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Religion and Power

Religion and Power

Ben Ryan interviews Professor David Martin on his book Religion and Power: No Logos without Mythos.

You have been writing on issues of secularism, religion and power since the 1970s. What prompted you to write Religion and Power now?

The question of religion and power has returned to the political agenda, in part because of the way perceived problems relating to an expending Muslim presence are deployed behind a smoke–screen of fair–mindedness to launch an attack on any form of religious presence in the public realm. This attack revives the secularist theme of a return to the necessary privatisation of religion as an irrational and potentially violent addiction disturbing the proper rationality of public debate.

My view is that religion has never been privatised, not even in France, and that politics, far from being the rational calibration of technically efficient means to mundane ends, is dominated by myth. By myth I mean the staging of potent rituals to reinforce solidarity, the ritual cursing of opponents as evil doers, the exercise of the power of charismatic leadership, appeals to the adjudication of founding fathers, demands for martyrdom and mass sacrifice to defend sacred territory, and appeals to a visionary national ethos or an immanent purpose or telos which is the ordained destiny of the nation. (An egregious example of the latter is the political use of the concept ‘British values’ in political discourse.) That is what I mean by the sub–title of my book No Logos without Mythos. I mean that there is no form of political suasion or argument (Logos) that is not profoundly rooted in mythic thinking (Mythos).

In writing Religion and Power now I was shocked by the abysmal level and sheer ignorance and illiteracy characterising public comment. It lacks any social scientific perspective on religion. But Religion and Power also picked a theme I had from time to time returned to over the last fifty years: the genesis of pacifism in my book Pacifism (1965) and the relation of religion to violence in Does Christianity Cause War? (1997).

Several of the essays that make up the book refer to your earlier work, and particularly, of course, the debates over theories of secularisation. Have your ideas changed on this at all over the years?

I have carefully recorded the development of my thinking on secularisation in more than a dozen books and chapter 1 summarises my present position. What has changed is not my arguments, though I have developed them to take account on global developments, notably in regard to Pentecostalism, Latin America and Africa and the consequences of the fall of communism. The big change is that supporters of the universal secularisation theory, from having been dominant when I first began to work on the issue in the 1960s, now find themselves on the defensive. Incidentally, I do not support the ‘God is back’ thesis because my argument was that religion never went away even in the relatively secularised West, notably France, and was continuously active politically in the United States. I do specify the conditions under which secularist regimes, notably communism in Eastern Europe, succeeded in vastly reducing the role of religion. The sociologically interesting question is the difference between places where it reasserted itself after the fall of communism and places, such as East Germany, where it did not. (My discussion of the East German case is mostly in earlier books but is briefly summarised on pp 103–4, 112 and 195)

Across Europe, as austerity cuts have bitten there has been evidence of the churches taking back over welfare provision and other areas that had been thought to have been secularised. Does this change the picture on secularism today?

I have not studied this. It is Grace Davie‘s area of expertise. I note however, that the churches’ role in welfare provision has been pretty continuous, most obviously so in Germany.

One of the interesting changes since your earlier work is the prominence today of the so–called ‘New Atheists’. You are very critical of them and their method of critiquing religion – but why do you think they have arisen and been so popular in recent times? What do social scientists have to do to reclaim the field of analysing religion from the natural scientists who dominate the new atheist movement?

I have no particular interest in why the New Atheists have gained traction in the media, because I note that the majority of their arguments are at least 150 years old. I could write you an essay on the moral panic about ‘religion in general’, George Bush’s policies and rhetoric and Muslim migration to Europe but that would be a long and complicated exercise!

What social scientists have to do is exactly what I have done in chapters 2 to 5, to expose the false use of the prestige of natural science, the inappropriate discussion of violence and ‘religion in general’, which is methodologically inappropriate, and the absolute refusal to engage in a careful social scientific analysis of all the relevant factors in very different empirical cases, of which religion may merely be one and sometimes plays no role at all. All this represents gross intellectual irresponsibility, as I argue in the book.

In general are you surprised in some ways that the salience of religion has made such a  comeback? Until relatively recently the popular line was that religion was no longer relevant – now it is arguably seen as the problem in society.

Our dominant narratives prevented us from noticing what was there all the time until global population mobility and mass communication made it obvious from the Iranian Revolution and the election of the Polish Pope, both in 1979.

Another aspect of your earlier research was on Pentecostalism. At one point there were predictions that Pentecostalism would overtake Catholicism in Latin America – do you think that’s plausible? If it continues to grow do you think that will cause a serious change in the character of Latin American politics or identity?

There has been no plausible prediction of this kind. In the most dramatic case of Brazil, a mainly Pentecostal expansion of Protestantism has reached the startling figure of 22% and inaugurated a form of religious pluralism that did not exist before 1960. But Catholicism continues to define the cultural landscape throughout Latin America and maintain its old political alliance with elites. There is a built–in limit to the appeal of religious enthusiasm, especially given the tendency for people to fall out after they have fallen in. The ‘revolving door’ has not been adequately studied. Likewise the long term consequences of Iberian colonialism on the subaltern populations (blacks, indigenous peoples) in Latin America is only now being re–evaluated, both in relation to religion and political structures.

I was fascinated by your final chapter on Russia. The Orthodox revival that you discuss is of course still in its infancy since the end of the Cold War. How secure do you think it really is? If Putin were to lose power how severe a blow would it be for the Church there?

First of all let me say that my final chapter focuses primarily on comparisons between different kinds of centre and different kinds of periphery. The Russian mode of expansion from the centre to dominate the whole north Asian landmass is radically different from the British mode with its widely scattered global Empire and spread of the linguistic Anglosphere. However, the theme of de–secularisation is a major one and my answer to your question is as follows.

I think the demise of Communism as a faith left a vacuum with respect to Russian identity that was filled by the reinstatement of Orthodoxy as part of a renewed ‘sinfonia’ of Church and state distinctive of the Byzantine tradition. Nothing comparable exists in contemporary Western Europe. The Romanian Church managed something like a ‘sinfonia’ even in Communist times, at the price of hierarchs in the pockets of the state, and in contemporary Romania it enjoys a status like that of the Russian Church in Russia. In both countries the Church is identified with the nation and acts as the custodian of national memory as though that memory has been continuous.

But the Russian case is special because Russia is in a neo–imperialist phase and has a concept of the ‘near–abroad’ where the Church can act as a foreign policy auxiliary, and that is very much the case in Eastern Ukraine among Russian speakers. I do not think this situation depends on Putin, in part because Russian nationalism is independent of Putin. In any case, an Orthodox identity is now embraced by a large majority of Russians even though that is expressed in diffuse practices more than regular attendance at Church or adherence to Orthodox beliefs. There has been a genuine religious revival most evident an increase in monastic life. That coexists alongside scepticism about the Church as an institution among many people which is continuous with attitudes fostered in the Soviet era. The Church remains quite secure in its present political role and in its claims to some kind of religious hegemony expressed in a widespread feeling that alternative religious bodies are foreign.

David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science and a Fellow of the British Academy. His book Religion and Power: No Logos without Mythos is published by Ashgate

Image from wikipediaavailable in the public domain.


Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is deputy CEO and executive director for Engagement and Strategic Development at Medaille Trust, and formerly worked in policy for the CofE and as head of research at Theos.

Watch, listen to or read more from Ben Ryan

Posted 16 February 2015


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