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March 2003

Kicking the Secularist Habit
by David Brooks

Like a lot of people these days, I’m a recovering secularist. Until September 11 I accepted the notion that as the world becomes richer and better educated, it becomes less religious. Extrapolating from a tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity (in Western Europe and parts of North America), this theory holds that as history moves forward, science displaces dogma and reason replaces unthinking obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation and an enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will.

It’s now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we are in the midst of a religious boom.

Islam is surging. Orthodox Judaism is growing among young people, and Israel has gotten more religious as it has become more affluent. The growth of Christianity surpasses that of all other faiths …

The recovering secularist has to resist the temptation to treat religion as a mere conduit for thwarted economic impulses … There’s obviously some truth to this observation. But it’s not the whole story: neither Mohammed Atta nor Osama bin Laden, for example, was poor or oppressed. And although it’s possible to construct theories that explain their radicalism as the result of alienation or some other secular factor, it makes more sense to acknowledge that faith is its own force. <

Vol. 291, No. 2, pp. 26–28>

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