In This Issue
- Featured Story: Conflict, violence, nationalism mark 2014 religion
- Catholic media struggling with digital publishing, hopes for brand loyalty
- Evangelical student activism sparked by university crackdown on gay rights
- Current Research: January 2015
- New religious coalition making for Northern Ireland’s moral majority
- Global South and Israel becoming crossroads for new Jews
- The “Holy and Great Council” and its implications for Orthodox Christianity
- Conversion moves on to political agendas in India and elsewhere in Asia
- Findings & Footnotes: January 2015
Religion in 2014 was marked by dramatic and at times nationalistic and violent turns throughout much of the world—enough to revive the age-old debate about the relation between religion and violence. As is our custom every January, this annual review compiled by RW editors looks at significant developments of the last year with an eye toward those that are likely to have some staying power in 2015 and beyond.
01: The rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its proclaiming of a new Islamic Caliphate was a major event in 2014, with an impact resonating beyond Jihadi ranks. The IS is more than a terrorist group; it is as keen at creating a new society (a kind of Islamic, totalitarian utopia) as at fighting its enemies fearlessly. The fact that not only militants from majority Muslim countries, but also from the West (both born Muslims and converts) have rallied to the IS has created a serious security concern in Europe and North America.
It has also made Saudi Arabia nervous because many of the basic tenets of IS ideology overlap with the official Saudi Wahhabi creed. Aside from denouncing IS, Saudi Arabia is forced to rethink its ideology in order to lessen similarities and avoid having the movement capture the imagination of too many Saudis, according to Al-Monitor (Dec. 3).
The development of the IS has also made divisions within the Jihadist camp visible. It is now competing with Al Qaeda. Some Jihadi groups plead allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, while others remain faithful to Al-Zawahiri. The ruthlessness and violence of the IS frightens even sectors of the Jihadi camp. The strong presence of foreign Jihadis (at least 15,000 people) helps the IS, but alienates many local Syrians whose rebellion against the regime was not motivated by dreams of a pan-Islamic State and who often resent the type of Islam advocated in their own land by foreign fighters (The Guardian, Dec. 25).
As long as it is able to convey an impression of growth and victory, IS influence is likely to grow. However, the air strikes targeting its command and supply structures may weaken it significantly. If this is the case, the IS will not disappear, but we are likely to see further splintering within the Jihadi camps and new groups emerge. The prospect of competing claimants to the Caliphate within the coming years cannot be ruled out.
02: For the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Ukrainian crisis represents a major challenge, even more so as the long-awaited Pan-Orthodox Council may start in 2016 (see article in this issue). Although the ROC used to be supportive of Putin’s “Russian world” discourse, it kept unusually quiet at the time Crimea was annexed to Russia and refrained from taking the dioceses in Crimea directly under its oversight.
They remain in the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate with an autonomous status (UOC-MP). The UOC-MP is the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine, but the second largest is the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), which supports Ukrainian nationalism, but is not recognized by any other Orthodox Church. There have been cases of UOC-MP parishes and faithful joining the UOC-KP for patriotic reasons, while the Moscow Patriarchate also complains about church buildings being seized forcefully by supporters of the Kyiv Patriarchate in the Western areas of Ukraine.
If a united autocephalous Orthodox Church would emerge at some point, although such a prospect does not seem to be very near, it would imply a significant loss of power and influence for the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world. Thus, it is acting very cautiously to avoid paving the ground for such a move through inconsiderate steps.
03: While it is difficult to tease out a clear religious trend in the Republican victory in the midterm elections in November, the votes did show many religious conservatives gaining office.
Catholics turned out in greater force than in 2012 for the Republicans, and it could be that the U.S. bishops’ frequent warnings about the loss of religious freedom, as well as such celebrated cases as the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, have galvanized a segment of Catholics to turn out for the Republicans in greater numbers. (November RW.)
04: Pope Francis is perceived more than ever as a reformist, following the turmoil around the Synod of Bishops on the family in October and then his hard-hitting annual address to the Roman Curia saying the Vatican bureaucracy is exposed to 15 spiritual diseases.
His image remains very positive in secular media, but his moves are disconcerting to many in the Vatican. Among Catholics worldwide, there are those to whom he gives hope and those who regret the resignation of his predecessor. While he has already stated that the reform of the Curia would be a slow process, and not one to be completed in 2015, the larger Synod on the family will gather in October 2015 and draw up formal proposals for Church action that will attract much attention. If indefatigable Pope Francis would suddenly die now, he would leave his successor with a heavy burden of expectations. (November RW.)
05: While there had been new hopes of progress for religious freedom in China, especially a possible breakthrough in Vatican-Beijing ties, seasoned observers warn that ongoing discussions are still far from an agreement (Ucanews, Nov. 24).
The Chinese government is offering nothing new; the key issue is that Chinese authorities want to keep the religious scene under control. This was confirmed last summer by a crackdown on more than 400 Christian churches in Hangzhou and the eastern Zhejiang province for tearing down or removing visible crosses (Reuters, Dec. 30). While most house churches have been able to continue gathering without much disruption, caution is advised, following announcements that the Chinese government intends to stop illegal religious activities.
Within two years, it intends to publish a list of all Buddhist and Taoist legal places of worship (Reuters, Dec. 27). For the time being, no mention has been made of other religious groups, but it might set a precedent for similar listings of other groups.
06: While few observers saw the election of Narendra Modi of the BJP as signaling a revival of the Hindu right in India, the last few months have brought new concerns that the pragmatic new prime minister has not clearly disassociated himself from his former associates in the religious-nationalist movement.
Nationalist voters had turned out for Modi in droves and observers are saying that he may be yielding to some of the Hindu rightist demands, which range from rewriting the textbooks to—at the extreme end—the expulsion of non-Hindus from India. The BJP’s participation in conversion ceremonies for Muslims and Christians in early December (see related article in this issue) is said to be one more sign of Hindu nationalist influence in Modi’s administration.
The move to online publishing may seem inevitable but will the transition from print to electronic formats adversely affect the loyalty the Catholic media has built up over the years? That was one of the concerns voiced by editors of several national Catholic publications during a symposium co-sponsored by the Jesuit magazine America held in New York in early December that RW attended.
The conference addressed the Catholic media role in the “new evangelization” proposed by the Vatican, and it soon became clear that digitalization is as much a problem as a resource for the church and its media. Jeanette Demelo, editor of the National Catholic Register, said that the Internet has created an “info glut…on the web, everyone is an expert. Catholic journalists are one voice among many.” Under financial restraints, Demelo said it is difficult to provide on-site coverage while the blogsphere generates rumors and a contentious environment rather than dialogue.
The popularity of Pope Francis and his acceptance by the secular media was seen by conference participants as a new opening for the Catholic press after a decade of bad news surrounding the priest sexual abuse scandals. Several of the other editors saw navigating the new business media realities as a major challenge. Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, executive editor of the U.S. Catholic magazine, said the publication’s declining print revenue is not being replaced by the revenue from its digital presence, even if the publication “cannot afford to stay away from the social media.”
There was some debate about investment in digital media with the general agreement that print is not dead, at least for much of the Catholic media. Paul Bauman, editor of Commonweal magazine, said that older print subscribers are loyal to the brand while younger readers tend to “jump from article to article based on tweets.” While Commonweal pioneered the subscription-based model in the Catholic press, there has been a 70 percent drop in subscription revenue, leading the magazine to adopt a fund-raising based model.
R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative Catholic-oriented magazine First Things, argued that the church should steer clear of the new media and that print will make a comeback. “The social media may drive people to the website but does not engage them to commit to us,” he said. First Things, with a print circulation of 27,000, generates one million page views per month on its website.
But Reno says that half of the print subscribers can be considered “core” readers, those who read entire issues, while only 3,000 of the online readers fall into that category. It is the print core subscribers who tend to stay with a publication, even when they disagree with an article, and are loyal to the brand. “It is hard to leverage the pinging of the Internet; it’s not the same effect as the core group,” he added.
Even the much sought after tech-savvy younger generations are not necessarily hastening the demise of Catholic print publications. Matt Malone, S.J., editor of America, said that it is not print that is dead but only a mindset exclusively focusing on that traditional medium. “We offer content across multiple platforms, but our flagship is print,” he said.
The magazine has conducted focus groups and informal interviews with young readers and “they are saying ‘don’t stop printing’…It’s humanly impossible to curate the [Internet]. They are looking for brands they can trust, and that something is print, which can be curated. [Young adults] want to be able to talk [with others in person] about when they read, not to tweet it or go online with it,” he said.
A growth of evangelical student activism may be one unintended consequence of the hard-line that universities have taken against conservative religious groups on campus on the issue of gay rights, according to the conservative scholarly journal Academic Questions (December).
The simmering conflict between conservative Christian campus organizations and university administrations over gay rights broke into an open rift in recent years as these groups have suffered a loss of funding and recognition in several colleges, most recently SUNY Buffalo, California State University and Bowdoin College in Maine. In these and other cases, evangelical groups lost funding and recognition because they refused to open their membership and leadership to those dissenting on restrictions on homosexual activity.
So far, lawyers have been unsuccessful in challenging these decisions, but the policies have led to new campus-wide involvement by Christian student organizations and others concerned with religious freedom issues, writes David French, an attorney who has represented these groups. The first approach members of these groups took was to abandon “top-down litigation efforts in favor of grassroots student activism.”
Litigation was seen as removing students from the legal process and keeping them unaware of their case; there is little chance of successfully suing private universities such as Vanderbilt, which has been the most prominent university involved in this conflict. French writes that in contrast the confrontations of students with administrators at town hall meetings “galvanized student awareness and tended to have a positive effect on student engagement.
Groups reported larger and more enthusiastic membership soon after they joined the fight in earnest.” In the case of Vanderbilt, the campaign pressured the administration to allow these groups to have access to campus facilities. At the same time, in both “red” and “purple” states, campus Christian organizations “have worked with legislators, pro-family groups, and activist citizens to pass legislation protecting freedom of association on campuses in at least six states, including Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, and Tennessee,” French adds.
(Academic Questions, http://link.springer.com/journal/12129)
01: The politicization of churches in the last two decades has been viewed as weakening congregational growth and aiding subsequent secularization in American society, but a new study suggests that political involvement by churches can have the opposite effect.
Andre Audette and Christopher L. Weaver of the University of Notre Dame presented a paper at the Indianapolis meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in November and found that congregations that have engaged in more political activities were more likely to see growth in membership over time. Audette and Weaver, both doctoral students in political science, utilized data from the National Congregations Study, which measured the degree that congregations were involved in such activities as registering voters and lobbying elected officials.
Previous research on the weakening effect of political activism on churches (particularly those on the political and theological left) looks only at trends at the aggregate level. The researchers find that partisans on both ends of the political spectrum, especially Republicans, are more likely to engage in religious switching, which suggests that those shopping for new congregations may be politically motivated. Audette and Weaver conclude that political churches will continue growing faster than non-political ones. Such activity may cost religious adherents at the aggregate level, “politicization benefits individual churches by attracting members from a politically motivated niche market.”
02: Loyalty to a lifestyle consumer brand can compete with religious commitment, even leading people to disassociate from their religious faith, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (December).
The study, conducted by business professors Keisha Cuthright, Turlin Erdem, Gavin Fitzsimons, and Ron Shachar, conducted experiments which measured the levels of commitment to religion and various lifestyle brands, such as Nike and Starbucks. Participants were asked to rate the salience of brands and then to indicate the importance of religious involvement and belief.
The researchers find that the subjects who rated brands as tools for self-expression often wavered in their commitment to religion. The authors speculate that brands allow people to express the view that they are “meaningful, worthwhile beings, and deserving of good things,” and at the same time want to be consistent and “intuit that being religious and being stylish are in conflict…When they are using Apple or Nike to express who they are, it feels more self-oriented or materialistic.”
In an article on the study in the OnFaith blog (Oct. 20), Cuthright concludes that the study suggests, “Religious identity is a little less stable than we would like for it to be.”
03: Greater religious commitment tends to intensify opposition to torture among Christians, according to a study in the journal Politics and Religion (December).
A much-publicized survey in 2009 demonstrated an apparent association among religious identification, attendance and support for the use of torture, with a substantial majority of white evangelicals saying that such measures are “often” or “sometimes” justified. Researchers H. Whit Kilburn and Brian Fogarty find that the relation between religious commitment and “belief orthodoxy” is more complex. Using data from the 2008 National Election Studies survey, they find that among the religious unaffiliated, it is the case that greater religious orthodoxy yields significantly stronger support for torture.
Yet, with the exception of black Protestants, increased religious commitment has the effect of decreasing support for torture, even among the unaffiliated. Kilburn and Fogarty write, “greater exposure to religious ethics and elite influence [found in religious institutions] decreases support for torture.” For the unaffiliated, orthodoxy was related to a “naïve” Biblical literalism unconditioned by religious association, while among Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline and black Protestants, greater orthodoxy is statistically insignificant, yet negatively associated with support for torture.
(Politics and Religion, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=RAP)
04: The practice of women taking the last names of their husbands remains common in the U.S., but it is especially strong among evangelical young women, according to a recent survey.
In the online journal Religions (issue 5), researchers Kevin Dougherty, Melanie Hulbert, and Ashley Palmer look at the marital naming intentions of 199 young women at four evangelical colleges. Although the majority of women still choose to use the name of their husbands, egalitarian marriage practices have increasingly included such alternatives as hyphenated names. The researchers found that the vast majority of young evangelical women plan to follow traditional marriage naming customs, seeing alternatives as a not as viable choice.
While family influence in marital naming is one factor in their decisions, private prayer and a belief in a literal Bible still stand out as significant predictors of marital naming plans. Dougherty, Hulbert and Palmer conclude, “Consequently, it may be hard for the minority who desire an alternative marital name to find a like-minded mate among their classmates.”
05: The view that church and state should be separate when it comes to marriage, an idea popular among evangelical and Catholic leaders, has also gained significant public support, according to surveys of clergy and laypeople.
LifeWay Research conducted a survey of 2,000 American adults and find that nearly six in 10 respondents (59 percent) say that marriage should not be “defined and regulated by the state.” About one-third (36 percent) say that clergy should “no longer be involved in the state’s licensing of marriage,” although 53 percent disagree with that statement. Catholics were more likely than Protestants (53 versus 45 percent) to support this separation between religious and secular marriages.
A parallel survey of 1,000 clergy conducted by LifeWay finds that one in four favored separating marriages from government definition and regulation. Ideas about separating religious and civil marriages started in conservative groups protesting against the state recognition of gay marriage, although many liberals and libertarians also favor such a change and it is a common policy throughout the world.
06: A longitudinal study of older adults suggests religious change and switching is not limited to younger Americans.
The study, published in the Review of Religious Research (December) by R. David Hayward and Neal Krause, looked at religious attendance and affiliation patterns covering a period of between three and 12 years from a survey of religion and health among older adults. The researchers found that more than a quarter of older adults reported that they belonged to different religious categories, such as mainline and evangelical Protestant traditions, in the two consecutive time ranges, and a “substantial additional proportion [exhibited] smaller changes among and within Protestant denominations.”
These findings go against previous theories that older adults make few religious changes and that these age groups tend to lessen their religious involvement. However, Hayward and Krause did not find a high rate of withdrawal from religious institutions. Black Protestants and Catholics were the least likely groups to report religious change. Greater frequency of worship was related to lower chance of switching group affiliations.
(Review of Religious Research, http://link.springer.com/journal/13644)
In the religiously divided society of Northern Ireland, an unprecedented coalition of conservative religious groups—ranging from Catholic to Protestant to Muslim—is taking shape on moral and social issues and targeting rising secularism, reports The Economist (Dec. 11).
The movement toward a “pan-religious ‘moral majority’” developed out of recent controversies over religious objections to gay rights, most notably the case of a Christian baker in Belfast who refused to bake a wedding cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage,” and was charged with discrimination. Paul Givan, a politician from the Protestant based Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), invoked Catholic and Protestant concerns when he proposed legislation that would allow businesses and other organizations to turn down jobs if matters of belief were at stake. He cited a recent decision by Catholic bishops to withdraw backing from an adoption agency rather treat same-sex couples on the same terms as heterosexual ones.
Givan reports that some Catholics say they plan to vote DUP because of its conservative stance on abortion and gay marriage. At a launch event for Givan’s proposal, a representative from the Belfast Islamic Centre was present, which was a change from the uneasy relations between Muslims and the DUP in recent years, according to the article. Secularists and gay rights activists are strongly opposed to Givan’s initiative, claiming it will lead back to the “bad old days of businesses picking and choosing their customers on sectarian and ethnic grounds.”
A Britain-wide poll suggests that there may be some public sympathy for the initiative, at least when it comes to business owners not being forced to violate their consciences. At the same time, the same poll showed that clear majorities support the view that businesses should generally treat all customers the same, including same-sex couples.
“As Western Jews continue to secularize in their lifestyles and belief systems, the increasing adoption of Judaism by committed practitioners of it in the Global South (including Africa) will parallel the transformation of Christianity,” according to political scientist William Miles of Northeastern University.
Miles, who shared a paper he delivered at the November conference of the African Studies Association with RW, notes that much of the growth of Judaism in the last 25 years in the Global South has taken place among West African communities in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon, some of whom claim Israelite ancestry through lost tribal descent.
There are also a growing number of African Jews in Israel, with Ethiopians being the largest immigrant group after Russians, Romanians and North Americans. There are also 300,000 migrant workers in Israel, and 60,000 are from Africa. While few of the job seekers from Asia and Africa embrace Judaism, “assimilation into the broader culture of the Jewish state inevitably will have repercussions in the religious sphere. This is particularly the case for their offspring who are born and raised in Israel.”
In contrast to the growth of cultural and secular Jews in the West, “Africans who embrace Judaism are no less fervent than their Christian (or Muslim) counterparts. It is the core of Judaism as a religion – the observance, the practice, the (theo)logic, the Torah (and increasingly Talmudic) study that draws them in,” Miles adds. The poverty of Global South Christians and Muslims also applies to these Jews, though they often find that “being Jewish and observing Judaism may have this secondary, material attraction.
It is not the principal motivator for the emerging African embrace of Judaism, but it would be analytically naïve to ignore the economic reality of Judaism’s new embracers in the Global South. Israel’s economic prowess is well recognized throughout the developing world, by her detractors as well as by her admirers. And the identification between Judaism and Israel is sharper in the minds of Africans (Muslim as well as Christian) than it is among Europeans and Americans,” Miles writes.
Like their Christian and Muslim counterparts, African Jews also struggle with applying local customs and whether they clash with authentic Judaism. But it is in their moral conservatism of these Jews in Africa and the Israeli diaspora that may cause similar conflicts in world Jewry as they have in Christianity. Miles finds in his study of Nigerian Jews (Jubos) that homosexuality is as taboo as it is among Nigerian Christians and Muslims. “Overseas non-Orthodox denominational policies that encourage gay and lesbian congregants, and accept L/G/B/T clergy, could become as internationally divisive for Nigerian Jewry as it has for Nigeria and other African Christian churches.”
It came as a surprise when the heads of Orthodox churches, at their March 2014 gathering, announced that the long awaited “Holy and Great Council” would finally convene in 2016 in Istanbul.
Early initiatives toward the convocation of such a Council go back to the early 20th century, but turmoil affecting Orthodox countries throughout the century had made it impossible. More recently, divergences among Orthodox had led many to believe that the Council would indefinitely be postponed. Little is known at this stage about practical and other issues pertaining to the planned Council, but a number of analyses have now been published following the announcement.
Decisions at the Council should be reached unanimously—something that may impede some decisions, but is meant to avoid further divisions. Differences of views between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and of Moscow continue, writes Fr. Christophe D’Aloisio (rector of an Orthodox parish in Brussels) in the Messager Orthodoxe (issue 157); they do not completely agree on the list of autocephalous and autonomous Churches (the autocephaly granted by Moscow to the Orthodox Church of America is not recognized by Constantinople, while the autonomy granted by Constantinople to the Orthodox Church of Estonia is not recognized by Moscow.).
Due to those differences, autonomous Churches were not invited to preconciliar meetings. It won’t be easy for the Council to reach an agreement regarding the competencies recognized to the Patriarch of Constantinople in relation to his primacy of honor. Intra-Orthodox issues and inter-Orthodox relations dominate indeed the agenda, writes Catholic theologian Barbara Hallensleben (University of Fribourg, Switzerland) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (November-December).
The Council can be expected to help Orthodox Churches define their views in matters of ecumenism and regarding the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox Churches, adds Georgios Vlantis (Ludwig-Maximilans University Munich and Volos Academy) in the same issue. Moreover, the Council is supposed to help reinforce pan-Orthodox unity as well as to clarify issues of parallel Orthodox jurisdictions in the “diaspora.” It should also allow Orthodox Churches to refine their understanding of Tradition: what is normative, and what is rather more of an absolutization of the past?
Due to the strength of conservative currents within Orthodox Churches (including some loud anti-Western and anti-ecumenical voices), it would be unrealistic to expect that the Council will lead to a change of theological paradigm in Orthodoxy, writes Vlantis—anyway, it is not supposed to decide doctrinal questions. D’Aloisio remarks that not all diocesan bishops will be invited to the Council (although feasible number-wise), with each autocephalous church represented by its primate along with a maximal number of 24 bishops. D’Aloisio notes that this marks a break with the traditional way of representing local Churches at a Council.
(Messager Orthodoxe, ACER, 91 rue Olivier de Serres, 75015 Paris, France – Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Birmensdorferstr. 52, P.O. Box 9329,8036 Zürich, Switzerland, http://www.g2w.eu)
Conversions and reconversions, whether to Christianity or back to Hinduism, are becoming an increasingly contested political issue in India and other South Asian countries, according to several reports. Stating that his party is “against forceful conversions and re-conversions”, president of nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, has asked secular Indian political parties to support “a strong anti-conversion law to prevent conversions by anyone, be they Christians, Muslims or Hindus.” (Indo-Asian News Service IANS, Jan 3) BJP President thus distanced himself from programs of re-conversion to Hinduism promoted by some hardline Hindu group in the nationalist camp. But opposition parties claim that Prime Minister Modi’s government is actually supportive of the so-called ghar wapasi (home-coming) programs, according to IANS (Dec. 25).
Other people on the Hindu side have been critical. Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh stated that Hindus should fix their own home first, before inviting others to come to it. According to Agnivesh, most Hindus embracing Islam or Christianity had not been forced or deceived in order to do it, but chose another religion in order to escape an oppressive caste system that did not give them equal status—something that should be corrected before calling people back to Hinduism (IANS, Dec. 31). A Catholic bishop from Maharashtra, Alwyn Barreto, stated that he did not object to a law against forced conversions, but that a blanket law against all conversions would infringe upon religious freedom (IANS, Jan. 3).
But the president of Hindu activist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Praveen Togadia, pleaded that ghar wapasi should not be described as religious (re)conversion. Hinduism has to be understood as a way of life, and people whose ancestors were mostly Hindus are invited to come back to that way of life (IANS, Dec 29). Togadia also repeated concerns about what he sees as the declining population of Hindus in the country; what used to be 100 percent centuries ago is now down to 82 percent, and he fears it could go down to 42 percent some day. He added that the VHP would not allow the conversion even of a single Hindu to another religion (IANS, Dec 28). Conversions have been debated in India since the 19th century; out of 29 Indian states, seven have adopted laws forbidding “forced religious conversions.”
But the topic of conversion is not merely an Indian issue. In neighboring Nepal too, the fact that evangelization and social work often go hand in hand is seen by a number of Hindus as proof that converts are actually lured through financial and other material enticements (Swarajya, Dec 28). In Sri Lanka, some Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of anti-missionary campaigns for years and make similar accusations regarding unethical conversions.
For instance, it is claimed that missionary agencies exploited the distress of the 2004 tsunami victims—both in Sri Lanka and in India’s Southern state of Tamil Nadu (Swarajya, Dec 29). In Myanmar (Burma), bills restricting both interreligious marriages and conversions of Buddhists to other religions were sent to Parliament in early December. If it passes, any Burmese citizen intending to change religion should first get administrative permission to do so. The bills have been promoted by a coalition of Buddhist monks, the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief (Églises d’Asie, Dec 6). Far from decreasing, anti-conversion movements in Asia seem to be more vigorous than ever.
01: The field of Islamic studies is among the liveliest (and most employable) in religion today and, as might be expected, also the most contentious over its purposes and methods.
The current issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (November) focuses on the controversies and factions that have developed in Islamic studies, especially the charge (not so new but recently circulated on various blogs) that the field is dominated by scholars whose liberal and benign view of Islam has shaped their treatment of trends in the contemporary Muslim world.
But the articles deal with many topics: the tensions between the academy and the Muslim community, the low status of theory among younger scholars, the growth of women and other minorities in the field, the popularization of Islamic studies and education outside of academia, and the role of apologetics among some scholars. It is this last issue that has raised the most heat since 9/11: should scholars be “caretakers” or “critics” (or insiders and outsiders) of Islam. This issue will only become more sensitive as scholars proceed to dissect the “historical Muhammad” in the same way that they have sought to deconstruct the historical Jesus in Christian studies. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.equinoxpub.com/journals/index.php/BSOR
02: The current issue of the bi-annual Review of Religion and Chinese Society (Vol. 1, No. 2) is devoted to Pentecostals and charismatics in China, a subject that has not received much attention even though these movements have shown sharp growth in the country.
It is difficult to provide exact numbers for the percentage of charismatic and Pentecostals in China, partly because many Chinese Christians show a Pentecostal style even if they don’t use the label. One article in the issue examines the Christians in the Henan province, and finds that most show some Pentecostal traits (practicing healing and speaking in tongues)—something that has marked Chinese Christians throughout much of their history. Another article argues that the long-time division between patriotic and unregistered or underground Christians is misleading, since patriotism also increasingly marks most churches.
Most unregistered churches consist of patriotic Christians who are reluctant to challenge the state and leaders who espouse patriotism as a way to improve the public image of Christianity. An article by Rachel Xiaohong Zhu find the charismatic Catholic movement is also making strong inroads into China, although, unlike expressions of the renewal in other countries, it is strongly controlled by the bishops and strengthens traditional Catholic devotions. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.brill.com/products/journal/review-religion-and-chinese-society
03: The anthropology of Christianity has been an established subfield of anthropology for at least 15 years—an anniversary celebrated in a supplement to the December issue of the journal Current Anthropology.
In the introduction, editor Joel Robbins writes that while anthropologists studying Christianity extends well beyond the new millennium, it was during that time that anthropology was redefining what counts as legitimate study, and Christianity itself was becoming more publicly influential in developing societies. Notable articles include a study on the clash between urban and rural Christianity, as well as their respective intellectual and emotional approaches and how migrants to the city experience this tension. An article on anthropology, Christianity and politics by Ruth Marshall suggests that the growth of Pentecostalism poses a special challenge for the anthropologist.
Pentecostalism’s supernatural thrust makes its adherents suspicious of social scientific explanations of religious phenomenon. At the same time, Pentecostalism feels different yet still familiar to liberal Western anthropologists—enough to often make it difficult for them to deal with the faith’s conversionist and illiberal stances as compared with more exotic native traditions and religions. For more information on this supplement, visit: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/journals/journal/ca.html
04: Sociologist Peter Berger, one of the architects of the secularization theory, gained renewed attention when he changed his mind about the theory in the last decade. In his most recent book The Many Altars of Modernity (DeGruyter, $49.95), Berger retains his skepticism about secularization but concedes that religious pluralism may have a secularizing effect on how people believe and practice religion.
In Berger’s “new paradigm” of pluralism, he sees religious beliefs as persisting and even flourishing under modernity, while “default secularism” co-exists in most people’s minds, and allows them to switch between religious and secular ways of doing things. Berger’s analysis is followed by three responses from sociologists Nancy Ammerman, Detlef Pollack, and Fenggang Yang. Pollack, a defender of the classical secularization theory, argues that Berger’s “both-and” approach is not feasible, writing that secular discourse puts “growing plausibility pressure on the religious discourse” and that the contents of faith are becoming “increasingly diffuse…and vague…strengthening the well-known assumptions of secularization theory.”
05: Christianity in the Modern World: Changes and Controversies (Ashgate, $98.96), edited by Giselle Vincett and Elijah Obinna, with Elizabeth Olson and Afe Adogame, provides an interesting overview of Christian movements and trends in the global South and in the West.
Although several chapters link Western and non-Western themes, others focus exclusively on either region, which gives the book a somewhat scattered tone. Especially noteworthy are the chapters examining the relation of immigrant Christian groups and their host societies in Europe, such as a study showing the isolation and tensions that immigrant African churches experience in Scotland (in the form of regulations that curb unconventional worship styles that may produce too much noise, for example).
Jumping east to the Philippines, contributor Jayeel Serrano Cornelio provides an interesting case study on how Western religious themes of religious individualism and “Golden Rule” Catholicism are influencing Filipino Catholics, especially young adults. The emphasis on authenticity, religious tolerance and relationships, rather than church doctrine and politics resonates more with contemporary spirituality of the post-boomer generations than with stereotypes of the Philippines as a traditional and conservative Catholic country.