God is back

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

KATY CLARK: As the fighting has intensified in Sri Lanka this week, ethnic Tamils in Britain and Canada have staged protests. They're demanding an end to the Sri Lankan government offensive, which they say is killing innocent Tamil civilians. Here's what the protest in Ottawa sounded like as thousands of Tamil Canadians gathered in front of parliament there.


CLARK: The civil war in Sri Lanka is often described in ethnic terms. Tamils against Sinhalese. But, as with many other conflicts, religion also plays a role. The Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist -- the Tamils are mainly Hindu. Religion clearly continues to fuel wars -- just as it has for centuries. Yet it wasn't that long ago when many in the West were betting against religion. A 1966 Time magazine cover asked, "Is God Dead?" The Economist magazine answered that question in 2000. It published God's obituary in its millennium edition. Now, the magazine's had a rethink. The Economist's editor, John Micklethwait, and its Washington Bureau Chief, Adrian Wooldridge, have written a book called "God is Back." The World's Religion Editor Jane Little joins me now. Jane - what's the thesis of the book in a nutshell?

JANE LITTLE: They argue that to understand a global revival of faith you need two texts, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" and the US Constitution which set religion free from the state. So, basically they credit the American market based model of competition and choice with bringing God back. I spoke to John Micklethwait and asked him whether the rise of Islamism didn't contradict their thesis, being a reaction against America and what it stood for.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: It's partly that, I mean, Islam has two ways in which it, sort of, spreads and grows. One is that it is a storm shelter. It's a way for quite a lot of people in different parts of the Islamic world it's a protection against modernity. You see that most obviously in the Arabian core lands of Islam. But, you know, go and look again. You know, look at Indonesia, look at Turkey, look at Detroit. In lots of those areas, actually, a lot of people see it as a way to get ahead.

LITTLE: That brings us to the point about foreign policy challenges. You suggest that it's more complicated these days and that governments and policy makers tend to overplay or underplay the importance of religion.

MICKLETHWAIT: I think that's true. I think what happened was, pretty much, until September 11th people ignored religion and politics. And, actually, the people who, perhaps, ignored it more than anyone else were the Americans. Which is an irony, you know, we praise the division of church and state in America. I think that's a model for the world in many ways. Foreign policy, I think, particularly a very secular state department above all else just didn't like thinking of religion as a cause of anything. So, in Iran you had the rise of the ayatollah. Somebody when the Shah was still there went and wrote a report about it for the CIA which was immediately classed as just sociology. When Hezbollah emerged people, again, within American politics didn't want to see it within religious terms. They started to look at that as if it was left wing or right wing. You know, it's called The Party of God. That's where these people were coming from. And I think, again, going into Iraq there was problems there that even the Bush administration which was a God-bothering lot, if you want. When they went into Iraq they did not think enough, anywhere nearly enough, about the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. And so, it's not a question of, sort of, forcing religion into politics and talking about crusades or whatever. It's a question of actually realizing it's part of the problem that, in that case, it has to be part of the solution.

LITTLE: And you suggest that wars are becoming more religious in character. That forty or so percent of civil wars since 2000 are religious and that the Middle East crisis is taking on more of a religious flavor.

MICKLETHWAIT: Well, the amazing thing about the Middle East crisis if you look back over the history is how relatively secular it once was. Ben-Gurion was a pretty secular person on the Israeli side. You didn't have settlers saying this is God's name, we get this particular stretch of land. And on the Palestinian side quite a few of the leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization were actually Christian or Socialist. It wasn't Hamas and people like that. And religion has sunk into that conflict and it's no longer just a dispute about which land is which. It's about who did God give the whole lot to. More generally, I think, around the world, if you look at particular bases that could cause real trouble to Barack Obama's administration virtually all of them have a religious edge with the exception of North Korea. Every other one, Afghanistan, Pakistan, look at the area in Africa where you have Evangelical Christianity pushing up Fundamentalist Islam pushing down. It's everywhere you look.

LITTLE: Isn't it too easy to blame religion though? Isn't it deeper than that and religion is often used as a badge of identity?

MICKLETHWAIT: You're quite right to say that because the way I depicted it could be somewhat cartoonish. In many cases religion is the badge of identify. If you go to, I went to, Northern Nigeria. There people are hacking each other to death, or have done over the past twenty, thirty years. You know, 30,000 people, that's a lot. There is a strong tribal element about with some people going one way, some people the other way. But the reason why religion is difficult is because it gives more of an edge to it. You cannot try and compromise if what you think is your religion is telling you to do this.

LITTLE: Europe's history of religious strife plus the priesthood's identification with the Monarchs helped secularize Europe. It turned us off religion. But you suggest in the book that we're getting religion back.

MICKLETHWAIT: Europe is definitely getting religion back in terms of public life. As a source of friction, partly because of the rival of Islam in Europe, suddenly people who thought they would never have to debate issues of religion are having to debate head scarves, Sharia law, where children go to school. All those things are suddenly there. So, within public life Europe is definitely doing God in a big way.

LITTLE: I was talking there to John Micklethwait, co-author of 'God is Back'. Some may question whether God ever went away, but I guess that's for another occasion.

CLARK: Alright, Jane Little, our religion editor. Thank you.

LITTLE: Thank you, Katy.