Interview: John Micklethwait - Keeping the faith

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BACK in 1843, James Wilson, a hat maker from Hawick, founded The Economist, partly to serve as a mouthpiece for his campaign on behalf of free trade. As the magazine's website explains, he shared a special affinity with the economic philosophies of another notable Scot, Adam Smith.

All these years later, just last week in fact, The Economist's current editor John Micklethwait visited Edinburgh to address the crme de la crme of its business community.

Though they've summoned him to speak about the state of the economy – about which he retains optimism – I've cornered him ahead of that appearance to discuss his latest book, which explores the interplay between God and politics.

With his frequent collaborator and Economist colleague Adrian Wooldridge, Micklethwait has written God is Back, a thought-provoking exploration of, as the subtitle summarises, the way in which the global rise of faith is changing the world. Wide-ranging – it covers everything from the rise of religion in China to the oh-so-American concept of religion as an element of the journey of self-development – the book's chief argument is that in order to understand the politics of the 21st century, you cannot afford to ignore God whether you're a believer or not.

It's easy to warm to Micklethwait: he's affable, approachable and possessed of a boyishly floppy forelock. Early on we acknowledge the impossibility of summarising years of research in a far shorter newspaper article, then settle down to attempt it anyway.

Micklethwait is Catholic, his co-author an atheist, but he points out that both were "bred in a classical liberal education, where the general presumption was that as the world got more modern, it would get more secular".

Except that's not the case at all.

"Our book is the latest stage of an argument that began in Edinburgh, between David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume favoured an established clergy that had been 'bribed into indolence', whereas Smith was keen to open up the religious marketplace to competition. He argued that you wouldn't get successful religion without competition, because established clergy are always bound to try less hard than people who have to battle for every soul."

The authors found that, at heart, man is fundamentally theocentric – given a chance to believe in God, we will do so. So although some Enlightenment thinkers saw religion as oppressive and unscientific – and prevailing wisdom, especially in Europe, held that as the world became more modern it would become more secular – Micklethwait discovered that instead, with modernity comes pluralism.

"You wind up with the ability to choose your faith, which is why we focus so much on America in the book. One in every four Americans changes faith – that's an amazing statistic. Pluralism also gives you the possibility to not be religious at all. What it does is forces you to make a choice."

The American and French Revolutions are key events, he argues. "The French took the line that the church was bound up with the state and so you couldn't have modern life without overthrowing it. That contrasts with the end of the American Revolution, when nobody felt it was particularly odd having religion around. Americans, in the main, have assumed that the two things can thrive together."

Indeed, America's Constitution, along with the writings of Adam Smith, form the key texts required to understand the "competitive mechanism behind religion's revival", writes Micklethwait. "The First Amendment – 'that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' – was actually a compromise between dissenters (who wanted to keep the state away from religion) and more anticlerical sorts... (who wanted the church out of politics). Yet it became the great engine of American religiosity, creating a new sort of country where membership in a church was a purely voluntary activity."

And many people opted out, from a very early era. Micklethwait has worked in Los Angeles and New York, yet he was still surprised by what he discovered. "I'd always presumed America had been born religious. Yes, you had the Pilgrims, but pre-Revolutionary America was actually not that much more religious than Europe. By 1683, in Salem, Massachusetts, 83 per cent of the taxpayers confessed to no religious identification."

Despite America being considered the most modern of nations, the European secular stereotype clung to the belief that vis vis spirituality it was a kind of duck-billed platypus. "Americans might continue to worship God, but the rest of the world, as it modernised, would follow the European rather than the American example."

He admits The Economist was "so confident of the Almighty's demise that we published His obituary in our Millennium issue."

Rumours of God's death were greatly exaggerated. Religion is not only thriving, they argue, but "the very things that were supposed to destroy religion – democracy and markets, technology and reason – are combining to make it stronger."

As democracy has taken hold around the world and citizens have been given the chance to vote for what they wanted – he cites Turkey and India as two examples – they've chosen religious-orientated regimes. "People want all this modernity but they want religion with it. Our book takes that as a fact. So you have to consider the consequences. On the downside, that includes religious violence, wars of religion and cultural wars, which include issues like abortion, which are going to be made more difficult by technology than ever before."

He is utterly certain that President Obama will be a more effective salesman for religion than his predecessor. "Imagine you are a young accountant in Edinburgh or a young financier in Glasgow; the picture of Obama as a young, liberally minded metrosexual walking into a church in Chicago and finding some kind of meaning in his life is a much more powerful, and in many ways more representative, explanation for why religion is spreading. That is what people relate to, and it will crop up more and more.

"If you make the decision to adopt a religion, whatever that is, it's much more difficult to leave it behind than it would be if you merely inherited the stuff and hadn't thought much about it. This is not a book written by evangelicals trying to proselytise, but it's saying (religion] is something that's going to be around and is spreading and will affect politics and public life."

As for that other thing affecting public life – the economy – Micklethwait says don't write Scotland off, despite the problems at HBOS and RBS.

"There were always two strings to Scotland's economic power. One was the banks and the other, which matters enormously, is what I'd call clusters. In Edinburgh there are very successful fund-management clusters. Insurance companies too. I think the fundamental idea of there being an alternative financial centre to London's City makes Scotland quite sustainable. Around the world Scottish finance is still highly regarded.

"I came to Edinburgh in 1988 to write about the finance industry. I can see firsthand how companies have grown incredibly. HBOS and RBS became much more important than it seemed they would be in 1988, and when considering their fall, don't forget the fact that they rose quite a bit in the first instance. Business clusters have a habit of defying individual companies. After the Big Bang, all the American banks came and bought up British banks and people talked about that being the end of the City. It wasn't. It was the beginning of something else. I think there's still a lot of financial talent here and maybe new institutions will spring up."

&#149 God is Back, How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, is out on 28 May from Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 25.00