In This Issue
- On/File: July 2007
- Findings & Footnotes: July 2007
- Confucianism vs. religious freedom in China?
- Islamic modernization gaining ground?
- Orthodoz support of hardline Russian foreign policy?
- French-speaking Europe and cults: An update
- Current Research: July 2007
- Southern Baptists drifting toward center on politics?
- Seeking alternatives to the megachurch-state clash
- Unitarian-Universalist Buddhism — made in America?
01: The recent formation of the Council of Ex-Muslims is an attempt by religious “apostates” to support each other and speak out against their former religion in Europe. The council claims to represent the views of a majority of secular-minded Muslims in Europe.
The council’s leader, Maryam Namazie, said it would be a branch of a growing network of secular “ex-Muslims” who oppose the interference of religion in public life. The group seems to use anti-cultist rhetoric, claiming that the “cult-like nature of Islam” makes it difficult or impossible for people to leave the group. Those who do leave are subjected to false claims, hate- and harassment activities, or even death.
The council is supported by the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society and is associated with groups in other European countries, principally Germany. Iranian-born Namazie is a human rights activist whose family fled the country during the 1980 Islamic Revolution. She has frequently challenged religious thinkers over the way she says they try to control the lives of individuals, particularly women. The new group would be an alternative voice to bodies like the Muslim Council of Britain, as it claims that many people who disagree with the opinions of religious leaders are afraid of speaking out.
Namazie urges governments to stop dealing with Islamic organizations that were pushing their values on other people and limiting free speech and not keeping religion in the private sphere.
(Source: The Telegraph, June 21)
01: The summer issue of the evangelical-based journal Faith & International Affairs is devoted to “religion and torture in an age of terrorism”–an issue just moving on to the evangelical agenda. The centerpiece of the issue is the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture issued by a new group called Evangelicals for Human Rights. Because torture is a new issue being addressed in the evangelical community, there is far from a consensus on the definitions and justifications for the practice as it relates to battling terrorism.
This is borne out in a survey presented by John Green, who finds evangelicals more likely to support torture than other religious groups. But politics (the fact that more evangelicals are Republicans) more than religion explains this difference. In fact, when examining only weekly evangelical church attenders, they had more restrictive views on torture than the evangelical population as a whole. . Other articles look at the relation of torture and the just war doctrine, and a history and literature review on religion and torture. For more on this issue, write: Faith & International Affairs, P.O. Box 14477, Washington, DC 20044
02: Stephen Ellingson’s new book The Megachurch and the Mainline(University of Chicago Press, $19) is a provocative study of the interaction and clashes between religious “tradition” and the innovations embodied in the megachurches and different kinds of spirituality. The book is based upon case studies of several Lutheran churches in the San Francisco Bay Area as they face challenges to their traditional practices and beliefs in the forms of a megachurch style of worship and progressive kinds of spirituality at odds with the Lutheran tradition.
Elliingson finds that even in congregations claiming a Lutheran identity, traditional theology, liturgy and practice are discarded or reworked to make way for innovations deemed more relevant to a largely unchurched and post-denominational population, although not without considerable resistance from congregations. Most interestingly, Ellingson finds that these challenges to tradition are due less to external factors, such as religious competition and wider religious and demographic forces, than to internal dynamics. These congregations, including those not even showing signs of decline, tended to take the ideas, narratives and solutions of church growth experts and then construct “crises of membership and meaning that served as the catalyst for change.”
Because American Lutherans have always been at loggerheads about what is authentic Lutheranism, resistance to these innovations is difficult. In conclusion, Ellingson sees a “colonization” of evangelical ideas and practices within mainline Protestantism and American Lutheranism in particular. This is not likely to lead to an evangelical takeover, but rather to increase “mutliple versions of the tradition [that] have limited and localized authority.”
03: While much has been written on gnosticism, especially in the wake of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, most of it has been either based on the ancient origins of the movement or has followed the conspiratorial tones of Dan Brown’s bestseller. Richard Smoley’s new book Forbidden Faith(Harper SanFrancisco, $15.95) is recommended to readers more for its wide-ranging discussion of current day manifestations of the religious philosophy than for its historical scholarship. Smoley is clearly sympathetic to the idea that the secret or esoteric dimensions of spirituality loosely known as gnosticism were lost or even suppressed in early Christianity, creating a religion lacking in spiritual depth.
But he acknowledges that classical Gnoticism and the present day Gnostic revival are often two different things with the latter being a construction and synthesis of different currents, such as Jungian psychology, the kabbalah and other occult teachings. Smoley also does a good job of distinguishing the small Gnostic movement of churches and their bishops, such as the Ecclesia Gnostica and Stephen Hoeller in California, from the more diffuse expression of Gnostic concepts in popular media and literature as found in the books of Phillip K. Dick and the “Matrix” movies.
04: The book Extraordinary Groups (Worth, $29.95), by Richard T. Schaefer and William W. Zellner, has had something of an extraordinary publishing history, going through eight editions. Used mainly as a sociological text, the book looks at unconventional groups ( mainly those with a religious background), providing an indepth treatment of their history and current developments. In this edition, the groups represented are: the Oneida Community, the Old Order Amish, the Gypsies, the Christian Scientists, the Father Divine movement, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Scientology (the most recent addition). The authors note that these groups were selected for their relevance to sociological theory rather than any criteria related to growth or societal significance. Yet Schaeffer and Zellner do provide interesting assessments of their current situations–from the near extinction of the Father Divine movement and steady decline of Christian Science to the endurance of the Amish and the continued flourishing of Mormonism.
05: African Immigrant Religions in America (NYU Press, $23), edited by Jacob Olupona and Regina Gemignani, is said to be the first book to focus on the growing number of immigrants from Africa who are bringing new and older faiths to the U.S. The opening contribution provides results and other specifics about the African Immigrant Religious Communities Project. The study shows how varied these communities are, ranging from African Independent (or Initiated) Churches, such as the Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God, to various Islamic groups and movements, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, not to mention the various mainline and evangelical churches that established a missionary presence in Africa (there is little on African indigenous religions in the book).
Research has only started on these groups, but, as might be expected from global trends, Pentecostal and charismatics usually represent the largest African immigrant groups. While most immigrant religious groups show such trends as transnationalism and the growth of self-help social services to minister to their own communities, other developments are more unique. Jacob Olupana writes about the emergence of chiefs or patrons within African communities. Unlike in Africa, where such community leaders have connections to the state to form their own base of power, in the U.S. these chiefs “have turned to religion within the civil society to establish their authority.“
Another chapter includes an interesting account of a prominent African Independent Church, the Brotherhood of the Cross and the Star, a charismatic group with theocratic leanings. In the U.S. immigrant context, such a theocracy means a new world order based on Christ’s rule rather than religious nationalism. A chapter on African immigrant churches and politics suggests that while African churches are conservative and sympathetic to some positions of the Christian right, such as faith-based social services, they have not developed coalitions with other religious and political groups as of yet. Other chapters focus on African Islam and tensions with American culture, and how immigrant religious groups provide new avenues for changes in gender roles.
By drawing on some ideas from once-decried Confucianism, the Chinese state may actually delay religious freedom for all, writes Magda Hornemann in an article published on June 21 by Forum 18 News Service, an independent Christian news service reporting on religious freedom. Confucianism has made a comeback in recent years. Faced with declining credibility of Communist ideology, the Chinese government hopes that the philosophy can provide inspiration for solving various social problems, and some have gone as far as to advocate Confucianism as a state religion for countering imported faiths. Confucianism is primarily concerned with earthly affairs and puts a strong accent on moral principles for creating a harmonious society.
It is not inimical to religion, but the Chinese leadership uses Confucianism as a political instrument for promoting order, Hornemann remarks. The use of Confucianism does not mean that it will become a state religion, but neither does it herald more religious freedom, especially since the current approach seems to use Confucianism for bolstering nationalism; its spiritual aspects will be downplayed. Consequently, one should not be mistaken about the meaning of the state promotion of some Confucian activities. Hornemann urges caution when evaluating the impact of today’s Confucian revival in China.–By Jean-Francois Mayer
(Forum 18: http://www.forum18.org)
Both in the Muslim world and in the West, intellectuals are raising questions and launching debates which may be the starting point of a reform movement within Islam, writes journalist and anthropologist Nadia Khouri-Dagher in a report published in Le Monde 2 magazine (June 9).
While it is true that many reformers face strong opposition, and possibly even persecution or exile, there are signs of a willingness to listen. French-Moroccan academic Rachid Benzine observes that when he delivers a lecture on the topic “Is the Quran the word of God?” in a Moroccan university, 50 students leave the room, while 650 remain and are eager to ask questions, which Benzine sees as a sign of finding other ways to look at Islam.
A significant aspect of these current developments is the international nature of movements toward modernization: works by Islamic reformists are translated into other languages, and they often interact with each other. Pressure in native countries contributes to internationalization too: reform-oriented intellectuals sometimes need to leave, or to have their essays published abroad. Muslim reformists would like to emphasize the context of the emergence of the Quranic text as well as to develop the same type of historical-critical approach that was used by Christian exegetes for the Bible.
Their goal is not to promote unbelief, but to reach the essence of the Islamic message. Their aspiration is to go beyond a legal interpretation of the Quran, while often putting into question the weight of hadith (statements attributed to Prophet Muhammad). The status of women is an important issue: in Morocco, a League for the rights of women has now started to promote women’s rights through the same means as Islamist activists, i.e. tape recorded messages with references to Islamic sources in order to support pro-women viewpoints.–By Jean-Francois Mayer
(Le Monde 2, 80 boulevard Auguste-Blanqui, 75707 Paris Cedex 13, France)
The Russian Orthodox Church is aligning itself with Russia’s hardline foreign policy, reports The Tablet (June 16). Russia has reasserted its power after more than a decade of relative tranquility, most evident in President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to block deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well in recent skirmishes between Moscow and former satellite countries, such as Estonia and Georgia. Jonathan Luxmoore writes that the Russian Orthodox Church, far from challenging such actions and thinking, has continuously supported Putin and the Russian state. The church condemned the U.S. missile defense system but said nothing of Putin’s threat to target Russian missiles against Europe and pull out of existing force reduction treaties.
When violent riots by ethnic Russians erupted recently in Estonia over the decision to relocate a statue of a Russian soldier, resulting in attacks against the Estonian embassy, Patriarch Alexi II responded by blaming the Estonians for disrespecting “our motherland.”
Moscow Patriarchate spokesmen have also remained silent on Russian misdeeds in areas from the Caucusus to Central Asia, Luxmoore adds. In dismissing criticism from international human rights observers, the church has claimed that it has developed a “non-Western” conception of human rights that upholds the moral and national traditions of the Orthodox East. Critics fear that the historic concept of sobornost, where church and state work in harmony, is being reborn. This would require minorities to conform to the “general will of the Russian people.”
Luxmoore concludes that “In a world of geopolitical competition and covert threats to security, powerful governments may feel intrusive foreign and domestic policies are justified. But if predominant churches allow themselves to be coopted as tools of such policies, there will be no chance of counterbalancing this with stable democracy, or of allowing respected institutions to modify the control of the state.”
(The Tablet, 1 King Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ UK)
Official and semi-official agencies dealing with “cults” in France and Belgium feel that much has been achieved over the past two decades, but they would like to see some additional legal regulations introduced. Both the French MIVILUDES (Inter-ministerial Mission of Vigilance and Fight against Sectarian Deviances) and the Belgian CIAOSN (Information and Advice Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations) were well-represented at the conference of the International Cultic Studies Association in Brussels (June 29 – July 1), which RW attended. Both Belgian and French state-related cult-watching agencies tend to interact with networks critical of cults, in addition to their own information resources (other state agencies) and international partners.
Both MIVILUDES and CIAOSN seized the opportunity to report on their work and prospects. The French MIVILUDES stated that its activities have not always been rightly understood abroad; for this reason, it has published its latest report (2006) in English and other languages beside the French version. Both French and Belgian cult-watching agencies would like to see more work being done at the level of the European Union, but admit that different views on the issue make it difficult. For instance, while there is CIAOSN in Belgium, the neighboring Netherlands does not see “cults” as a political issue, stated Belgian Senator Luc Willems in his speech. In France and Belgium, there is a wide, cross-partisan political consensus supporting a state policy regarding “cultic” activities.
In 2001, France introduced a law against mental manipulation; political circles in Belgium would like to have a similar legal text adopted by Parliament, considering that it would allow governmental agencies to act proactively. MIVILUDES’ Catherine Katz reported that 60 percent of people who complain about problems to anti-cult groups in France had trouble with a variety of therapeutic practices (similar trends are observed in other countries). Consequently, a need is seen for more effective regulation of professional activities in the field of health.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
01: There has been a sharp increase of Catholics training for lay ministries in the church, according to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The report notes that the biggest change in 2006-2007 was in the number of people working toward degrees or certificates for “lay ecclesial ministry” — increasing 25 percent (by 20,240) from 2005- 2006. The number of seminarians in graduate theological studies this past academic year was down slightly. While enrollment was up in college seminaries, it decreased in high school seminaries, reports America magazine (June 18).
02: The trend of “greenshifting,” where people in their 20s and 30s who work in the IT fields, move from their urban and suburban surroundings to the countryside, is propelling a growth of church attendance in rural areas in Britain. Quadrant (July), the newsletter of the Christian Research Association, cites findings from the recently released 2005 English Church Census showing that it is the “remoter rural” areas that has the highest percentage of church attendance for those in the age ranges of 20-44 and also the highest percentage of attenders under the age of 11. For instance, 17 percent of the attenders in the “remoter rural” areas are in the 30-44 age range compared to 14 percent in commuter rural areas and 15 percent in inner cities.
Because rural churches are generally small, they usually have one minister looking after several parishes and, thus depend on lay leadership–”which many of those in their 20s and 30s are prepared to offer. As a result some remoter rural churches are growing quite fast. The Census showed that almost a quarter, 24 percent, had grown in attendance in excess of 33 percent over the seven year period….” The newsletter comments that in very rural areas the church and the school still form the center of the community, drawing incoming Christians to these congregations. (Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ)
The fundamentalist trend in the Southern Baptist Convention may be at an end as an influential group of moderates is “seeking to move the denomination to become less political,” writes James L. Evans in the e-newsletter Sightings (June 28). For the past three decades the SBC has moved steadily rightward in both doctrine and politics.
While the conservative position has been consolidated as far as theology goes, there is some flux on the SBC’s close identification with the religious right. This can be seen especially in the leadership of Frank Page, a megachurch pastor who is serving his second term as president His appointments to boards and commissions include Baptist leaders “outside the tight inner circle that has virtually dominated convention politics. This year he appears to be doing the same thing about national politics.”
Support from Southern Baptists is crucial for any Republican hopefuls, and the annual conventions have often included addresses by candidates. While Page said he is meeting with candidates, whether Republican or Democrat, he will not endorse any of them. Page said he is talking to Democratic candidates because the “nation‘s leaders need to hear a Christian perspective.” Evans notes that if the Baptists are moving away from Republican loyalty, it could “seriously jeopardize Republican chances of keeping the White House. The margins in the last two elections were razor thin.”
Churches and municipalities are clashing over land use issues, particularly due to the growth of megachurches, causing both local governments and congregations to look beyond the usual route of enforcing free exercise of religion legislation.
World magazine (June 9) reports that clashes between politicians and churches over land use and resulting loss of tax revenue are becoming common. Federal legislation, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), gives churches the leverage to sue cities that attempt to block them from purchasing huge parcels of land for their use.
Thus, as the number of megachurches grow, so too does the number of lawsuits. But this law has also pushed cities to “automatically view large churches as pushy neighbors and unstoppable drains on public resources,” writes Mark Bergin. In some places, local governments have made attempts at rolling back tax exemption or even approaching congregations and other voluntary organizations asking for voluntary donations.
But new approaches to this issue have also come from the congregations. The Soma Church in Tacoma, Wash, does not own its own building but leases it at a highly discounted rate from Pastor Jeff Vanderstelt, who started a for-profit corporation independent of the church and financed by friendly investors. Not only does this approach address the issue of large churches draining public resources, but because Vandestelt’s building provides space for other businesses, it integrates the church and its members into the broader community. Bergin reports that Vanderstelt’s approach is being considered by other megachurch planters.
(World, P.O. Box 20002, Asheville, NC 28802)
The significant growth of Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist (UUBU) groups bears witness to the eclectic approach of a segment of American Buddhism today, according to French researcher Molly Chatalic. She delivered a paper on UUBU groups at the 2007 conference of the CESNUR (Center for Studies of New Religions), which took place on June 7-9 at the University of Bordeaux, which RW attended. Unitarian Universalists have had for a long-time interest in Buddhism. Since 1995, Eastern religions – along with earth-centered traditions – are listed among spiritual sources for Unitarian Universalism.
A survey conducted by researchers from Ohio University suggests that 16.5 percent of Unitarian Universalists today tend to identify with Buddhism, more than with Christianity. This is not a surprise, Chatalic remarks, since most members of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) were not born in the group, but came to it while looking for a tolerant and open spiritual home.
There were 80 UUBU groups spread across 20 US states in 2004, 113 in 34 states in 2005, and 125 in 37 states in November, 2006. The diffusion is uneven: there are some states with a heavy concentration of UUBU groups, such as Massachusetts (18 groups) and California (11). UUBU groups allow participants to reconcile an interest in an Eastern tradition with membership in an established American denomination.
UUBU is not the only type of hybrid or “hyphenated” Buddhism in America (e.g. JUBU, i.e. Jewish Buddhists). However, some Unitarian Universalists expect UUBU to become the main form of liberal Buddhism within a few years. Despite the rapid development of UUBU, Chatalic doubts that such prospects will materialize, due to the strong liberal inclination of many other forms of Buddhism in the USA. A cover story on the Unitarian Universalist Buddhists in the denomination’s magazine UU World(Summer) notes that many Buddhist practitioners are drawn to the strong congregational life of the Unitarian tradition.
These congregations offers a form of community both for Buddhist seekers and their children that doesn’t yet exist in most Buddhist circles, writes Rick Heller. — By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
(UU World, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108; Website of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, www.uua.org/uubf/)