01: In its Oct. 28–Nov. 10 issue, the National Catholic Reporter features a 20-page special section comparing the ﬁve major surveys it has published on American Catholicism since 1987.
Compared to the 2011 survey, the results show both decline and stability in Catholic beliefs and practices. The most recent survey, which, like the others, was conducted by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, shows continued Hispanic growth, especially among the Millennial generation, who show higher rates of belief and practice than their white counterparts.
But overall, there is consistency of Catholic belief: 70 percent of all Millennials held the resurrection as being very important to their Catholic faith. There was a signiﬁcant drop in the importance of helping the poor since 2006, which the researchers attributed to economic conditions and the much-documented decline of conﬁdence in bishops due the sex abuse crisis.
For more information on this report, visit: www.ncronline.org.
02: Phil Zuckerman’s Faith No More (Oxford University Press, $24.95) examines the phenomenon of apostasy, or people rejecting their religions.
Zuckerman notes that while there have been several quantitative studies of apostasy, they have often been conducted mainly on college students. He adds that his ethnographic approach is better suited to understand the motivations that go into breaking from one’s religion. Based on his study of 87 people, obtained through snowball sampling, Zuckerman ﬁnds a number of sub-types of apostasy: “shallow apostasy,” i.e. defecting from one’s religion early on; “deep apostasy,” i.e. forsaking one’s religion after heavier involvement in it; and “transformative apostasy,” i.e. where defection is a momentous experience followed by the adoption of a secularist worldview.
From these case studies of apostasy, Zuckerman draws large conclusions: he argues that apostasy is part of a wave of secularity impacting America—a claim based on surveys showing a growth of religious non-aﬃliation (which does not necessarily mean apostasy). He writes that the existence of apostasy shows that religion is not universal or necessary even arguing that there is an “apostate personality.” Such a personality type is marked by such values as courage, “free-thinking” and a love of life. But the reader is left wondering whether these values can be related to apostasy from one religion to another as well as to apostasy from religion to secularism.
03: Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press, $24.95) is a note-worthy study of an inﬂuential sub-culture that, as with the Central American populations in general, has felt the evangelical and Pentecostal surge.
Author Robert Brenneman interviewed 63 former gang members from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, most of whom had converted to evangelical and Pentecostal churches. He charts the history and structure of these transnational gangs as they developed in the U.S. among impoverished ilegal immigrant youth, but then (through the mass deportation of gang members to Central America in the 1990s) were transplanted back to this region (even though most had American upbringings).
The gang members quickly found new recruits and developed a system of disciplined cells and a pyramid leadership structure that linked members across Central and North America. Brenneman notes that evangelial churches and these gangs both share a similar transnational structure and strong emotional bonds among participants. It is the similarities, but also the clear diﬀerences between the gangs and the churches that lead many of these youths to seek out the evangelical alternative. Especially interesting is Brenneman’s account of how the strict lifestyles and clean break with the gang life demanded by the evangelicals serve as one of the few ways that ex-members can actually survive. If ex-gang members demonstrate a “real” conversion and change of life, they generally are given a free and respectful pass to leave the gang (which normally prohibits desertion); leaders and fellow members reason that the ex-member will not be joining a rival gang and passing on secrets.
However, if the evangelical ex-gang members “backslide” into their old lifestyle, they may be met with stiﬀ repercussions, including death. Brenneman writes that the evangelical approach of deﬁning the gang issue as a spiritual problem demanding the spiritual solution of “restoration” (meaning rehabilitation and reintegration into the community) diﬀerentiates it from the less eﬀective secular and even Catholic approaches that stress prevention and address the social causes of gang membership rather than working with the members themselves. He concludes that the evangelical emphasis on cultivating an alternative masculinity, demanding sacriﬁce and courage, makes these churches strong competitors with the gangs.
04: The conclusions and methodology of the new World Almanac of Islamism 2011, issued by the American Foreign Policy Council (Rowman & Littleﬁeld, $95) may be contested by some Islamic scholars, but the massive volume (just short of 900 pages) provides a good deal of useful information and many ﬁndings about the political and extemist elements of Islam in almost every corner of the globe.
The almanac deﬁnes the term Islamist as describing movements, groups and individuals that “harness religious values and ideals to serve a larger political agenda aimed at spreading or imposing Islamic law, either regionally, locally or internationally.” Later in the book, some contributors make the distinction between “hard” (or extremist) and “soft” Islamism, but some entries, such as on the U.S., do not mention this diﬀerence, treating popular organizations such as the Muslim Student Association (with some of its members advocating a Muslim state) and the Council on American Islamic Relations with jihadist groups in the same chapter.
Preceeding each regional overview are summaries of the current state and prospects of Islamism for a given region. The section on North America argues that soft Islamism is growing, but is relatively ignored by the American Canadian governments, preoccupied as they are with violent groups, while in Latin America, the contributors see radical Islamist groups (and connections with Iran) making inroads in several countries, particularly Venezuela and Bolivia.
The proﬁles of other countries likewise tend to see Islamism as being on the upswing, with the new freedoms of the Arab spring facilitating Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa. But the contributors—who range from policy analysts to academics—do not demonstrate very clearly how these sharply diﬀerent groups with conﬂicting ambitions for social and political inﬂuence fall under the same Islamist label.
05: France has become notorious for its regulation and stigmatization of new religious movements—a reality borne out in vivid detail in Susan Palmer’s new book The New Heretics of France (Oxford University Press, $74).
Palmer, a specialist in new religious movements, examines the history of what she calls the “French sect wars” and how discriminatory policies toward unconventional faiths have become institutionalized in society. She traces the anti-sect campaign from its beginnings in the wake of the 1994 controversy over the deaths of members of the Solar Temple, an esoteric society, to a succession of government reports, lists of suspected groups and watch dog groups that reveal the most stringent policy of “managing” new religious movements in Europe.
Palmer does an interesting job of ﬂeshing out the conﬂict between new religious movements and the French government through providing case studies of various new religious groups under scrutiny, including Scientology, the Raelian movement and alternative healing. Each of these movements or groups has run afoul of a particular aspect of French secularist Republicanism, such as science, sexuality and, most commonly, the law.
There has been a new incarnation of the anti-sect movement in the organization MIVILUDES, but Palmer does not see signiﬁcant changes being made to the discriminatory French approach to unconventional religions; it still views many new religious movements as brainwashing members, even if it is now called “mental manipulation.” She sees the eﬀects of these sect wars being played out in the current public and government opposition to Muslim religious expressions in France’s public sphere.