WE’RE living in a world that is becoming more and more secular, as societies and politicians drift further away from religious beliefs and God.
Wrong, according to Cork author and Echo columnist, TP O’Mahony.
In fact, he argues in his new book The Politics Of God, religion - and specifically political religion, as practised by policymakers of various faiths around the world - is on the increase, and is set to pose all kinds of challenges in the years to come.
It is a view that somewhat swims against the tide of current thinking - particularly here in Ireland, which has had its own road-to-Damascus style conversion away from a controlling Roman Catholic Church in just a generation or two. And as far back as 1848, in their Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were convinced that God had been banished and religion would soon be redundant.
However, TP is well-placed and highly qualified to deliver his counter-argument.
Born in Cork in 1939, and a proud son of Blackpool and Dublin Hill, he spent 22 years as Religious Affairs Correspondent with the Irish Press and the Irish Examiner.
In that role, he travelled the world covering developments in Catholicism and Christianity and acquired a huge breadth of knowledge of all religions. Now in his eighties, his cautionary tale of a world where political religion is exerting an ever greater hold on societies deserves to be heard.
TP argues that 9/11 was a pivotal modern moment that signalled a shift in the relationship between religion and political power, and his argument becomes more convincing when one considers some of the biggest political events of the past few years.
Just look at the continuing and divisive debate both here and in America regarding the issue of abortion; or the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won the backing of that country’s Orthodox Church; or the continuing bad blood in Northern Ireland fuelled by the long-running Christian divide there.
The need for any American presidential hopeful to woo the Christian churches has long been documented, of course, while the rise and fall of Islamic State in recent years doesn’t mean that threat has receded completely. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan also left behind an effective theocracy in that country.
It’s not even as though modern Ireland has completely escaped the influence of religion - the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) recently sparked a backlash by calling for primary school children not to be taught about transgender issues.
All of this lends significant weight to TP’s argument - and he adds fuel to this by showing that there will be more - not fewer, as one might expect - religious people in the world in the coming decades.
He quotes findings by the Pew Research Centre which show the number of atheists, agnostics and others who do not affiliate with a religion will make up a declining share of the world’s population by 2050. By then, the number of Muslims will have caught up with the number of Christians to form two dominant world religions. Other major religions such as Hinduism and Judaism will also grow in numbers in that time - and, TP argues, possibly in influence too.
In the book, which is both scholarly but highly readable - TP documents various events in recent times to justify his stance - from the rise of religious extremists and terrorists, to talk of a ‘Muslim reformation’ among Muslims themselves.
He also profiles several of what he terms ‘God’s Politicians’ down the ages - such as Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Martin Luther
On Ireland’s historic allegiance to the Catholic Church for the first half-century of the Republic, TP flirts with the word ‘theocracy’ but just stops short of that description - preferring to call those decades here a ‘voluntary’ or ‘partial’ theocracy.
So, if the world is heading for a new era of political religion, how do we prepare for it? Well, it might not be all bad for a start.
TP quotes Madeleine Albrighton, a former US Secretary of State in the Clinton years, who said: “We had better accept that the world is filled with political Muslims, political Christians, political Jews, and political people of every other faith. It is no crime to have a political agenda.”
However, she cautioned: “It is a crime to act on a violent and lawless agenda.”
It’s worth pointing out that violence and religions, which often make the case for standing up for peace, should be strange bedfellows; we know, however, from millennia of experience, that this is not the case.
In a typically passionate foreword to TP’s book, former President Mary McAleese recognises the danger of ‘political religion’ and calls for a grouping of forces - the United Nations, the European Union - to counteract it, while urging the world’s religions to “navigate towards each other in humble generosity and willingness to compromise”.
A forlorn hope perhaps, though she concludes optimistically that she “hopes in and for the humanity of humanity and its eventual triumph... sometime soon Lord please!”
For more evidence that the future is not necessarily bleak, TP points out that when Ian Paisley was asked about his newfound friendship with Martin McGuinness after the Good Friday Agreement, he simply declared: “I believe God can change people.”
Now that is the type of God we can all strive to believe in.
The Politics Of God: The Rise And Rise of Political Religion, by TP O’Mahony (Veritas). Available nationwide and online, €19.