Religion's Eternal Life at Core of World Concerns

By Sacks, Jonathan | The Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion's Eternal Life at Core of World Concerns


Sacks, Jonathan, The Christian Science Monitor


Religion persists at the center of world concerns. Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims battle in Iraq. Religious divisions fuel ethnic conflicts around the world. The European Union was recently riven over a proposal to appoint Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian who holds orthodox Catholic views on homosexuality, as its commissioner for justice, freedom and security. We've witnessed a US presidential election in which, according to the polls, moral issues - interpreted by some to mean "Christian values" - were at the top of voters' concerns, outweighing the economy, terrorism, and the war in Iraq.

All this is hard for a European, particularly a Northern European, to understand. The reason is that we're heirs to a highly singular history whose origins lie in more than a century of religious and political warfare between Catholics and Protestants that began with the Reformation in 1517 and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The memory of those wars drove the intellectual and political history of Europe for more than 300 years, leading to the rise of science, the nation-state, the growing independence of universities, the de-sacralization of culture, and the retreat of religion from its former citadels of temporal power.

This secularization did not take place because people stopped believing in God. That, if anything, was a consequence, not a cause. It happened because men and women of goodwill lost faith in the ability of religious believers to live peaceably with one another. With Catholics and Protestants fighting each other across Europe, people began to search for another way. Could we, they asked, find a path of pursuing knowledge, or wealth, or power, while leaving our religious convictions at home? Thus began what the English poet and essayist Matthew Arnold called the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the retreating sea of faith.

The advance guard of the Enlightenment believed that where Europe led, the rest of the world would follow. Secularization, they believed, was inevitable and inexorable. It would be the fate of every civilization that attempted to come to terms with modernity. In this they were simply wrong.

The US, for example, chose an entirely different route - the First Amendment, with its separation of church and state. …

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