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By Barry Rubin

It had not occurred to Protestant theologians who had been trying to “liberalize” and “modernize” Christianity…that they were thus undermining the very religion they were seeking to buttress “scientifically”….When the “protective covering” [of faith] is removed, no one should any longer be surprised to see [Christianity] quickly dry up…. — Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche, page 189.

When the 21-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche, who many years later would proclaim the Supreme Being to be dead, returned home from his first semester at university in 1865, his family was shocked. Not only was his face bloated by drink and carousing, but this son and grandson of clerics declared that he was an atheist. (By the way, the dispute didn’t stop him from constantly thereafter asking his family for money.)

It was a story to be repeated many times over the decades and is still commonplace today. Of course, religion by no means died in the West, especially in the United States, but it has been in a constant state of retreat and decline, especially among the elite.

Today, it is remembered that churches often aligned with reactionary forces trying to roll back the tide of modernization, science, and social change. But what is forgotten is how often clergymen and pious people, especially Protestants, pushed forward these tides and energetically tried to adjust their religion to them.

Often the strongest advocates of reason and science over the last three centuries were highly religious Christians. They were motivated by an honest search for truth wherever it led, a particularly needed quality in today’s society. But they also proclaimed that rationality or science did not undermine religion. They were brave, confident, and honorable. But they were also wrong.

The modern era in this respect can be said to have begun with David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, first published in 1835 but mainly known through his revised 1864 edition. The historian Curtis Cate explains: “It is difficult for us, who live in a radically secular, critical, and scientific age, to appreciate the tremendous furor which the first edition…aroused.”

But Strauss was trying to adapt Christianity to the modern age, not be its gravedigger. Another such writer was Heinrich Gottlieb Paulus, a pious professor who had studied both philosophy and theology, who suggested in his 1828 book that the story of his religion’s founder walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee was an optical illusion because of bright sunlight or shimmering fog.

Cate writes that the next stage was that of ä new school of:

“`Scientific’ theology, which argued that if religious faith was to survive…many of the traditional beliefs…would have to be jettisoned….In theory this wish to create a dynamic, as opposed to a static, inflexible religion was admirable, but who was to decide how much of the New Testament needed to be pruned and how much of it retained as basic and uncorrupted Christianity?”

By the time this process was finished, huge numbers had fallen away from belief, while what remained in many churches, especially among the elite, is a sort of pious-flavored combination of social justice and social-climbing without much presence of divinity. Such arid religion is not particularly successful in inspiring, much less retaining, members.

Evangelical churches retain their enthusiasm. But they have a difficult choice: Do they try to shield their members, deeming knowledge unsafe for them, or can they really create an alternative elite that remains steadfast? The unpalatable alternatives often seem to be ignorance or defection.

Western political, cultural, and intellectual elites today are, whatever patina of hypocrisy remains, overwhelmingly atheist. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing. It’s simply my observation and analysis. If I wanted to be provocative, I’d point out, as an example of the effort to deny this reality, that the controversial debate over whether President Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian conceals the likelihood that he is almost certainly neither in any real sense.

But I don’t want to be controversial so I won’t say that. Still, it is necessary for at least those members of the elite engaged in politics to pretend they have some religious faith. “Paris is worth a Mass,” said the French king who switched from being a Protestant to Catholicism in order to rule. So is Washington.

Another intriguing question is whether the decline in religiosity in the West is an inevitable part of the modernization process or something reversible. The former argument seems more likely.

How does this affect Islam and the Middle East. In light of this Western history, how strong is the motive to reform Islam?

The answer is that it is far less strong than outside observers may think. The year is 2010, not 1517, when Martin Luther proclaimed his revolt against the Catholic Church and could in full confidence believe his reform would strengthen Christianity, as it arguably did for several centuries. Can Muslims believe the equivalent of that idea today?

It is 2010, not the 1820s or 1830s when Strauss and Paulus could believe that a thoroughgoing critical inquiry into Christianity would preserve its hegemony in European society. Can Muslims believe the equivalent of that idea today?

Islam suffers not due to any military or economic aggression of the West but from the pervasiveness of apparently Western—but really more generically modern—ideas that work better. For the great majority of believing Muslims, any serious reform of their religion is risky, probably too risky, to undertake and still expect the patient will survive.

While one can argue that certain internal structures and basic beliefs of Islam block reform, a fourteenth- century observer could have made such a case for Christianity as well. Based on a contemporary reading of the scriptures and holy books, my Medieval predecessor could have argued that it was impossible for any believing Christian to accept a dramatic shift in his religion, including a tolerance toward political and cultural secularism.

Yes, it happened. But it happened at a time and in a context when the clergy and the pious could often believe that modernization and reform would in no way undermine their institutions and faith. That is not possible for Islam in the twenty-first century when we have all seen the example of the West.

To refer to a totally different analogy for the moment, consider the fate of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, as the country’s leader, tried to reform Communism in order, he thought, to save it. Instead, the USSR fell apart. The Russian people (and certainly Moscow’s former subject nations) are better off, but try telling that to a convinced Communist who enjoyed power and privileges under the old system.

Here, then, is the paradox. Only massive social change, secularizing intellectuals, open debate, a critical examination of the most basic religious beliefs, a transformation of the role of women, and similar things can open up a modern society in Muslim-majority societies. Yet it is understandable that the 2010 Muslim would see as suicide what the 1517 or 1835 Christian saw as a glorious future in which science and religion, modernity and faith, would be mutually reinforcing.

Conversely, to dig in, kill the critics, raise the walls higher, try to shut out (or severely constrain) modernity, and demagogically stoke the fires of jihad really is a logical response for those who want to preserve their religion and society as it has existed for centuries.

Perhaps they will fail due to opposition or to historical inevitability, but such forces carried on the battle for centuries in the West, arguably with the use of fascism (which of course had its neo-pagan side) being the last effort. Communism, of course, was explicitly atheistic so it offers the Muslim reformer no hope either.

There are many in the Muslim-majority world ready to die trying to hold back modernity and there’s no reason they can’t draw the process out for centuries of time and make it wade through rivers of blood to get to the other side.

This article was published on Pajamas Media and the text is published here for your convenience with some additions.

PS: For those interested, here is my response to readers’ feedback on Pajamas Media:

I am glad that my article stirred up so much interest.
Let me make it clear: I am not ignorant about the difference between religious faith and “reason.” I am not advocating the decline of religion. I am not saying that Islam will or will not or can or cannot be reformed. I am not equating the Protestant Reformation with developments within Islam. In fact my article is NOT about the Reformation at all but about post-Darwin developments in the late nineteenth into the twentieth century!

Nor does it matter, in the context of this article, why religion declined in the West. What’s important is that it did decline. And remember that we aren’t just talking about the United States here but mainly about Europe. I think it is also reasonable to say that in general the Protestant groups that declined the least in the United States were also those that made the fewest changes to adapt to modernity.

I am simply pointing out what Islamists and a lot of pious Muslims are saying: If we adapt modernity our religion will decline. Therefore, we must build a wall against modernity, an action that many think requires Islamist revolution and theologically-based regimes.

The liberal Muslim argument and any reform of Islam thus faces an additional obstacle which changes in Christianity to adopt to modernity did NOT face: seeing what happens afterward.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). 

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