Questionable Motives

April 2, 2010

Liberal secularism: why is it so good for the growth of religious fundamentalism?

Filed under: Demographics,Fundamentalism,Liberalism,Religion,Secularism — tildeb @ 9:43 am

Excerpts from Casper Melville’s article Battle of the Babies from New Humanist:

With birth rates of seven babies per women fundamentalists will take over the world. And here is the kicker: it’s all secularism’s fault. This grim prognostication comes courtesy of political scientist Eric Kaufmann, a reader in politics at London’s Birkbeck College, and the author of the new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, out in March from Profile Books. Behind the shouty headlines, the book is a detailed and patiently argued study, with convincing demographic data woven together with deft political analysis in three core case studies – of Israel, the US and Europe.

What is it about secularism that contains the seeds of its own destruction? “Well, I should make clear that I’m talking about our very specific kind of contemporary secularism,” he says. “By this I mean post-’60s secularism, one that is post-ideological, multicultural and liberal. My argument is that there is something about this multicultural liberal secularism that is good for fundamentalism and bad for itself.”


“I think in three ways. Firstly secular liberalism is individualistic, and therefore it goes hand in hand with delayed child bearing and lower fertility rates. Second there is what you might call multicultural toleration of religious fundamentalism. The environment of toleration that characterises the West today gives religious fundamentalism breathing room and a degree of protection.” Thirdly, the draining away of liberal ideology creates a vacuum that fundamentalism can exploit.

Isn’t the problem more about importing fundamentalism through lax immigration policies?


Most immigrants are traditional and moderate. But this then collides with the secular culture, and out of that you can get fundamentalism of a modern variety, explicitly pitched against secularism. What even theorists of secularisation will admit is that religion can flourish when it takes on an ethnic role, for example in Poland Catholicism became symbolic of resistance to the Russians. Something similar is happening here. Immigrants come in, they are ethnically different and religion comes to symbolise the ethnic identity, especially so if they feel embattled. This insulates religion from secularism. Rather than becoming more moderate immigrants and their children become more religious. This is not to say that all Muslims will become fundamentalists, but it does allow the religion to grow.

Strangely enough, Kaufmann has some cheering words to say about American secularism. While acknowledging that America is, and will remain, far more religious than Western Europe, the data shows that America is indeed becoming more secular (for the purposes of Kaufmann’s study it is not belief in God but affiliation to any particular religion which matters). Kaufmann cites statistics from the eminent American sociologist Robert Putnam, whose new book American Grace is all about American religiosity, that something like 35-40 per cent of young white Americans are secular. “America really is a case of delayed secularisation, what happened in Europe in the middle of the last century is happening to America now in terms of the young turning away from organised religion.

This is the heart of the American case. While secularism will grow, a bit, and moderate religions lose out a lot, it is fundamentalism that flourishes. There is a polarisation taking place where the outer reaches – irreligion and fundamentalism – grow and moderate religion is squeezed out. The consequences will be, in Kaufmann’s view, to increase the friction between the two groups.

The solution? What we need, says Kaufmann, is to displace the multicultural “celebration of difference” model of toleration with one that contains a far more robust sense of common values and a far more stringent rejection of reactionary fundamentalism. “We need a stronger sense of liberal values,” Kaufmann told me. “We should answer back to all fundamentalisms.”

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