01: The Journal of Muslims in Europe, a new quarterly publication, is an outgrowth of the annual Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, seeking to provide a more frequent forum for research on the burgeoning European Islamic movements and developments.
The journal is interdisciplinary and especially interested in addressing the imbalance in research between Western and Eastern Europe. This is evident in the ﬁrst issue, which includes an interesting examination of the new Turkish presence in the Balkans, replacing the Wahhabi and Salaﬁst missionaries who were active in the region since the early 2000s. The new Turkish involvement ranges from the governmental Presidency of Religious Aﬀairs, which provides educational and religious services for Muslims in the Balkans, to more ﬂexible faith-based social networks such as the Gülen schools, which are very active in Albania.
For more information on this journal, visit: http://www.brill.nl.
02: The December issue of Zygon, a journal of science and theology, devotes several articles to transhumanism, the movement seeking to enhance and in some cases transcend humanity through technology.
Contrary to most of its proponents, who are mainly atheists, the articles argue that the movement is a secular faith that endows technology with religious signiﬁcance. Especially noteworthy is the article by Robert Geraci on video games and how they uniquely express transhumanist ideals and fantasies, given that so much else of tranhumanist goals are unrealizable at present.
Geraci writes that certain video games are explicitly transhumanist, such as Deux Ex and Mass Eﬀect, with some leaders even seeing them as forms of “evangelism” for the movement. Another article by James J. Hughes looks at the political aspects of transhumanism, surveying its various subsets. There is the mainstream Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association); the “millennialist spinoﬀ sect“ known as Singularitarianism, most closely aligned with author and inventor Ray Kurzweil (who holds that a brain-machine synthesis will take place by 2050), but also conservative Christian transhumanist Peter Thiel; a technoprogressive and bioliberal movement that takes issue with the libertarian leanings of the Singularitarians; religious transhumanists, most notably a large Mormon contingent (seeing some aspects of its vision as a fulﬁllment of prophesy); and several opposition groups, some holding apocalyptic (even violent) scenarios of conﬂict with transhumanists.
For more information on this issue, go to: http://www.zygonjournal.org.
03: “Strategies of advocacy for international religious freedom” is the topic of the Fall issue of The Review of Faith & International Aﬀairs, starting with a contribution by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
He underlines that a debate about politics cannot “be seriously conducted in the 21st century without discussing religion”, which is “a powerful, motivating, determining force shaping the world around us.” Among the dozen respondents, Angela Wu Howard of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty stresses how legal analysis can reach a level of particularity that general rhetoric cannot.
She takes the example of the debate on the notion of the “defamation of religion” that was introduced by Pakistan at the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1999, originally as the “defamation of Islam,” and that was consistently opposed by countries with traditions of liberal free speech laws. Despite such opposition, the resolution passed by a landslide each time it was proposed, until a detailed legal review was submitted in 2006 that pointed at legal problems and showed that it contradicted the foundations of human rights.
“Defamation” was shown to be a misnomer, since defamation laws should protect persons, good-faith speech or dissent. More generally, a focus on the technical details of a law and reallife repercussions can expose hidden agendas.There are unique challenges to religious freedom advocacy, observes Ziya Meral of Cambridge University. “Religion” and “religious freedom” provoke strong feelings in Europe and North America, even more so due to the fact that the depth of religious freedom problems often remains ignored, as evidenced in some cases of the deportation of failed asylum seekers by Western countries, ignoring the fact that the privatized religion of the West is foreign to much of the world.
Governments are often reluctant to engage with religious freedom issues. An issue with religious freedom advocacy groups themselves is that they are often focused on a particular faith tradition, resulting in limited impact on religious freedom around the world.
To be eﬀective, religious freedom advocates should appeal to international law rather than to theology and provide ﬁrst-hand, carefully veriﬁed observation that will establish their credibility. Most eﬀective is quiet diplomacy.How did international religious freedom policy develop under the (ﬁrst) Obama presidency?
Formerly serving at the Oﬃce of International Religious Freedom (IRF Oﬃce) (2007-2011), Judd Birsall describes eﬀorts in shedding “a reputation for pro-Christian bias” and showing commitment to believers of all faiths. The IRF Oﬃce was positioned “as the government’s in-house religion resource” and new initiatives were launched, such as the Interagency Working Group on Religion & Global Aﬀairs in 2010.
Training for diplomats on religious freedom issues was started. Birdsall observes that activists did not always understand the rather collaborative and diplomatic approach of recent years, with an image of advocacy going back to the early days of the IRF Oﬃce, where there was the idea of encouraging public pressure on governments in order to impose religious freedom. Although many activists seem to operate with 1990s assumptions, “that moment is gone.”Some assessments are much more critical, however.
The ﬁrst director of the IRF Oﬃce, Thomas F. Farr (Georgetown University), comes to the conclusion that there is a need to go beyond a humanitarian approach and that the American policy of advancing religious freedom that emerged from the International Religious Freedom Act “has not had a signiﬁcant eﬀect on the levels of religious persecution, or the levels of religious freedom, anywhere in the world.” Farr concedes that institutional interests in religion and foreign policy have increased at the State Department, but suspects that the president and secretary of state actually do not see it as a priority.
Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement notes that diﬀerent strategies are available to promote religious freedom: advocating it, which tends toward a public process, or building it, which tends toward a private process. Both have advantages and inconveniences. Based on experiences summarized by Seiple, there is a need to be willing to understanding partners and their culture and create a politically acceptable space for government oﬃcials and religious leaders.
For more information about this issue, write: The Review of Faith & International Aﬀairs, P.O. Box 12205, Arlington, VA 22219-2205.
04: Sacred Subdivisions (NYU Press, $24) is the ﬁrst full-length treatment of the American megachurch phenomenon by a geographer, providing a compelling analysis of how the fragmented “post-suburban” context shapes and challenges these growing congregations.
Author Justin G. Wilford notes that of the largest 50 non-denominational (a characteristic that he sees as essential to these congregations) megachurches, all but six are situated on the residential fringe of metropolitan areas—a percentage that only increased in the last decade. Although looking at megachurches in general, Wilford largely focuses on Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and how it seeks to transform the secular space of post-suburbia into “sacred spaces.”
He provides interesting examples of how megachurches organize space: Saddleback uses the home and the related values of family, intimacy and emotive caring as the center of church life, mirroring its decentralized environment. In a chapter on Saddleback’s recent involvement in political issues, Wilford sees such events as Warren’s open forums for political candidates as giving members a sense of the public good and civil society beyond the privatized spaces of post-suburbia.
But he adds that the long-term eﬀects of such eﬀorts are interpreted by Warren and others more as evangelistic than political opportunities. The book concludes that the megachurch comes as close as any institution in uniting the fragmented strands of post-suburban life for its members, even as they mirror its fragmentation in approach and even doctrine. “By mobilizing the elements of one’s mundane domestic life—the unruly teenage child, a love-less marriage, even mortgage debt—for religious action, one is performing and thereby underwriting the irreducible relevance of evangelical Christianity,” Wilford writes.
05: Based on surveys and in-depth interviews, the new book The Heart of Religion (Oxford University Press, $29.95), by Matthew Lee, Margaret Poloma and Stephen G. Post, makes the claim that a majority of Americans have experienced “divine love,” which results in concrete acts of benevolence.
The book is part of a larger research project called the Flame of Love and sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Through their random survey of 1,200 Americans, the authors ﬁnd that eight out of ten Americans report that they have felt the love of God and engage in acts of benevolence; the authors spend the rest of the book ﬂeshing out what both divine love and benevolence mean to a wide range of people.
Those respondents who reported being both spiritual and religious were more likely to score higher on experiencing divine love than others, and Pentecostals and charismatics were the highest scorers. The interviews conﬁrm that such an experience is strongly emotional and evocative of Pentecostal fervor and involves a degree of suﬀering and turmoil. This experience of God’s love is often accompanied by a sense of calling to follow God in “developing a life of benevolence,” the authors write.
But how respondents deﬁne benevolence is more complicated and sometimes confusing to the reader. The authors develop a typology of “changers” and “renewers” to explain how people view benevolence through various “social grids”—resulting in conservatives and radicals who see their conﬂicting worldviews and forms of activism as benevolent.
06: Sociologist Patricia Wittberg applies a wealth of data and theory to American Catholic parish life in her new book Building Strong Church Communities (Paulist Press, $26.95).
As the title implies, Wittberg is particularly concerned with the ways in which parishes foster a sense of community for American Catholics. Using research and theory on social networks and social capital, particularly drawing on the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, Wittberg sees older forms of Catholic community (for instance, the role of the parish in deﬁning urban neighborhoods) as fading, giving way to a more fragmented sense of belonging.
Yet she complicates things, noting that some forms of community, such as small groups that tend toward exclusivity, might discourage parish growth. In the chapters on religious communities existing outside the parish, Wittberg notes that as religious orders have modernized and removed boundaries between themselves and other Catholics, they have experienced rapid decline; even those orders that have revived traditions (such as wearing traditional habits) have shown far less growth and stability than was the case for orders in the 19th century. Growth and some stability are more likely to be found in mixed (in gender, and in terms of being lay and clerical) orders and in lay groups, such as Cursillo and Communion and Liberation, but even here there is a problem in drawing young adults (particularly women).
The book is generally cautious in using research to recommend a particular agenda or course of action, although the ﬁnal chapter provides pointers in building up community, including mentoring, renewing rites of passage and encouraging outreach.
07: Confucianism and Spiritual Traditions in Modern China, edited by Fenggang Yang and Joseph B. Tamney (Brill, $176), shows how Chinese elites began to direct their aftention to their own traditions such as Confucianism as China became a major economic and political power in recent decades.
According to contributor Kang Xiaoguang, the recent revival of Confucianism owes much to “the increased nationalistic feelings, a loss of faith in communism, and government support for a Confucian renaissance.” Historically speaking, Confucianism was a dominant political, social and cultural ideology for more than 2,000 years.
However, when the Confucian Qing dynasty collapsed in the early 20th century Chinese elites blamed Confucianism as one of the main causes of Chinese underdevelopment. Interestingly, the positive view of Confucianism in modern society gained its currency in 1980s, when Professor Tu Wei Ming of Harvard coined the term “Confucian capitalism”, which analyzed the economic success of the Confucian tradition countries of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Tu Wei Ming argues that the Confucian values of benevolence, civility and community can function as universal values in this age of the global village.
Several authors in this book deal with the relationship between Christianity and Confucianism in China. Daniel B Bays writes that “Christianity is ﬂexible and adaptive, and quite experienced in crossing cultural divides.” However, the Chinese have also used their Confucian culture in a similar manner when they accepted Christianity from the West. There has been some controversy as to whether Confucianism can be both a culture and religion, but it is obvious that there are elements of religion in Confucianism, such as the emphasis on the mandate of heaven and worshipping Confucius almost as a deity in the temple.
Nowadays, Anna Sun argues, the veneration and worship of Confucius has been revived in modern China, including burning incense and oﬀering prayers in Confucian temples. Furthermore, top Chinese Communist Party leaders have made visits to a Confucian temple to honor Confucius in recent years. However, even though most of the contributors are rather positive about it, the revival of Confucianism in China may not be so promising. The recent revelations about widespread corruption among top Chinese Communist Party oﬃcials may make the Communist leadership, the main initiator of the revival of Confucianism in China, feel morally vulnerable in advocating for the Confucian universal values of “liberty, due process of law, and the dignity of the individual.” — By K.T. Chun, a New Jersey-based sociologist and writer.