01: The journal Society devotes it January/February issue to the future of social conservatism and includes several interesting articles on its varied religious dimensions.
The articles look at world developments and more speciﬁc case studies: Joshua Duna’s reports on the political eﬀects of evangelicals in their “headquarter” city of Colorado Springs. Duna ﬁnds that on issues such as gay rights, education and marijuana rights, the city’s religious conservatives have had uneven success. Eﬀorts to prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries were voted down in 2010, while same-sex partnership beneﬁt restrictions found support after a close vote.
Along with a shift toward charitable ministries, there appears to be disenchantment with evangelical political activism in the city, Duna concludes. Other noteworthy articles include one noting increasing evangelical diversity beyond the religious right and another on American Muslims. Author Peter Skerry argues that conservatives have lost credibility among Muslims both in the U.S. and abroad for their increasing support of freedom, while downplaying their moral commonalities with them.
For more information on this issue, write: Society, Springer, P.O. Box 2485, Secaucus, NJ 07096
02: The issue of the relation between countries with an Orthodox tradition and the West has been a topic for discussion since the end of the communist regimes; several articles in Religion & Gesellschatt in Ost und West (January) are devoted to that topic.
A Romanian theologian, Prof. Radu Preda, stresses that 12 out of 16 autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches are located in Europe, and eight of them on the territory of the European Union (EU) (Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus): from this angle, Orthodox Churches can no longer be considered as “Oriental” or “extra-European.”
Moreover, an Orthodox diaspora is growing in Western Europe. Still, it is true that there are Orthodox fears in relation to Europe. The ﬁrst one is a fear of secularization: there is a perception of a European trend for excluding religion from the public square, and also a tendency to ignore Europe’s religious roots. Another Orthodox fear is related to the understanding of human rights, since they have been used after the end of communism by organizations advocating abortion or same-sex unions, and thus are perceived as divisive and not positive.
In the case of Greece, a member of the EU since 1981, Prof. Vasilios Makrides (Erfurt University, Germany) observes that competing pro- and anti-Western trends are at work. Although the Greek Orthodox Church has often been labeled as anti-European by Western European media in recent years, Makrides notes that the Church has for years maintained close relations with European institutions and established a representative oﬃce in Brussels in 1998.
Makrides doubts that theology or history plays a major role in Greek Orthodox sometimes-suspicious attitudes toward Europe, although such themes are reactivated when tensions occur. Various conspiracy theories (both intellectual and popular ones) ﬁnd a fertile ground among Greek Orthodox believers and reinforce suspicions, in extreme cases even demonization of the West. More recently, the severe economic crisis has given an additional impetus to anti-European trends.
Since Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, its decisions and guidelines have a direct impact on Russians. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church charges that the Council is a mouthpiece of “ultraliberalism” in Europe and thus a challenge to the faith. Since 2005, the strategy of the Moscow Patriarchate has been to look for a pragmatic strategic alliance between Catholics and Orthodox for defending traditional Christian values against secularism, liberalism and relativism (considered as dominant in modern Europe).
The Church considers itself not merely as a religious institution in its relations with the EU, but also as a legitimate representative of Russian civil society. The Church approves the existence and widening of the EU, but—Alshanskaya concludes—its demands do not make a rapprochement between the EU and Russia any more likely in the near future.
For more info, write: Religion & Gesellschatt in Ost und West, Birmens-dorferstrasse 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland, www.g2w.eu.
03: The new online journal Secularism and Nonreligion seeks to provide a scholarly forum and publishing venue for research on atheism and other forms of non-theism. The journal, which is open access, is interdisciplinary, exploring what it means to be secular, whether on personal, institutional or national and international levels.
In the ﬁrst issue there is an article on the pressing question of the growing ranks of the non-aﬃliated and their diverse makeup and an article by Christopher Smith and RW’s editor on the role of the Internet in the formation of a secularist (our term for atheists and secular humanists) identity and activism.
The journal is available at: http://secularismandnonreligion.org/index.php/snr/issue/view/1
04: Keeping up with the new scholarly interest in atheism, the Journal of Contemporary Religion devotes its January issue to “non-religion and secularity.”
The articles, which were originally presented at a conference sponsored by the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, cover a wide breath of topics, including organized secularism in India (see the book on this subject reviewed below), the relation of secularization in Britain to its policy on anti-terrorism, and discrimination against atheism and other non-religious people in the U.S. Why all the current interest in atheism and secular studies?
In their introduction to the issue, co-editor Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee write that the new surge of interest in the non-religious may be because of the emergence of the “new atheism” and the rise in number of this population (although in the U.S., it is not clear to what degree the rise of the “nones” means an increase of atheists), or it could be a reaction to the surge of religion, “which many societies might feel as an encroachment on what are, possibly for the ﬁrst time, powerful non-religious or secular investments or normativities.”
The issue also includes several reviews of books on secularism and atheism.
For more information on this issue, write: Journal of Contemporary Religion, Taylor and Francis, Customer Service Dept., Sheepen Pl., Colchester, Essex, CO3 3LP, UK
05: The edited collection, The Post-Secular in Question (NYU Press, $50) sustains the recent scholarly attention given to the contested and rather murky notion of post-secularism, although it approaches the topic in a more interesting way than many other works.
The contributors tend to view the slippery concept as a window into explaining how and why religion has been marginalized in much of academia. The introduction provides an overview on the history of the secularization thesis, noting how it emerged in social science disciplines shaped by the Enlightenment view and its presumption of unbelief and that religion is in inevitable decline.
More recently, post-secularism emerged in the same disciplines seeking alternatives to “Enlightenment fundamentalism” and scientiﬁc naturalism, yet trying to account for the non-traditional ways that religion, spirituality and secularism are being expressed globally.
Several chapters, especially in the second half of the book, provide accounts of new religious and secular approaches of the various social science disciplines, including a look at how a “post-secular sociology of religion” would reconsider the Enlightenment concept of objectivity; an in-depth examination of the return of religious scholarship and even spirituality in disciplines from ranging from social work and education to political science and sociology (also noting a backlash among scholars fearing that universities’ hard-won independence from religious inﬂuence is being forfeited in their embrace of religion); and a few chapters paying special attention to the recent work of political philosopher Jurgen Habermas—particularly as he is the key progenitor of post-secularism.
06: In The God Market (Monthly Review Press, $18.85), Indian scientist and writer Meera Nanda attempts to explain the phenomenon of the growing Hindu consciousness in India, especially among the new middle class and upper classes.
Nanda disputes the secularization theory that holds that the more “existential security” a nation has the more secular it will be. It is exactly those in India who are the most economically secure that are in the forefront of the Hindu revival. Nanda also takes issue with those who saw the failure of the Hindu nationalist party BJP in the 2009 elections as signaling the demise of Hindu political inﬂuence in India. She claims that Hinduism is taking a greater public role through a “state-temple-corporate complex.”
The growth of capitalism and globalization in India has opened up more public spaces “into which popular and nationalistic expressions of Hinduism” can be expressed,” she adds. In such an environment the new middle classes are “successfully blending their religiosity with growing appetites for wealth and proﬁts.” Nanda, also an outspoken secularist, provides interesting accounts of how Hindu rituals have moved from the home to the public square and business sector (especially among IT professionals).
In a somewhat angry tone, she notes that the elites are not reviving their former scientiﬁc and secular humanist form of Vedanda Hinduism; rather, it is a popular, mystical and ritualistic Hinduism that nevertheless uses scientiﬁc concepts and terminology.
07: Meera Nanda is one of the secularist ﬁgures who come under study in the new book Disenchanting India (Oxford University Press, $39.95).
Author Johannes Quack looks at a diﬀerent India than the country widely viewed as the cradle of mysticism and Eastern religions. Quack provides an ethnographic examination of India’s leading rationalist or atheist group, Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Organization for the Eradication of Superstition or ANiS), focusing on how it portrays itself as originating from a long line of Indian skeptics and rationalists dating back to the writing of the Vedas.
Quack traces the rationalists more to the British inﬂuence in India in the 19th century and argues that their claim of an ancient lineage is part of a strategy to disassociate themselves from the West while attacking Indian religions. The author reports that the ANiS is growing, although much of its work attempting to debunk miracles and mysticism (often traveling around small villages in vans seeking to disprove the supernatural power of gurus) is “preaching to the choir,” rather than “deconverting” believers.
But the rationalists are portrayed as being tireless in their work, seeing it as a form of social work that will counter injustices and rampant “backwardness” in the country. Quack sees the ANiS as part of a global secularist network that shares in similar discourse and strategies.
08: Religious Diversity in Post-Soviet Society (Ashgate, $89.96), edited by Milda Alisauskiene and Ingo Schroder, is an in-depth look at the relation of the once-predominant Roman Catholicism in Lithuania to the new pluralism that has emerged in the small Baltic nation since the fall of communism.
While Catholicism thrives in rural areas of Lithuania, the urban landscape is marked by the growth of groups as diverse as Hare Krishna, various kinds of indigenous and imported pagans (such as the revived national pagan tradition known as Romuva), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Swedish Pentecostal group Word of Life. The contributors, mostly anthropologists, provide ethnographic studies of a region where such research has been limited.
The contributors tend to view the history of Catholic establishment in Lithuania as shaping other trends that may unfold diﬀerently than in countries with other religious backgrounds. Thus, while there has been an expansion of the religious ﬁeld after the fall of communism, such pluralism in Lithuania (as in Poland) is often in contention with Catholicism and its strong political and social inﬂuence. But even here there are changes. The religious situation in Lithuania shows a leveling oﬀ of religious interest (belief in God had increased from 62 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 1999, but has stayed the same since), with many of the new religious communities that grew in the 1990s now showing signs of decline.
While new religious movements (from paganism to Pentecostalism) are considered “sects” and receive less state recognition than “traditional” religions (such as Catholicism, Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Lutheranism), there are signs of some softening in the attitudes of the Catholic Church toward such “newcomers.” An interesting article by Alisauskiene suggests the growing inﬂuence of alternative spiritual or New Age-based ideas and teachings on Lithuanian Catholics (from visiting New Age spiritual sites to acceptance of reincarnation), but who rarely identify themselves as “New Age.”
09: In his book Sacred High City and Sacred Low City (Oxford University Press, $29.95), Steven Heine selects two historically distinctive neighborhoods of Tokyo to demonstrate how religious practices are interwoven in everyday life in Tokyo and in Japan in general.
Heine, a scholar of Japanese Zen Buddhism, goes back to the Edo era to illustrate how Tokyo’s distinctive two cities, Akasaka and Inarichō, were formed and have retained the atmosphere and the spiritual traces of that period. From Akasaka, the High City, he introduces three major Shinto and Buddhist sites to illustrate how they are still cherished and deeply rooted in the everyday life of people to this day. While Akasaka is related to political power and thus the upper class, Inarichō, the Low City, was historically inhabited by the lower classes, and it is where one can ﬁnd all sorts of religious products related to Shintoism and Buddhism in specialized stores.
This is because the city has been historically close to life and death, since it has many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that were in close proximity to execution grounds. By introducing those two areas of Tokyo that still play an important part of the spiritual life of the people, Heine questions the notion of “born Shinto … die Buddhist,” a widely accepted understanding of Japanese religiosity. He proposes a new notion, “Born Shinto … live Inari … die Buddhist,” adding that “the use of the phrase ‘live Inari,’ refers to customs or practices habitually carried out within a worldview of myth and magic found in both Buddhist and Shinto contexts.”
He supports this new understanding of the spiritual practices of Japanese by describing death-related rituals and the close relations they have with ancestors represented by the Butsudan, Buddhist altars, as well as the occasional visiting of shrines and temples. Heine argues that the widely discussed understanding of Japanese religious practice as being for genze riyaku or for this-worldly beneﬁts is more of an “Orientalist judgment.”
—By Ayako Sairenji, a freelance writer and doctoral candidate in sociology at the New School for Social Research
10: In Bonds of the Dead (University of Chicago Press, $29), Mark Michael Rowe shows how mortuary practices are closely related to the realm of the living, as well as to the state of Buddhism in Japan today.
It is well known that most Japanese have Buddhist funerals while they do not really consider themselves Buddhists; therefore, Buddhism in Japan is often described as funerary Buddhism. Rowe discusses the changes in the mortuary practices, especially changing of ways of dealing with the ashes after cremation. Not only does the change reﬂect people’s spirituality and religion, but also touches on such issues as politics, family structures, the economy and the funeral industry.
Lack of land for graveyards and the increase of nuclear families, for examples, are causing Buddhist temples and people to rethink their mortuary practices from a traditional parishioner system that is passed on to their descendants, to individual memberships that do not require supporting temples throughout generations as dnaka or parishioners. However, these changes of the family structure from extended families to nuclear families have been aﬀecting the survival of temples.
During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese were required to be certiﬁed as Buddhists by registering at their local temples. This was mainly for proving a non-Christian aﬃliation, which was banned at that time. Therefore, for a long time, temples had been supported by those people whose ancestors were registered there, and usually those extended families took care of family graves at the temples where their ancestors were registered.Rowe focuses on the idea of En (bonds) as a key to understand these issues, and says that it is the fear of Muen (the “absence of bonds”) that is the “driving force behind the development and acceptance of new graves.”
The decline of the extended family has been increasing the number of abundant graves, which causes people to become abandoned dead. The abandoned dead would become the “hungry ghosts” without proper ceremonies and prayers from the living. One example of these new forms of graves is the eternal memorial grave: without people who will take care of the grave after the person’s death, the grave will be taken care of by temples.
The mortuary practices are seemingly separated from people’s everyday lives; however, this book reminds us that death has more meanings to the living than the dead, and thus mortuary practices are closely related to changes in society. This book serves as a signiﬁcant contribution to the understanding of what Rowe calls the “post-danka era” of Japanese mortuary practices.
—By Ayako Sairenji