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Why the resurgence of religion should come as no surprise

A depiction of God handing down the laws of life and faith to Moses. Image/Supplied

In this extract from his new book, Neil MacGregor says the reassuring politics of prosperity has in many parts of the world been replaced by the rhetoric and politics of identity articulated through belief.

After the end of the Second World War, the Western world basked for decades in a prosperity without precedent in history. The United States offered most of its citizens – and its immigrants – what appeared to be endlessly rising standards of living. In 1957, the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, famously told Britons that they had “never had it so good”. They agreed, and he comfortably won the next election.

Across Western Europe and North America, economic growth was the norm: peace had on the whole led to plenty. In the rest of the world, the Soviet Union and the US were locked in bitter conflict, sometimes military, always ideological, competing to win new recruits for their preferred systems of Marxist state communism or liberal democratic capitalism. As both are essentially economic propositions, the debate increasingly, and unsurprisingly, centred not on their very different notions of freedom and social justice, but on which system could provide the greater material benefits for its society.

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There is a striking example of this elision – equation – of ideals with their material outcomes on the US dollar bill, or, more precisely, on two dollar bills. Even though most of its population was Christian, the US had been founded on the explicit basis, enshrined in the Constitution, that the new nation should not have an established religion. But, in 1956, in an effort to distinguish itself even more sharply from the atheist Soviet Union, the US Congress resolved to make greater public use of the long-familiar motto, “In God We Trust”. In a gesture rich in unintended symbolism, it was decided that the words should appear not on public buildings or on the flag, but on the national currency. They have been printed on dollar bills ever since, and on the $10 bill they hover protectively over the US Treasury itself. The ironic phrase the “Almighty Dollar” had been circulating since the 19th century, warning against the conflation of God and Mammon. Now, however, one of the defining American beliefs was to be expressed on the most revered manifestation of its success: its money.

On the face of it, it might seem that the new wording on the dollar bills was an assertion of the supremacy of God in the US political system, a 20th century American version of the letters DG – Dei Gratia (By the Grace of God) – which accompany the portrait of the sovereign on British currency, or the Quranic texts on the coinage of many Islamic states. In fact, it was almost the reverse.

This striking combination of the financial and the spiritual, far from being a step towards theocracy in Washington, was symptomatic of a wider change in the balance between ethics and economics. On both sides of the Atlantic, the role of organised religion in public and private realms alike was receding. Society was becoming increasingly secular – more swiftly in Europe – and fewer and fewer were attending traditional religious services. The “revolutionaries” of 1968 argued in terms of economic injustice that hardly mentioned God, let alone putting their trust in him.

After the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, the consensus almost everywhere was clear. The battle of ideologies was over: capitalism had won, communism had failed, religion had withered, and if there was a faith – a set of assumptions shared by almost everybody – it was now in material well-being. As Bill Clinton memorably put it in the US presidential election campaign of 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Few disagreed and, like Macmillan before him, Clinton was elected leader of his country.

Twenty-five years later, to the surprise or bewilderment of the prosperous West, organised religion is, all around the world, once again politically centre stage. To an extent rarely seen in Europe since the 17th century, faith now shapes large parts of the global public debate. The competitive materialisms of the Cold War have been replaced. The whole of the Middle East is caught up in murderous conflicts that are articulated and fought not in economic but in religious terms. The politics of Pakistan and Israel, both founded as explicitly secular states, are increasingly confessional. In Indonesia and Nigeria, Myanmar and Egypt, communities are attacked and individuals killed on the pretext that the practice of their faith makes them aliens in their own country. India, whose constitution enshrines the state’s equidistance from all religions, is convulsed by calls for the Government to assert an explicitly Hindu identity, with grave consequences for Indians who are Muslims or Christians.

In many countries, not least the United States, immigration policy – effectively, the case against immigrants – is often framed in the language of religion. Even in largely agnostic Europe, the Bavarian Prime Minister urges the presence of the cross in official buildings as the marker of a Catholic Bavarian identity, and the French government bans the public wearing of the full-face burqa.

In Switzerland, a referendum is held to ban the building of minarets, while thousands march regularly in Dresden to protest against alleged “Islamisation”. The most populous state on earth, China, claims that its national interests, the very integrity of the state, are threatened by the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama, a man whose only power is the faith he embodies.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, deeply shocking to the secular world, and which at the time appeared to be pushing against the tide of history, now seems instead to have been the harbinger of its turning. After decades of humiliating intervention by the British and the Americans, Iranian politicians found in religion a way of defining and asserting the country’s identity.

Many since then have followed the same path. In a way that could hardly have been imagined 60 years ago, the reassuring politics of prosperity has in many parts of the world been replaced by the rhetoric and politics, often violent, of identity articulated through belief.

One of the arguments of Living with the Gods is that this should not surprise us, because it is, in fact, a return to the prevalent pattern of human societies.

Living With The Gods, by Neil MacGregor (Penguin Random House, $70).

This extract was published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.