The spell of the Enlightenment so profoundly distracts many Western opinion makers that the worldwide rise of religion is either ignored or it is viewed as major threat rather than an important source for the re-moralization of society. True, many observers have noted, especially after September 11, that the rise of a religiously ferocious Islam is not limited to the Arab world, but is very much in evidence in all Muslim nations from Indonesia to Turkey. But few have paid mind to the importance of the crowded churches in former communist countries in Eastern Europe and Russia; to the many scores of millions who are finding religion in China; and to the rapidly growing followings of a variety of religious denominations, cults and sects all over the world.
The global significance of these developments is highlighted in what otherwise would be an almost trivial development: the U.S. Agency for International Development is revising the textbooks used in Afghan and Iraqi schools. Its staff has been tearing out of these texts the passages that extol the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but they have been stymied in finding what other values to instill, deciding instead to focus on teaching math, science and English. However, such secular teachings do not address profound issues that religions do speak to: What is a virtuous life? What are our obligations to our family members, friends and other community members? Is death a threatening end we all must fear or merely a passing to a better place? Are we truly better off as we command ever more goods? And can those of us who do not “make it” in the marketplace—still find deep sources of self-respect?
Western secularism largely avoids these issues. Its consumer hedonism has an appeal of its own, but more and more people find that they cannot keep up with the Joneses. Hence the growing alienation in the countryside and among urban migrants—among the majority of the people—in developing nations such as India and China. The West does well when it extols the dignity of the individual, the value of autonomy and human rights. However these are basically ideologies that serve as compelling antidotes to excessive governmental intrusions and celebrate self-government. They do not address the questions that a person faces once he is free to choose, free to set his own course of destiny and purpose.
The lack of responses to these transcendental questions is the main reason the West will continue to fall behind in the global clash of belief systems.
Well, I don’t feel I need a spiritual surge. I feel like I got all the religion I’ll ever need during my formative years. But perhaps people who got no religion at all during their youth need some remedial education. I don’t know. The “secular West” these days seems to contain more than an ample supply of pseudosecular religion substitutes (secular saccharins!), many of them redolent of medieval European pietism and demonology—and every bit as condescending and self-righteous as the Pharisees or Sadducees.