Courtesy Reuters

Secularism and Its Discontents

Politics and Religion in the Modern World

In This Review

Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways
By Olivier Roy
Columbia University Press, 2010
288 pp. $27.50

Olivier Roy, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute, in Fiesole, Italy, has the exceptional ability to bring religion, globalization, and politics to his discussions of political Islam and its role in European and Islamic societies. In his latest book, Holy Ignorance, he puts this talent to good use to explore a critical question about the modern world: "Does the expansion of a religion go along with the spreading of a new culture . . . or does it expand, on the contrary, precisely because this religion has nothing to do with any specific culture?" The answer is important because if religion is dissociated from culture, religious fundamentalism will become both more globalized and more diluted, and mainstream culture will become even more secular. If the two are not dissociated, religious fundamentalism may increasingly penetrate societies and erode their secular and democratic practices.

Like many other books about religion and modernity, Holy Ignorance describes a myriad different new religious movements -- Protestant evangelicalism, Haredi Judaism, Islamic Salafism -- against the backdrop of secularizing societies, highlighting the changing relations between culture and religion as globalization intensifies. In the first part of his book, Roy displays an impressive grasp of the innumerable permutations in these relations over history's long arc. He organizes the variations into four broad categories: deculturation, acculturation, inculturation, and ex-culturation. Deculturation occurs when religion tries to eradicate paganism (as European Christianity did in North America and orthodox Islam did on the Indian subcontinent). The best example of acculturation is the Jews' adoption of mainstream values during the Enlightenment. A religion's attempts to position itself at the heart of a given culture (for instance, liberation theology in Latin America) is a form of inculturation. And ex-culturation is the more modern process whereby a religion disassociates itself from mainstream culture.

Throughout this discussion, Roy's thesis is clear: the major religious movements of today -- Pentecostalism, Protestant evangelicalism, and Islamic Salafism -- are setting themselves free from their cultural moorings. These

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