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How to constructively engage with modern religious revivalism


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At the Boston Review, Avishai Margalit and Assaf Sharon observe that while religious faith has waned in many Western nations over recent decades, other parts of the world—e.g., Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East—have become more religious over the same period. This “religious revivalism” is proving to be a potent political force. Examining the work of US political philosopher, Margalit and Sharon suggest how this revivalism can be constructively engaged rather than reflexively dismissed. Read an excerpt from the piece below or the full text here.

Today’s critical engagement with religious revivalism is based on a related misunderstanding of traditionalism. As Walzer observes, in Israel, India, and Algeria, critical engagement is primarily the work of academics. This is no coincidence. Academics like to interpret texts, but most traditionalists seek something else in religion, often the very opposite of the intellectual thrill of rational argument and textual interpretation. What draws people to religion is frequently not its cultural thickness or historical depth, but its promise of transcendent meaning, absolute value, definite authority, and exceptional identity. These are attractive features that appeal especially to young people, often disgruntled, marginalized, and alienated, who join cults and radical political movements. What they seek is intensity, integrity, and totality.

The attraction of religious politics thus has far more to do with sensibility than with sense. It is the realm of emotions, identity, and lifestyle rather than doctrines and abstract ideas. Seeking religious and political authenticity, young revivalists rebel first and foremost against what they regard as their parents’ vapid moderation. Ironically, such sentiments are precisely what drew many young Jews to the Zionist movement in its heyday. The problem for Zionism was that this appeal—as a meaningful, exhilarating totality—could only last as long as its goal had not been reached. With the creation of the state, the revolutionary fervor inevitably subsided, giving way to the mundane business of governance, which has little hope of satisfying intense political sensibilities.

Image: An IDF solider prays at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Via Boston Review.