In This Issue
- On/File: March 2006
- Findings & Footnotes: March 2006
- India’s Nagaland heartbeat for missions in central Asia
- China’s communists increasingly religious
- Islamic banking standardized and expanding
- Russian Protestants feel new restrictions
- Science-religion dialogue unfolding in Europe
- Buddhist boom in Brazil syncrestistic and apolitical
- Current Research: March 2006
- NCC finds new funding and new disaffection
- Lent rituals gain place in Protestant churches
- Catholics invest in local environmentalism
- Cyberimmortality and the future of the soul
On/File: March 2006
The Zenkoji Daikanjin Bunkai is the first labor union for Japanese Buddhist temple workers.
The fledgling union, comprising a handful of monks and other temple workers in Nagano, was created to facilitate collective bargaining for pay raises and better employment conditions. Trade union leaders believe the monks’ labor activism will quickly spread to other temples because disputes between monks and more senior religious leaders are not uncommon.
The founding of the union stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a monk, a follower of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, who was severely disciplined for criticizing a high priest. His fellow monks accused the temple of treating him in a way that fell outside his contract and then approached labor officials to form a union.
(Source: Times of London, Feb. 17)
Findings & Footnotes: March 2006
01: The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) has greatly expanded its features, and website, giving students, scholars and other religious professionals access to the most comprehensive collection of data on religion.
Among the ARDA’s newest features are statistical and descriptive profiles of nations and regions around the world, providing facts and figures on the adherents of various religions. The profiles are integrated with new indexes on religious freedom and regulation created by the ARDA’s staff. Other features on the website generate national profiles, maps, church membership overviews, denominational heritage trees, tables, charts, and other summary reports.
The ARDA includes over 350 data files on national and international religion which are available for online preview. Most of the files can be downloaded for additional research . The ARDA has also developed a series of tools for educational purposes. Learning modules provide structured class assignments and the many online tools allow students to explore religious beliefs, attitudes and behavior across the globe The ARDA’s website is at: http://www.theARDA.com
02: The Nordic Journal of Religion and Society has recently revamped its pages to publish only in English while still covering religion in northern Europe.
The publication started out as a theological journal focusing on Norway (called the Journal of Church, Religion, and Society) in 1988 but gradually expanded to include topics in the sociology of religion in all of Scandinavia. The changeover to all English seems to represent a trend of European publications (including books) attempting to find a wider readership in the English-speaking world.
It may be just the time for such an expansion, given the wide interest and controversy over the Danish cartoons. In fact, in 2004, the journal devoted an issue to Muslims in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries. To mark the new incarnation of the new journal, the current issue looks at the history and state of the sociology of religion in Scandinavia.
For more information on the journal, visit its website at: http://www.tapirforlag.no/visartikkel.php?id
India’s Nagaland heartbeat for missions in central Asia
The Nagaland region of India is becoming a powerhouse of cross-cultural missions in Central Asia, reports Christianity Today (February).
India’s northeastern state on the border of Burma had a history of tribal warfare and headhunting, but today some 60 percent of Nagaland’s population is Baptist. The state is rapidly changing from a mission field to a sender of missionaries to the largely non-Christian areas of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Butan, Nepal, and western China.
Although years of low level conflict over the cause of independence from India has complicated Christian growth and mission, a tenuous cease-fire has permitted more church activity. Manpreet Singh writes that Naga Christians have become accomplished church planters and builders of schools and seminaries. Its churches are self-supporting, and the state is growing in its role of regional resource training, drawing Asians to its eight theological colleges.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
China’s communists increasingly religious
At least one-third of the 60 million members of the Chinese Communist Party belong to a religious organization, reports the Catholic news agency AsiaNews (Feb. 28).
Moreover, half of those believers are reported to be regular participants in religious services, despite the fact that a ruling issued last October prohibits cadres from participating in religious activities for fear that this would corrode the Party and lead to its decline. There has been an ongoing campaign to promote atheism through media for the past two years, as well as a drive for revitalizing Marxism in the last few months.
Actually, observers consider that the growth of religious practice among Party members a consequence of the decline of Communist ideology and ethics; there has been a drop in Party membership, especially in rural areas, which means requirements for belonging to it have also become less stringent. In a number of places, believers who belong to the Party make no mystery of their adherence to religious ideas, especially in such places where there are high-level cadres who are themselves religious believers.
The development of religious beliefs among Party members in China is not the only change in the religious scene in Asia. Outside of China, Christianity is growing fast in Asia, not only among poor populations, but also among the upwardly-mobile, Michael Vatikiotis reports in Asia Times (March 2).
The phenomenon is quite obvious in places such as Singapore. There are also new, modern Muslim preachers at work in areas such as Indonesia. Thus China is not unique. Although there will be variations in scenarios from one country to another, there seems to be a “trend toward religiosity in Asian societies,” Vatikiotis concludes. — By Jean-François Mayer
(Asia News, www.asianews.it; Asia Times, www.atimes.com)
Islamic banking standardized and expanding
Islamic banking is thriving, even as it is becoming more standardized throughout the world, reports The Epoch Times (March 3). Recent surveys show there are 270 Islamic banks worldwide, holding more than $265 billion in assets.
The need for Islamic financial institutions to comply with Shariah laws means that they must face greater obstacles than conventional institutions and be exposed to greater risks. There is a trend toward standardization in order to make Islamic financial institutions abide by similar rules everywhere; the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB) was established in 2002 and has worked toward that goal.
On Feb. 14, it released risk management and capital adequacy standards for Islamic institutions, to be implemented by 2007, writes Heide B. Malhotra. One of the features of Shariah principles is to ban interest and usury, which includes unproductive and speculative activities. Moreover, the financial institution and the customer must share equal risk.
In Indonesia – the most populous, though not the most prosperous Islamic country in the world –the total assets of Islamic banking represent slightly less than $2 billion, accounting for 1.38 percent of the national banking’s total assets, Indonesian news agency Antara recently reported (Dec. 28).
There is an obvious potential for development, but one also notes reluctance to develop new products and services due to restrictions regarding compliance with Shariah law. For the past few years, an increasing number of Western banking corporations have also become interested in Shariah-compliant products: in January, following several other European banks, the German banking giant Deutsche Bank has announced that it would introduce such services in its portfolio, citing a a great growth potential. — By Jean-François Mayer
(The Epoch Times, http://english.epochtimes.com; Antara News,www.antara.co.id)
Russian Protestants feel new restrictions
Russian Protestant churches are encountering a new wave of religious restrictions challenging their ownership of property, according to Forum 18 (Feb. 20), a news service reporting on religious freedom in post-communist lands.
While foreign religious groups have in the past registered the most complaints against the government for restricting religious freedom, today the complaints are also coming from native Russian Protestant congregations. The most recent case involves a legal challenge to the 1997 purchase by the Pentecostal Kingdom of God Church of a factory’s social club to use as a church. The Federal Property Agency is seeking the return of its “illegally occupied” property, even though the church has a valid ownership certificate and the deadline for legal challenges runs out after three years. Elsewhere local officials have refused to register Protestant churches’ ownership of land, arbitrarily reject approved construction plans, and refuse to redesignate property for religious use.
The cases suggest that “local authorities deliberately use bureaucratic and/or unofficial methods to challenge Protestant property ownership,” writes Geraldine Fagan. Various Protestant representatives have told Forum 18 in recent months that such problems are increasing. Last year, Protestant representatives also reported that it was becoming harder to secure rented premises for worship, the majority of which are state-owned. This trend likewise appears to be continuing. .In January, the Evangelical Christian Missionary Union, which embraces 54 registered churches throughout southern Russia, reported that the municipal authorities in the town of Tikhoretsk (Krasnodar region) had refused to renew a rental contract with its congregation there.
Speaking at a round table on religion and human rights at the Russian State Humanities University in early February, Russian human rights ombudsman Mikhail Odintsov included acquisition of worship premises among the increasing number of religious freedom violations about which he receives complaints from citizens. “Yesterday it was foreign organizations, but now it is ours, our Protestants,” he said. “The percentage of complaints resolved is miserable, and attempts to do so stop, start, and go on for years.”
Science-religion dialogue unfolding in Europe
The network of groups pressing for a dialogue between religion and science that has mushroomed in the U.S. is now spreading to Europe, reports Science & Theology News (February).
Until recently, largely secular Europe and post-Communist Eastern Europe have resisted the movement that they say smacks of church-state collaboration. But today are several major initiatives that bring religion, science and medicine into conversation. Most of the attention to religion and science has been in initiating a dialogue between the two fields rather than generating new research, and such efforts are usually sponsored by the American Metanexus Institute and the John Templeton Foundation.
The little research that has been done is in the area of mental health. For instance, the Netherlands has recently produced a major study on the role of prayer in dealing with depressive symptoms. In Switzerland, the University Hospital of Geneva conducted a study finding that clinicians who work with psychotic patients underestimated the importance of religion in their lives.
The research was welcomed by the hospital’s clinicians. Secularization may not be the only reason for the resistance to the science and religion interchange, according to the article. In Germany, there is still the fear that a larger role for any ideology, including religion, in academia and culture may bring back concerns from the country’s Nazi past.
(Science & Theology News, P.O. Box 5065, Brentwood, TN 37024-5065)
Buddhist boom in Brazil syncrestistic and apolitical
There is a “Buddhist boom” in Brazil just as in the U.S., though Brazilian converts tend to blur the line between ethnic and convert Buddhism far more than their American counterparts.
Anthropologist Cristina Rocha arrived at that and other conclusions in her book Zen in Brazil (University of Hawaii Press), a study of “elite Brazilans” adopting the religion in recent years. The current interest in Buddhism in Brazil stems from an earlier time in the 1950s when a segment of intellectuals adopted Zen as a sign of being “modern.” But as with Americans, Brazilian converts tended to ignore or look down on ethnic Buddhists, mainly Japanese immigrants, because they didn’t practice meditation and focused largely on devotional practices, according to a review in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 17)
But Rocha found that things have changed. Brazil now tends to blur the lines scholars draw between ethnic and convert practices. In a temple in Sao Paulo, for instance, Rocha found that the Buddhism of Japanese-Brazilians and converts blend elements from different traditions. Thus, non-Japanese Brazilians participate in ancestor worship as well as meditation, “and while those rites occur on a Japanese schedule, they also happen on…All Souls’ Day for Catholics.”
Rocha looks at how Buddhism acts as a respite for elites from the violence and other problems of Brazilian society. But there was little of the “engaged” Buddhism found in the U.S. Elite Buddhists in Brazil that she interviewed were more likely to belong to the world movement to “free Tibet” than to fight poverty at home.
Current Research: March 2006
01: Lay parish ministers in the Catholic Church in the U.S. have grown rapidly since the early 1990s and are increasingly viewed as a full-time ministry, according to a recent study.
Lay ministers often work alongside clergy in local parishes, and usually take up the responsibilities of administration and teaching. A study by sociologist David DeLambo finds that the number of lay parish ministers grew rapidly between 1990 and 1997, and since then has grown at a moderate rate. Three-fourths of lay ministers work full-time in parishes, with the majority of them being women (though the number of men are growing). But the average age is 52, making some wonder if lay ministers may be going the way of aging clergy.
They are also usually married with children. DeLambo documents the movement of nuns out of parish ministry and the influx of lay parish ministers into the inner city, urban business districts and small town parishes, “beyond the mega-parishes where one would expect large lay staffs,” reports America magazine (Feb. 27).
02: The Alpha program, an international evangelism course, continues to expand worldwide, according to a new report.
Quadrant (March), the newsletter of the London-based Christian Research Association, reports that the latest estimates of attendance in the UK (where it originated) in 2005, shows a four percent increase in attendance over 2004; 182,000 attended in 2005 compared to 175,000 in 2004. There are now Alpha courses in three-quarters of the world– moving up from 149 countries in 2004 to 155 in 2005.
A projected nine million people will have attended Alpha courses by the end of 2006. About half of the attendance is found in the U.S. In an age breakdown of Alpha attenders in the UK, the non-churchgoing attenders were younger than their churchgoing hosts who run the programs. — suggesting that the courses are doing a better job of appealing to young people than the churches. Yet churches are increasingly benefiting from these programs.
In 2003, 9.6 percent of British church attendance came from those who have attended Alpha courses, whereas by 2005, the percentage rose to 11.9. The newsletter concludes that “If these are roughly averaged to ten percent, and if the UK percentage applies worldwide, then this would mean that some 300,000 people are now attending church as a result of Alpha.”
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ, UK)
NCC finds new funding and new disaffection
While still defying predictions of its demise, the National Council of Churches (NCC) has been significantly scaled-down and is finding new funding sources.
An article in the conservative magazine Touchstone (March) notes that the NCC has escaped from near-bankruptcy by significantly trimming its staff and budget (from over $10 million ten years ago to $6.5 million today). Under its president Bob Edgar, the ecumenical organization instituted draconian spending cuts, but has not yet reversed the decline in denominational funding. For this reason, the NCC now receives more funding from private foundations than from its member denominations.
For 2005, the NCC received $1,761,714 from foundations compared to $1,750,332 from its 35 member churches. Most of the foundation giving, from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, has gone to the NCC’s political and social action work. These include the council’s activism on environmentalism and multilateralism in foreign policy. Edgar, a former Democratic congressman, has maintained and strengthened the NCC’s political advocacy work, drawing a new round of criticism from conservative groups. The withdrawal of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese from the council last summer was one sign of such disaffection.
In another article in this issue, writer Johannes Jacobse argues that the Antiochian withdrawal “portends a change in the way Orthodox Christianity approaches American society. The influx of converts to Orthodoxy from other Christian communions plays an important part in this shift.”
He adds that converts (over half of the church’s priests are converts) were instrumental in calling for the withdrawal. Since many converts left mainline Protestantism over social and theological liberalism for Orthodoxy; they have long been among the most opposed to NCC membership. Jacobse sees an undercurrent of dissent in the Orthodox Church in America (which also has a large convert membership and leadership), although leaders in that church and the Greek Orthodox Church have not yet shown signs of withdrawing from the council.
Lent rituals gain place in Protestant churches
Baptist churches are observing Lent and even holding Ash Wednesday services– complete with putting ashes and sign of the cross on the forehead of the faithful, according to news reports.
RW recently reported the rise of Catholic ideas in the US, but it seems that the observation can also apply to Catholic rituals. This trend should be put in a wider perspective, writes Mary Challender in the Des Moines Register (March 1): some Protestants are taking a fresh look at old rituals and have come to acknowledge the value of the liturgical cycle. And while Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists already observed Lent, its prominence is said to be growing especially in Lutheran churches.
There are variations in the extent of adopting these rituals. For instance, Immanuel Baptist Church, Belle Meade, Tennessee, held its first Ash Wednesday service this year, but without actually using ashes and placing them on foreheads. Participants read Biblical passages related to sin and forgiveness, explains Jeannine F. Hunter in The Tennessean (March 1).
Some observers feel the trend is related to a need for rituals and meaningful signs about the Christian life. Various people interviewed by newspapers intend to give up some habit or type of food during Lent.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of Religioscope
Catholics invest in local environmentalism
Although Catholics have lagged behind Protestants in environmental activism, that situation may be changing with the growth of local church efforts in this cause, reports America magazine (Feb. 13).
The article cites historian Mark Stoll as saying that the reason Catholics have not been prominent environmentalists is that their religious worldview encouraged a sense of sacredness among a community of people rather than with nature. Catholics still have not built many national efforts or coalitions on environmentalism, and instead have focused on local efforts. These grassroots efforts have mushroomed under funding by the Environmental Justice Program of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Other independent efforts, such as Santuario Sisterfarm in central Texas, and Genesis Farm in New Jersey, call for a “new cosmology” that sees both land, natural life and humans in the same ecosystem. Although there may be a need for a national organization, the local parish system of the church is seen as the best base for organizing environmental work. However, most priests don’t preach on environmental themes– a reality that such organizations as Preaching the Just Word at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Center is trying to change.
(America, 106 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)
Cyberimmortality and the future of the soul
The greatest challenge to traditional religion is waiting in the wings, as science and new technologies are converging that offer “humans extended lives within information systems, robots, or genetically engineered biological organisms,” according to the Futurist magazine (March/April). A convergence of cognitive science with information technology “already threatens traditional beliefs that are the heart of religion, notably a need for God to save souls,” writes sociologist William Sims Bainbridge. As cognitive science explains the personality in terms of brain functions rather than the soul, new technologies are being created that allow people to “archive their memories, experiences and thoughts by means of computers…Eventually it will be possible to assemble various components into comprehensive systems, essentially creating an artificial intelligence cyberimmortality,” he adds.
Recently, “a small but influential network of scientists, engineers, and scholars have coalesced with the aim of promoting technological convergence.” The convergenists’ agenda is to improve human performance without limit, but “many of the technological spinoffs would be useful for recording, preserving, and reanimating human personalities, ultimately creating cyberimmortality,” Bainbridge adds. The growing phenomenon of memorial web sites that provide digitized video clips of the deceased may be a precursor to the archiving of personalities. Bainbridge doesn’t believe this is a futuristic scenario, as an artificial intelligence breakthrough could take place within a few years, and, in the process, trigger a “harsh reaction from religion.” The reaction will be strongest among poor believers who do not have access to such technology, perhaps repressing cyberimmortality groups and forcing them underground, Bainbridge speculates.
Bainbridge’s forecasts are commonly found in trans-humanism, a movement that comes under special scrutiny in the Lutheran theology journal Dialog (Winter). Transhumanists believe that humanity will be complimented and eventually perfected through its integration with computer technology. Such trans-humanist theorists as Ray Kurzweil hold that as we insinuate ourselves in our computational technology, our “software and hence our immortality will no longer be dependent on the survival of our body.” Theologian Ted Peters writes that these and other artificial intelligence forecasts have rarely panned out. He cites a study by Noreen Herzfeld on AI achievements since the 1950s showing that goals have not been reached even now in the early 21st century. Despite enormous progress in computer development, current research in neuroscience suggests that the “workings of the brain are far more complicated than was initially supposed and may not be capturable in neural net technology as we currently conceive it.”
But Peters does see cognitive science as posing more of a challenge to traditional religion. The view that the soul is immortal and is related to human reasoning may well be a casualty of neuroscience that draws a close connection between brain functions and personality. But he adds that Christian theologians have increasingly forsaken what he calls “substance dualism” and emphasize the transformation of the whole person through God’s act of future resurrection.
(Futurist, 7910 Woodmont Ave., Ste. 450, Bathesda, MD 20814; Dialog, Blackwell Publishing Inc 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148)