Taylor Luck’s cover story this week appears to be about a shift within Islam. From Jordan to Tunisia, Taylor sees seeds of political moderation taking root. The cataclysmic failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, together with broader trends in globalization, is prompting a rethink among many Islamic political activists. They are seeing that women’s rights, religious tolerance, and other democratic ideals can be a winning combination.
Yet the story also hints at a deeper and more universal question that faces not only Islam, but also Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and the core views of many other faiths. What is the right balance between a living faith that embraces the changing times and the religious traditions and doctrines that are often millenniums old?
Most readers of Taylor’s story will surely cheer the changes now affecting Islam. Women’s rights and the expansion of civil liberties are essential elements of human progress. But change the focal distance, and the comfortable acceptance of cultural change in some distant place can become more unsettling closer to home. If modern cultural forces are bringing a welcome breeze of enlightenment to Islam, then why are such forces sometimes seen as threatening religious traditions in other places?
Different parts of the world could be placed on a continuum between contemporary secular values and traditional religious values. The Arab Middle East would be on the traditional end, though inching in a more secular direction, Taylor argues. Northern Europe, by contrast, could be put near the secular endpoint.
The centuries since the Enlightenment seem to suggest that movement along this continuum happens inexorably in one direction, though at differing speeds. Europe’s experience, based primarily on state-sanctioned churches, has seen traditional religious values largely replaced by contemporary secular values. The religious battles in America are in many ways about determining whether a more individual approach to faith can buck that trend.
That fight at least partly explains the political polarization we see today. As Taylor writes of the Arab world: “In a free democracy ... these movements may be tempted to drift back toward hard-line positions to appease their base.” That is happening in the United States. New values are seen as threatening core religious values, so a backlash has grown. America and Tunisia, you could say, are involved in the same broad battle, just from very different places on the continuum.
But must “progress” undermine the foundations of religious faith? The answer coming from countless thinkers is that now is a time for religion to show its essential usefulness for the future, rather than to hold on to how things were. As the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin told the Jesuit magazine America, speaking of the Irish church’s struggles with the legacy of clerical abuse: “We need a church that is relevant more than it is dominant.... The Irish church has to change gear. And has to notice that the gear has changed.”