In This Issue
- Featured Story: Alcoholics Anonymous caught between ‘secularizers’ and ‘fundamentalists’
- Online ordinations put to unconventional spiritual uses
- Adventists’ evangelical temptation
- Church constructions decline but not necessarily church planting
- Current Research: February 2015
- The ‘motherteresafication’ of Albania?
- German-speaking atheists more organized, visible
- Interfaith groups growing, seeking direction in UK
- Baltic Lutheranism faces challenges inside and out
- Blasphemy enforcement expands on the Internet
- Findings & Footnotes: February 2015
Featured Story: Alcoholics Anonymous caught between ‘secularizers’ and ‘fundamentalists’
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is showing growing conflict and diversity over the role and meaning of spirituality in its meetings, although the organization is likely to hold together, write psychologists Ernest Kurtz and William White in the current issue of the online journal Religions (No. 6, 2015).
In the last few years there have been feuds between different parties and even expulsions of atheist and agnostic groups criticizing the role of theism and spirituality in AA meetings and among the leadership. Kurtz and White note that differences over spirituality and how members define “God” and a “Higher Power” (as stated in the AA’s 12 steps and other official literature) have existed almost since the organization began in the 1940s.
The diversification has taken shape either through groups splitting from AA and starting their own recovery groups such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety, the Christian Alcoholics Victorious, and the Buddhist Recovery Network, or through internal group formation such as Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics, and more religious and even Christian-oriented AA meetings in movements known as “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basics.”
Some of these internal divisions are regional. In the American South, lower Midwest and Southwest, “many meeting participants tend to offer an explicitly Christian witness, often mentioning “Jesus Christ” as well as some relationship with ‘God.’ On the coasts, in the northeast and upper Midwest, such effusions are rare, and it is more common for the Serenity Prayer instead of the Lord’s Prayer to close meetings…Some may mention their ‘Higher Power’ or ‘God,’ but rarely as central to their stories.”
The authors clearly see the main conflict being between the “Big Book Fundamentalists,” represented by the “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basics” movements, who look back “imagined pristine purity” of AA and disparaging the effectiveness of more secular approaches, and the “Modernizing Secularizers.”
The secularizers “not only rejects the heavy religious emphasis of the ‘Back to Basics’ enthusiasts but also are antagonized by even the bare mention of ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps,” sometimes seeking substitutes for the “God” noun and pronoun in the Steps themselves. Both sides have influence in AA, with a new group, We Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAAFT), holding its first national gathering in November, but Kurtz and White see the growing number of non-affiliated younger members as leaning toward the secularizers, even if many are not atheists or agnostics.
It is also the case that in some judicial districts, AA has been prohibited from being considered a requirement for rehabilitation of prisoners and parolees because of its semi-religious nature. Thus the current increase of atheist and agnostic AA groups rebut such claims, although it will likely require another appellate court decision to test that claim. Kurtz and White conclude that the “great majority of AA members will more than likely continue to settle somewhere comfortably in between, generally tolerating the extremes but probably more often than not seeking out groups that better fit their middling instincts.”
Online ordinations put to unconventional spiritual uses
Online ordinations groups, such as the Universal Life Church (ULC), are branching out from mainly offering the public “priests for the day” for friends and family members’ weddings to appealing to more serious spiritual entrepreneurs seeking a license for their unconventional ministries, writes Heather Adams in the Washington Post (Jan. 13).
The ULC and related “on-demand” ordination services, such as Universal Life Church Monastery, Spiritual Humanism, and United National Church, have seen their services expand with their use of the Internet, with the ULC seeing a 10 to 15 percent increase of ordinations a year. The growth of civil same-sex marriages has led to a demand of ULC ordinations, mainly because gay and lesbian couples still can’t get married in many churches. While online ordinations are typically used to perform weddings, baptisms and funerals, they are increasingly used for spiritual counseling, exorcisms and alternative “spiritual work,” such as energy healing.
One ULC ordained woman is licensed as a “high priestess” and says that her ministry in energy healing and paranormal activity did not draw clients without receiving “some kind of official stamp of approval,” writes Adams. An official of the Universal Life Church Monastery adds that “Most of the people that are ordained actually do either have their own ministry or are part of a ministry or already do some sort of ceremony; they just want the title so they can actually have something to show to somebody.” There are some differences as to what services these organizations will endorse. The ULC Monastery does not encourage exorcisms while Spiritual Humanism’s website prohibits that practice; the United National Church allows those it ordains to perform exorcisms but prohibits them to bless same-sex marriages.
Dusty Hoesly of the University of California in Santa Barbara, who studies the ULC, told RW “From the very beginning, people have joined the ULC in order to express their own spiritual ideas. ULC ordination conferred a special status to people who could not afford more traditional seminary programs as well as those who did not want to subscribe to a particular doctrinal orthodoxy…Thousands of ULC ministers began congregations of their own, and not just to dodge taxes, but to manifest a vocation of religious leadership and to spread their own idiosyncratic religious and spiritual views.”
Hoesly added,“If today most people sign up in order to perform weddings or as a lark, there is also a large minority who join for the personal spiritual and religious reasons discussed above.” He also finds that there is some competition between these organizations, although not all of them view it that way. “The Universal Life Church Monastery and the Universal Life Church World Headquarters are more competitive than the other online ordination groups…in that they more explicitly seek market dominance and develop market strategies in order to achieve that dominance.”
Adventists’ evangelical temptation
There is a growing clash in Seventh Day Adventism between those who want to move closer to evangelicals in worship style and shared beliefs and those pressing for maintaining Adventist identity, reports Christianity Today (January/February).
For more than a decade, there has been a movement of Adventists toward contemporary evangelical worship styles and closer cooperation with fellow Protestant believers. The trend toward assimilation was worrying enough for church president Ted N.C. Wilson to warn members against espousing “generic Christianity” and “Pentecostal worship styles” and members “independently” from the main church during his annual sermon last October. The warning came at a time when one of the church’s “most famous sons, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, is seeking evangelical support for a likely 2016 presidential bid,” writes Sarah Eehkoff Zylstra.
She adds “American secularization may be pushing Adventists closer to other Christians. Adventists have joined evangelicals, Catholics, and others on many amicus briefs in recent religious freedom cases involving contraception, tax-free clergy housing and other issues.” Wilson’s criticisms seem particularly aimed at the North American Division (NAD) of the church.
The NAD has overwhelmingly approved the ordination of women while the global church is adamantly opposed to the practice. The NAD recently announced that it will be moving out the global church’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., to focus “on our own unique message and strategies that are relevant and work in our territory,” says Daniel Jackson, division president. The NAD only has about one million members and is growing slower than the rest of the 18.1 million-member church; in 2014, for the tenth year in a row, the more than one million became Adventists.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
Church constructions decline but not necessarily church planting
While church construction has fallen 80 percent since 2002, now down to its lowest level since record keeping began in 1967, new congregations are being established at a rapid rate, reports the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 15).
Rob Moll reports that the $3.15 billion spent in the construction of religious buildings is half the level of a decade ago. Factors driving this trend include post recession financial challenges affecting religious giving, and the growth of non-affiliated Americans. Yet at the same time, about 4,000 congregations are sprouting annually, according to Warren Bird of Leadership Network. Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research has estimated the establishment of new congregations to double or triple in the last two decades.
Most of these new congregations are renting facilities from schools, community centers or other churches. Molls adds that much of this new growth has been driven by individual churches deciding to start new congregations rather than denominations directing the process, with “mother churches” starting daughter congregations, often in a nearby city using a core group of members from the original church.
Current Research: February 2015
01: The conflict between religion and science in the U.S. is often portrayed as being between conservative believers and secular Americans but a recent study finds that a “post-secular” camp who tend to view both science and religion favorably.
The study, conducted by Timothy L. O’Brien and Shiri Noy and published in the American Sociological Review (80:1), is based on an analysis of General Social Survey data. O’Brien and Noy find that 43 percent of Americans hold the “traditional” perspective that prefers religious explanations of the world over scientific ones, 36 percent hold to a “modern” perspective, preferring scientific explanations, and 21 percent adhere to what the researchers call the post-secular position which, while favoring both perspectives, will side with religion when faced with competing accounts of events, such as creation versus evolution.
This third perspective “is consistent with recent findings that many religious individuals are scientifically literate yet prefer some religious explanations to scientific ones,” they write. The researchers find that perspectives on science are less based on denominational, ideological, and sociodemographic differences and are more related to cultural and religious values, especially for the post-secular camp. These cultural perspectives tend to shape political positions relating to science, particularly “life” issues, such as abortion and stem cell research.
(American Sociological Review, http://www.asanet.org/journals/asr/american_sociological_review.cfm)
02: Russian-American Jewish young adults have been considered the most secular of American Jews, but a recent study suggests that Jewish education and exposure to Jewish culture in Europe and Israel significantly increases religious identity and involvement within this group.
Previous research has found that young American Jews participating in educational programs involving study trips to Israel, such as the Birthright program, show more attachment to Judaism and Israel. But the new study, conducted by the Research Institute for New Americans, specifically looked at graduates of the Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), a Brooklyn-based program offering free trips to Israel and Europe for 18 to 30-year-olds who have completed a semester of classes on various Jewish subjects.
The Jewish Week (Jan. 7) reports that the study, conducted among 300 respondents who were selected randomly from 2, 240 alumni, are far more likely than their peers to study and practice Judaism, volunteer for a Jewish organization, and marry a Jewish spouse. Of the 35 percent of RAJE alumni who married after completing the program, 94 percent married a Jewish spouse—a much higher rate than Birthright alumni overall (72 percent) and non-Orthodox Jews (40 percent or lower).
The study also found that 73 percent of RAJE alumni had taken part in Jewish organizations and 71 percent attended Sabbath dinners.
03: Atheists, especially those who are involved in and lead organized secularist groups, have been shown to be largely male, white and middle-aged or older, but that pattern is changing, according to a study by British sociologists Christopher Hassall and Ian Bushfield.
In the online journal Secularism & Nonreligion (3:7), the authors analyze trends in diversity found in 48 atheist conferences among 630 speakers from 2003-2014 and find that while white men still dominate in the movement, there has been a growing proportion of non-white and female speakers. This may be because there have been direct attempts to diversify atheist ranks, although it also may reflect generational shifts in the demographics of the secularist community.
The authors also see strong parallels between the growing representations of minorities in academic disciplines and how this was changed by deliberate attempts to broaden diversity and similar efforts of change in the atheist movement.
(Secularism & Nonreligion, http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/article/view/snr.as)
04: According to data released by the Mufti Council of Russia, there are currently around 20 million Muslims in Russia, with 2 million of them living in the city of Moscow, 650,000 more in the Moscow area and 750,000 in St. Petersburg and its area, reports Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (January).
According to the same Muslim sources, the number of mosques has grown at a rapid pace since the end of the communist system; there were some 100 mosques in all of Russia in the 1980s, and there are now more than 7,000. However, before the communist era, there had been twice as many mosques. While the number of new mosques signals a revival of Islam in Russia, worship places have not yet adjusted to significant movements of the population (i.e. migrants from Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union settling in cities in the European part of Russia as well as Siberia).
This means that there are not enough mosques available in large cities, especially in the Western and Southern areas of Russia. Moreover, there is resistance by local authorities and people against the building of mosques in some areas, especially in Central and Northwestern Russia.
(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Birmensdorferstr. 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland – http://www.g2w.eu)
05: The growth of Christianity in China and the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy may be related, according to recent research.
The study, conducted by economists Qunyong Wang and Xinyu Lin and appeared in the China Economic Review, finds that the areas where Christian congregations and institutions are prevalent, there is also a pattern of robust economic growth. Using provincial data from 2001-2011, the researchers looked at the effect of religious beliefs on economic growth.
Wang and Lin note that Christian congregations and institutions account for 16.8 percent of all religious institutions, which is three times larger than the share of Christians in the general population. In citing the study in an article on the website of First Things magazine (Jan. 5) (December), Brian Grim writes that the findings may show how religious institutions may generate economic benefits through their direct spending for goods, services and salaries. They may also have a “halo effect,” fostering networks as well as serving as centers of cultural, ethical, spiritual and even recreational activity.
Wang and Lin add that Chinese Christianity’s social doctrines, emphasizing human as well as economic development, may be at work, as well as the teaching that the Christian is accountable to God and fellow believers can result in legal and rational investment behavior rather than illegal or reckless speculation. Grim argues that the impact of Christianity identified by this study might even reinforce the economic impact of Confucianism. Wang and Lin also find positive, although inconsistent, economic effects from other Chinese religions including Buddhism, Taoism and Islam.
Grim concludes that China might have to reconsider its strict regulations on all religions just as it has de-regulated its economy, if the Chinese economic miracle is to remain vital in the decades to come.
06: Meanwhile, Buddhism may have its own effect on illegitimate business practices, according to research in the Journal of Business Ethics (125:2).
A study by finance and management professor Du Xingqiang looked at the relation of religion on the practice of “tunneling,” an illegal business practice in which a majority shareholder or high level company insider directs company assets or future business to themselves for personal gain. Using a sample of 10,170 firm-year observations from the Chinese stock market for the period of 2001-2010, Xingqiang examined whether and how Buddhism, can mitigate tunneling. He used firm-level Buddhism data, measuring the number of Buddhist monasteries within a certain radius around Chinese listed firms’ registered addresses.
He argues that this study provides strong evidence that Buddhist intensity is significantly negatively associated with tunneling. This finding is consistent with the view that Buddhism has important influence on corporate behavior, and can serve as a set of social norms or an alternative mechanism to mitigate controlling shareholders’ unethical tunneling behavior.
Xingqiang also tested the effect of Taoism on tunneling but found no such relationship, though he did find that the effects of Confucian philosophy and “culture” (measured by the presence of Confucian and cultural centers) decreased the activity. The researcher concludes that his findings suggest, “some informal institutions such as Buddhism can serve as an alternative monitoring role in emerging markets like China where formal systems are incomplete.”
(First Things, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/01/what-christian-contributes-to-c…; Journal of Business Ethics, http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/applied+ethics/journal/10551 )
The ‘motherteresafication’ of Albania?
Mother Teresa has become a national symbol of Albania, even though it is a Muslim dominant and secular nation, writes Cecilie Endresen in the journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (26:1).
Since her beatification in 2003, Mother Teresa has been embraced by Albania’s ruling party as a national symbol, with her name, statues and portraits appearing everywhere from the nation’s Supreme Court building to its national identification cards. Endresen writes that much of this veneration has been a top-down effort by secular politicians who are trying to have Albania accepted into the European Union and want to stress the religiously tolerant and pro-Western — and at least not overtly Islamic — nature of the country to outsiders, especially since the country was among the most anti-religious of communist nations. But among Catholics and Muslims there is more ambivalence about raising the saint to a national figure; Catholics, who represent between 5 to 10 percent of the Albanian population, fear that the effort is secularizing the saint, while Muslims are concerned that they are being pressured to venerate a Catholic figure.
In surveys Endresen conducted, she found that Mother Teresa is accepted as representing “Albanian values” by 85 percent of the public. But much lower percentages (under 10 percent) wanted her image on ID cards or viewed her as the best representation of Albania. Mother Teresa’s reputation for religious tolerance has been a key selling point for the government. Even some Muslim leaders, particularly those associated with Bektashism, an Albanian Sufi-derived group that is ecumenical and friendly to Christianity, see Mother Teresa as a figure that symbolizes the religious tolerance of Albania.
This is especially the case with Moikom Zeqo, a former anti-religious activist and now Bektasist Muslim, who proclaims the saint as a figure symbolizing a new kind of religious ecumenism. Endresen concludes that the “motherteresafication” of Albania does not represent the de-secularization of the country, since the “principle of secularism is deeply entrenched” in Albanian society. But it does show how political actors can put a religious symbol to secular uses.
(Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cicm20/current#.VM-pXaMo6Uk)
German-speaking atheists more organized, visible
While the number of people belonging to atheist and other secularist organizations remains low in Germany and Austria, representatives of atheist views have managed to gain more media attention in recent years, and atheism is on the rise, according to the current issue of Weltanschauungen – Texte zur religiösen Vielfalt (No. 101), a Catholic publication dealing with contemporary worldviews.
Matthias Neff reports that in Germany, atheism had long been a fringe phenomenon, given little public attention. But German reunification changed that, since atheism had been strongly promoted by the Communist State in Eastern Germany. Moreover, the image of religion in general has become less positive, and people are leaving mainstream churches in growing numbers. The oldest groups have roots going back to the 19th century, such as the Bund für Geistesfreiheit (League for the Freedom of Thought) in Bavaria, though its current shape and name dates from the early 1990s, and its members (around 5,000) describe themselves as humanists. Other groups include the Internationaler Bund der Konfessionslosen und Atheisten (International League of Non-Religious and Atheists), formed in 1976 with 1,000 members, and the Humanistischer Verband Deutschland (Humanist Society Germany), which brought together several smaller groups in 1993 and has 15,000 members.
Besides these, there are coordinating groups as well as a variety of smaller or specialized associations. A key role is played by the Giordano Bruno Stiftung (GBS), which describes itself as a think tank “aligned with the guiding principle of evolutionary humanism.” Moreover, tens of thousands of young Germans go every year through the Jugendweihe (“youth consecration”), a coming of age ceremony that appeared in the 19th century as a secular alternative to Christian confirmation, and was strongly supported in Eastern Germany. According to Neff, atheist and secularist groups in Germany have succeeded in attracting public attention through launching specific campaigns such as critical gatherings simultaneously held with major events organized by Christian churches, advertisements, and criticism of various cases of privileges granted to churches. But non-Christian religions are not spared; a central council of ex-Muslims was created in 2007, and secular groups attempted to have male circumcision banned. Neff adds that while classical atheism offers ground for discussion with churches, this is much more difficult with more aggressive forms of “new atheism.”
In Austria, the freethinkers organized themselves in the late 19th century, and its main group, the Freidenkerbund, was re-launched after WWII, following years of suppression under the Nazi regime. It currently has 1,000 to 1,500 members. In recent years, the movement has experienced competition from various newcomers on the scene, including a schism by people who wanted to promote a stronger atheist orientation, reports Wolfgang Mischitz, expert for worldviews at the Diocese of Innsbrück.
There are also a variety of small groups and initiatives reminiscent of the German secular scene—including a local branch of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung. Since 2010, there is even an Atheistic Religious Society in Austria, seeking recognition as a religion and participating in interreligious events. The developments in Germany and Austria seem quite similar to those in America, with atheism managing to get more attention and a diversification of the atheist scene. The impact of “new atheism” is significant, with its uncompromising critique of religion as a potential source of trouble, such as 9/11 debates about creationism and the clash between religion and science.
(Referat für Weltanschauungsfragen, Stephansplatz 6|1|2|6, 1010 Vienna, Austria – http://www.weltanschauungsfragen.at)
Interfaith groups growing, seeking direction in UK
The last 15 years have seen a burgeoning of interfaith organizations in the UK, writes Abdul-Azim Ahmed, a UK-based researcher on contemporary Islam in Britain in On Religion (Winter 2015), a new independent magazine on religion and society.
According to Ahmed, there are today “hundreds” of interfaith organizations in Britain. Some of the early interfaith initiatives in Britain can be traced to liberal religious circles in the early 20th century. Ahmed also links the early emergence of interfaith interest to the growth of religious studies as a field, exemplified by a conference on “Religions of the Empire” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1924. But not all partners are equally equipped for interfaith work.
Besides established faiths, largely Christian, more recent faith communities in the UK are still in the process of building their institutions and must face many challenges. When the Inter Faith Network was launched in 1987, there were about 30 interfaith groups, often very local in their focus of building relationships across places of worship in a city. Subsequently, the growth has been rapid with nearly 100 in the year 2000, and around 240 in 2010. The acceleration at the local level has been marked after 2000; dramatic and violent events have shaped “a particular context for interfaith relations,” Ahmed observes.
An American import, “community organizing” is also now seen in the UK. It uses the social capital of various groups—including religious ones—to put pressure on authorities and businesses toward providing better service to the public. While such efforts are not based primarily on religious dialogue proper, they bring together various faith communities and contribute to building relationships. Among issues for the future of interfaith work, some suggest that it should become more inclusive of non-religious beliefs or that it should go towards “personalized inter-world view dialogue.”
(On Religion, http://www.onreligion.co.uk)
Baltic Lutheranism faces challenges inside and out
In comparison with Lutheran Churches in Germany and Scandinavia, the Lutheran Churches in the Baltic States have become more conservative, and those in Latvia and Lithuania moved closer to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), writes Priit Rohtmets (University of Tartu, Estonia) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (January).
Both in Estonia and Latvia, Lutheranism used to be the majority churches before the Soviet period. They lost that status during the years of Communist rule due to Russian immigration. There are now more Orthodox than Lutherans in Estonia, while this was not the case in 2000. Lutherans have decreased in absolute numbers (152,000 above age 15 in year 2000, 108,500 in 2011), according to another article by Toomas Schvak (University of Tartu). In Latvia, the Lutheran Church claimed to have more than 700,000 faithful in 2012, but only 40,000 had paid their yearly contribution. At the end of the Communist regime, Lutheran churches first experienced a short period of growth, with thousands of people asking for baptism. But very soon, they found themselves in a confrontational encounter with trends in the wider society. Conflicts started in the Latvian Church based around internal reforms, according to Rohtmets.
After the former Latvian Lutheran archbishop passed away in 1993, 35-year-old Janis Vanags was consecrated to succeed him. He undertook several changes, the first one being the abolition of female ordination, and another one the creation of three dioceses (beside deaneries), as a way to reinforce the episcopal structure of the church rather than to maintain an episcopal-synodal balance. In Lithuania, following the election of Bishop Jonas Kalvanas in 1995, female ordination was also put into question, but at first with reluctance, due to fears of thus losing the support of German Lutherans.
No female has been ordained since. In order to compensate for the loss of German support, cooperation has developed with the LCMS. Since 2001, the LCMS has entered into full communion with the Lithuanian and Latvian Lutheran Churches. There are, however, some congregations in Latvia that have seceded, either because they are even more conservative or more liberal.
Until now, the Estonian Lutheran Church has managed to remain united. Along with the Latvian and Lithuanian Churches, it has signed a declaration sent to the Swedish Church against the blessing of homosexual couples. In Estonia, the Church has initiated efforts to promote traditional Christian values in public life. In all three Churches, however, there is a minority that does not agree with such stance.
At this point, there are unresolved issues between different streams within the Estonian church. Women continue to be ordained. No agreement has been signed with the LCMS as of yet. A new archbishop, Urmas Viilma, was elected in November 2014 and his intent seems to be continuing to keep a balance between different trends within his church, according to Rohtmets.
(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Birmensdorferstr. 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland – http://www.g2w.eu)
Blasphemy enforcement expands on the Internet
More governments, as they pursue violators on the Internet, are newly enforcing blasphemy laws. Voice of America (Jan. 13) reports that many of these governments are most notably majority Muslim nations and are turning to anti-blasphemy laws to punish transgressions against Islam that move beyond targeting public offenses to ones expressed over the Internet.
The article cites a recent Pew survey showing that 22 percent of governments have some form of anti-blasphemy laws on the books, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia most aggressively pursuing blasphemy cases. “But as Internet use spreads, so too do prosecutions based on people’s online activities,” writes Doug Bernard. Because of the enduring quality of online comments and social media posts, it is easier to scrutinize what people are doing online and then, using such evidence, build a legal case against offenders, according to one human rights official.
Ironically, the spread of blasphemy allegations from online activity accelerated following the Arab Spring and the rapid growth of social media around the world. Elisabeth Cassidy of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says “I think we saw more people willing to say things online that they weren’t willing to say before, so that’s a worry. And we’re seeing more moves against people who say they are atheist or are questioning the existence of God.” The cases against people charged with online blasphemy can be as simple as an individual making a disrespectful comment toward a religion on Facebook or on an Internet forum.
Findings & Footnotes: February 2015
01: Although it is far off the agenda of most Western churches, witchcraft remains a live and pressing issue in much of the global South.
The January issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research is devoted to the controversial subject, particularly about the effects of “witch hunts” on Christian churches. The debate about the relations between missionaries and witchcraft is centuries-old but the changing nature of churches in the global South, particularly the growth of indigenous and Pentecostal Christianity, have raised new concerns. These new forms of Christianity affirm much of native spiritual traditions where evil forces are active in everyday life, but they still have to deal with widespread witchcraft accusations and killings that often target the most vulnerable—orphans and elderly women.
An article on witchcraft in northern Peru finds that Christians are often in the bind of criticizing such practices while their resistance to engaging in witch hunts can make them vulnerable to such accusations themselves, in which case they may yield to social pressure and join the accusers. A report from Africa suggests that the “spiritual warfare” and prosperity teachings in Pentecostal churches closely parallel the concept that misfortune can be attributed to supernatural evil. But these churches also demand their members make a sharp break with shamans or witchdoctors and seek alternatives to such practices through healings and deliverance ministries. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/
02: Atheist Identities—Spaces and Social Contexts (Springer, $99), edited by Lori Beaman and Steven Tomlins, shows some of the diversity in non-religious, non-theist expressions as well as how atheists define themselves in a wide variety of social contexts, though with a Canadian accent.
The book, based on a workshop on atheism at the University of Ottawa in 2012 (updated since then), goes over some familiar and unfamiliar territory in the now expanding field of secularist and non-religion studies. The collection covers the now well-studied phenomenon of the new atheism, though brings in new findings and analyses. Steven LeDrew offers an interesting account of the clash between social justice-oriented atheist humanists, going back to Freud and Marx, and the new atheist “scientism” espoused by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. He shows how this division has been revived with the emergence of “atheism +,” a movement of younger atheists pressing for gender equality and political liberalism in wider secularism.
In another chapter, Ryan Cragun uses survey data to show how the new atheism catered to a rising and dominant group of atheists in the U.S. who represent up to 70 to 80 percent, and tend to be wealthier and older (many never married) with a greater affinity to science than other atheists. Other chapters include ethnographic examinations of how atheists self-define themselves, often in ways that transcend the theist-non-theist divide; and a study of the role that atheist rituals and commemorations play in secularist organizations (by RW’s editor and Christopher Smith).
03: The Sociology of Sharia (Springer $99), edited by Bryan S. Turner and Adam Possamai, looks at the contextual subject of Islamic law in secular societies in a comparative vein that suggests that sharia has many different meanings and applications.
In their helpful introduction, Turner and Possamai note that contrary to many critics who see sharia as a monolithic system, this category of Islamic law has several components, such as complex layers of law, a moral system, and a religious code mediated by interpretations by judges, the consensus of legal scholars (ulama), and legal reasoning, which means it changes over time. They compare it to rabbinic law, as both systems are locally based and dependent on the judgments of mullahs and rabbis regarding specific questions. The book includes chapters on the various applications of sharia in countries as diverse as Canada, Greece, Malaysia, Turkey, Germany, Australia and China, maintaining a balance between Muslim and non-Muslim dominated societies.
It is mainly in the area of civic and family law where sharia has gained some traction in Western societies: limited aspects of sharia are found in Greece and Germany, where it is focused on finance, family matters, and food preparation; in Canada, a Muslim marriage tribunal was controversial enough to be dismantled; in Italy, the courts are friendly to aspects of sharia; even in the U.S., where the dominance of the Supreme Court would mitigate any alternative legal system, it has been claimed that sharia has entered into state court decisions where it has been found to be applicable at bar.
Some scholars have argued that sharia has proven to be less controversial in the U.S (despite anti-Islamic sentiment) than in parts of Europe—where there has been a backlash against multiculturalism—mainly because of the stronger integration of Muslims into American society. In any case, U.S. courts find themselves having to refer to sharia in domestic situations, such as a Muslim immigrant married overseas who is requesting a divorce.
Although there are relative “success” stories, such as Malaysia and Singapore, several of the contributors also find a good deal of conflict about sharia in Muslim-dominated societies, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring when there have been concerns about the backlash against women’s rights. The book concludes with a chapter by Turner and James Richardson arguing that there is little evidence of “creeping sharia” in the West or even pressure from Muslim groups to enact Islamic law.
They note that various forms of “legal pluralism” are becoming more accepted under globalization. Although, they venture that sharia may best work in religious and domestic spheres (marriage, divorce, property) where there is a cohesive society and broader secular state law that may be necessary as a last resort to be able to “manage religions” and mediate conflicts about laws and values.
04: The new book Christians in South Indian Villages, 1959-2009 (Eerdmans, $35), by John B. Carman and Chilcuri Vasantha Rao, is a unique study done over a period of 50 years that shows the dramatic changes that have impacted Christianity in much of India.
In 1959, Carman studied congregations of the Church of South India (CSI) in several villages in Telangana in the state of Hyderabad, finding patterns of isolation of Christians from society and syncretism, as parishioners adopted Muslim or Hindu practices—a surprise to some of the mainline Protestant groups that sponsored the study. With Rao, Carman returned to the villages in 2009 and found a vastly different situation. Many of the old congregations studied had declined and fallen into disrepair, and received no new clergy for decades.
But there has also been the appearance and growth of independent churches since 1985, often in villages with no previous Christian presence. These congregations, mostly Pentecostal, independent Baptist, and connected with other evangelical groups, have fervent pastors and have a strong emphasis on miracles, particularly healing. The third change from 1959 was the revival of some CSI congregations, with new Christians joining.
Because of the new pluralism of different Christian congregations in Telangana, Carman and Rao note that their 2009 visit turned out to be the occasion for a very different type of study than was conducted in 1959. Because of the diversity of churches, the Christian population has most likely grown in the area, even if it is more difficult to get accurate numbers. While most of the members of the CSI congregations were Dalits, or from the “untouchable” caste, the authors’ most recent visit also showed members, especially from non-CSI congregations, coming from various castes.
The syncretism—and intermarriage of CSI members with non-Christians—that was evident in 1959 has remained to some extent with church members partaking in Hindu family festivals as well as Hindu traditions adapted to Christian ones, such as All Saints Day. There is also more engagement in Indian society and higher levels of educational attainment among these Christians, mainly due to the urban and economic growth and greater upward mobility of Hyderabad, but they also face opposition and reconversion efforts by Hindus.