Isaiah Berlin: A secular Jew but a loyal Jew
In 1830 a young French aristocrat visited the United States to see the new phenomenon of American democracy built on the principled separation of Church and state. He naturally expected to find a secular society, a place where religion, having been deprived of power, had no influence either. What he found was exactly the opposite: a society that was very religious indeed, a society in which religion was, in his words, "the first of its political institutions" — or, as we would say today, the first of its civil institutions.
The young aristocrat was Alexis de Tocqueville, and in the book that he wrote about his experiences, namely his experience of American democracy, he said: "18th-century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs: religious zeal was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread." In other words, Tocqueville was saying that every self-respecting 18th-century intellectual thought that religion was dying, in intensive care, and all that was needed was a little bit of help on its way — assisted suicide. "It is tiresome," Tocqueville said, "that the facts do not fit this theory at all." So he had this question: how come religion didn't die when everyone said it would?
One hundred and eighty years have passed since Tocqueville wrote these words, but until very recently intellectuals have been making the same mistake. In America today, for example, a higher percentage of the population attends a house of worship weekly than is the case in the theocratic state of Iran: 40 per cent in the US, 39 per cent in Iran. Furthermore, in China today, half a century after Chairman Mao declared China to be religion-free, there are more practising Christians than there are members of the Communist Party. One way or another, religion didn't die.
In 2009, the editor and the Washington correspondent of the Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, published a book, God is Back — an extraordinary title to come from the staff of that magazine. In 2000 the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone, in which he developed his famous thesis that more Americans than ever are going ten-pin bowling but fewer than ever are joining ten-pin bowling clubs or leagues. In other words, they're bowling alone. Putnam used this as his symbol for the loss of community in America, the loss of what American economists and sociologists call "social capital". So in 2000 he was arguing that there's no social capital left in America.
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