Saturday, February 23, 2008

Religion is not the Opposite of Secularism

Alan Wolfe, one of America's more interesting scholars, has an article in The Atlantic about religions and how they're not disappearing.

He starts by quoting form a recent study in The Economist, but his own article is more interesting. He then brings a very interesting chart which shows that more affluent societies are less religious than poor ones. Israel is slightly on the edge, a bit untypical, while the United States is off the map: very affluent, quite religious, and different from everybody else. (I would argue that the similarities between Israel and the US - their levels of religiosity are very similar - are one of the many fundamental, structural affinities that make the relationship between them so unusually strong).

Eventually he presents the thesis that religions in secular societies adapt to the basic tenets of secularism, and thus need not threaten anyone.

Mostly convincing except where he tells that this universal trend is operative even in the Muslim world. It would be nice if he was right, and there actually are indications that it could be that way, but I don't see much justification to be sanguine, not just yet.


Anonymous said...

You are partially correct regarding Israel and the United States having an affinity which is strengthened by religion. But you must go farther. America and Israel are also united by a sense of historical exceptionalism which is religiously based. The Puritan divines who contributed so many assumptions to the American weal were philo-Semites and great scholars of the Hebrew Bible. Their "city on the hill" was to be a modern Jerusalem, one that would accept the sovereignty of Christ rather than reject it. It was as if the Puritans were picking up the thread "dropped" by the Jews of Jesus' generation.

But there is more. The United States' sense of exceptionalism was reinforced by its victory after WWII. As you know, this was no Chancellory War, but a struggle of biblical dimensions with a biblical cast, as close to the eternal clash between good and evil as it gets in this world. I have always believed that the American liberation of the concentration camps permanently stamped this country's self-understanding in ways that the dimly lit and constricted imaginations of Walt, Mearsheimer, Juan Cole and their ilk simply cannot understand.

If you look at it metaphorically, the American Christ redeemed the surviving Jews from the death camps, and like Moses, "led" them to their promised land. Sure, may not comport with the historical record precisely---but it remains the enormously powerful subtext as recollected by many Americans today.

America's ties with Israel remain strong because of shared religious assumptions, and a recent history tinged with religious overtones. It is played out in unnumbered American living rooms to this day: "Grandpa," what did you do during WWII?" And if the answer is, "I helped liberate the death camps," that veteran and anyone within earshot grows just a bit taller.

You see, our two nations, different as they are. have interlocking self-esteems, as it were.

Yaacov said...

Interesting. Thanx for the comment.

Lydia McGrew said...

I should think a huge reason for the similarities is that so many Israelis are actually American. Literally: American citizens. Isn't the dual citizenship issue just huge w.r.t. to Israelis? That is, if America ever tried to get rid of the possibility of dual citizenship, it would probably make a bigger difference, percentage-wise, to Israelis than to the citizens of any other single country. How many Israelis were born in America or to American parents? Lots, I'd bet.

Yaacov said...

No, actually not. We're noisy and noticeable, those of us with American and Israeli citizenship, but make up a very small percentage of anything. Thee are something like 7,500,000 Israelis, of whom I'd guess something between 75,000 and 250,000 at the very most are also Americans. And there are 300,000,000 Americans.

Lydia McGrew said...

Okay, point taken. I really didn't know the numbers. So we're talking between 1 percent and 3.3 percent, at the outside. I would be curious as to how that compares to other countries.

Devon said...

The quote about Jewish "exceptionalism" reminds me of a quote from Exodus, by Leon Uris.
"...'I've worked with enough Jewish doctors to know they are arrogant and aggressive people. They look down on us.' 'With what? An inferiority complex?'"

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