In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: April 2004
- Aum still haunting Japanese society
- China’s Christians welcoming foreign contact
- Transnational Islamic militant group finds Central Asian base
- Church of England women clergy find welcome, obstacles
- Current Research: April 2004
- Death cult saint finds following in Mexico
- Catholic bishops confront politicians on abortion
- ‘The Passion’ spurring religious productions, but not anti-semitism?
- Revisiting and revising secularization
Findings & Footnotes: April 2004
01: While it rarely makes the headlines, the old Indian religion of Jainism is quietly becoming acknowledged in the West.
Last December, the Religion & Ethics section at the BBC launched a new website on Jainism, reports the quarterly magazine Jain Spirit in its March-May issue. Jainism now takes its place on this reference website along with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other major religions. The website is expected to answer many questions which people might have about Jainism, and also to increase awareness of Jain life and culture.
It is interesting to notice that Jain Spirit — which describes itself as “the only media office for Jainism in the Western world” — has cooperated actively with the BBC for preparing that website. Jain Spirit was launched in 1999. Some of its first issues somewhat reminded readers of the format of Hinduism Today, but it has recently been very nicely redesigned and intends not only to serve the Jain community, but also to appeal to people of other cultural backgrounds and those curious to know more about things Indian.
Beside making Jainism better known, it promotes values of non-violence, vegetarianism and environmental awareness.
The Jainism website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/jainism/; Jain Spirit, Suite 3d, Cowdray Office Centre, Cowdray Avenue, Colchester CO1 1QB, UK. Website: www.jainspirit.com
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
02: Religion and violence have become increasingly linked in the minds of many over the past few years, which is also reflected in new literature. Such is the case with the new book by Dawn Perlmutter, Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes (CRC Press, 2004, $69.95).
The author has organized her book in a clear manner, with many inboxed summaries throughout the chapters, and she has made an effort to define each concept. She has many years of experience in training law enforcement agents on issues such as ritualistic crimes; obviously, the book was written with such an audience in mind. Herself an academic, Perlmutter is familiar with the work of leading scholars working on new religious movements and quotes from their works, although she is critical of what she considers their tendency to downplay the criminal tendencies in some groups.
In contrast with many of those scholars, Perlmutter is convinced that Satanic ritual abuse is a real issue. The book provides information on a variety of fringe groups, and some good advice, for instance, on attempting to understand the state of mind of believers in religious criminal groups under investigation, whatever one’s personal feelings toward them.
The book also contains some original information which had probably not been published anywhere earlier, for instance how Satanists in America reacted to 9/11. However, one wonders if it is advisable to lump together under one cover Aum Shinrikyo, Christian Identity, Jihad, Al Qaeda, Satanism, vampirism, and syncretic Afro-Carribean religions, although the author takes care to differentiate between various subgroups. In all the cases, some types of beliefs have been associated with violence; but there are huge differences between these groups.
Perhaps Perlmutter’s book illustrates how some people originally critical of cults or specializing in issues of ritualistic crimes have come to broaden their focus to include even terrorism, thus addressing a wide range of fears related to what is perceived as the dark side of belief.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
03: The Ecumenical Future (Eerdmans, $24), edited by Carl Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, seeks to counter the notion that the ecumenical movement is in inevitable decline, failing to capture the interest and imagination of most Christians or achieve many concrete results.
The book is based on a document known as the “Princeton Proposal,” which calls for a return to the original goal of visible unity — or “full communion” and is sharply critical of the official structures of the National and World Council of Churches and their stress on social action. Not surprisingly, the essays are all heavily theological, but most of the authors are of the view that traditional denominational structures need to be transcended while retaining historic confessions and traditions.
Readers may find particularly noteworthy the chapters on the divisions in Eastern Orthodoxy in the U.S., and the new role that parachurch (or groups outside denominations) and renewal groups are playing in an “unofficial” ecumenism (including the “post-denominational” Vineyard Fellowship.
Aum still haunting Japanese society
The recent sentencing of Chizuo Matsumoto, known as Shoko Asahara, the former guru of Aum Shinri-kyo, is unlikely to resolve questions of religious freedom and extremism that mark Japanese society a decade after the group led attacks on the public.
Asahara, who received the death penalty, led the group in the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that killed 12 and injured more than 5000 people, along with a series of other crimes, including attempted murder and a separate nerve gas attack in Nagano prefecture in 1994. For these crimes, 12 former cult members have also been sentenced to death.
This case of indiscriminate terrorism served as a wake-up call to the Japanese, whose faith in the myth of a safe society had already suffered from the aftereffects of the collapsed economic bubble. Within a few months, some cultists including Asahara were arrested by the police who had suspected Aum Shinri-kyo of murdering a lawyer, who was dealing with parents of the Aum devotees, and his family in 1989.
The apprehension of key members, however, did not mitigate the public’s fear of the cultists. The public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA) applied for the Subversive Activities Prevention Act, originally enforced against leftist activities in the 1950s, to disband Aum. Yet, it was rejected by the Public Security Examination Commission because Aum was no longer seen as a threat.
The stiff opposition of local residents also forced several municipal governments to reject resident registration for Aum members. In Japan, registration allows people to receive such benefits as national health insurance and suffrage. Some children of the cultists were also denied admittance into public schools. Nine years after the gas attack, a daughter of Shoko Asahara was denied enrollment in a private university last month.
These consequences have provoked public debate over whether authorities should put the safety and security of the public before the fundamental human rights of cultists. After the subway gas attack, Aum Shinri-kyo changed its name to aleph (the first letter of the alphabet in Hebrew), denounced Asahara, made apologies for their crimes and sought to reform its organization. The sect also has been recompensing the victims of their crimes, which totals about 1.5 billion yen so far.
Despite the existence of some non-governmental support groups, many victims have still been unable to receive enough support for their treatment. After the verdict was handed down against Asahara, delegates of the victims filed a petition for further government support.
Although Aleph is kept under constant surveillance, the PSIA reported last year that the original Aum teachings are influencing the new group, with members listening to mantra tapes and watching meditation videos by Shoko Asahara.
There are now even splinter groups devoted to Asahara’s teachings. Promoting mutual understanding and trust may well be the most effective crime deterrent, yet the members are still secluded from local communities and find little tolerance.
— By Sairenji Ayako, a New Jersey-based freelance writer and researcher
China’s Christians welcoming foreign contact
Christianity in China is being allowed more contact with foreign groups and sources as well finding a new embrace by public figures, reports theChristian Science Monitor (March 8).
Robert Marquand writes that a “a new official formula” is taking shape allowing for a “grudging acceptance of faith, including low-level experiments with religious exchange abroad — so long as Chinese believers profess loyalty and patriotism to the state.” While there are signs of an easing of restrictions on unofficial believers, there have also been new crackdowns on such activity.
But observers point to growing unease among those in the rigid hierarchical communist structure over how to deal with highly fluid and unofficial church movements — often Pentecostal or charismatic — that appear to be developing denominational forms. At the same time, there is a rising interest in Christianity among party officials and among prominent entertainers and musicians who are now professing their faith in public.
The official Chinese church has long opposed any foreign alliances or involvement, but that may be changing. Chinese ministers and theologians from overseas have been invited to speak at the unofficial house churches and local police have allowed the events to take place.
The traffic is also moving in the other direction, as Chinese Christians are sending missionaries into Asia and the Middle East, reports Christianity Today (April). A movement known as Back to Jerusalem has emerged after decades of underground existence, with some even viewing their persecution as Christians as preparation for carrying out such a missionary enterprise.
The goal is to send out 100,000 missionaries, particularly in the Islamic regions and the plan has the support of the several house church networks said to represent millions of believers. Already 1,500 cross-cultural missionaries have left China, usually as workers going abroad for business purposes.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
Transnational Islamic militant group finds Central Asian base
Founded in 1953 in the Middle East, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party) is a transnational Muslim political movement which has caught the attention of experts in Central Asian affairs over the recent years.
It has become quite active in recruiting in Uzbekistan and neighboring countries and has met harsh repression, too. However, there has been little research conducted on Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT); there is only one full-length academic book and a few articles about the movement. This led a Washington-based think tank, the Nixon Center, to organize a closed conference on HT in Ankara, Turkey, in late February, which RW attended.
Founded at a time the militant Islamist scene used to be less crowded, HT seems to have lost its momentum in the Arab world, where it had originally hoped to reach its goals of establishing the nucleus of a pan-Islamic Califate. Its fundamental opposition to a nationalist agenda has prevented it from joining the Intifada and made it increasingly irrelevant among Palestinians.
But since the 1990s, HT has taken root in several non Arab countries where it has not been present before. It is reported that today its largest number of cells are in Indonesia and Uzbekistan. Its presence in the United Kingdom has facilitated its spread to new places.
In Central Asia, its promises of a bright future under the restored Caliphate and a relative lack of competition on the Islamic political scene have made it an attractive option for some, although it is uncertain what the consequences of the heavy state repression in countries such as Uzbekistan will mean for the future of the group.
While most of the presenters at the Ankara conference came from the field of security studies and terrorism research, there seemed to be a general agreement that HT as a group has never been involved in terrorist activities. The question for several participants was rather to evaluate how far — independently of its practices and political orientations of the organization itself — its radical discourse in itself could represent a breeding ground for violence. Consequently, while not overstating its importance, they tended to consider HT as an ideological challenge in the current context.
Church of England women clergy find welcome, obstacles
Women clergy have found a welcome reception ten years after the decision to ordain women in the Church of England, but it will be difficult for them to progress and achieve higher positions, writes Stephen Bates in The Tablet magazine (Feb. 28).
There are now about 2,400 women clergy active in the Church of England (with a few hundred in retirement) in a clerical population of 13,000. About one in seven clergy in stipendary positions is a woman, although they are more disproportionately in non-stipendary ministry, making up half of the total. Although largely accepted by the laity, there remain pockets of clerical resistance; 430 have resigned over the decision to ordain women.
Organizationally, the move has “demoralized, enfeebled and marginalized the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, which found ordination of women the hardest to accept,” Bates adds. But any chance women have of moving beyond the rank of priest is years, perhaps decades away. In fact, some believe conservatives will support women bishops to “secure for themselves a third province, a church- within-a- church with its own bishops and archbishops. to preserve a female-free form of worship.”
(The Tablet, 1 King St., Clifton Walk, London W6 0Q2, UK)
Current Research: April 2004
01: Although known as the most secular region on the U.S., the rate of religious devotion has increased markedly in the West, according to a recent Barna Poll.
In Barna’s annual survey tracking religious behavior, it was found that little had changed during the past decade in such areas as church attendance, volunteering and Sunday School adherence. But Bible reading, participation in small group activity and prayer had shown some growth. Bible reading increased from 37 percent in 1994 to 44 percent today, while small group involvement went from just 12 percent in 1994 to 20 percent today.
Barna finds that the West registered the greatest growth in these two areas: Bible reading, which grew from 47 percent in 1994 to 59 percent in 2004, and small group religious activity, which went up among residents of the West from 11 percent to 26 percent. Although figures from the whole decade were not available, the Northeast, however, showed the greatest increase in prayer — from 71 percent in 1999 to 80 percent in 2004.
02: “The universe of the academic study of religion in North America is far more extensive than in any other country,” reports Hans J. Hillerbrand in his analysis of the 2000 survey of undergraduate departments of religion in American universities, published in the March issue of the American Academy of Religion’s Religious Studies News.
But there are only 1,131 departments of religion, religious studies or theology, compared with over 3,000 departments of English and history – a fact attributed in part to the “extensive absence of departments at public colleges and universities.”
Interest in religion is growing, with enrollment increasing by over 15 percent from 1996-97 to 1999-2000; 45.1 percent of all courses offered in 1999-2000 were on Christian topics. The place given to other religions is lower than expected: 1.3% of all courses offered were on Islam and 3.1 percent on Judaism (it remains to be seen in the next survey if there was a significant change in the post 9/11 environment).
Hillerbrand however observes that there are differences from one department to another: Christianity does not occupy a privileged place everywhere. The extensive analysis of the survey has been made available on the AAR website in early April. It reveals that 83.6 percent of the responding institutions offered a course on the New Testament, 42 percent on American religion, 40.4 percent on Judaism, 32.4 percent on Buddhism, 32.3 percent on Islam, 27.3 percent on Hinduism and other religions of India, 20.4 percent on Confucianism and/or Taoism, 18.5 percent on indigenous religions, and 18.4 percent on new religious movements.
(Religious Studies News, American Academy of Religion, 825 Houston Mill Road, NE, Suite 300, Atlanta, GA 30329; AAR website:http://www.aarweb.org)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)
03: Benevolence giving is at a new low in American religion, while the American Baptists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons) reported the most growth last year, according to the 2004 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
The rate of benevolence giving (donations made for causes outside of the congregation) declined to 14 percent, making it a new low in the yearbook’s reporting for at least a decade. At the same time, among the 56 denominations reporting, per capita giving increased on average by 5.6 percent (or $35) per person from the previous year to $658.63.
This exceeds the official inflation figure of 2.4 percent for 2002. The LDS reported a growth of 1.88 percent, keeping it the fifth largest church in the U.S. The mainline American Baptist Churches in the U.S. reported a growth rate of almost three percent (2.87 percent), exceeding all other Protestant churches but follows reported declines in 1999 and 2000. The Orthodox Church in America showed a ten percent decline (100,000 members), which reflects a multi-year adjustment in membership data.
04: Two recent studies on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church suggest that its causes stemmed from a mixture of clerical dissent and liberalization and sexual repression during the 1960s.
Peter Steinfels writes in Commonweal magazine (March 26) that a large survey by New York’s’ John Jay College for Criminal Justice found that four percent of the clergy and deacons (one out of every 25 members) were the object of allegations of sexually abusing minors. But the John Jay study and the lay-led National Review Board discounted the idea that celibacy was the main cause for the sexual abuse crisis in the church. Yet the liberalization in the church following Vatican II was not solely responsible either.
The John Jay study did show a surge in these incidents from some point in the 1960s, peaking in the 1970s and then showing a sharp decline by the 1990s. Steinfels writes that it may have been the convergence between a “culture of repression” and the “culture of dissent” that proved combustible. Priests raised and trained in a “sex-denying” culture found in the developments of the 1960s “permission to set aside their celibacy and act out a distorted sexuality, while a segment of younger clergy, ordained in the midst of change, may have never taken to heart the challenge of that celibacy in the first place.”
While the John Jay data leaves much unclear about the role of bishops in handling these abuse cases, it’s finding of a decline in recorded allegations from the mid-1980s and more sharply in the 1990s supports the view that well before 2002, “some bishops had taken effective action.”
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10027-9832)
05: There is significant sympathy for violent and suicide attacks against the U.S. among British Muslims, according to a recent survey.
The survey, conducted by British firm ICM for The Guardian newspaper among 500 Muslims in England, found that 13 percent agreed that attacks by Al Qaida or other groups on the U.S. were justified (with another 15 percent not knowing if such attacks were right or wrong.)
Almost half of the respondents said they might consider becoming a suicide bomber if they lived as a Palestinian. An overwhelming 80 percent said that Tony Blair and George Bush should not have launched the war against Iraq; support among Muslims for Blair’s Labour Party has slipped from 75 percent at the last election to just 38 percent.
Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims seem to be feeling an increasing sense of isolation, with nearly half the adults now wanting their children to go to separate Muslim schools. There is still a clear desire to integrate into mainstream British culture, with 33 percent feeling that more needs to be done, but this feeling seems to have weakened considerably since the previous poll, when 41 percent said they felt that way.
Death cult saint finds following in Mexico
A folk “saint” associated with traditional death cults known as La Santa Muerte is growing in popularity in Mexico and may be arriving in the U.S., drawing a following among both criminal elements and those seeking protection from such danger.
The Los Angeles Times (March 19) reports that “Saint Death” has become so popular in some parts of Mexico that she is becoming a rival in popular affection to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the image of the Virgin Mary in that country. “She is a Virgen de Guadalupe in negative: That which one can’t ask of the Virgen, one can ask of her,” says Mexican novelist Homero Aridjas.
Thanks to the media, the unofficial saint, condemned by the Catholic Church, has gained a national following among the poor and desperate, and it is spreading to other parts of Latin America. The veneration of this saint of “secret desires and furtive causes,” has found a place in the “global marketplace of spirituality [where] Mexicans mix and match beliefs…” writes Reed Johnson. Already there have been reported images of La Santa Muerta along the “frontera. Some believe the skeleton queen will soon be enroute to Texas, Chicago, Los Angeles — if she’s not there already.”
Catholic bishops confront politicians on abortion
U.S. Bishops are taking a new confrontational approach with Catholic politicians who have taken pro-choice positions on abortion. The conservative Catholic Crisis magazine (April) reports that a “new generation of bishops is rising” to enforce discipline on dissenting politicians, even to the point of denying them communion.
The new approach was first taken last year when Sacraemento’s bishop William Weigand “issued the canonical equivalent of a cease-and-desist order” against California’s former governor, Gray Davis, warning that if he didn’t renounce his pro-choice position he should refrain from receiving the Eucharist.
Inspired by Weigand’s example, other bishops, such as Boston’s new Archbishop Sean O’Malley, warned pro-choice politicians to refrain from receiving communion. Most notable among these bishops is now St. Louis’ Archbishop Raymond Burke who publicly ordered diocesan priests to refuse communion to three Wisconsin legislators last fall while serving as bishop of La Crosse.
When Democratic candidate John Kerry visited St. Louis in January, Burke advised him not to receive communion. Conservatives hope the new confrontational style will eventually “teach the laity about their obligations as Catholic citizens,” who can then exert pressure from the polling booth on Catholic politicians who don’t follow the church’s line, writes Michael Uhlmann.
(Crisis, 1814 1/2, N St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036)
‘The Passion’ spurring religious productions, but not anti-semitism?
The most likely effect of the Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is likely to be more religious based productions, reports Time magazine (March 22).
Earning $250 million in just three weeks, The Passion has already convinced “Hollywood moguls [to comb] though the scriptures for other projects with religious themes.” A long-shelved TV movie Judas was released in early March and film versions of the best-seller Da Vinci Code and the Chronicles of Narnia are also in the works. Perhaps the most controversial is likely to be the upcoming film, Daughter of God, a religious thriller about a female messiah.
Although much of the public debate has focused on the anti-Semitic undercurrents in the film, such imagery has not reached most viewers, according to a recent survey. In a survey conducted by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research of 1003 adults about the film, 83 percent said it did not make them blame contemporary Jews for Christ’s death; only two percent said the film made them more likely to hold today’s Jews responsible; and nine percent said the film makes them less likely to do so.
A more informal survey conducted mainly among evangelicals on the Internet yielded similar results. A survey by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews of 2,500 persons online showed that only 1.7 percent of respondents blamed Jews for Jesus’ death; 84 percent blamed mankind, and eight percent blamed other groups.
While American evangelicals have championed The Passion, the release of the film set off a markedly different response among American fundamentalists. The fundamentalist newspaper Sword of the Lord (Feb. 27) condemns the movie for crossing the line on two issues that still roil much of the fundamentalist community: It was directed by a Roman Catholic and encourages attendance and support for Hollywood productions.
While movie-going and association with Catholics are non-issues for many evangelicals, these traditional taboos, along with the movie’s “distortion of scriptural facts,”(including the depiction of Jesus as having long hair) was enough to make the newspaper advise fundamentalists away from viewing the movie.
Another longtime fundamentalist criticism is that evangelicals, such as Billy Graham and Robert Schuller, are compromising sound doctrine as they use the movie as a vehicle for drawing “big crowds” to their ministries.
(Sword of the Lord, 214 Bridge Ave., P.O. Box 1099, Murfreesboro, TN 37133)
Revisiting and revising secularization
There is the growing sentiment, particularly in the U.S., that the secularization thesis, holding to an inevitable decline of religious belief under modernization, is out of touch with reality.
A recent New York conference RW attended suggests that sociologists are also searching for redefinitions and alternatives to this once predominant theory, even if some are not ready to discard it completely. Europe has usually been viewed as the last holdout of secularization, but the conference, held at New York University in early April, confirmed the opening statement of its organizer, German sociologist Detlef Pollack, that “more and more European sociologists are defecting from the secularization thesis.”
Wolfgang Jagodzinski of Cologne University in Germany offered the somewhat controversial view that the secularization theory is so malleable that even if its explanations are disproved (such as when certain countries seem to be desecularizing), its adherents can switch to new
definitions and timelines in order to maintain the project. Jagodzinski added that newer theories, such as the market model, can more easily be proven or disproven by the data. The market model–often called the new paradigm–holds that the modern conditions of pluralism and free market can foster religious growth. Proponent Tony Gill of the University of Washington presented research suggesting that state regulations, even the encroachment of secular welfare programs, can work to lower the level of religious participation.
But there were some resisters among the conference’s participants. Demographer David Voas of the University of Manchester (U.K.) said that the gradual decline of religious beliefs under conditions of modernization, particularly as shown in surveys of European countries, may be compared to the demographic change to smaller families– gradual and uneven but inevitable. He acknowledged that the U.S. is an exception, but suggested that just as the British empire lost its religious vitality, a similar dynamic can develop as America declines as a world power.
Other presenters backed away from the full-blown secularization thesis to adopt more hybrid versions that take into account other models, such as the market theory. Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona presented an institutional approach that discarded the link to the inevitable decline in religious belief. Chaves instead located secularization in the loss of religious authority in other spheres of life. His research on religious groups and welfare suggests that even the development of faith-based social services will not reverse the way secular welfare organizations have limited the authority of religion in the U.S..
Grace Davie of the University of Exeter (U.K.) doubted whether the market model can be applied to Europe, where state churches still play a vicarious role for individuals, acting on behalf of the majority who are uninvolved. But even that may be changing as patterns of obligation turn to those of consumption.
Davie presented recent research showing that religious devotion based around cathedrals is on the upsurge, and that it is among those British young people who have broken away from the authority of the churches into which they were born that are more likely to report a belief in the after-life.
Sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley cast doubt on whether one overarching theory will ever be able to explain the waxing and waning of religion around the world. But he made a case for Catholic exceptionalism, where the church’s sacramental and communal nature formed subcultures that act as a “firewall which resists secularization which does not exist in Protestant countries.”
Although Greeley noted exceptions even to this pattern (such as France and the Netherlands), in his view, the Reformation and King Henry VIII were the “first of the secularizers.”