‘ The Rise of Religion in the Postmodern World & Challenges Ahead’


  It was once thought, that as history progressed, the force and influence of religion in politics, economics and society would diminish. However the opposite is true. Dr Hewer discusses and explores the reasons behind the explosion of religious energy, the effects it is having and the challenges that religion in general and Islam in particular faces in the post modern world.
What I want to do to begin with is to say something about how we got into the state we are in. And I am going to talk about Europe and how we got into the religious state that we are currently in in Europe. In the second part I want to go on to look at trends developing in the religious and spiritual life of Europe today. So those are the two things I want to do, hopefully with more emphasis on the second than on the first, but you never quite know.
I think that is important when we start to think ‘how did we get into the state we are in’ you need to go back to our European history to remember that I am the first generation of European men that hasn’t been to war within Europe amongst ourselves. I am the first generation. That is really a very important thought because what happens after WW2. Remember following very quickly after the great carnage of First World War in Europe is people have a real horror struck sense of what have we done, what are we capable of, what is that we have done and where was God in all this. You often hear those sorts of comments from people who went through and saw the horror of  war in Europe during this time.
So the 1939 – 45 war has a profound effect on people having begun to appreciate just what it is that you have done. So when you  look, for example, at the blanket bombing of German cities and you see the effect of you flying over in an aircraft and what you have caused on the ground, you begin to question a great many things that you have inherited.
What then happens after the war is that we get a rise of atheistic communism within the European theatre, people who are actually having then to define themselves against an atheistic way of life.
I think  this has two effects: for many people it drives religion into a private sphere. It drives religion into the underground. It is what I do in private and I don’t talk about it too much. That was obviously necessary for those people who were living under communist regimes in Eastern Europe. It also begins to have an effect in the rest of Western Europe as well because one of the trends we see developing is that religion becomes privatised. So it is my private affair.
So if you go to a borough council or a city council today and you want to talk to somebody about something religious it is very likely you will be referred to the leisure services department.
So religion has been reduced to a sort of alternative leisure pursuit on Friday lunchtime  I do the week’s shopping, you go to the mosque. On Sunday morning you do you do your weekly shopping, I go to church. They are perfectly equivalent activities. I like to go fishing with the children on Sunday’s, you like to go to church. So we see this privatisation and it becomes the dominant theme in Europe during the second part of the 20th century.
It is very interesting that if we go from 1945 till about 1970 we see that the change in the religious landscape of Europe is not so hugely marked. The really big changes come over the last 40 years from 1970 onwards. Some of the sociologists who study this have a 10 percent rule. You have 10 percent of the people going to church that were going to church before, you have 10 percent of clergy active in the church that you had before. So you get a very marked fall off during the last 40 years, lets say from 1970 onwards.
With that decline in organised  church life you get not only the disappearance of religion in the public sphere but you get a complete lack of confidence. We are on the back foot, we are going backwards, numbers are going down, fewer people are coming to church, fewer people are getting married in church etc etc And so you get that kind of back foot mentality that comes during this period. We go on the defensive.
Rising alongside this, another trend that is coming in the other direction is the rise of materialism, the rise of measuring your success by what you own, by what you have, by what you can spend. Alongside that comes our post-war experience of how do you develop a caring society. And the answer is you form a welfare state and the state will provide.
So instead of that famous biblical psalm ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, you can say the welfare state is my shepherd. It will provide. And so what do you need religion for anymore? It becomes a real challenge that grows up during the decades in the second part of the 20th century. What you need it for anymore. Now there is a sense that those who have better pension provisions tend to have fewer children because you don’t need children to look after you in old age. Those of you who have better neo natal care have less children die in infancy therefore you have less children.
So part of the state will provide is that actually you don’t need God too much – the state will provide. That becomes a kind of creeping malaise during the second part of the 20th century.
Going with the drawing back into the private sphere, the loss of confidence, the loss of engagement and the sense that the state will provide we get an abdication on the part of many Christian bodies across Europe to engage in the things that are mattering to people. We have a growing irrelevance if you like. ‘What have you got to do with my life when you are not actually getting in there and grappling with the issues that I am facing?’
You can see that in all sorts of ways. I just want to touch on one of them because of one of the things that happens during these years is that people are freed in terms of taking control of their sexual life. We see an increased availability of contraception and therefore people can take control of their own fertility.
Now one of the key factors I think is that in 1968 the pope issued an encyclical  letter, a letter in general to Catholics world wide which said that artificial means of birth control are unacceptable. The result of this was that many people – many good, God fearing pious Catholics as it were said ‘no it is not – it is a requirement,  it is a necessity, it is available, it is my responsibility to take control of my own fertility.
So what you have is a centralised teaching and people saying ‘no that is not right – we don’t accept it’. Once you can say you don’t accept it and you can say as it were you live through the experience then you begin to see that there may be other things we can think about and begin to question. Maybe we don’t have to take everything as if it were just falling from the trees.
I think this has a profound effect because many good God fearing Catholic people who were in a major tradition across Europe actually saying ‘no’. Now it is very interesting, there is a rough rule of thumb. If you want to look at birth rates across Europe then as a rough rule of thumb you can say the closer you get to the pope, geographically – in other words the closer you get to Italy, the further goes down the birth rate.
So one of the interesting things is that in Italy it certainly isn’t the case that people say the pope is just down the road. We must obey the pope. You get a real challenging of the authority of the church as well as challenging all other authorities of the time. So this becomes the age of student rebellions, of challenging your teachers and professors, challenging the accepting ways, going off in search of wisdom, going off to travel the world, going off to the east etc etc. And along with this comes not only a  willingness but also an openness to challenge the church authorities as well. And of course with that comes the sense of we don’t need you anymore.
Just one more thing to say to that before I come to the response. Another thing which has a very profound effect later in the 20th century,  is that Christianity, especially the Catholic church in the west, is hugely plagued by sex scandals, involving the clergy: sexual abuse, abuse of children, physical abuse, money abuse and so on. So we then find that people who put the clergy on a pedestal suddenly they come down to the floor with a huge bump. The result of all this  is an openness to challenge all sorts of religious authority.
If we look at this and say what is going on within the institutionalised churches  during this time I would suggest that what see is not only a spirit of retreat, of going onto the back foot but also of preservation. We want to preserve ourselves, we want to preserve our status, we want to preserve our influence within society. So whatever happens we need to find ways of keeping the institutions which allow us to have some influence in society.
Secondly going with this was a failure of education. A failure of education which says do what I do. It’s a closed epistemological world. Just take it for what I say. Do it. People said :’no, I want to know why, you can’t explain, you don’t make any sense to me, I am giving up on you’.
The third thing we see going on during this time is an emphasis on outer ritual as opposed to the inner spiritual dynamic and the impact that this has in life.  Now at this stage I want to just say  that I hope you are reflecting on how these points affect what is going on in Muslim life and society in Britain as well during this time. So this is not an attempt to rubbish organised Christianity during the later part of the 20th century – it is to describe a set of religious  phenomena, that I think as Christians and Muslims in the West today we are all in the process of living through.
So if I  just repeat those last three points with that thought in mind: the institutionalisation of religion – clinging on to power and influence wherever you can find it, poor education, do what I tell you don’t ask me to explain and an emphasis on outer ritual as opposed to the inner power of spiritual conversion.
Two other things are happening  during this time that I just want to touch on. In the late 50s the late British Prime Minister Harold McMillan coined a very important phrase. He told us you have never had it so good  because after the war we were going through a huge process of rebuilding, everybody had jobs, you lose a job in the morning you get a job in the afternoon. Factories were working around the clock, everybody never had it so good.
And that brings in with it a whole spirit of economic development, economic re-awakening and so on. That really hits it forte just over 20 years ago in the late 80s when were told that the market can solve all your problems. Leave it to the market and the market can solve all your problems. And we are now reaping the consequence of that idea because the market has screwed up  your housing. You have allowed the market to dictate the cost of a house for your family  to live in. Whoever said that a house should cost £300,000 to £400,000 for an ordinary family to live in. The market did. No ethics, no morality, that was the market.
Those of us who are coming closer to pension time will know that the market has just screwed up our pensions in the last few weeks. Our pension funds are worth a great deal less than they were before. We know that we have a real crisis through applying market forces in health care and education.
So we can see that ‘the market can solve it’ leads to a complete economic breakdown but also a breakdown of society. In that situation you can see that we do not have, we do not hear any serious religious prophetic force. So you have just proved to me that you are really quite irrelevant because you do not speak a prophetic voice in this situation.
The final thing I want to say in this part is that these are the years of mass migration all across Western Europe. The years of rebuilding, the years of factories working around the clock going and recruiting across Western Europe manual workers to come and rebuild Europe during the 60s and 70s. Nobody ever thought how this was going to work out. It was what I call the greatest unplanned social experiment of Europe in the last 500 years. Nobody ever sat down and planned that through. Nobody ever thought what difference does it make to us in Western Europe if we shift through being an overwhelmingly Christian society to being a society of many different faiths and cultures. It was not a planed process. It was just growing in that way.
For a long time because we are going alongside a time of privatisation of religion, religion was an irrelevant factor. You are not Muslims, you are people of particular ethnic or racial minorities in society. So Europe tried to deal with new migrant communities on the basis of ethnicity and race rather than taking religion seriously. That is one of the things that has started to change in the immediate past.
Now I want to look at the situation as I see it developing at the present time and in this post-modern world I want to suggest seven areas in which we can have some interesting conversation. I put it under this heading: how do we build a multi-faith, multi-cultural society?
And the first thing that I see happening is the re-emergence of religion into the public space. Emerging out of being a private personal affair into a public factor influencing the whole of society. You can see this in little ways, for example you can see it in work place prayer accommodation in airline terminals and in shopping centres. You can see it in the question of accommodating different forms of religious dress into the public sphere.
The famous case of the Sikh boy who wants to wear his turban to school and it has to go to the high court until you win it through. But then you do win it through so now it is legally required that you allow a Sikh to wear a turban and a beard in school. So we bring religion back more into the public sphere again. This then makes religion more noticeable and then people begin to ask what have you got to say, what have you got to contribute to the discussion.  Is it just that we are religious so we go off and pray sometimes or does dressing this way have something to say about the social morays of our society? Does spending my money this way have something to say about the values that I want to see brought into public society. So we see religion coming much more onto the public agenda. I think that that improves and promotes a conversation, a discussion within society.
The second thing which I think has happened is that largely through the presence of Muslims, Jews and Sikhs in British life we begin to get a much more integrated understanding of what it means to live a life around a set of faith principles. What it is to live a life which is a complete way of life around a set of  guidance and principles as opposed to religion is a private affair that I get up to sometimes on a Sunday morning. That is not to say of course that Christianity is only about what I do n a Sunday morning. But that goes out of public discourse and it comes back into public discourse I think now largely through minority faith communities being seen to be wanting to shape large parts of their lives around a set of  religious and ethical values. And it is making Christians think again about what difference does it make to me how I live my life that I am a Christian or a Jew as well. So religion as an integrated way of life.
A third thing that I think is happening in this re-emergence is that many people in our society are entering into not only discussion about but action upon a set of spiritual values: not necessarily the ones that are most obvious. But I would suggest that the whole move in care for the environment, recycling, looking after the world in which we live is part of a profound spiritual re-awakening amongst lots of people. I need to do something about something I care about it. I am prepared to make an effort a sacrifice within my own life.
Likewise the whole business of fair trade. I want to know where these clothes came from, who made them and that they were paid a proper wage. It seems that in these kinds of ways secular Europe and secular Britain is re-awakening to a set of spiritual values.
The whole quality of life discussion goes on. Now remember coming through that industrial period, this was the age of the age of the assembly belt. The assembly belt is profoundly de-humanising. All I do is I put these three bolts together as the thing goes past me. And then I do it again on another one. It is a deeply dehumanising process. So lots of people now are asking questions about the deeper spiritual nature of their work-life balance. There is a whole movement now that we ought to live more simply in order that others may simply live.
So the idea that living as part of one human community binds us together in a very profound way which means that I express my care, compassion  and concern for other members of my spiritual family by the economic way that I live and trade and by my consumption. I think there is a real movement to promote issues of justice within society. So justice becomes a much more important value in the life of lots of people, I think.
So we are seeing this  in terms of people saying ‘not in my name’ in terms of the stop the war campaign on Iraq or in the bombing  campaign against Afghanistan. People saying this is not right and entering into campaigns. People who are doing things like running mini marathons to raise money etc
The other thing which I think is profoundly showing this is the  huge rise in the ethical screening of investments. So there are lots of people now saying I want to take control of what my investment do not just to maximise my return but to make sure that it is being done in an ethical way. This has been a huge growth industry over the last 15 years or so. Those I think are the real signs of a real spiritual awakening.
The fourth thing I want to say is that one of the features of this post-modern work in which we live is that  each one constructs his own way of life, his own way of doing things. We want to take and emphasise certain elements out of the package and leave others behind. We actually see that people are wanting to construct ‘yes, I am a Christian, I am a Muslim and I will tell you  what that means and how it influences my life and what I do’.
There are two dimensions to this. One dimension is that this can severely get us off into as it were worshipping our own images of God instead of worshipping God. The other thing it can do of course is that it can be profoundly challenging for the religious leadership and the religious professionals because we would want to say it’s a whole package and many people in Europe today are actually saying I don’t want the whole package I just want the elements that I find meaningful in my world today – and there is a challenge in that. That is a profoundly post modern challenge. I will construct my own challenge.
One of the things about that is that actually I want to put something together that draws something from your riches and something from your riches and something from your riches too. So we now find people who are really interrogating the Islamic tradition and saying this and this I find really to be profoundly useful for the way in which I live my life but not that or that.
The fifth point I want to touch on then in that context is to say that one of the things that has happened in the modern period is the rise to prominence of women at all levels in society. Sometimes we have very short memories. It is only the middle 60s in Britain that we begin to see the door to university education opened up to women in this country. It is only as  the last century progresses that we  really begin to see equality beginning to  creep in in all sorts of areas of employment, political life, economic life in society. I think that is a really important development because it brings in another way of doing things.
It is very interesting because I was in Birmingham during the period of the stop the war campaign. The Stop the War Campaign in Birmingham was run by a group of 20 something, 30 something  Muslim women.  They saw the vision, they organised it, they got it together and they created the coalition that could take it forward and make it happen. If they left it to the men nothing would of happened or else they would of found a great many reasons why we couldn’t possibly do it. So it brought a whole new spirit into what was not just domestic affair but a profoundly public, political, social act of conscience within society. And that was overwhelmingly driven by a new generation of young, largely Muslim women at that time.
I think that is also  very important because it is only 40 years – not quite 50years that Christian women have had equal access to the theological sciences in the Christian tradition and the result of that 40 or 50 years is that we have had a huge blossoming in reading the tradition from a women’s perspective. Reading the scriptures, reading the theological tradition, reading the whole spiritual tradition in a new way. I think that is one of the things that is driving this new energy. We have now two English translations of the Qur’an produced by women over the last few years. We are beginning to get women who are writing sirah – biographies of the Prophet. We are beginning to see a real energy which is being developed in this way which will run alongside a similar kind of energy in other faith traditions not only Christians and Jews but Sikhs and Buddhists as well.
The sixth point upon which I want to touch is the challenge of this whole movement and period in the way in which we do education. I am struck by the fact that many people are asking searching questions and not finding people to answer them. This is an educational challenge. I can ask the question but why can’t you answer it. How many of us grew up under a system where to ask a question suggests I did not explain it very well in the first place. And its really rather insulting.
But now we have a tradition of people in Western Europe who are growing up under an educational and philosophical system that says you learn by questioning, you learn by trying to construct your own understanding, putting it into your own words, tell me what you think. What is your opinion. This is going to give  us a  real challenge to the way we do religious and  spiritual education because that threatens the established teachers and scholars. And very often they are found wanting.
The second challenge that I want to identify in the world of education is how  do you deal with that which is good but which is short of the ideal; how to you deal with that which is good but which is not the optimum because religious tradition often says we need to go for the whole package, we need to go for the optimum for the 100 percent for the best.
What is happening in lots of  cases around Europe is that people are saying that is as far as I can today. This is as good as it gets today? How do you deal with that? Do you say that is wonderful but there is also more to come or do you deal with it by saying that is a failure if only you realised how far you are falling short of the optimum. I think that again is part of the whole post-modern situation.
The last thing I want to say  is that there are profound Christian-Muslim aspects to what is going on. Several things are happening there. Both faith communities are being challenged to reinterpret and re-assess our own history and tradition and to look at it afresh and to realise that what we inherited was fairly one-eyed. We only saw it through  a one-eyed perspective rather than through two.
Coming with that of course is the recognition that all across Western Europe we are minorities. Christians and Muslims in Europe are minorities and how does that affect what we do? How does that affect the message that we have to develop. One of the things about this interaction is that there are times when we are hopefully going to prompt one another in new ways of thinking. There are other times when we are going  to provoke one another to new ways of thinking in ways  that are fairly uncomfortable. There are times that we are going to feed one another. So one of the really interesting discussions come about when we say we have a common problem, a common scenario: how do I deal with it? How do you deal with it? How can we learn one from the other how to deal with it better. And I think that is the kind of thing we are seeing developing in all sorts of for a across Western Europe today.
The final thing I want to put into this discussion is that if you look at who is coming out of churches is that one of the things  you will notice is that they are recent migrants to Britain. It doesn’t matter if they are Polish or from sub Saharan Africa a great deal of  London Christianity is based around recent migrants. The same is of course also true of the many elements of the Muslim communities in Britain although often with one of two generations added into that. Lots of times Muslims have been here longer.
This is quite interesting because one of the challenges which is coming out of this religious  awakening is that this religious energy is being supplied by people from other parts of the world coming to Europe and seeing a kind of religious sterility. Where have you lost your religious zeal, the zeal that often made you  bring Christianity to us in the past. So we could see a further decline in all European institutionalised religion but an increase in this immigrant driven  new religious movements of one sort or another with all that that will involve. And that is a very rich and plural question.
I want to end by saying that one of the interesting books that has been written over the last few years by Philip Jenkins an American sociologist  is called God’s Continent and it is subtitled  Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis. And he gathers together in this book an outsiders perspective of what is going on in the religious dynamics, especially Christian and Muslim communities in Western Europe. And one of the things that he comes up with is the thesis in the end is that presence of vibrant Muslim community in Europe might well have a  profound influence on the re-awakening of Christian life and Christian values in Europe. So we could be in for some interesting times.
*Dr Chris Hewer comes from a background in Christian theology, education, Islamic studies and inter-faith studies and has worked in the field of Muslims in Britain and Christian-Muslim relations since 1986, first at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak in Birmingham and from 1999 to 2005, as the Adviser on Inter-Faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham. He was appointed as the St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations in London in January 2006, with a brief to deliver adult popular education courses, study days and talks around Greater London.


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