The Atlantic‘s Religion Issue Gives Mixed Messages

The Atlantic Monthly’s March issue includes several features on the future of religion worldwide. Walter Russell Mead’s editorial on recent changes in American evangelicalism, Eliza Griswold’s investigative piece on Christian-Muslim conflict in Nigeria, and Alan Wolfe’s essay forecasting the decline of religious radicalism all predict a resurgence of moderation, a future where religion comes in bigger portions, but with fewer calories. Interfaith conflict can’t sustain itself, they argue, and lasting peace is a fortunate inevitability.

Why, then, did the Atlantic’s editors choose to contradict their own message with hysterical cover copy? Cooperation may be the message of these articles, but conflict is the medium, as the cover demands: WHICH RELIGION WILL WIN? The way in which these articles are packaged perpetuates a narrative of conflict between monolithic religions, in direct contradiction to the articles’ apparent message of growing tolerance. Even Wolfe’s article, which makes the case that the secular principles of the Enlightenment are inexorable historical laws, appears under the incongruous title “And the Winner Is…” Toward the end of Griswold’s article she describes internecine struggles in Nigeria’s Muslim community, warning against “any facile notions of a global clash of two monoliths,” but that’s precisely the message the magazine as a whole tries to impose on its contents.

Which isn’t to say that the articles themselves are blameless. Despite Griswold’s warning against oversimplifying the nature of conflict in Nigeria, at several points her piece veers in that direction. The article opens with lengthy descriptions of the riots and massacres that have devastated the town of Yelwa, but when we begin to learn more of the complexities of the religious picture in Nigeria, it sheds little light on that story. Are the Christians of Yelwa Pentecostal? Anglican? Are the Muslims Sunni, Sufi, or Shi’ite? And what does the phrase “self-proclaimed Shia” in the article’s next-to-last paragraph mean, anyway? The piece contains some intriguing glimpses of a growing religious syncretism in Nigeria, particularly in the section on NASFAT, a Muslim group influenced by the Christian Prosperity movement. But ultimately that syncretism goes unexplored. Griswold’s piece is riddled with questions unanswered and, more frustratingly, unasked.

Alan Wolfe’s essay suffers from similar limitations. Much of his evidence is drawn from a Pew Research poll correlating wealth and religiosity, but a closer look at the survey reveals some severe flaws that impact Wolfe’s argument. Most important is the question of how the Pew poll defines “religiosity,” a term that can’t help but be problematic in a cross-cultural survey. The survey boils down the nature of religious devotion to three simple questions: Is belief in God necessary for morality? Is religion important in your life? Do you pray at least once a day? Obviously, these questions are intended to measure a certain kind of religiosity, and that inevitably skews the results. The questions simply don’t apply in some cases, and apply too broadly in others. The belief that one can be moral without belief in God is implicit in classical Protestantism’s preference for faith over works. But how is a Buddhist, for whom the idea of God may be inapplicable, to respond to the question? And how can a Muslim not respond affirmatively to the question about frequency of prayer? Prayer punctuates the workday in Kuwait City just like lunch breaks do in America; it’s as if Pew asked if lunch is important in Westerner’s lives. What it means to be a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu differs, and differs in ways that directly affect the response to these questions. Wolfe’s prediction of growing moderation is ultimately based on a poll that ignores cultural factors—it’s a pretty house, but its foundation is built on sand.

So does the Atlantic want us to believe in peace between faiths, or ongoing war? Sadly, they don’t seem to know. But one thing is certain: we won’t see an end to religious conflict if we can only view interfaith encounters in terms of strife. The Atlantic can only see winners and losers, but in those terms, we all lose.

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