Religion and the Profane

220px-Ernest_Gellner_2An old piece by Ernest Gellner in Eurozine:

Tonight I will try to explain a few of the major striking events of our century – some very surprising, some a little less surprising. Very surprising is the tremendous success of Islam in maintaining and strengthening itself. Most social scientists accepted the secularization thesis, which argued that in modern or industrial societies the hold of religion over society and over the hearts and minds of men declines. This seems more or less true with one striking exception: the world of Islam, where the hold of religion over society and over men in the past hundred years has certainly not diminished and seems to have increased.

The other equally surprising event of the century is the unexpected and total collapse of Marxism. Marxism is often and correctly compared to religion, sometimes even described as secular religion, as it had many of its features – total vision, the promise of righteousness on earth, etc. It did, however, lack one prominent feature of religion – that is, when religions are established, they retain a hold on the hearts and minds of men, and do not collapse easily. When they do collapse, there is some resistance and struggle; some people remain loyal to them. Marxism succeeded in retaining the loyalty of a remarkably small number (perhaps none at all). In the post-communist world, there is, of course, the frequently noted return of the ex-Communists. But these merely stand for the maintenance of their own position, less radical change, keeping the welfare provisions, and so on – they are basically conservatives. The really interesting thing about them is that none of them have returned under the “banner of Marxism”. In those societies that were under Marxist domination for forty to seventy years, the Bolsheviks utterly failed to emulate the Jesuits and other representatives of the Counter-Reformation in leaving deep marks in the souls and the societies of their adherents. This is also an interesting and important fact that is worth trying to understand.

Then there are some facts that are just slightly less surprising, though they were not properly anticipated: the strength of nationalism in this century (which is no longer surprising). But of course, for a long time the decline of nationalism was confidently predicted.