A globally recognized expert in the philosophy of religion and the role of religion in public life explained to a Morning Forum of Los Altos audience Jan. 21 the enduring role of religion in world affairs.
Jill Carroll, Ph.D., founding director of the Amazing Faiths Project, discussed “The Challenges of Religious Tolerance,” emphasizing that contrary to the predictions of the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, modernity has not diminished man’s need for religion.
Intellectuals like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and most academics who followed them embraced the “secularization thesis,” Carroll said, which assumed that science and economic development would render religion obsolete. They believed that man would no longer need religion, as scientific progress would explain the mysteries of life that had led man to create religion.
In stressing how wrong the believers in the ultimate dominance of secularization were, Carroll borrowed Mark Twain’s famous phrase: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
To demonstrate that the anticipated demise of religion isn’t close to happening, Carroll pointed to a number of religious-based developments, including the rise of global fundamentalism, the return of religion in post-communist countries and the spread of evangelical Christianity throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Unfortunately, Carroll said, most Western policy makers in international affairs were until recently heavily influenced by the assumptions of the secularization thesis. Thus, they were unprepared for the developments of the past 45 years. The Iranian Revolution in 1979, she added, took most Westerners by surprise, as they were astounded that such a developed country with a highly educated population could become an Islamist theocracy.
Carroll quoted from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s book “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on God, America and World Affairs (Harper, 2006),” in which Albright acknowledges how she and her academic colleagues thought in secular terms about the dynamics of world politics and overlooked the role religion would play in the “clash of civilizations” that followed the end of the Cold War.
Albright now recognizes the challenge “to harness the unifying powers of religion while containing its power to divide.”
While conceding the logic of what she referred to as “religion bashers” like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, Carroll said they miss the point: “Religion is the most successful, meaning-making apparatus humans have ever developed.”
Carroll also explained how the principle of separation of church and state in the United States is rooted in a respect for the importance of religious freedom. In contrast, separation in France, and until recently Turkey, stems from the belief that government needs to protect its citizens from the ravages of religious conflict. This hostility toward religion and the belief that it should remain private – thus the banning of headscarves – is the result of the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics that devastated Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
According to Carroll, the conversation about religion and politics requires an understanding of the relationship between the secular and the sacred, the public and the private. She contended that “if they are properly separated, they can have a positive influence on each other.”
Carroll concluded her talk with the statement that “as long as religion is part of people’s lives, it will be relevant in global affairs.” We can only save ourselves from the devastation wrought by religious conflict by promoting religious tolerance everywhere, she said.
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.