As I step off the Schottentor station of the subway enroute to teach my evening class at the University of Vienna, my way is suddenly blocked by a long stream of demonstrators marching to protest conditions in the sprawling refugee camp known as Treiskirchen just outside the city. The demonstrations, which have occurred daily and swelled in the past five days, are made up not only of university students, the regular infantry for protests historically in Europe, but more and more refugees themselves.
The refugees themselves, largely from Afghanistan, have been flooding into Vienna routinely for years now from the turbulent Middle East. As the chaos spreads, they flee with only their coats on their back in the direction of Europe. Because Vienna is the major headquarters of the United Nations for international human services, human rights, and human development projects, it is also the driveshaft of the Austrian and, to a certain extent, the regional European economy.
Because of the power and presence in the United Nations, the Austrian government is legally obligated to serve as the gateway and holding tank for the hordes the locals simply refer to as die Flüchtlinge. The average Austrian, however, resents the growing presence of the proliferating Flüchtlinge, who have always been confined to the refugee camp out of sight and out of mind. The population of Austria is only 8 million, less than even some of America’s own major metroplexes, and there is a growing fear that they will be overwhelmed by the influx.
Most regular citizens of the country are Nordic and German-speaking, even though Vienna itself has always been a threshing floor for the countless tribal entities and ethnic formations that have been transforming the character of Central Europe since the Dark Ages. What makes the tidal wave of refugees even more anxiety-generating for Austrians is that the former are almost all Muslims. And there is a burgeoning Islamophobia, as is the case of course in other European countries like the Netherlands, that is fortified by Austria’s strong, Catholic national identity as well as the cultural memory of two failed sieges of the country by the Turks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Increasingly the refugees, who cannot return to where they came from, are refusing to remain virtual prisoners without rights in the heart of the European Union itself where civil rights seem even more prized than in the United States these days, and just outside a city from which so much of the global rhetoric of human rights is bruited routinely. Like the first intimations of the Arab spring almost two years, it is very possible, if not likely, that these refugee protests portend an imminent awakening of immigrant political consciousness throughout the European continent.
The consequences for such a turn of events, however, might prove to be more double-edged than even the most self-confident and enthusiastic Western human rights advocates are wont at this point to consider. Since the late eighteenth century the Western narrative of liberation has always been a secularist one. It has always and ineluctably been about the emancipation of the self-reflective and autonomous self from the thralldom of religion and religious authority.
Kant’s definition of Enlightenment as “release from one’s own self-incurred tutelage” was also the ideological fulcrum for the social upheavals and political and cultural revolutions of the next two centuries. However, just as recent events in Egypt – the mainspring if not the source of the Arab awakening – have given the lie to the secularist interpretation of the initial uprising in 2011, they have also called into radical question a similar, consensual vision of what “democratic” change might mean outside the West.
A book published last year in Britain, though little noticed in America, may provide us in the Western secular intellectual establishment with a sobering and “inconvenient” truth about what these trends actually mean. Eric Kauffman’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Profile Books, 2011) insists with compelling data and powerful argument that Western secularists, despite the proud protestations of the “new atheists”, are an endangered species globally.
The thesis that we are witnessing both the “return of religion” and the advent of a new, post-secular era is not simply supported by the conventional explanation that what Carl Becker once called the “heavenly city” of the worldly eighteenth century philosophes has lost its lure because of the discontents of latter day materialist and neo-capitalist consumer culture. There is another, even more overshadowing reason for what is happening.
Secularism has a “soft underbelly,” according to Kauffman, and it is demographics. Kauffman revives the old, Malthusian dictum that demographics is destiny but with a startling new twist. “Population explosions in the developing world creates many more religious people than secularism can digest” ,” and religious people in turn form bonds of social commitment and personal identity, especially revolutioary and anti-Western forms of identity. Thus “the world is getting more religious even as people in the rich world shed their faith.” (p. xv)
Kauffman is not alone in his prognosis. He is only the leading edge of the emerging science of political demography that is beginning to take these sorts of movements and trajectories with utmost seriousness. Just as the University of Vienna is holding an international conference this winter asking whether Europe can, or should remain, primarily secular, Kauffman’s ideas are prompting a number of political economists and social theorists both within the local academic corridors and without to rethink radically the predominant assumption of the Western intelligentsia that everyone on the planet would prefer to chuck their indigeneous supernaturalism and become an enlightened, cosmopolitan camp follower a la Desartes of rational, autonomous selfhood.
The refusal to breed, engendered not in small measure by the triumph of the Enlightenment values of personal choice and self-sufficiency, increasingly has stark economic consequences as well. Demographers have been predicting for decades the severe economic pitfalls currently facing secular democracies of low birth rates combined with extended life spans. Even China, usually vaunted as the economic powerhouse performance of the future because of its massive population, is confronted with a comparable crisis sooner than later as the consequence of its one-child, one family policies.
This haunting reality to which Kauffman draws our attention has already earned him a share of heated reproach, not only among militant secularists horrified at the suggestion that the religious have the upper hand in terms of achieving the worldly measures of success they so prize, but also among the ecologically minded who view population control as the key to what they term “sustainable futures.”
The fantasy of a planetary stable state administered by enlightened arbitors of human destiny was always exactly that – a fantasy. The Enlightenment ideal has always been the vision of a heavenly city shimmering atop the clouds, not the terrestial one it has purported for long to be.
As French social philosopher Olivier Roy points out in his book Holy Ignorance, it is the motivational force of religious passion freed from the straightjacket of secularist sensibility – what Les Lumières disparaged as irrational “enthusiasm” – that is bringing real change on a global scale. It is the singularity of the religious that is compelling the future in ways we cannot yet discern, even though in the West we fear this kind of change.
In his latest salvo against the West entitled The Darker Side of Modernity (Duke University Press, 2011), which implicates the Enlightenment and the secularist mentality intimately with colonialism, Walter Mignolo offers a comparable perspective.
If indeed the “religious will inherit the earth,” what kind of earth will it be? The genuine struggles to come will not be the tiresome and fruitless ideological battles between secularists and religious sectarians, but among the “sectarians” themselves to envision such an earth.
What nineteenth century philosophers such as Feuerback and Nietzsche prophesied as the “philosophy of the future” may not be a philosophy of a well-ordered, secular polis, but a philosophy of a newly invigorated civitas Dei.
And the city is not rising any longer to the clouds, but descending straightaway to earth.