In This Issue
- On/File: May 2004
- Findings & Footnotes: May 2004
- Hindu activism challenges Western scholarship
- ‘The Passion’ gains popularity among Middle East’s Muslims, Christians
- Moderate Muslim thinkers take new approach to modernity, Koran
- Converts to radical Islam a new concern in Europe
- Current Research: May 2004
- Unitarians in the vanguard of new polygamy?
- Praise music moves out of the churches
- Mormon origins face scientific challenge
- Alternatives to institutional religion find favor
01: Many monasteries and convents today have a website and engage in marketing for new recruits.
But not many are attempting to recruit new members over the Internet. The Adrian (Michigan) Dominican Sisters have made the Web a key component of a marketing campaign now in its third year, which also includes TV ads and billboards along highways in the area, with messages such as “Life’s short. Eternity isn’t.”
It seems to be working, since the Sisters have received thousands of phone calls and have seen a surge in attendance at religious retreats. The Adrian Dominican Sisters are a modern community, with members living in apartments and holding secular jobs beside their religious commitment.
The Sisters may reflect a more general trend. According to Sister Angela Ann Zukowski (professor at the University of Dayton), the Internet will become increasingly important for religious orders: she says that students interested in religious life are now looking at the websites of different orders in order to determine which might be attractive to them; this means that the way an order manages to present itself in cyberspace might become a very significant issue for its future.
Sister Zukowski thinks that marketing rules should apply to such websites as well, such as being user friendly, and having positive, interactive content.
(Source: Detroit News, April 17; The site’s address is:http://www.adriansisters.org)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer.
02: The electronic revolution does not only have an impact on Christian churches, but on other religions as well, such as Islam.
The Qatar government has launched a website for the payment of zakat, i.e. the mandatory donation for the poor which is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. The new website is intended for Muslims in Qatar as well as abroad, so that they can pay zakat without leaving their homes to visit the Zakat Fund offices or service points.
Any owner of a credit card can use the new service, available in Arabic and English. Secrecy will be respected, and the money distributed among those in need. Other donations can also be made through the same channel. This zakat payment system is part of an ambitious e-government project launched in Qatar.
(Source: Qatari e-Government portal: http://www.e.gov.qa; International Islamic News Agency, April 25, Midde East North Africa Financial Network)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
01: A good part of the April issue of the Journal of Democracy focuses on the democratic prospects of Christianity.
Although the contributors make it clear that today there is no inevitable link between a particular tradition and democratic culture, there are particular religious tendencies, movements and trends that move in that direction. Robert Woodberry and Timothy Shah suggest that historically Protestantism has been the most instrumental force in shaping democracy and economic development. Yet the Calvinist force driving such changes has weakened, replaced by newer movements, such as Pentecostalism, that may exert less disciplined force.
Daniel Philpott acknowledges that Catholicism was behind the “third wave” of democratization in much of the Third World and Eastern Europe. But the church finds itself in a new situation where it walks the tightrope between giving up political power while rallying its members to political causes. Lastly, Elizabeth Prodromou looks at Eastern Orthodoxy and notes that its encounter with American pluralism and democracy has implications for the church worldwide.
The growing internal diversity in these churches will also enhance the encounter with democracy, even if some do not follow the U.S. marketplace model of American pluralism (for instance, retaining state church status in Greece and Russia). For more information on this issue write: Journal of Democracy, 1101 15th St., NW, Suite 802, Washington, DC 20005.
02: Japanese Religions on the Internet, part of a project by Japanese Department of the University of Tübingen in Germany, provides a systematically categorized list of links to Japanese religions. The website (at http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/cyberreligion/) covers such traditional religions as Shintoism and Buddhism as well as New Age religions.
It provides links not only to the official sites of those religious traditions, but also to local and virtual religious organizations around the world. Readers can explore a Seventh-day Adventist church in Okinawa, a Shinto Shrine in the US and Scientology in Tokyo, as well as the official sites of such Japanese groups as Shingon-shu Buzannha and Oomoto. The site also includes an interesting study on the Internet sites of new religions (such as Shinnyoen, the GLA, and the Kofuku no Kagaku) by Birgit Staemmier, analyzing the relation between their use of the Internet and their methods of proselytizing.
— By Sairenji Ayako, a New Jersey-based freelance writer and researcher.
03: There have been few, if any, books on contemporary or even historical atheist and secularist movements in the U.S. Susan Jacoby’s new bookFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan Books, $27.50) does a good job on the historical dimensions of this phenomenon even if it leaves a lot to be desired in assessing its contemporary shape.
Jacoby traces the rise of figures and groups — not all necessarily atheist — holding to “freethought,” which is defined as taking a “rationalist approach to questions of earthly existence.” Under this tent, Jacoby includes Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll as well as dissenting Quakers and unaffiliated abolitionist and “secular Jewish” feminist rights activists of the 1960s.
Although touching on historic freethought institutions such as the Truth Seeker newspaper, Jacoby focuses on the intellectuals and activists; she admits that as a social movement freethought had lost its strength by the 1920s. She tends toward the view that there are many “closet” secularists in the U.S., particularly with the growth of the New Christian Right and its influence on the Bush administration. But by expanding the definition of secularists to also include those holding to a strict separation of church and state, the book misses the opportunity to examine the contours of America’s non-believing community.
04: Religion And Public Life In The Pacific Northwest (Alta Mira Press, $19.95), edited by Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk, is the first of an innovative series on religion and regionalism. The Pacific Northwest is known for its large unchurched population and much of the book reveals interesting aspects of this American anomaly — from the rise of a “secular spirituality” of environmentalism (a trend even impacting conservative Christians) to extensive religious consumerism and pluralism. But there has also been a growth of new and world religions (through immigration) as well as evangelicalism in the region, which complicates the picture.
A particularly interesting chapter looks at how mainline Protestants and Catholics are being outgrown by “entrepreneurial” evangelical churches that blend cultural relevance and traditional theology. Killen concludes that the two main clusters of public religion in the region are now represented by evangelicals and “spiritual environmental” groups are increasingly facing off on culture wars issues, such as euthanasia, gay rights and the environment.
A recent surge of Hindu activism is being felt in academia, with scholars facing protests and even violent threats over non-Hindus interpreting religious texts.
The Washington Post (April 10) reports that 19 years after a professor at Emory University used sexual imagery in writing on the story of Ganesha, the revered Hindu God with the head of an elephant, an Internet campaign was started by Hindu militants that included death threats. In January, Macalester College professor James W. Laine provoked similar violent outbursts over his book on Hindu king Shivaji.
One of Laine’s collaborators in India was assaulted, a mob destroyed rare manuscripts where Laine had done research, and the professor was even threatened with extradition and trial by the Indian government. Other academics writing about Hinduism have encountered similar hostility, often fueled by the view that only Hindus have the right to speak and write about the religion.
University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger, who has been at the center of these controversies and protests, says that the wave of protests is being fueled by Hindu nationalism (known as Hindutva), which charges that Hindus are denigrated by the West imposing a Eurocentric worldview on a culture they do not understand.
Others say that it is not so much Hidutva but just ordinary Hindus who are behind the new activism (though not the cases of violence and threats). They are borrowing a page from black civil rights activists and are claiming their own identity and history from what they see as a closed circle of American scholars who control the Hindu research and publishing field. But many Indian scholars have defended the American writers, saying these incidents are part of a larger pattern of attacks against scholars in India.
Although the plot runs counter to Islamic teachings, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ has become a box-office hit in the Arab world, reports the Christian Science Monitor (April 9).
Islam forbids the depiction of a prophet and the Koran denies the crucifixion ever occurred. The Passion has been banned in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, yet since being released on March 18, the film is posting record sales in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.
While the film is particularly popular among the Maronite Christians in Lebanon, both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East see in the movie’s depiction of Jesus’ agony their own hardships. Christians marginal identity in such countries as Syria and Lebanon and Islamic hostility toward Israel are both validated by images of Jesus suffering under the Jews, with Muslims identifying Israel’s recent attacks on Palestinian leaders as an example of such suffering.
Such sentiments have alarmed Israeli and other Jewish leaders who accuse Gibson of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.
While little attention is paid to them by Western media and intellectuals, there are many reformist thinkers in the world of Islam, writes Rachid Benzine in an article on “Islamic Modernity”, published in a special issue (April-May) of the French progressive magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, devoted to “The New Thinkers of Islam.”
Benzine cites such thinkers as Abdul Karim Soroush, Mohammed Arkoun, the late Fazlur Rahman, Amin al-Khuli, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayed, who all consider themselves fully Muslims, but are also well versed in secular academic disciplines (such as anthropology, history, linguistics). They do not want to reform Islam, Benzine emphasizes, but to develop a new way for Muslims of thinking about Islam in order to help an “Islamic modernity” emerge. According to Benzine, who has written a book on the subject and is the editor of a Muslim intellectual website, those thinkers represent the hopes of “many Muslims,” although no statistical evidence is provided.
One of the key elements in their approach is the attempt to put the Quran, the hadith and their interpretations in a historical context. According to them, this has been too often neglected by Islamic thinking. While they consider the Quran as a revelation, they acknowledge that it has been expressed in a human language, with its cultural and linguistical peculiarities.
According to Mohammed Arkoun, a retired professor from the Sorbonne University (Paris), in an interview published in the same issue, Quranic exegesis is currently being monopolized by “clerics” who are not trained in modern techniques of interpretation and threaten those who question their interpretations with excommunication.
What emerges from the contributions published in this 100- page long special issue is that the reality of Islamic thinking today might be much more diverse than most people usually think: both conservatives and modernists are actually engaged in new readings of Islam. Philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary suggests that there is a historical process at work, which may lead the world of Islam to democracy and modernity, although it might follow in paths different from those of the West.
However, Filali-Ansary adds that demographic pressure, poor economic circumstances and political failures won’t make this way an easy one.
(Le Nouvel Observateur, 43 rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris; – Benzine’s website, in French, at: http://www.etudes-musulmanes.com)
— By Jean Francois Mayer
Converts to Islam are being singled out by Al Qaeda as potential weapons in carrying out terrorism, reports the New Republic magazine (April 26).
Of the 212 individuals implicated in major terrorist attacks around the world since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 18 were converts. But now the use of native born (often women and light-skinned) converts for terrorist purposes in order to evade post-September 11 security has increased enough to worry European investigators. A French convert, David Courtailler, allegedly has ties to a suspect in the Madrid bombings and to a group assisting terrorists in Belgium.
According to French Islam expert Olivier Roy, a new breed of “protest converts” are emerging in Europe who embrace Islam “to stick it to their parents, [to] their principal. They convert in the same way people in the 1970s went to Bolivia or Vietnam [as part] of a very European tradition of identifying with a Third World cause.”
That does not mean that most of such converts turn to terrorism, but a few may be attracted to the anti-imperialist message of radical Islam. Such converts “want to show other Muslims their worth. They want to go further than anyone else. They are full of rage and they want to prove themselves,”according to French intelligence official.
Osama bin Laden’s now jailed chief of operations, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, regularly deployed Europeans to in order to elude post-September 11 roundups. In France, surveillance is focusing on radical converts, often young people, with family and adolescent problems.
01: In a nationwide survey on the spiritual life of students in various fields, it is those in the fine arts who have the greatest spiritual interest while sociology majors have the least.
The survey of 3,680 students, conducted by researchers at UCLA, found that 62 percent of fine arts majors rated high on “spiritual commitment,” compared to 52 percent of journalism majors, 44 percent of business majors, 43 percent of biology majors and computer science majors, 41 percent of political science majors and 37 percent of sociology majors.
It was found that fine arts and humanities majors were twice as likely to experience “spiritual distress” (over religious questions and doubts) and resulting psychological stress as business and computer science majors But students scoring high on measures of spiritual commitment were also found to be generally healthier, happier and earn higher grades.
02: American evangelicals prefer that the issue of gay marriage be outlawed through state laws rather than through a constitutional amendment, according to a new poll. The survey, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research among 1,610 evangelicals, found that 35 percent of them agreed with the Bush administration that a constitutional amendment is needed to outlaw gay marriages, while 57 percent said state laws alone should do the job.
03: A recent survey of Muslims find that they are more religious and politically active than in previous years, particularly since 9/11. The e-newsletter Sightings (April 12) reports that a survey of Detroit-area Muslims from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding finds mosque attendance has risen, with up to 54 percent claiming to worship weekly [no comparison figures are given, but U.S. mosque attendance has generally been reported to be between 10 to 20 percent].
Only eight percent favor hard-line (“Salafi”) approaches, while over 50 percent follow the “classical school,” and 38 percent favor a contextual approach which tries to make Islam compatible with modern times. Yet outside of the U.S., many of the respondents (no figures given) say Islamic law should play a greater role in Muslim countries. The younger Muslims tended to see their mosques as social centers as well as places of worship.
04: In a nationwide opinion poll, the majority of Russians, 57 percent, agree that faith plays an important role in their life, while 40 percent of respondents don’t think much about such matters.
The survey, conducted by ROMIR Monitoring, polled 1,600 Russian nationals in 107 cities and villages in mid March. Three percent of respondents said they attend church services every week (six percent once a month) while 53 percent do not to church at all. Another survey cited by the Russian Information Agency Novosti (April 12) asked 1,600 Russians in 40 regions on the eve of Easter whether they planned to celebrate that holiday.
The poll, conducted by Yury Levada’s Analytical Centre, found that 80 percent answered in the affirmative. Interestingly enough, 57 percent who described themselves as atheist and 31 percent as Muslim also planned to celebrate a Christian Easter (though most likely in their homes rather than in a church).
05: Ranked first in a recent religious profile of the Netherlands are those people without a religious affiliation: they made up 53 percent of the population in 1996, and there are estimates that, by 2010, two-thirds of the Dutch population between the ages of 20 and 71 will be without a religious affiliation.
Those are some of the figures reported by the Dutch bishops in a report they prepared during their recent five-yearly visit to the Vatican, reports Zenit News Agency (March 20).
Catholics and Protestants now make up similar percentages of the Dutch population: slightly more than 20 percent each. Challenges for the Catholic Church as well as for other religions are considerable. Since the young generation mostly has had no religious upbringing, they can “scarcely remember a religious mode of living,” the bishops reported. Those who are interested in religion are not inclined toward institutions and want “to remain in control” in their religious life as well.
Since the number of Roman Catholics in the Netherlands has decreased by more than 50,000 annually since 1995, it is not surprising that the number of baptisms, first communions, church weddings and even church funerals is also on the decrease. Regarding priests, the number of active ones have decreased by 30 percent over the past seven years.
There is also a drop in male and female religious orders as well as in the number of seminary students, while there is a slight increase in the number of deacons in training (who can be married). The only positive statistical development has been the increase in the number of Catholic immigrants. The decline in numbers has also financial consequences for the Church. While the bishops claim to see “signs of hope,” they also admit that the turning point has not yet been reached.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)
“From Boston to Berkeley Unitarian churches have opened another front in the liberal crusade to expand the definition of marriage and family in America.It’s the new polygamy,” writes Don Lattin in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 20).
At the forefront of the movement is the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness, which advocates the “philosophy and practice of loving or relating intimately to more than one other person at a time with honesty and integrity,” says Sally Amsbury, an official of the group. A spokesman for the 183,000-member Association of Unitarian Universalists, says the views of polyamorists are not necessarily endorsed by the denomination’s board of trustees.
Polyamorists themselves are divided over whether to push for formal recognition from the denomination and create their own ceremonies for partnerships, or to lobby for some of the same rights granted to heterosexual couples. “We’re where the gay rights movement was 30 years ago,” Amsbury said.
Some polyamorists are concerned that their cause will be used by opponents of same-sex marriage. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, says many Christians find polygamy even more sinful than homosexuality. Many of the students and faculty at Starr King see the polyamory movement as a threat to gay and lesbian couples. “In the Protestant denomination, the movement to accept same-sex couples was built on the idea that they, too, can have lifelong monogamous relationships,” Parker said.
Few polyamorous Unitarian Universalist ministers are “out of the closet,” since they fear it will threaten their chance of finding or keeping a job with a congregation. Jim Zacarias, interim minister at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, recently came out to his congregation as bisexual. “Some people in polyamory are bi, and some are homosexual, some are heterosexual. We are serving their needs,” said Barb Greve, a transgender person who is a program associate with the Association of Unitarian Universalists’ Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns in Boston.
Worship and praise music, which has replaced traditional hymns in many evangelical and charismatic churches, is finding a place in concerts and the recording world.
The New York Times (April) 17 reports that praise music, usually consisting of prayers and praises repeated to contemporary melodies, has become a booming business in the Christian music marketplace and through “worship gatherings” that draw crowds to sing along with worship leaders. Sales of praise and worship albums have doubled since 2000, to about 12 million in 2003.
The trend is viewed as a way that people dissatisfied with Christian rock and pop are searching for more depth and meaning in their music. Although praise music has been criticized by theologians for its “me-centered” approach to faith (most of the lyrics are phrased in the first person), the article adds that “praise music writers are asking deeper questions and turning to scripture.”
A recurring theme of a national participatory praise concert series known as Passion is the diminuation of the individual and the glory of God.
Recent scientific challenges to the Book of Mormon are reshaping the self-understanding and identity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, reports the independent Mormon magazine Sunstone (March).
Recent scientific DNA confirmations that the ancient Amerindian people are of Asian genetic origin has caused considerable controversy both inside and outside Mormonism. News of a challenge to the LDS teaching that Indian peoples of North, Central and South American continent are the lost tribes of Israel has “spread like wildfire among various Christian groups eager to win the souls of potentially disillusioned Latter-day Saints. More important, perhaps, is [that] the questions produced by these studies have also begun to reach Latter-day Saints in the pews.”
The article continues that “LDS scholars, particularly those in [the Mormon apologetic group] FARMS and BYU, have scrambled to educate lay Latter-day Saints on where Book of Mormon studies currently stand.” In the last 25 years, believing Book of Mormon theorists have increasingly moved to a “limited geography model,” where the references to events surrounding Amerindians in the text are reframed to mean they existed in a small locale in Mesoamerica rather than throughout North, Central and South America. Thus the actual Book of Mormon populations were much smaller than originally believed and through intermarriage with other Amerindians eventually lost their Middle Eastern genetic markers.
What is new is that the official church seems to be tactically endorsing the limited geography model and “its attendant implications for the identity of the Book of Mormon peoples.” Since Indian converts have been assigned a special place in the Mormon cosmology, the new findings have particularly alarmed these members. Brent Lee Metcalfe concludes that these findings may encourage doubts and even defections and that church apologists have an “arduous task ahead of them.”
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215)
They may be called “post-modern” churches or just gatherings and meetings without any ecclesiastical status, but there appears to be growing interest in alternatives to established congregational structures, including seeker and megachurches.
An article on the postmodern or “Gen-X” churches in the Christian newsweekly World (April 10) notes how they stress their differences from baby boomer-led megachurhes and their programmed, entertainment-based approach. The Gen-X churches have been around for almost a decade, but their emphasis on “authenticity” and community are now drawing large enough numbers to rival megachurches.
For instance, Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan has grown to more than 10,000 weekly attenders in five years. But unlike seeker churches, marketing to age groups is discouraged in these congregations, and the trend is toward smaller and medium-sized churches with more of a participatory style. There is also an interest in more liturgical forms of worship among some of these churches.
Charisma magazine (May) reports that a new breed of the postmodern churches have left behind many “churchly” trappings. What is called natural or organic church growth is driving a movement of churches known as Awakening Chapel to spread mainly through new believers reaching out to people in their circles of influence.
The movement of 400 churches in 16 states and 12 countries can be found in homes, coffee houses, beaches and as offshoots of 12-step groups. Most of the gatherings are small but quickly branch out to start other groups. Several other similar groups of churches have also been launched, including The Refuge in Salt Lake City, Big Fish in Mesa, Arizona, and The Fountain, east of Los Angeles.
A very different kind of alternative religious structure has been created by the “meetup” phenomenon. Sojourners magazine (April) reports that the founding of Meetup.com during the Howard Dean campaign allowed Internet users to link up and meet with like-minded people by plugging in their locations and topics of interest. “Besides grassroots political organizing, some of the most popular meetups are attended by disenfranchised religious (or irreligious) types.” Jesse Holcomb writes that Meetup.com (there are now similar sites, such as Friendster.com and Lycos.com) carries listings of ex-Mormons, shamanists, pagans, and atheists hoping to find comradery.
“Interestingly enough, there are comparatively few evangelical or Catholic listings on the Web site.” He adds that “Mainstream politics and mainstream religion both face the perennial tendency to become more institutionalized and inflexible. Consequently, indivudiuals who feel alienated from these spheres are finding other ways to interact and participate in public life.”
The immidiacy of these meetups “almost remind one of church. Participants know that while they meet, a similar group is gathering on the same day, at the same time, in hundreds of cities all over the world to share similar interests and experiences, a koinonia for folks on the fringe.”
(World, P.O. Box 2001, Asheville, NC 28802; Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746; Sojourners, 2401 15th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20009)