150 Years Of The Atlantic March 2007

Religion & Faith

This is the thirteenth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.
Among the Believers
July 1981

by V. S. Naipaul

In 1979, in the midst of the Islamic revolution, the novelist V. S. Naipaul set out for Iran to try to gain an understanding of the Islamic world. Two years later, he chronicled his observations in The Atlantic. In the passage below, he recalls walking through the city of Tehran with his nonreligious Iranian interpreter, Behzad.

On the pavement outside the Turkish embassy two turbaned, sunburned medicine men sat with their display of different-colored powders, roots, and minerals. I had seen other medicine men in Tehran and had thought of them as Iranian equivalents of the homeopathic medicine men of India. But the names these Iranians were invoking as medical authorities—as Behzad told me, after listening to their sales talk to a peasant group—were Avicenna, Galen, and “Hippocrat.”

Avicenna! To me only a name, someone from the European Middle Ages: it had never occurred to me that he was a Persian. In this dusty pavement medical stock was a reminder of the Arab glory of a thousand years before, when the Arab faith mingled with Persia, India, and the remnant of the classical world it had overrun, and Moslem civilization was the central civilization of the West.

Behzad was less awed than I was. He didn’t care for that Moslem past; and he didn’t believe in pavement medicines. He didn’t care for the Shah’s architecture, either: the antique Persian motifs of the Central Bank of Iran, and the Aryan, pre-Islamic past that it proclaimed. To Behzad that stress on the antiquity of Persia and the antiquity of the monarchy was only part of the Shah’s vainglory.

He looked at the bank, at the bronze and the marble, and said without passion, “That means nothing to me.”

We turned once more, as we walked, to the revolution. There were two posters I had seen in many parts of the city … One showed a small peasant group … The other … a crowd raising rifles … But what was the Persian legend at the top?

Behzad translated: “‘Twelfth Imam, we are waiting for you.’”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they are waiting for the Twelfth Imam.”

The Twelfth Imam was the last of the Iranian line of succession to the Prophet. That line had ended over eleven hundred years ago. But the Twelfth Imam hadn’t died; he survived somewhere, waiting to return to earth. And his people were waiting for him; the Iranian revolution was an offering to him.

Vol. 248, No. 1, pp. 28–48

Kicking the Secularist Habit
March 2003

by David Brooks

A year and a half after 9/11, the columnist David Brooks construed the attacks as proof of the resurgence of religious fervor in modern life.

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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