Rumours of God’s return are greatly exaggerated

On a desk in my school, long ago, some past sixth-former had written four words: “God is dead – Nietzsche”, followed by four more: “ Nietzsche is dead – God.” Even as a juvenile atheist I could see that the idea of the mad German getting his comeuppance from the unbelieved Almighty was funny.

And some readers today might similarly be enjoying the contents of a new book, God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World, written by the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, John Micklethwait, and his colleague Adrian Wooldridge. “You thought God had gone,” they seem to chant in the direction of the national grandstand where sits the secular elite, “you were wrong, you were wrong.”

Not surprisingly the geist that gibbers in this straitened zeit is a pessimist. Articulated by a small army of declinists, the dominant sentiment is that it’s all gone to the dogs in the West: community, spirituality, morality – and left us in a state of alienation, of anomie, eating apart in front of American Idol, obesely exercising on our Wiis, leading unsatisfactory lives of consumption and envy.

At least a couple more new books this week have suggested that our etiolated and weakened sense of higher self is consequently no match for rampant, self-confident Islam. We are the new late Romans and the Muslims are the new equivalent of Gibbon’s destroying religious army. “Man is a theotropic beast,” argue the authors of God is Back: we will have Jehovah – or Allah – one way or another.

This is an enjoyable thesis, and well argued, even if a more accurate title would be “Oh Look, God Hasn’t Gone Away as Quickly as Some Folk Expected”. In this country, for example, the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that 74 per cent of Britons belonged to a religion and attended services in 1964, but only 31per cent did so in 2005.

So unless the past three years have shown a revolutionary change (and I’m not aware of any polling that shows this) God has yet to reappear. Nor am I completely convinced by the beautifully round figure of two million attendees provided by the evangelical Alpha Course (quoted by the God is Back combo). In 2001 it was the even rounder one million, and the course’s site is accompanied by newspaper testimonials – including one from The Times – that I just cannot find anywhere in the papers’ online archives.

But I mustn’t be parochial. The authors are right to suggest that, even here, religion is far more discussed now than it was 20 years ago, and that abroad there have been some really surprising developments, such as the growth of Christianity in China and Africa and of religious belief in Russia. It is also true, as they say, that previously secular regional disputes – such as that in the Middle East – have now been enGodded.

They argue that religion is a part of “the quest for community in an increasingly atomised world” and “atomised”, of course, is bad. But globalisation has not atomised us – it has done the exact opposite, it has made us far more aware of each other than we have ever been.

What they mean is that we have become hypermobile compared with our forebears, and that organised religion can be a fairly instant way of gaining a community. This is the American model – modernity plus the deity – in which you up sticks, move to a new town or state and begin the process of belonging by finding yourself an attractive church or a temple. The church opens its doors and welcomes you in, doubly welcoming you for the very fact of your newness.

Whatever the reason for the faith upsurge, I don’t take quite the same pleasure in it as some do. This is partly because the religious upsurgers seem determined to confuse secularism with atheism.

We atheists always have a problem with appearing bad mannered when we say what we believe. Take the God is Back duo’s deployment of studies purporting to show that “Christians are healthier and happier than their secular brethren”, citing a Pittsburgh doctor’s belief that going to church added three years to someone’s life and a 1997 study that religiosity reduces blood pressure. To which I can riposte with all those other studies showing even better health outcomes for owning a pet. Which may appear churlish of me.

I also seem rude when I say that I can see nothing in terms of believability to distinguish the idea that Muhammad had the Koran dictated to him by Allah from Joseph Smith’s strange education at the hands of prophet Moroni, or an animist’s belief in the spirit of the river. So, on the whole, I don’t say it.

But when Micklethwait and Wooldridge imagine Christian Africa and the Muslim world colliding on the southern edge of the Sahara, it is the secularist and not the atheist in me that is offended. It is the domination of the public realm by the private and untestable conviction that is truly repugnant, not the conviction itself. Plenty of religious secularists would agree with that.

Only this weekend a slick imam was discussing the new sex education guidelines for schools. Ah yes, he said happily, I am looking forward to a campaign to get Muslim parents to withdraw their children from such classes.

It was the nakedness in diagrams and pictures that he objected to. And I thought, well, please don’t let my daughters anywhere near his sons, not because they’re Muslims, but because they might not know how to put a condom on. And save us, oh State, from children demanding to be taught “intelligent design” on the basis that it accords with their religious prejudices.

Annoyingly it may well be that religion is gaining greater traction, not because of its own strength, but because of the weakness of political parties. Politicians are desperate to reach and use pockets of activism, and – with the death of class politics – the most available and vocal belong to religious organisations.

This is slightly worrying, but I wonder whether it is religion as we understand it, Jim. Religion used to be spread by conquering others or evangelism, and maintained by static communities. Now, as with the new middle-class Chinese Christianity described in God Is Back, it is a mark of mobility – an individually decided preference for this Americanised religion over home-grown Confucianism or Buddhism.

It may be as much the “cool” of freedom that is being aspired to, as the love of Jesus Christ Our Saviour. If so, Nietzsche may be dead, but God only survives by being available in many exciting flavours.

David Aaronovitch