In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: May 2005
- Internet censorship targets Religion in China
- Extremist Islam’s growing hit list
- Religion and consumerism driving Russia’s revival?
- Current Research: May 2005
- From evangelicals to Hare Krishna: Praise for the pope
- Continuity with hints of change — a look ahead at Benedict XVI’s papacy
- On/File: March 2005
01: The May issue of Harper’s magazine devotes several articles to the Christian right, portraying the movement in clearly alarmist tones.
Lewis Lapham’s ediorial is written in the style of the secularist jeremiads issued by H.L. Mencken, as he expresses astonishment that the “problem of religious belief” and “superstition” have returned, this time in the form of “dominionists.” The “dominionist” label has recently become popular among critics of the religious right and is taken to mean those who are seek to take over the U.S. and make it a Christian nation run according to the Bible.
In a report on the National Religious Broadcasters, writer Chris Hedges notes that dominionists are a broad coalition of fundamentalists, conservative charismatics, Catholics, and other evangelicals who have gained political power (and have their base in Orange Country, Calif., and Colorado Springs). There is little acknowledgement that “dominionism is actually a minority movement among evangelicals that is influential mainly among its more politicized leaders.
Another article by Jeff Sharlet focuses on “America’s most powerful megachurch,” the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. More than the others, Sharlet’s article is based on in-depth reporting, as he notes how free-market fervor, “ex-urban” angst and “spiritual warfare” concepts have shaped this charismatic church (which he repeatedly calls “fundamentalist”). The church’s pastor, Ted Haggard, also president of the National Association of Evangelicals, may be influential, but Sharlet provides little evidence that New Life Church is in the mainstream of evangelical or fundamentalist church life, aside from its use of cell groups, contemporary music, and “family values” language.
This issue of Harper’s may well demonstrate the growing anger and suspicion towards Christian right among a segment of liberal intellectuals, but it fails to provide a very convincing portrait of this complex and diverse movement.
02: Will Herberg’s classic book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which 50 years ago laid the groundwork for the idea of the triple melting pot of the three major American faiths, is commemorated and discussed in relation to current trends in the winter issue of the U.S. Catholic Historian.
Herberg argued that Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism functioned as agents of assimilation for immigrants, making religion rather than ethnicity the main bearer of identity for Americans. The easiest task for the contributors to this issue is in using their hindsight to account for Herberg’s shortcomings: non-Europeans, evangelicals, women, and black churches are largely absent from the book, and there are few hints of the ethnic and religious pluralism–both within and between religions– that would grip the country two decades later.
An article by sociologist John Schmalzbauer is especially noteworthy in showing how Herberg got it wrong in predicting the decline of such “sects” as the Pentecostals, as well as in his view that the “American way of life” would be the uniting force between religions. Rather, it is “family values” and culture war issues that have brought many Jews, Catholics and Protestants together.
Schmalzbauer does credit Herberg for showing how particular religious identities are lost during assimilation and the importance of forming subcultures in understanding how religions endure.
The issue costs $9 and is available from: U.S. Catholic Historian, P.O. Box 16229, Baltimore, MD 21210
03: While there have been several books on homosexuality and theology and the many divisions over this issue in congregations and denominations, Gay Religion (Alta Mira Press, $28.95), uniquely gathers together a broad range of articles and essays on gay religious groups and practices.
Editors Scott Thumma and Edward Gray note that gay religious expressions mirror the flexible structures and individualistic nature of American religion. The book is divided into three parts: homosexual religious groups that minister within the confines of denominational heritage; those “subaltern” religious communities and groups that privilege gay identity over preexisting religious tradition, seeking a spirituality that flows from gay experiences and lifestyles; and popular cultural expressions that express individual or shared spiritual expressions.
There seems to be a blurring of the lines between these various categories. For instance, it is not unusual for the denominational groups to reinterpret their respective traditions (in use of language, worship styles) in often unorthodox directions, even apart from sexual and gender issues; for instance, the Catholic gay group Dignity includes non-Catholics in leadership positions.
Another characteristic of the denominational groups is that they are sometimes temporary way stations for gays leaving their religions or switching to another denomination. A study of an independent gay synagogue finds that many members eventually leave after acquiring a gay identity and dealing with crisis situations and move on to mainstream or even Orthodox synagogues.
Some of the chapters do not pretend to be disinterested and readers may object to their bias, yet there are many noteworthy contributions, including: an examination of the gender conflicts in gay churches (with the makeup of congregations often determined by the gender of the leadership); a look at how gays often have a prominent role in syncretistic Santeria, while they have had little visible role in developing their own spiritual practices in Buddhist groups in the U,S; a study of the gay male devotion to Catholic St. Gerard Maiella; and how the various gay subcultures (i.e., those frequenting leather bars) derive a “spirituality” from their lifestyles.
04: Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Umma (Columbia University Press, $29.50), by French Islamic expert Olivier Roy, examines the way contemporary Muslims are looking beyond the secular nation-state and their own traditional cultures to find a more radicalized Islamic community.
Roy sees Islamism–the attempt to create a Muslim state–as a failed enterprise and even views forecasts of the growth of powerful Islamic communities in Europe and in other Western countries with a skeptical eye. This is because Muslims in the West are undergoing the same trends as their non-Islamic neighbors–slowing birth rates, individualism and the general loss of traditional ties.
But it is the loss of these ties that ironically feed neofundamentalist Islam, leading younger Muslims to seek a “virtual” and global “umma” or religious community shorn of national customs and traditions. Roy makes an interesting comparison between Muslim neofundamentalists and those in New Age, Sufi and Christian movements in their common distrust of external religious authority and elevation of personal experience. A concluding section of Islamic extremism and terrorism looks at the way the second generation of Al Queda is drawn largely from converts and disaffected Muslims living in the West.
05: On first impression, a reader may place Remaking Muslim Politics(Princeton University Press, $19.95), edited by Robert W. Hefner, on the mounting stack of high-minded books demanding liberal and Western-based reforms in Islam.
Yet the book is unique in that it provides actual case studies from around the world showing how many Muslims are changing their political strategies and related theological positions to deal constructively with pluralism and democracy. The book, a product of a Boston University initiative on Islam, pluralism and democracy, carries contributions on Islamic political movements in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt and how they point to a “civic-pluralist reformation of Muslim politics.”
In the introduction, Hefner notes how many of these reform movements start out as non-political–such as offering education and social services or making their presence known largely through burgeoning Internet sites (to which a chapter is devoted). But gradually they take on a public nature, possibly conflicting with militants in leadership, but also building coalitions across state/society lines– a trend most visible in Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
A concluding chapter on transnational Islam by political scientist Peter Mandaville, does an interesting job of profiling the various globalized Muslim groups and networks–from the extremists and jihaddists, such as Hizb u-Tahrir, to “cosmopolitans,” including the Turkish Fetullah Gulen. Mandeville concludes that the radical transnational groups are far fewer than the moderates, even if the former gets more publicity.
06: With two volumes, more than 1,200 pages, and an array of scholars, one understands why the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (Brill, $289), edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, took a lot of work and several years to complete.
Contributors come from various countries, which results in a good balance between information on American-based and European-based currents. While the approach is historical and articles cover about two millenia (including ancient gnosis), a number of entries also deal with recent and still existing movements.
Beyond the wealth of information prepared by qualified scholars, these two volumes can also be seen as an indication of a growing interest in the study of esotericism as a legitimate field of academic research. As Hanegraaf writes in the introduction, “due to ingrained ideological biases,” this field had been severely neglected “until far into the 20th century.”
Hanegraad himself is the head of a chair for the study of Western esotericism which was established in 1999 at the University of Amsterdam (http://www.amsterdamhermetica.com) with a complete subdepartment and teaching program.
Such impulses also contribute to the growing presence of scholars specializing in research on esotericism at international conferences of religious studies.
— By Jean-François Mayer
Popular Internet portals in China were flooded with comments and prayers about the pope on the day his death was announced, but they all had disappeared two days later, reports AFP (April 4).
The companies running the website confirmed the censorship, enforced through the use of sophisticated technology, claiming that “religious issues are special” and potential problems related to them should be prevented.
Coincidentally, a report on Internet filtering in China in 2004-2005 was released on April 14. The result of a collaborative partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School, and the University of Cambridge, the issue appears to be a complex one, since China’s filtering regime is reported to be conducted at various control points, in contrast with the practice of other countries attempting to filter Internet content. The researchers tested e-mail filtering on sensitive topics, including religious persecution.
According to the results, filtering takes place, but is not consistent across different service providers. Religious persecution (which would include arrests of Tibetan monks or Falun Gong followers) is only one of the issues which Chinese Internet managers attempt to censure. According to the researchers, “China makes a systematic, comprehensive, and frequently successful effort to limit the ability of its citizens to access and to post online content the state considers sensitive.”
What is especially of concern to them is the increased sophistication of Chinese Internet filtering, considering that China will soon become the country with the most Internet users in the world. With the most extensive and sophisticated Internet control system in the world, the researchers think that China’s efforts might become a model for other countries attempting to filter Internet content – for political or religious reasons.
(OpenNet Initiative: http://www.opennetinitiative.net)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
The trajectory of radical, “jihadist” Islamic groups indicates that they will increasingly target wider categories of groups, including Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, perhaps limiting their appeal in the Muslim world, writes Quintan Wiktorowicz in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (March).
The radicals belong to one segment of the Salafi or Wahabbi movement in Islam, which stresses returning to a purified Islam but is divided on the use of violence to achieve its aims. Both the jihadists and those taking a non-violent position in the movement use the same texts and teachings, but the former camp has developed new understandings about how such principles as “defense against agression,” and “civilians” are operative in the contemporary period.
The most well-known division among Salafis is over the use of the term jihad (or “struggle”), with the extremists, such as those associated with Al Queda, going well beyond the traditional understanding that battle with non-Muslims is only pemitted as a defense against an outside force invading Muslim territory.
Wiktorowicz writes that even by the late-1990s, the extremists agreed with the non-violent Salafis that violence should never be used against fellow Muslims, though they had little problems with killing non-Muslim non-combatants. By September 11, even that prohibtion was dropped, as jihadists argued that any one who cooperated with a non-Muslim enemy (the U.S. in this case) should be targeted since they are technically no longer non-combatants.
The extremists have continued to broaden their use of violence since 9/11, as can be seen in recent attacks against the Shi’ite Muslim communities of Pakistan. Wiktorowicz concludes that “More attacks might also be expected against others in the Sunni community, in addition to state officials and government personnel…In the end, this may erode popular support for Al Queda, as increased violence did to [radical groups] in Algeria, but in the meantime, more groups of people will likely find themselves on the jihadi list of legitimate targets.”
(Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 1200 South Hayes, Arlington, VA 22202-5050)
While religious consumerism is a global force, the mixing of religion organizations and practices with economic goods and services is no metaphor in Russia. In the journal Religion, State and Society (March), anthropologist Melissa L. Caldwell writes that religion has been divorced from spirituality in an unusual way in Russia; it is not only that seekers have ventured outside religious institutions but also that many value both traditional churches and new religious movements more for their material and practical benefits than for their spiritual beliefs and practices.
Caldwell studied churches and new religious groups in Moscow, particularly focusing on an English-speaking international church. The Russian members of this church rarely expressed direct professions of personal faith, and instead focus on the material assistance they received by attending. In contrast, the African members spoke openly of their personal spiritual journeys as the reason for attending.
Caldwell finds similar utilitarian motives–ranging from desiring to learn a new language and finding job contacts to seeking practical advice on relationships and family matters or just getting food–among those attending a Hare Krishna temples, Orthodox churches and patronizing the growing numbers of healers.
Members of one church may also seek the benefits and services of other congregations, even if they are from other denominations. Caldwell also found Orthodox clergy and followers who are publicly participating in and offering alternative healing practices (although she is not certain of the extent of such involvement throughout the country), illustrating how “religion may be transformed into a service or commodity.” Such pragmatic factors should not be ignored in seeking to explain Russia’s religious revival, Caldwell concludes.
(Religion, State & Society, Keston Institute, 38 St. Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1BN UK)
01: Faculty at religious colleges are sharply divided between those pressing for the integration of faith and learning and “separatists” who are against bringing faith perspectives into the classroom and the curriculum, according to a new study.
The study, in the March issue of Sociology of Religion, is based on a survey of 1,902 faculty respondents at Baylor University, Boston College, Brigham Young University, Georgetown College, the University of Notre Dame, and Samford University The integration of faith and learning has become a key concern at many religiously sponsored colleges and universities, as administrators have sought to revive a religious identity and stem secularization in such institutions.
It was found that 48.5 percent of the faculty supported the systematic inclusion of faith in all types of curriculum (religion, the life and natural sciences, sociology, and psychology) while 36 percent rejected all of the possible types of integration. Only 285 faculty chose positions between these two extremes.
The researchers, headed by Larry Lyon of Baylor University, had assumed that the faculty would take positions between the two end points and that responses would “skew away from the integrationist end of the curriculum. We were wrong.” Those taking an integrationist position are more likely to be in liberal arts colleges and be males, full professors, and share a denominational affiliation with their current institution. The separatist camp is more likely to be at research universities associated with the Catholic or Baptist denominations, and consist of females, part-time faculty and those from outside the institutions’ denominational affiliation.
The researchers add that their most controversial finding concerns the importance of the match between denominational affiliation of the faculty and that of their institution. For example, a male, full-time professor at Boston College who is Catholic has a one-in-three chance of being in the separatist camp. However, a male, full professor at Boston College who is not a Catholic has a slightly more than one-in-two probability of being in the separatist camp. “There may be many sound reasons to hire faculty outside of the denominational ties of the school…but engendering support for a core curriculum that integrates faith and learning is not likely to be among them,” the researchers conclude
02: While madrasas, Pakistan’s Islamic schools, are often viewed by Westerners as incubators of terrorism, teaching extremist Islam to more than 1.5 million students, recent studies suggest they do not have a very far reach in the country.
A recent World Bank report suggests that the above number is highly exaggerated. Using four Pakistani government national surveys and one funded by the World Bank, researchers found that only about 0.7 percent of all school-enrolled children between the age of five and 19 matriculate in madrasas, and that the total number of such students is not much higher than 200,000.
Foreign Policy magazine (May/June) reports that it may be the Pakistani public schools that are the most influential in teaching extremism. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization, found that the public school curriculum for many secular subjects, such as Urdu and social studies, is suffused with extremist Islamic teachings. President General Pervez Mausharaf’s public promise to require every religious school to adopt the public school curriculum may only make matters worse.
(Foreign Policy, 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036)
Few events in recent years have demonstrated as strongly the lasting impact of religion in a supposedly secularized world as the passing away of Pope John Paul II. Every news channel and print media devoted extensive coverage to the event as well as to the election of Benedict XVI. The events affecting the Roman Catholic Church in April have also revealed how much has changed over the recent decades in the field of interfaith relations.
The harshest criticism of the late pope probably had come from American Catholics, while evangelicals expressed a much more positive assessment, observed Ted Olsen on Christianity Today‘s website (April 5, 2005). Olsen quoted a poll of evangelicals conducted by PBS’sReligion and Ethics Newsweekly, which revealed that a higher percentage among evangelicals expressed warm feelings toward John Paul II than toward Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.
John Paul’s championship of pro-life and pro-family stances especially impressed Evangelicals. Several obituaries in Evangelical media described him as an ally against the forces of secularism and theological liberalism. Praise for the late pope came from an even more unexpected corner. According to ISKCON inside sources, some Krishna devotees around the world paid visits to Roman Catholic churches in order to pay hommage to the deceased pope. ISKCON sent a letter of condolence (posted onIskcon.com), describing the passing of John Paul II as a great loss “to all people of faith”. As with the evangelicals, ISKCON representatives praised the Pope’s defence of “the dignity and sanctity of human life.” ISKCON also appreciated John Paul’s call “for dialogue between faiths.”
Although it has been little noticed by outsiders, in 2004 the Oxford-based ISKCON Interfaith Commission published its first document (authorized by the group’s Executive Committee) on interfaith relations. The document recognizes that “no one religion holds a monopoly on truth” and encourages ISKCON’s members to respect “people of faith from other traditions”.
It emphasizes that it is not meant to deny ISKCON’s missionary spirit: but it says that ISKCON’s missionary activities are “not governed by an exclusivist conversion model.” The document also contains guidelines for ISKCON’s members on such issues and responses from people of other faiths.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
The popular wisdom surrounding the election of Pope Benedict XVI is that it is too early to speculate much about his papacy.
Even the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s recent record as the gatekeeper of church doctrine may not mean as much in his broader and more pastoral role as the universal shepherd of the world’s Catholics. Nevetheless, observers note that Benedict’s papacy will likely be marked by both continuity and change. At a recent symposium on the Benedict papacy and its significance for Germany at New York University attended by RW, participants were mainly positive about the cultural significance of the election.
Hubert Kohl, Germany’s cultural minister to the U.S., said the election will help the nation’s image abroad, showing non-Germans that a “conservative intellectual can come from Germany.” He added that Benedict’s leadership style may reflect Bavarian Catholicism: “tough on principles but more flexible in practice.”
But Peter Steinfels, religion writer for the New York Times, added that Benedict’s theological writings are heavily German, often carrying few non-German references, and are preoccupied with ideas to the exclusion of first hand experience, perhaps hampering a down-to-earth approach in his papacy. Steinfels noted that the name the new pope took can be read in several ways. Benedict, taken from the founder of the monastic order, can mean hospitality, or it could refer to the role of the saint in fending off the dark ages by creating islands of Christianity .
The former Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings and interviews have stressed the creation and maintenance of small groups as remnants of Christianity in secularized societies. Steinfels noted that other writings have stressed the mystical and communal nature of the church and are critical of its bureaucratic dimension. Britain’s The Tablet magazine (April 23) forecasts that it will be the problems stemming from the curial bureaucracy that Benedict will first address. He has indicated, quietly, that “some form of decentralization of authority must be taken for the future good,” writes Robert Mickens.
Because Pope John Paul II left a number of top Vatican officials in their post well past retirement age, “Benedict XVI will have a much greater freedom in replacing these officials without having to resort to power politics and causing dissent in the Roman curia.” The choices made in replacing the Vatican Secretary of State and the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be an “important signal of the way the new pope chooses to exercise his ministry.”
Back at the NYU symposium, Steinfels said that another indicator of the direction of Benedict’s papacy will be next fall’s World Synod of Bishops (far more than the much publicized World Youth Day). “If he revises procedures [to allow] for more open discussions, rather than restricting [them], that would be a good sign of a `listening papacy.'”
Another speaker, New School sociologist Jose Casanova, added that a sign of Benedict’s commitment to giving greater freedom to the world’s bishops and their national and regional conferences may also be seen if Latin American bishops are permitted to hold their 1996 gathering in Latin America rather than in Rome.
Meanwhile, Benedict’s commitment to battling secularism in Europe–evident long before he became pope– was clearly on display in the Vatican’s tough response to Spain same-sex marriage bill. The Wall Street Journal (April 28) reports that the bill, which would allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children, was met with a Vatican rebuke and an unusual call for civil servants to resist implementing the measure through civil disobedience.
The article adds that the “response surprised many church observers, who wonder if this marks the beginning of a more aggressive response to creeping secularism, which Pope Benedict has described as one of the greatest evils facing Europe.”
01: Awe-Inspiring Experiences is a group based at the University of California that seeks to study phenomena relating to wonder, transcendence and the feeling of oneness with the world.
Awe-inspiring experiences can include the mystical state of oneness or being part of one community or any other events or episodes leading to “changes in consciousness.” The three-year-old program holds two annual conferences and various workshops. The group seems to be largely concerned with the social and community impact of these experiences.
Susanne Lohmann, co-director of the group, says that understanding these experiences, particularly those that break down the “illusion” of separation between people and encourage altruistic personal relations, might counteract the thinking that leads to conflict and war.
(Source: Science & Theology News, April)
02: The Committee on Spirituality, Values, and Global Concerns is an official organization at the United Nations seeking to make spirituality the driving force in global governance.
The group emerged from a “Values Caucus” at the UN back in the early 1990s that sought to treat global issues within a context of underlying ethics and values. In its attempt to incorporate spirituality “into all areas of the United Nations agenda,” the CSVGC plans to lobby at international conferences, hold talks on the spiritual dimensions of global public policy, and explore the creation of permanent spiritual council at the UN.
Already, subcommitees on Spirituality and Science and Spirituality and Business are in the process of formation. The CSVGC and its predecessor draw on the “new paradigm” spirituality of philosopher Ken Wilbur stressing holistic and Eastern teachings.
(Source: What is Enlightenment? March-May).
03: The Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty was launched by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in late March to disseminate the stance of the Catholic church against the death penalty among members.
According to a study on American Catholic beliefs on the death penalty, included on the official campaign website, more Catholics today are inclined to take an anti-death penalty position, even among those who were originally for the measure. This tendency is particularly noticeable among Catholics who attend Mass more frequently and among younger age groups, especially those who study at Catholic colleges.
The campaign calls on Catholics to pray for all those involved in crimes, regardless of whether they are perpetrators or victims; learn more about Catholic teachings and policies in criminal justice at the federal and local levels; and work with politicians on anti-death penalty initiatives.
— By Ayako Sarienji, a New Jersey-based freelance writer and researcher.
04: Japan always surprises foreigners with its mixture of modernity and tradition. At the Tanegashima Space Center, a Shinto priest in full regalia performs purification rites to ward off disaster each time a rocket is launched. Those rituals have been celebrated for the past 20 years.
In order to write appropriate Shinto prayers, priest Kenji Matsubara had to acquaint himself with rocket science. Some prayers are specific for items which have to fulfill their own role. A prayer he wrote for the (successful) launch of a telecommunication satellite reads: “May the satellite send radio waves accurately so data communication does not cease.” A number of space program staff attend the prayers.
(Source: Asahi Shimbun, April 5)
— By Jean-François Mayer