Although I think religion is the queen of beats, it’s not often I hear journalists from other disciplines admit how important covering God really is.
Which is why I was glad to see two editors from the Economist magazine release “God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World” earlier this year. Co-author Adrian Wooldridge said he and John Micklethwait got the idea while compiling their 2004 book “The Right Nation,” about America’s conservatives. It struck them that religious observance is increasing worldwide and that irreligious Europe, not America, is the exception.
“Religion now goes hand in hand with modernity,” he said. “Something happened from the 1970s onward that put that [into action] and now the world is going in the American direction.”
I told him that the Jesus movement and Pentecostal/charismatic revivals of the 1960s and ‘70s, which originated in the United States, may have had something to do with that.
Like 21st-century versions of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian whose travels about America in the early 1830s revealed how the country’s religious character worked hand in hand with its fledgling democracy, the two men traveled the world to see how religion is affecting the globe. China, Guatemala, Nigeria, Kenya and various Latin American countries were the biggest hot spots.
Pentecostal, he concluded, will be the major form of 21st century Christianity.
“The sort of religion that is on the rise is the emotive, assertive charismatic religion,” he said. “It’s compelling Catholicism in Latin America to change. There’s a physical surprise when you go to Guatemala and see how vibrant the charismatic and Pentecostal movements are. Same thing for Lagos and Nairobi. I went into that book underestimating the power and vitality of religion.”
What also struck him were the 443,000 full-time Christian missionaries worldwide plus 1.6 million Christians a year who go on short-term missions. One of the first things he encountered in Guatemala were Mormon missionaries. And in Kenya, he saw signs of an increasingly assertive Islam. Still, he sees Christianity as remaining the world’s largest religion.
“In terms of sheer numbers, Islam is catching up” to the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, he said. “That is driven by demographic growth rather than conversion. That will reach an exhaustion point and the birthrates will go down. Christianity has come to terms with modernity and been through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. It has grappled with all these issues and come out the other side.
“I don’t think Islam has done that. So many elements of Islam, such as the Taliban, are vehemently anti-modernity.”
Nevertheless, someone is listening in the Middle East. Just this week, his publishers sold a translation of his book in Arabic.
I asked how he as an atheist reacted to his findings.
“I must say I have more respect, I felt more warmth for religion after doing research for the book,” he said, “partly because of the people I came across, such as the Pentecostal pastor in Philadelphia who has done the most amazing work dealing with crack cocaine. It did strike me that religious people have done amazing work to help the poor. But where are the atheists doing exactly same thing?”
• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.