Outwitting the Developed Countries? Existential Insecurity and the Global Resurgence of Religion

By Thomas, Scott M. | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Outwitting the Developed Countries? Existential Insecurity and the Global Resurgence of Religion


Thomas, Scott M., Journal of International Affairs


Underdevelopment is also a state of mind, and understanding it as a state of mind, or as a form of consciousness, is the critical problem. Understanding development as a state of mind occurs when mass needs are converted to the demand for new brands of packaged solutions which are forever beyond the reach of the majority. (1)

--Ivan Illich

We live in a world that is not supposed to exist. Religion was supposed to decline with modernization and economic development. (2) Depending on your preferred version of the end of history, Marxist or socialist ideology were supposed to mobilize the wretched of earth to overthrow capitalism and imperialism, or capitalism and liberal democracy were supposed to transform the world. Yet over the past thirty years, to the surprise of Western governments and social scientists, it has been religion rather than secular ideology that has increasingly mobilized people in developing countries. This global resurgence of religion is transforming foreign policy debates regarding diplomacy, national security, democracy promotion and development assistance. (3)

Scholars of international relations have increasingly examined the global resurgence of religion over the past decade. Various concepts--religious radicalism, extremism, militancy, revivalism, resurgence and fundamentalism--have been used to label, define and describe the global religious phenomena. Scholars simply do not agree on what these concepts are supposed to convey about religion and politics, what social or political groups they refer toy--the BJP in India, the AKP in Turkey, Egypt's Muslim Brothers, the Christian Coalition in the United States--nor what they convey about religion and international relations. This disagreement is demonstrated in the Fundamentalism Project, the MacArthur Foundation's massively funded research on religion worldwide led by Martin E. Marty, a leading church historian at the University of Chicago and R. Scott Appleby, a leading scholar of Catholic studies at the University of Notre Dame. This analytical and conceptual problem is also seen more popularly in "God's Warriors," CNN's August 2007 documentary on religion and world politics. (4) Both studies equated serious religiosity with fundamental ism, which remains a popular interpretation of the role of religion in international relations. (5) However, the concept of a global resurgence of religion has been challenged by a revised version of the theory of secularization. The orthodox theory argued that secularization, a decline in the importance and influence of religion in public and personal life, is part of modernization and economic development. (6) Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue, in contrast to the orthodox theory, that the world is at least as religious as it was several decades ago. They even concede that religions around the world are becoming stronger. This does not lead them to discard the theory of secularization, but to revise it and to try to make it more relevant to the study of religion and politics in the 21st century. (7)

In order to bring the theory of secularization up to date, Norris and Inglehart propose a thesis of existential security. They argue that in many parts of the world, in the North, or the developed countries, secularization continues to spread. They also argue that religion continues to lose its social and political significance as a consequence of modernization and human development, except in areas lacking existential security Existential insecurity is something broadly, but not exclusively experienced by people in developing countries; poor communities in developed countries also experience it. In other words, when people feel relatively secure and comfortable with their material surroundings--like most people in the developed world--then everything else being equal, there will be a decline in religion. This, according to the theory, has happened in all Western countries, except the United States. …

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