01: The current issue of the online journal Science, Religion & Culture (June) is devoted to atheism as both a philosophy and worldview and in its various organizational expressions. The introduction goes over the familiar territory of defining atheism, non-religion and religion, looking specifically how secularism and faith is related to human betterment. An article on the relation between individual atheists and secularist organizations suggests a continuing disinterest of a large majority in such “belonging” while non-believing. Another article offers a projection of secularist growth based on General Social Surveys (GSS) from 1973 to 2012. The authors produce a forecast range of between 26 and 47 percent of the U.S. population being nonreligious by the year 2042. For access to this issue, visit: http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/
02: As a transnational Islamic movement encompassing a wide range of issues, Salafism is also affected by its local environments, writes Tere Østebø (University of Florida) in the introductory article to the current issue of Islamic Africa (Vol. 6) on “African Salafism.” This school of Islam is not a neatly delineated phenomenon, but is shaped by African realities and containing local varieties. It is also important, the author stresses, to be aware that it is not merely an import. The role of African students returning from Saudi institutions (the “new ulama”) since the 1960s and of migrant workers who stayed in the Arabian Peninsula should not be underestimated. But this development also involves locally constructed ideas, related to longing for religious reforms (cleansing Islam of cultural practices) and building partly upon previous purist orientations, with “a certain degree of ideological independence.” The impact of Islamic NGOs has been more significant in terms of funding than direct organization; there have been missionaries, but Africans themselves have played a crucial role.
An article by Ousman Murzik Kobo (Ohio State University) on Salafism in Ghana makes it clear that Salafism cannot be approached as homogeneous; it did not start as a single organization, but rather as “a loose network of independent organizations whose leaders cooperated in promoting their common agendas while competing for financial assistance from the Arab world.” Case studies indicate that Salafism does not follow “an inevitable linear trajectory.” In some countries, certain Salafi movements have come to adopt less uncompromising views toward their Sufi adversaries and have moved to more accommodating attitudes. Thus Salafism does not always and only mean radicalization. An instance of transforming Salafism partly due to generational dynamics is provided by Abdoulaye Sounaye’s contribution (Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin) on recent trends in youth Salafism in Niger. Some young Salafis there appropriate the discourse of previous Salafi organizations, but do no give much importance to anti-Sufism (or anti-Shia), and do not emphasize constantly what is forbidden (less rigid and more inclusive).
The development of Salafism has had an impact in these countries. For instance, in an article on Salafism in Tanzania, independent scholar Søren Gilsaa explains how all major cities in Tanzania now host at least one organization of Ansar Sunna (defenders of the Sunna) propagating Salafi thought; their existence challenges the existing Muslim and political establishment. The majority of Tanzanian Salafis encourage voting for Muslim candidates, while a few ask Muslims not to vote. Despite tensions and friction, they are slowly becoming part of the religious landscape. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.islamicafricajournal.org/
03: Emerging Adulthood and Faith (Calvin College Press, $6.99), by sociologist Jonathan Hill, is a small book (84 pages) about a big subject that tends to loom larger with every survey finding an uptick in the growth of non-affiliation among young adults. Through concise summaries and analysis of survey research on this trend, Hill recognizes the losses but argues that scenarios of dire defections from congregations (made by both secularist and religious leaders and observers) are overblown. He notes the unpublicized statistic that roughly the same percentages of young people are sitting in the pews of Protestant churches today as they did in the 1970s (about 12-13 percent weekly). The reason defection appears more widespread today is that the occasional attendees (those attending once or twice a year) began to decline starting in the late 1980s; at the same time, those who never attend doubled in size (from 15-30 percent).
Similar patterns can be seen for young adults who occasionally pray (the numbers decline drastically around 2000, along with a sharp increase of those never praying) and for those with weak identification with a Protestant faith (they are only half of what they used to be, while those who have no religious identity have more than doubled). Hill does note that the Catholic Church has seen a greater overall loss of commitment and identity, though this development is complicated by Hispanic immigration. So while the growth of the “nones” is not necessarily taking place at the expense of the committed, Hill acknowledges that the cultural importance of identifying with the Protestant churches has declined, especially for infrequent attendees and others on the margins. Other chapters look at the influence of science and education on non-affiliation and religious dropouts—both more lackluster than robust— and address how church leaders can do a better job in attracting and keeping the Millennial generation in the fold.
04: Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson bring together a good deal of qualitative and quantitative data on Canada’s evangelicals and how they fit into the increasingly secular landscape of their nation in the new book A Culture of Faith (McGill-Queens University Press, $32.95 CAD). The authors note that in comparison to the sharp losses registered by Canada’s mainline Protestantism and Catholicism in the Province of Quebec, evangelicals have done pretty well in keeping their members (continuing to hold about 8 percent of the population), though not necessarily growing by much and plateauing for many denominations. By focusing on evangelical congregations rather than survey snapshots of individual evangelicals, the authors seek to explain how these churches have retained vitality in a milieu of declining institutional religion.
As the first multi-denominational study of Canadian evangelicals, Reimer and Wilkinson base most of their analysis on interviews with over 600 pastors and other church professionals in their Canadian Evangelical Churches Study. They trace much of the resilience of evangelical congregations to the high rate of volunteering both time and other resources. But it is also the case that the way evangelical congregations are organized as part of a subculture of believers with strong network ties to each other sets these churches apart from the others. Rather than gaining members through conversion, most growth takes place through the “circulation of the saints,” with transient evangelicals and the children of evangelicals comprising most of the new members, although there is also growth among new immigrants.
05: Religious Identity and Social Change (Routledge, $140) may sound very generic but the book actually addresses a very specific and timely topic—the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. In this case, author David Radford focuses on Christian conversion in the largely Islamic region of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, using both quantitative and ethnographic methods to study this change. The political independence of Kyrgyzstan from the former Soviet Union in 1991 opened a new “religious market,” first for various forms of Islam, including both orthodox (Sunni) and popular Islamic forms, but also since the 1990s for Protestant Christian and new religious movements, such as Pentecostalism, Bahai’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses. By the early 2000s, more than 20,000 Muslim Kyrgyz had become Protestant, with one Protestant group claiming 3,000 adherents (with similar growth reported among other Central Asian Muslims and non-Muslims, such as the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks).
Radford finds that the influence of foreign missionaries has been less central to the conversion process than that of Kyrgyz Christians themselves as they seek to broaden the Kyrgyz ethnic identity to include Christianity as well as Islam. But conversion has community-wide repercussions, with converts being subject to threats and accused of bringing a curse upon their families. Converts can be refused burial rites, which in effect cuts off a person from the Kyrgyz community. The author finds that Christians negotiate their identity by maintaining some continuity with their Islamic past. For instance, claiming that their conversions make them “true Muslims,” and even claiming to find the roots of their beliefs in the Koran. The coverts’ claim that Christians are “better Muslims” and “more Kyrgyz” than their Muslim neighbors is seen in the former’s total rejection of alcohol while the latter regularly imbibes on vodka, and is thus accused of being “Russian.” Radford concludes that the outcome of such negotiations and whether or not Christianity gains more mainstream acceptance may be further shaped by Kyrgyzstan’s government, as it has (as recently as 2014) tightened religious restrictions against Christianity and other religious groups. As it is, however, the movement of Kyrgyz Christian converts is one of the most successful in the Islamic world.