Findings & Footnotes – December 2018

  • The report Islam as Statecraft from the Brookings Institution looks closer at the “geopolitics of religious soft power” used by Islamic countries in their foreign policy. Authors Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid write that “soft power,” which means the use of cultural outreach, including religion, in foreign relations and policy, is not confined to Islamic countries (for instance, Russia’s use of Russian Orthodoxy in its foreign relations). But the effort to harness the power of religious symbols for such purposes is especially prevalent in the “context of a post-liberal” world order. The report focuses on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, with the first two countries using religion as a proxy tool to compete and struggle for hegemony in the Muslim world. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was an example of how the Saudi government is pushing back against individuals and movements inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood that challenge the Saudi monarchy and its form of Islamism. Turkey is building mosques alongside the transportation infrastructure it funds in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

    Mandaville and Hamid In complicate the idea that Saudi Arabia is spreading Wahhabi Islam as a main foreign policy objective; rather than the government, it is a whole range of Saudi-connected but unofficial charities that may engage in such proselytism, often bearing little resemblance to Saudi geopolitical designs. In the case of Iran, the report argues that the country is not so much promoting its version of Shi’ite Islam as a foreign policy goal as it is trying to form a resistance culture against American influence that even includes support for Sunni initiatives in countries that are sympathetic to such opposition. Finally, the report looks at how Islamic countries such as Morocco and Jordan emphasize a moderate self-image in foreign policy to gain political legitimacy and status in the world community and to fight against Muslim challengers in their own societies. In a world with less Western and liberal influence, “it may become increasingly possible—and useful—for countries to put a culturally specific spin on liberal economics and to parse their security interests through religion,” the authors conclude. To download this report, visit:

  • Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver by Christian Smith (Oxford University Press, $19.95) is a well-balanced collection of essays seeking to point out certain weak spots in some of the less modest atheist claims with respect to ethics, the relation between science and religion, and finally, the question of whether humans are naturally religious. Smith’s first two essays explore what, if any, justification naturalistic atheism can provide for grounding moral behavior in a modern, secular world. He concludes that although individual nonbelievers can be “good without God,” the evolutionary worldview promoted by some authors imparts no rational reasons for how enlightened self-interest leads to any sort of larger collective good beyond one’s tribe, e.g., universal human rights. In the third essay, looking at the relation between religion and science, he suggests that scientists be more forthright about the limits of the field, specifically in attempts to use science to dispel belief in God. In Smith’s view, to do otherwise and proclaim that science can overthrow religious claims is to play sleight of hand with the facts and engage in philosophy, metaphysics, and theology as opposed to science proper.

    In the concluding essay, he asserts that although humans are not naturally spiritual and religious, they have a seemingly essential proclivity towards believing in something larger than themselves, be it God or perhaps even science. To the extent that this is the case, the claim that religion in all of its varied forms will inevitably fade and pass away in due time, or via an uptick in collective intelligence, does not hold a lot of empirical weight. Overall, this powerful and perceptive collection of essays is worthy of consideration from those on both sides of the religion-atheist divide. Never engaging in religious apologetics, Smith’s book is a call for intellectual honesty, humility, and understanding the limits of knowledge with respect to what we can and cannot know with certainty at this point in human history irrespective of our individual differences in beliefs. – Reviewed by Christopher Smith, an Oklahoma-based writer and researcher, and the co-author (with RW’s editor) of Atheist Awakening (Oxford University Press).

  • John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney’s book The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education (Baylor University Press, $49.84) looks at the ways religion maintains a strong and even renewed influence in U.S. universities and intellectual life despite a wave of secularization that has weakened traditional religious educational institutions. The authors hold that there has been a “de-privatization” of religion in several ways and through different organizational actors in higher education; the importance of foundations, such as Templeton and Lilly, stands out here as does church and denomination-related organizations that have revamped older ministries and started new ones. Schmalzbauer and Mahoney note that the new public role of religion in higher education is as much about the renewal of the study of religion—as seen in flourishing academic and professional associations (as the Society of Christian Philosophers)—as its practice. The proliferation of evangelical initiatives stands out in the authors’ meticulous account of religion on campus; not only have traditional evangelical campus ministries mushroomed and diversified along ethnic lines, but new efforts such as evangelical study centers and niche organizations, such as those specializing in ministry to elite, Ivy League schools, have emerged.

    Also notable is the growing presence of Jewish ministries and campus programs as well as world religions’ entry onto campus life, ranging from new interfaith efforts to endowed chairs in Sikh and Islamic studies. The mainline and Catholic stories in this portrait of educational revitalization are complicated. Newman Centers and new upstart conservative Catholic ministries such as FOCUS are drawing students, while Church budget cuts to campus programs suggest problems ahead. Mainline bodies have found ways to innovate, such as rerouting ministries through vital congregations near university campuses, while older organizations sponsored by Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian bodies show less resilience as they are forced to downsize due to drastically reduced memberships—a very different situation than the flourishing mid-1960s.The same mixed picture extends to historic church colleges: there are new efforts to preserve their distinctive contributions to higher education—thanks to the aforementioned foundation support—even as they wrestle with persistent questions of identity and durability in an era of STEM education. “In the final analysis, efforts to strengthen religious identity of denominational colleges and universities have enjoyed modest success,” Schmalzbauer and Mahoney find. But the book ends on a more somber note. The growth of the non-affiliated and signs of stagnation and decline in even conservative religious bodies may eventually spread to a still-vital campus religious life, although the deep secularization of European societies has not led to an accompanying dearth of religion in university life on that continent.  The role of religion in American higher education may ultimately depend on its key stakeholders and the value they place on religious literacy and their own traditions’ future, the authors conclude.

  • The growth of religious life in London has often been portrayed as an anomaly in a rapidly secularizing England and Europe, and the new book The Desecularization of the City (Routledge, $112) does show how the city displays unique religious vitality. But this interdisciplinary book, edited by David Goodhew and Anthony-Paul Cooper, argues that London is more than an exception (and other cities in the UK and Europe are showing signs of religious growth); it is a city that, once considered a bellwether of secularization, now serves to show how things can be reversed and how urbanization can be hospitable to religion. The book also extends the argument and research beyond immigrant congregations and religions from the global South and their significant impact on London as a “desecularized city” to examine religious growth among a whole range of faiths—from Anglican church plants to Russian Orthodox parishes (whose growth is not solely due to immigration).

    Demographer Eric Kauffman shows that demographic change has obviously transformed London into a religious city—from an influx of Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to revived black churches—but he notes that there is no obvious link between ethnicity, immigration, and religious vitality to explain the London case; some ethnic religions have not experienced notable growth. The second-generation members of these faiths may also show a decline in religiosity compared to the first generation. But most of the book’s contributors argue that London’s congregations have wielded considerable agency and creativity in drawing and retaining members—perhaps explaining why whites in London show more religious involvement than they do on the national level. Sociologist Grace Davies concludes the volume by considering whether the case of London’s religious vitality is an exception in terms of the evolution of religion in Britain. She points out that this trend underlines how London is no longer so much a European city as a global one (as seen in the growth of megachurches). London, and, increasingly, British religion (and even the flourishing of secularist movements in parts of the city), function in a market system that seems to advantage the urban environment over the rural one; churches in the countryside have been losing members. Davies notes that the religious resurgence in London is not only expressed in growing congregations but a more public role for faith, all of which may travel to other British cities. But she does not think that these developments imply desecularization, even in London, as much as the emergence of a new “global narrative.”