Sven-Eric Liedman on the enchantment of religion

Following my criticism last month of Jürgen Habermas’ essay on the dialectic of secularisation, and my conjecture at the author’s own spiritual journey, I had some email correspondence on the matter with John and Anja of Obscene Desserts. As part of that John pointed me toward a series of essays published by Eurozine.

This was at the end of April, and I’ve only now gotten round to reading Sven-Eric Liedman’s contribution to the debate, titled “Den förtrollande materialismen” (“The enchanting materialism” – there is an English translation), and originally published in Ord och Bild. Liedman is an historian of ideas at the University of Göteborg.

The following quote from Liedman’s essay stands out for me:

“It is also reasonable to see the fascination with religion among European intellectuals in that light [the “postmodern” or at least “late modern” need for context and meaning in a world that has become so terribly, terribly complicated]. Religion has also become a challenge for them. Even though they do not submit themselves and their belief to it, they recognise it as something to consider with deep sincerity.”

Could this secular intellectual fixation with religion have something to do with the current poverty of philosophical speculation and ideological discourse? When the estimable critic Slavoj Žižek starts wibbling on about Marxism and Christianity, decades after the last liberation theologians were fired by the current pope from their teaching positions and relieved of pastoral duties, then you know that something is seriously awry in the academy.

Don’t get me wrong; Liedman’s essay is interesting, but I cannot help thinking that the analytic tools of psychoanalysis, psychiatry and anthropology are better suited to a study of the rebirth of religion (if there is such a thing) than a rather dry socio-philosophy infused with Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Liedman seems particularly interested in the phenomenal rise of Pentecostal Christianity in large parts of the world. Pentecostalism may indeed thrive in certain environments, whether they be developed, as in the case of the US, or developing, as in South America and parts of Africa. But I think Liedman mixes up correlation and causation, and the comparison/contrast between Pentecostalism and Salafism is unconvincing. Or at least Liedman is being simplistic in reducing complex cultural and political phenomena to such basic elements. Liedman also underestimates the influence of Pentecostal Christianity among the black communities of western Europe.

Liedman’s discussion of Salafism in its own right displays an inability or unwillingness to grasp the cultural issues involved. I am certainly not saying that I have any deeper understanding of what’s going on here, but I do think that the cultural dynamic is a lot more complex (and potentially interesting) than that presented in Liedman’s very eurocentric essay.

Reading Liedman’s article, and especially the references to the dialogue between Jürgen Habermas and Josef Ratzinger, I have to admit that my arsey comments about the former are at least partly unwarranted. But in general terms I still feel very uncomfortable with this rarified debate. It is on a plane so far removed from the often base impetus for many people’s fascination with religion and the super-natural that I find it difficult to see what value it has.

Liedman’s criticism of Richard Dawkins is off the mark. It fails to recognise that the anger evident in The God Delusion (there’s a hint in the title!) is part of a coordinated polemic which is entirely justified in the circumstances. Ditto Christopher Hitchens, who doesn’t do philosophy at all.

In the final few paragraphs of the essay Liedman goes all mystical. Which for a materialist intellectual will not do at all.