative government, based on the rule of law.

Two, authoritarian rule, in a variety of forms, from military dictatorships and 'managed' democracy to religious and other legitimising ideologies antithetical to individuals' rights.

Anonymous said...

I agree with above comment, that will be the real challenge of the 21st century. Fundamentalist religious movements and totalitarian movements are just different manifestations of the same animal