In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: March 2007
- Believers on the rise in China
- Dalit Buddhism expanding in India
- Crypto-Catholics embrace the faith openly in Kosovo
- Polish influx stemming Ireland’s secular tide?
- How many Catholics are there left in France?
- Current Research: March 2007
- Mounting financial scandal in American Catholicism?
- What’s new about the ‘New Atheism’?
Findings & Footnotes: March 2007
01: The state of preaching around the world is the focus of the Winter issue of Theology News & Notes, the magazine of Fuller Theological Seminary. In general, the older styles of preaching which involve expositing biblical texts and exhortation still remain in the Global South, though there are exceptions to that rule. Lay-based Pentecostal preachers in Latin America follow an experiential model that seeks to demonstrate the presence of kingdom of God rather than deliver learned discourses on doctrines and biblical teachings. Revival-style “health and wealth” preaching has swept through the African continent, particularly Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa.
Secularization In Europe has created a “crisis of language,” leading preachers to seek assistance in communicating their message through film clips, PowerPoint presentations and dynamic graphics. Although biblical scholarship has moved on to new paradigms, Enlightenment-style historical criticism of the Bible is still popular among the clergy, along with a mix of traditional and post-modern views, causing a “lack of clarity” in most preaching. Meanwhile, the postmodern “emerging” church preaching popular in the U.S. and other Western countries downplays dogmatic preaching and “church-speak” that uses art more than oration. For more information on this issue, write: Theology News & Notes, 135 N. Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182)
02: The February issue of the journal Nova Religio is devoted to religion and the media in Japan. While religion and the media may seem poles apart, the articles suggest how they reciprocally influence each other, and also how difficult it is to differentiate between “religious” and “non-religious” practices in Japanese culture. Ian Reader traces the history of media presentation of pilgrimage in Shikoku Japan as an example of positive presentation of religion in the Japanese media as opposed to the negative presentation of religion especially in the post Aum (sarin gas attack) era.
This innately “religious” practice is constantly covered by the Japanese media and by doing so they actually assign a new meaning to pilgrimages as a “form of cultural expression.” At the same time, he points out that this new assigned meaning does not mean the loss of the religious aspect of the practice itself. Although not addressed, it would be interesting to see if a connection between so called “State Shinto” as a political practice and the representation of pilgrimage exists.
Contributor Benjamin Dorman reminds us the difficulty of defining religious practice in Japan especially in the post war era. Christal Whelan introduces the reader to a religious group known as GLA, or God Light Association, and how it has changed its way of presenting itself after the death of its charismatic leader. The GLA’s main practice was once speaking in tongues but today the group presents itself in the media as a rational group through a technique centered around personality tests. Whelan’s study suggests how media presentation and globalization which have, prima facie, no direct association with GLA can possibly change the group.
Another article looks at the relationship between entertainment or play and religion, using Hayao Miyazaki’s films as an example of this. The article seems to have the presupposition that religion is something that has to be “serious,” but Japanese religion has an “entertaining” aspect as is evident in the Matsuri, or festivals.
Another question concerns whether we could apply this concept to the “players” who potentially do not regard their activities as religious. In a responding article, George J. Tanabe, Jr. provides a noteworthy distinction between religion and entertainment: religion makes “a real change in one’s life,” while entertainment’s influence is only temporary. For more information on this issue, write: Nova Religio, University of California Press, 2000 Center St., #303. Berkeley, CA 94704–By Ayako Sairenji, a New Jersey-based writer and researcher.
03: Passing on the Faith (Fordham University Press, $22) edited by James L. Heft, S.M., deals with questions of youth and young adult religion through a broad interdisciplinary approach. The contributors use ethnographic case-study approaches, as well as survey and anecdotal accounts from religious leaders to flesh out the problems and promises of the “next generation.: The much cited findings from the National Youth Survey which found a “moral therapeutic deism” (meaning a large degree of indifference to religion except where it might help solve teens’ personal issues) are grappled with by most of the contributors.
The trend of being more spiritual than religious is prevalent, though there are important exceptions. American Muslim youth have retained both the communal and spiritual dimensions of the faith, while a survey shows that Jewish youth value the social over the spiritual components of their religion. The case studies show some success in turning indifference to interest and involvement. Ranging from liberal synagogues, mainline and evangelical congregations and mosques to such an international phenomenon as Taize, most stress spirituality with a strong emphasis on community and social involvement.
04: The recent book Religion and Politics in the International System Today, by Eric O. Hanson (Cambridge University Press, $26.99) proposes a new paradigm capable of understanding the interaction between the globalizations of the political, economic, military, and communication systems and the political role of religion at every level, from the very local to the global. Hanson’s point of departure is that the religious response to political situations depends on the level of political-religious interaction, the nature of the religion in question, and the form of interactions between the political and the religious realms…
The book analyzes the several ways in which religion and politics interact and how religious practices are relevant to political activity. The author sketches some of the ways in which the general types of religious experience, such as the doctrine and morality of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, or the meditative experiences of Buddhism and Hinduism, have developed different identity patterns and different kinds of relations with politics. Issues such as immigration, the rise of the religious right in the US, the educational difficulties related to religion in the European Union, and the challenges to secularism in the Middle East and Central Asia are only some of the topics covered.
The book is very well documented and provides a wealth of examples and data to support its claims.
— By Marisol Lopez-Menendez, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the New School for Social Research.
Believers on the rise in China
A study conducted by researchers in Shanghai on behalf of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China concludes that 31.4 percent of Chinese aged 16 and above describe themselves as believers, reports the Chinese magazine Oriental Outlook, quoted in Eglises d’Asie (Feb. 16). This figure is three times higher than the official one. The results are part of a study on contemporary cultural life in China, initiated in 2004. Interviews were conducted with a representative sample of 4,500 Chinese citizens. Regarding religion, they were only asked if they describe themselves as believers. No questions were asked about actual religious practice.
Traditional Chinese religions (i.e. Buddhism, Daoism, ancestors’ worship and folk beliefs) are mentioned by 66.1 percent of believers; 15.5 percent of the believers say they are Muslims, and 12 percent claim to be Christians. This would mean around 40 million Christians in China: about twice the number of Christians reported by officially recognized Churches, but less than the figures suggested in some evangelical circles in the West. The survey did not differentiate between different forms of Christianity.
In rural areas especially, more than one quarter of the respondents claim that they adhere to a religion because “it helps to cure sicknesses…prevent disasters, and ensures a peaceful life.“ But the scholars who conducted the research remark that, beside poor people, more and more educated Chinese are drawn to religion, as an answer to questions about their life in a rapidly changing society. Despite the fact that teaching religion to people below 18 is still not legal in China, the survey shows that 62 percent of the believers are found in the 16-39 age range.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
Eglises d’Asie, 128 rue du Bac, 75341 Paris Cedex 07, France –http://eglasie.mepasie.org
Dalit Buddhism expanding in India
A distinctive form of Buddhism is taking shape in India as a new wave of dalit or untouchables are embracing the religion, often en masse. The Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Spring) notes that since 1957, untouchables have been converting to Buddhism, representing a symbolic break from the caste system as much as devotion to their new religion.
Many followed dalit political activist Bhimrao Ambedkar, who taught a rational, social Buddhism shorn of much of its rituals and mysticism. Today the dalit Buddhist converts are spreading well beyond their traditional heartland in the state of Maharashtra as well as taking on more traditional trappings of the faith.
Dalit leaders are seeking to dispel the often well-justified suspicion that the move to Buddhism is often a route to social advancement and a way to publicly oppose Hinduism. Many are now taking up formal dharma practice, such as meditation. The number of new converts in recent years is unknown, though said to be near the “hundreds of thousands.”
But what may be more significant is the spread of “Ambedkarite Buddhism” to remote states and villages whose residents have never heard of Ambedkar. Many of the new converts are also leaders in their own dalit communities and therefore can spread the religion further. In the remote central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, converts have replaced the verses from the Hindu classic the Ramayana with their own epic: it uses the same form but this “Buddhayana” recounts the life of the Buddha.
(Tricycle, 92 Nandam St., New York, NY 10013)
Crypto-Catholics embrace the faith openly in Kosovo
Crypto-Christians in Kosovo have now started to practice their faith openly again after centuries of living double lives, reports Albert Ramaj, director of the Swiss-based Albanian Institute (http://www.albanisches-institut.ch) in the March issue of Glaube in der 2. Welt.
Similar to what happened to crypto-Jews in Portugal and Spain (who pretended to convert to Christianity at the time of Inquisition, while secretly keeping their Jewish faith), Christians in some parts of the Ottoman Empire converted officially to Islam, sometimes originally in order to evade taxes imposed upon non-Muslims. This was especially the case in some Albanian populated areas of the Balkans, where the existence of crypto-Christians was documented from the 17th century.
In some cases, they visited priests privately, being baptized secretly. The baptisms were then recorded in secret registries, since there was a real danger for Muslims receiving a Christian sacrament. Such baptisms still took place in the 1970s. Priests also used also to make secret visits to some villages where such people were known to live.
While a majority of people in Kosovo are nominally Muslims, and issues of Islamic identity of the country have been recently raised again in some circles, most people in Kosovo tend to be secularized and not very committed to religion. This may has contributed to recent changes among crypto-Christians. Some continue to live between Islam and Christianity, even visiting both mosque and church when there is a festival; they may be sometimes uncertain about where they stand, especially where mixed marriages have taken place. But a growing number of those crypto-Catholics are now coming out of the closet. In 2005 and 2006, groups in the Rugova and Drenica areas have openly declared their Christian faith and have built Catholic churches in their villages.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
(Glaube in der 2. Welt, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland)
Polish influx stemming Ireland’s secular tide?
Many observers view Ireland as becoming increasingly secular, but the large influx of Polish immigrants may slow or even reverse that process, according to sociologist Christie Davies. Writing in Chronicles magazine (March), Davies notes that both Britain and Ireland have experienced a large wave of Polish immigration in the last few years.
In Ireland, the number of Polish immigrants is approaching 400,000, roughly 10 percent of the population. The Polish Catholic presence is already significant, partly because Polish priests and seminarians have replaced the declining ranks of Irish clergy. Davies adds that “Even that most Hibernian of journals, the Irish Catholic, now has a Polish section, which takes up about one-third of its space. Soon there will inevitably be Polish bishops in Ireland. Davies writes that the Poles who are settling in Ireland are far more likely to retain their religious identity than did those earlier generations of Poles who went to Britain, France, or the United States.
“Because it is so easy to travel back and forth to Poland, the Poles now settling in Ireland can easily retain their Polish connections…This situation resembles that of Mexicans coming to the United States, who are able to retain their language, culture and Mexican identity because of the freedom with which they can cross the U.S. border.”
But it is still an open question as to how much Polish Catholic immigrants will influence their new country. The British Catholic magazine The Tablet (February 17) reports that the Polish hierarchy has encouraged their flock abroad to maintain a sense of separateness and resist assimilating to their new country‘s values, partly out of a fear that returning immigrants might bring Western influence back to Poland. While Polish church leaders have called on Poles abroad to find their own priests and parishes, British bishops have favored a more assimilationist approach– something that is already happening as Poles gravitate to non-Polish parishes for reasons of both convenience and conviction.
(Chronicles, 928 N. Main St., Rockford, IL 61103; The Tablet, 1 King Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ UK)
How many Catholics are there left in France?
Everybody agrees that Roman Catholicism has lost followers in France over the past decades, but how many? According to a survey published in the magazine Le Monde des Religions (January-February), only 51 percent of the French identify themselves as Catholics, with 8 percent of them going to church at least once a week and 9 percent more at least once a month 52 percent of self-identified Catholics never go to Mass, except for weddings or funerals. However, in another survey published by the weeklyLa Vie (March 1), 64 percent of the French say they are Catholics or “close” to Catholicism, while 27.6 percent answer that they have no religion.
What both surveys show is that, despite the erosion of belief, some level of attachment to traditional religious institutions remains. Seventy six percent of the Catholics in France express a positive opinion about the Church. But there is little doubt that the level of religious knowledge is low: only 33 percent of French Catholics know what Pentecost is; 58 percent believe in the resurrection of Christ, and no more than 37 percent accept the doctrine of the Trinity. This is unlikely to improve. Recently released statistics show that only 30 percent of French children between 8 and 12 attend catechism; in 1945, they were 90 percent, and the percentage still reached 45 percent in 1993 (Le Figaro, Feb. 12). On the other hand, 10,000 adults a year convert to Catholicism every year in France.
According to French political scientist Jean-Marie Donegani, the turning point took place in the 1950s. Those developments reflect a wider trend of subjectivism, liberalism and privatization, France being only the most secularized of Western societies. Even where there is still a link to the church, most people are not willing to let religion rule their daily lives. Donegani observes that the trend has an impact on all religions in European societies, including Islam (Le Monde, January 20).
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
Current Research: March 2007
01: Bishops are a determining factor in the vitality of Catholic dioceses, according to a diocese-by-diocese study of American Catholicism. The study, presented in Crisis magazine (February/March), rates the vitality of dioceses according to the criteria of increases in the number of active priests, ordinations, and adults received into the church. There is a clear geographical pattern among those found to be more or less vital on these measures.
The Northeast, especially New England, shows the weakest rates on these measures while the South, the region traditionally the most hostile to Catholicism, shows the highest (the diocese of Knoxville, Tenn. ranked first). Researchers Rodger Hunter-Hall and Steven Wagner found that size does matter–“there is an inverse relationship between the size of the diocese and the health of the diocese. As size increases, vitality decreases.”
The bishop was found to have a “great deal” of influence on the dioceses’ ranking. Those with bishops stressing evangelization and the role of the Holy Spirit in their work and are personally involved in in trying to draw new vocations to the priesthood and increasing the morale of priests ranked the highest. Bishops and dioceses at the top of the ranking also tend to use their web sites to provide positive information (rather than asking for money or highlighting the sex abuse crisis) on Catholicism and about finding one’s religious vocation.
(Crisis, 18141/2 N St., NW, Washington, DC 20036)
02: American Catholics have been uniquely mobile in moving upward in the wealth distribution, according to a recent study. The study, based on the 1979-2000 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, found that non-Hispanic Catholics between early and later adulthood were significantly more likely than the average respondent to move up in the wealth distribution, despite being raised in comparatively disadvantaged families. The CARA Report (Winter) cites the study, conducted by Lisa Keister of Duke University, as showing that 9.2 percent of Catholics and 13.7 percent of mainline Protestants had a fathers with a B.A., yet Catholics had a higher rate of wealth ownership (of about $180,000) than the Protestants ($159,000).
But when it comes to the direct influence of religious institutions and leadership on making financial decisions, the Catholics are relatively secular. The same issue of the CARA Report cites a Timemagazine poll showing that while 18 percent of Protestants say their pastor or religious leader has influence on their financial decisions, only 12 percent of Catholics make the same claim. Forty seven percent of Protestants say the Bible is a source of financial decision-making,, compared to 18 percent of Catholics.
03: Alumni of Catholic colleges and universities ranked their education and the values they learned from these institutions more highly than public university alumni, according to a recent survey. The survey was conducted by education researcher Jim Day among 2,000 alumni of Catholic, public, and other church-affiliated universities and colleges.
America magazine (February 19) cites the survey as showing that alumni of Catholic schools were considerably more likely than their public university counterparts to say they benefited from opportunities for spiritual development during their college years, experienced an integration of values and ethics in classroom discussions, and were helped to develop moral principles that can guide their actions. (America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)
04: One-third of American Protestant church attenders are uncertain that they will be attending the same church in the near future, according to a survey by Ellison Research. The survey of 1,184 adult Protestant churchgoers (attending at least once a month) found that two-thirds said they will definitely continue to attend the same church in the near future. Twenty-five percent said they “will probably” attend the same church, while seven percent said they may or may not do so; one percent were already making plans to leave their current church.
The average length of time adults have been attending church is 13.7 years, but that average is probably skewed due to a small number of people citing very high numbers–those attending for many years. Therefore, the more accurate of attendance may be the median figure of 6.6 years, which means that half of all churchgoers have been attending the same church for less time than this, and half for a greater length of time.
Among the denominations, Lutherans were more likely to have been attending their church for many years (12.5 years) compared to other churches (charismatics the least likely). But for Lutherans participation is also far less frequent than in other denominational groups. Among all Protestant churchgoers, 30 percent attend less than every week. But among Lutherans, 46 percent attend less than weekly.
Mounting financial scandal in American Catholicism?
The Catholic Church in the U.S. is facing another scandal soon after the priest sex abuse crisis as a growing number of clergy embezzlement cases are surfacing. Time magazine (February 26) reports that 85 percent of the 78 U.S. Catholic dioceses responding to a recent survey (from a total of 174 dioceses queried) reported embezzlement cases, with 11 percent having had scandals involving $500,000 or more.
The study, conducted by Charles Zech and Robert West of Villanova University, found that some of the cases did involve laypeople and that priests are often the whistle-blowers. But Zech argues that Catholics, unlike Protestant churches, have a “less transparent” financial apparatus that may encourage priests seeking personal enrichment from the collection basket.
One priest says that the sacrifice of family and sex may become a source of priestly entitlement, and that the low giving rates of Catholics may lead some priests to envy other clergy with more financial resources. There is also a changing dynamic in American parishes; in the past, the priest had a more comfortable lifestyle than his parishioners who were mainly working class; today it is the laity who are often middle or upper class while the priests feel a “nagging sense of diminished stature.”
As with the sex abuse crisis, only a handful of bishops and dioceses have cracked down on these scandals (such as trying to centralize parish bookkeeping), leaving the task mainly to the laity.
What’s new about the ‘New Atheism’?
In the last year both the religious and secular media have been widely reporting on the “new atheism,” which is expressed in three recent best-sellers: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. In his syndicated column in the Long Island Catholic (Feb. 28), neoconservative writer George Weigel argues that the new atheism is “angrier” and more political than the atheism of the past.
There is a clear anti-Bush rhetoric found in these atheists’ writings, particularly focusing on the administration’s ties to evangelicals. Weigel adds that there is also an intellectual disdain for religion and the religious training of young people; Dawkins’ argues that such early religious formation is a form of “child abuse.” Weigel writes that in the “early 19th century, it was thought that an atheist couldn’t be a gentleman; today, the atheists argue that religious conviction is for slobs and morons.”
But most of the characteristics of the new atheism cited by Weigel have been present among American atheists throughout their history in the U.S. In 1966, historian Sidney Warren wrote of atheist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries: “Freethinkers never doubted the correctness of their position, for they viewed history as a continuous struggle between the forces of light and darkness. They were, they felt, carrying the torch of reason in an otherwise religious world of bigotry and superstition.” In fact, what may be more recent among the new atheists is their loss of faith in the progressive triumph of secularism in the U.S.
This was borne out in a study conducted by RW‘s editor on secular humanists and atheists (written with Christopher Smith and to appear in the journal Sociology of Religion). In interviews with secular humanists and atheists in New York and Oklahoma, we found that many had lost faith in progressive secularism and have reluctantly accepted their minority status in a religious society. That doesn’t mean that secularism and atheism are not finding a hearing among Americans (shown in the best-selling books by Dawkins, Harris and Dennett) or even that the number of secularists have not received a modest boost in recent years (the surveys are unclear on this point.)
But it does mean that freethinkers (a term we used to refer to those calling themselves secular humanists or atheists) are pursuing new strategies to survive and grow in light of the failure of progressive secularism. One such strategy is creating a niche for themselves among the unchurched and “secular seekers.” The loss of certainty about the progress of secularism in American society among secular humanists may be driving them in the direction of seeking new forms of community and support.
There is increased competition and institution building among the various freethinker groups, with the secular humanists (defined by a positive agenda of ethics and human rights and identified with the Council on Secular Humanism) leading the way. Like religious seekers, we found that “secular seekers” tend to move through ranks of various secular groups in search of community and secular identity–from Unitarianism to humanism.
Another strategy is mimicking and adapting various aspects of evangelicalism, even as free thinkers target this movement as their main antagonist. Debates organized by freethinker groups usually include evangelicals. Activists argue that secularists need to adapt and apply the methods and savvy of the Christian right to their own mobilization efforts. Most importantly, evangelical Christianity and the rise of the Christian right has also provided an impetus for nominally, formally uncommitted secular people to become involved in secular humanist and atheist organizations. In our interviews we found that contact with and concern about individuals and issues associated with the religious right. was decisive in “nominal” secularists becoming active in secular humanist and atheist groups.
The final strategy is making use of minority discourse and identity politics. In the pages of the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry and in our interviews, we found frequent use of the language of identity politics and minority status. The call for atheists and secular humanists to engage in greater activism to protect their rights is often compared to the women’s rights and gay rights movements. It is fairly common to hear of declarations of atheist or secular humanist identity as an act of “coming out of the closet.” (See November, 2002 RW for more on this trend.)
Dawkins’ active support of the name “brights” for free thinkers was a self-described effort of consciousness-raising; replacing derogatory terms of the past with more positive ones is a frequent tactic of stigmatized minority groups. In conclusion, the anger, energy and new strategies of the new atheism may turn out to benefit secular humanists and atheists far more than the older and faded dream of building a secularist society.