Islam represents 1.3 billion believers and Christianity 2.3 billion. This constitutes substantial statistical proof for the fact that also modern man has a basic need to believe in God.
This must be a thought-provoking setback for the few atheists that actually exist in the world.
An overwhelming international trend destroys the myth that there is a conflict between rationalism and faith.
New focus on religion
Many describe our age as the century of religion. Faith plays a central role all over the world and influences political and social issues in an unexpectedly strong manner.
The fact that religious belief maintain such a high degree of relevance, has amazed and confounded many.
Since the philosopher Friedrich W. Nietzsche in the late 1800s proclaimed that God was dead, advocates of rationality’s atheism assumed that he was indeed right.
Even Europe’s perhaps most influential philosopher and social scientist, Jurgen Habermas, thought that secularization would eradicate spirituality, and that society would flourish in the wake of this process.
However this has not been the case. For some time a number of studies have opposed theories of secularization, and instead confirmed that belief in God and the importance of spirituality has not diminished in modern society.
Even where traditional forms of religion and church membership lose its foothold, new religious movements and alternative Christian beliefs continue to multiply outside the church.
Widespread theories of secularization predicted that the importance of religion would decrease as the world became increasing modern.
These theories have been invalidated. More moderate theories predict that while some forms of religion may decline, other forms of spirituality will increase.
Leading sociologists affirm that even though a secularization of European social institutions and cultural climate has occurred, religion stands firm in the general population.
The value of traditional European ethics
Following the 9.11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, also Habermas changed his position on the role of religion in liberal society.
At the very least, Islam’s rise in Europe, with its increasing political and social clarity, dictates that religion again assumes a position on the political agenda.
In the wake of the extensive niqab and burka debates in several European countries, it is quite apparent that the influence of Muslim cultures is neither entirely nor necessarily constructive.
A deep and essential self-reflection ignites around the question of which religious movements represent constructive values and should therefore take precedence in Europe today as well as in the future.
That Muslim countries like Syria prohibit the full cover of the niqab sends strong signals concerning precisely which values moderate Muslim countries consider important.
In that regard it seems that the American political scientist Samuel Huntington had a point when in 1993 he published an article titled The Clash of Civilizations? in the journal Foreign Affairs.
Later he expanded this article into a book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Here he asserts that future political discord will lead to conflicts based on cultural differences.
According to Huntington, the effect of globalization will have unexpected consequences on the development of a worldwide cultural conflict.
Many since then have discussed the role that religion and the fundamental values of some cultures would play in this scenario.
In this perspective it is particularly useful to study Habermas’ conclusion that the historical European ethic has a role, a moral role, to play as the ethical foundation in a secularized Europe.
The tendency for solidarity to decline in liberal society and for egoism to dominate is a worrisome development. Numerous moral philosophers have actively warned against this trend for quite some time.
During the famous speech in Bergen, that left many academics totally dumbfounded, Habermas acknowledged that religious traditions and denominations today take a new and unexpected place in politics.
Religion plays, in clear contrast to what many secularists predicted, an increasingly important role in the modern world. Habermas provided a compelling example of how dramatically this unexpected change influences the Western world by citing the title of an article published in the New York Times by a historian:
“The day that extinguished the time of enlightenment”. Something was indeed snuffed out after the Islamic attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.
At the same time, for the whole Western world a light switched on to the fact that religion as both a constructive and destructive factor is far more enduring than many atheists had hoped. The rushing wave of modernity did not wipe it out.
And, there is good reason to retain the constructive elements of religion. Atheistic rationalists in the time of enlightenment erred when they concluded that future peoples would manage without a belief in God.
During the Holberg Prize award ceremony Habermas pointed out that the political revitalization of religion occurs in the heart of Western society.
Even though a wave of secularization has washed over most European countries since World War II, all data from USA indicates that the number of Americans positively affirming religious faith has remained constant over the last sixty years.
The significance of religion for political purposes has now increased over the entire world. Against this background the division in the West is perceived as evidence for the isolation of Europe from the rest of the world.
In the light of world history, the European form of rationalism is actually an exception.
Habermas also said that the growing importance of religion indicates a fundamental change in civil society, where academic debates about religion increasingly characterize the public sphere.
He further maintained that the ongoing process of religious renewal has reinforced the divide between Europe and the USA, where spiritual faith has more commonly been met with respect than what is the case in Europe.
In The Divided West Habermas explores this theme more extensively. He refers to the singular principle that religion has no place in the public sphere as evidence for Europe’s disconnect with the rest of the world.