In This Issue
- Featured Story: Women rabbis in vanguard of new synagogue forms
- Tension (but not too much) ahead for Mormon viability?
- Imported and blended religions, spiritualities in Latin America find new currency
- Current Research: May 2015
- Exorcists wanted in the Catholic Church
- Hindu Nationalism’s gentler face finds recognition in Britain
- Atheism coming out of the closet in Arab societies
- Central Asia feeling impact of Indian Islamic revival movement
- Hindus, Sikhs feeling discrimination, consider exiting Afghanistan
- Findings & Footnotes: May 2015
- On/File: May 2015
Women rabbis are at the forefront of starting new synagogues, even if they don’t go by that name as they push at the boundaries of traditional Reform, Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism. These “indie synagogues” are known for their exuberant prayer styles and their success at attracting larger numbers of unaffiliated young Jews has gained the attention of more conventional Jewish leaders, writes Lauren Markoe in Religion News Service (April 8). Examples include the Kavana Cooperative, a Jewish prayer community in Seattle, Mishkan Chicago, and the Los Angeles-based Ikar congregation, which boasts an impressive 600 family units in membership. Women tend to be leaders of these unconventional congregations because they themselves are still seen as unconventional in Judaism and thus are more likely to push the envelope on accepted practices and traditions, Markoe adds.
These women rabbis tend to stress consensus building rather than top-down directives, something that fits in with feminist psychology as viewing women as eschewing a top-down leadership style, according to historian Hasia Diner of New York University. Unlike mainstream Jewish congregations, these independent groups tend to meet in rented or public spaces—from churches to city parks. Rabbi Rachel Brous of Ikar opts for no pews because they are an impediment to dancing during services. She cites the more emotional and bodily worship evident in Israel as her inspiration. One Conservative rabbi notes that many of these women have come from Conservative Jewish backgrounds, even if they are post-denominational.
“Too much tension with the surrounding culture invites scorn; too little threatens its uniqueness:” Such is the dilemma facing Mormonism after nearly two centuries of existence, writes Peggy Fletcher Stack in The Salt Lake Tribune (April 21), after talking with veteran Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss. The LDS Church cannot afford too much conflict with the wider society on issues such as gay rights or women’s roles, explains Mauss, but it must not dilute its positions for fear of losing appeal, and thus find “optimal tension.” Among internal issues of concerns, Mauss mentions the centralization and reorganization of LDS ecclesiastical experience since the 1960s, with a focus on “ideal U.S. members” in families, marginalizing other categories and imposing American practices on the LDS in other countries. Another issue is the pressure of managing a high number of converts by LDS missionaries for local, all-volunteer congregations, leading to a burnout effect among some local leaders.
The role and status of women will continue to be a contentious issue within and outside the Church. Due to the absence of an explicit doctrinal barrier, women’s ordination might start in this century, but it might have the unintended effect of decreasing the commitment of male leaders. The LDS Church will have to learn to deal better with doubtful members and make them welcome, whatever their degree of faith. Especially with the spread of hostile information on the Internet, the room left to a variety of interpretations and understandings will be a serious question. Other scholars interviewed by Stack add more challenges. For example, the rise of American individualism versus communal, hierarchical religions such as Mormonism or Roman Catholicism, or the consequences of the “coloring of the Church” (with Latinos losing their LDS faith not as a consequence of doctrinal issues, but due to a feeling that their specific needs are not addressed.)
A conference on new religious expressions in Mexico and the rest of Latin America in New York finds the growth of both syncretistic and transplanted faiths. RW attended the Columbia University conference in early April where Graciela Mochkofsky, a visiting scholar at New York University, presented the case of a rising new Judaism in Latin America. In last 15 years, she finds that impoverished Christian men and women without any Jewish ancestry have converted to Judaism in Latin America. These people, in almost all cases, were born in Roman Catholic homes, and joined evangelical or Pentecostal churches and then found Judaism. Even when they were still Christians, they learned Jewish laws and customs with the help of books and Internet. Later, they sought help from rabbis and organizations from America and Israel. During the past 20 years, several hundred Latin American converts have migrated en masse to Israel. She argues that this mass conversion, mostly made up of mestizos, may shed a new light on the questions of Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship.
Renĕe de la Torre Castellanos, an anthropology professor at CIESAS Occidente in Guadalajara, Mexico, presented a paper on Neomexicanismo, a spiritual-cultural movement based on the recovery of pre-Hispanic cultures. She explained that this New Age movement is represented by two overlapping groups: 1) Reginos, which combines a holistic interpretation of the New Age movement influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, with the recovery of Mexico’s indigenous tradition 2) The rainbow tribes, which are the environmentalist hippie circuit. She claims that New Age movement in Mexico has created a series of new expressions, networks and spiritual movements that are the results of an apparent fusion and hybridizing between New Age and religious folk, and ethnic traditions of Mexico.
Claudio Lomnitz, Columbia University professor of anthropology, dealt with the problems of communitarianism and religion in the drug wars in the state of Michoacăn. He argues that La Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar, two drug cartels, gained popular support by adopting hierarchical and familial structures when the local state no longer functioned properly and the family unit broke down. They became quasi-cults or religious groups, which protect local society and viewed themselves as members of a family that included local citizens. For example, local citizens canonized Nazario Moreno, the leader of the Knights Templar, as a saint. – By K.T. Chun, a New Jersey-based sociologist and writer.
01: Nations that are strongly religious are less innovative in science and technology, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Economists Roland Benabou, Davide Ticchi and Andrea Vindigni studied the relationship between religious populations and the rate of patent applications filed by a country’s residents. In both international and cross-state U.S. data, the researchers find a “robust negative relationship between religiosity and patents per capita,” reports the Wall Street Journal (April 24). Even when making adjustments for differences in gross domestic product, rates of higher education, population and other variables, this relationship held up. While Benabou, Ticchi and Vindigni do not make the strong claim that religion is directly causing the lack of scientific innovation, they note that the pattern is there and it is not due to religious countries being poorer or lacking few resources. The economists also looked at the relation of science development to church-state models, finding that the Western European model, with a declining role for religion, encourages more unimpeded scientific progress than those societies where a political class is strongly tied to religious leaders.
02: The proportion of Swiss who describe themselves as religious has decreased considerably over the past decade. Yet, more people than ever are curious about relatively new sects such as Scientology, according to a new survey. The poll of 1,000 Swiss residents conducted by WIN/Gallup International, and cited on the website SwissInfo (April 17), finds that only 38 percent of Swiss residents call themselves religious. Of those surveyed, 46 percent describe themselves as not religious, with 12 percent claiming atheism. Three years ago, the number of Swiss believers was 50 percent and was as high as 71 percent ten years ago. Young people in the 18-24 age group were the least religious, 26 percent, while those in the over-65 age group were the most, 55 percent.
The poll was part of global survey of almost 64,000 people, with Western Europe retaining its standing as one of the least religious regions with an average of only 51 percent of people acknowledging religious belief. On the other hand, the proportion of Swiss enquiring about new “sects” such as Scientology in 2014 increased by 21 percent compared to the year before, according to Infosekta, a Zurich-based consumer group that provides information about sects. This is the third consecutive year that the group has received an increasing number of requests for information about sects. Children and young adults make up a quarter of all callers. According to Infosekta, the reason for the rising interest in sects is due to greater awareness among the population about their existence and activities due to media coverage.
03: The challenges for religious groups in France regarding their places of worship differ by denomination—many little-used Catholic churches need to be renovated and maintained at great expense, while more recent participants in the French religious scene (e.g. Orthodox or Muslims) do not have enough places of worship. A report submitted in March by a commission of the French Senate provides an overview of the current situation of places of worship belonging to different religious organizations in the country, but also to understand the challenges, especially for local authorities dealing with expectations of faith groups. The 1905 French law of separation between church and state did not abolish a number of practical interactions between them. Out of 100,000 places of worship in France, 90,000 are Roman Catholic. Due to the legacy of decisions made at the time of church-state separation, 90 percent of Catholic places of worship are the property of municipalities (87 cathedrals are the property of the French State) and are made perpetually, exclusively and freely available for the use of Catholic worship, while those built or acquired after the 1905 separation are in private hands. This is also the case for 12 percent of Protestant places of worship and 3 percent of Jewish ones, but none of the Muslim ones. For instance, the city of Paris owns 96 places of worship: 85 Catholic churches, nine Protestant churches and two Jewish synagogues.
This presents a number of challenges for maintaining those buildings—10 percent are in urgent need of renovation, while 30 percent will require such interventions in the near future. Due to the decrease in religious practice, three-quarters of Catholic parish churches remain closed most of the year, except for occasional baptisms, weddings or funerals., Many of those churches are part of the French architectural patrimony and thus need to be preserved—a third of protected historical buildings in France are religious ones, and their share in cultural tourism in France is 44 percent. Moreover, they are part of the landscape of towns and villages, even for those who do not use them for religious purposes. In the case of Paris, the maintenance for places of worship that are city property costs 70 million euros a year.
Regarding Protestant groups, between 1.6 -2 million faithful, there are 4,000 places of worship in France. Of those, 1,400 serve either Reformed or Lutheran congregations while 2,600 are used by various evangelical churches. The evangelical churches have multiplied in recent decades, as there were less than 800 places of worship in France the 1970s. The main challenge regarding Protestant congregations is the creation of new places of worship for evangelical groups—one new local evangelical congregation is born in France every 10 days. They encounter frequent administrative hurdles for getting building permits. They raise funds on a private basis, often with 15-20 year loans. Regarding Jewish congregations, the current period is primarily one of stabilization, with key concerns of preservation, the architectural patrimony (especially in those locations where congregations are aging) and making synagogues and other Jewish places secure from threats of anti-Semitic attacks.
Regarding other religious traditions, Orthodox churches—around 500,000 faithful, have between 150 and 200 churches that are mostly funded by the faithful, but that is not sufficient. There are probably 1 million Buddhists in France with 380 places of worship, and the need is for more. Muslims are more numerous—between 2.5 and 5 million depending upon statistical sources, possibly 2 million practicing Muslims. They have nearly 2,500 places of worship, but most are small ones and many more would be needed. A majority of local mosques seem to be self-funded by their faithful: overall, the contributions from foreign (Muslim) states remain limited. While the French State cannot support religious groups financially, with some exceptions in specific territories for historical reasons, there are ways for local collectivities to provide indirect help (e.g. guaranteed bank loans for the building of a mosque) or to prevent administrative hurdles.
(The full report (206 pages) in French can be downloaded from the Senate website in PDF format: http://www.senat.fr/rap/r14-345/r14-3451.pdf)
A boom in the demand for exorcisms is one of the unexpected consequences of “Pope Francis effect,” Nick Squires reports in The Telegraph (April 13). Several other newspapers have reported on that trend, intrigued by a week-long exorcism conference that took place for the tenth time at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome. Pope Francis often talks about the Devil and has commended the work of exorcist priests. Apparently, this has contributed to a growing interest for exorcisms, along with some films, such as The Rite (2011). According to the article, several Italian dioceses have recently increased the number of exorcists. For example, the Diocese of Milan increased from five to 12. Half of the dioceses of England and Wales did not have an exorcist until a few years ago, however, most now do.
A new variant of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, is finding mainstream recognition in Britain, writes Edward Anderson in the journal Contemporary South Asia (Vol. 23, No.1). What Anderson calls “neo-Hindutva” is different from “orthodox” Hindu nationalism, represented by the Rashtiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in that the former is less tied to Hindu majoritarian politics and tends to propagate high-tech, virtual expressions of conservative Hinduism for a global following. The author traces this shift to two groups in England, the Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB) and the web- and protest-based group Hindu Human Rights (HHR). Both groups became more prominent after they led protests against a 2006 art exhibition in London by Indian Muslim artist M.F. Husain. Since then, the British government has recognized both groups as leading representatives of the Hindu community in its “increasingly faith-focused, multicultural ‘cohesion’ policies.”
The RSS and other Hindu nationalist groups in India and abroad are not known for their interfaith activities, and the British government avoids connections with them in fear of jeopardizing their multi-cultural policies just as they do with radical Islam. Because the HFB and HHR also tend to disassociate themselves from these more militant groups and support interfaith and ecumenical involvement, they are seen as more suitable partners for the government, Anderson writes. But more liberal Hindus in the UK particularly criticize the more activist HHR for its conservative “homogenized” (if globalized) Hinduism that often agitates—with its large Facebook following—perceived enemies to the religion, and still lead protests and boycotts against museums showing Husain’s allegedly anti-Hindu artworks. The HFB has also been active in criticizing and seeking a boycott against American Hindu scholar Wendy Doniger for her portrayal of Hinduism in her book The Hindus.
(Contemporary South Asia, http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ccsa20/current)
Although numbers are in dispute in their own societies, atheism among ex-Muslims is becoming increasingly organized and political, reports Ahmed Benchemsi in The New Republic magazine (April 23). In recent months there have been publicized cases of atheists facing stiff punishments for publicly espousing atheism in such Muslim countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Palestine [see July 2014 RW]. Benchemsi writes that the numbers of such secularists are greatly underestimated by political authorities, with one Egyptian poll counting exactly 2,293 atheists in all Arab countries. Just in searching for Arab atheists online he found 250 Facebook pages or groups; the number of undisclosed Muslims far exceeds that number judging by polls such as Gallup, which finds that 5 percent of Saudi citizens identify as atheists—roughly the same as in the U.S. The punishments of self-declared atheists remain severe, and Benchemsi argues that more privately held doubts and even unbelief tends to be tolerated in Arab society. The most recent case involved a 21-year-old Egyptian student named Karim Al Banna who was given a three-year sentence for insulting Islam after he declared himself an atheist on Facebook, with his own father testifying against him in court.
Secularist women face more difficulties and repression, as atheism is often associated with rebellion and immorality. Benchemsi cites the recent book Arabs without God, by Brian Whitaker, which finds that secularist growth stems more from personal doubt by Muslims rather than a reaction to extremism or terrorism. But he also links the Arab Spring to the public upsurge of atheism; even if it didn’t lead to widespread democratic reform in Arab nations, the protests energized and politicized the younger generations. Just as with Western atheist groups, there is the call for ex-Muslims to go public with their disbelief. The YouTube program The Black Ducks invites atheists from the Arab world to speak their minds, and has received hundreds of thousands of views. At the same time, there has been the growth of support networks for ex-Muslims in both the West and in Muslim nations since 2007.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has become fertile ground for Middle Eastern Islamic influences, but Muslim movements from the Indian subcontinent are also gaining inroads in this region, likely carrying its own geopolitical impact, writes Bayam Balci in the journal Religion, State and Society (Vol. 43, No. 1). For the past two decades, such countries as Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan have imported their own forms of Islam into Central Asia while the governments of its various countries created official Islamic organizations to control the religion and prevent extremism. Relative newcomers to the Islamic scene were Muslim groups from India and Pakistan—historically, the ties between Indian Islamic groups and Central Asia were very strong—the most notable being Jamat al Tabligh (JT). The movement is known for its strong pietism and missionary thrust, calling members to go door-to-door seeking recruits.
After 9/11, the JT gained some favor among Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kergyzstan, because it is staunchly apolitical and non-radical. Yet since then, JT has faced an uneven reception in Central Asia—quite common in Kazakhstan and Kergyzstan but often repressed in countries with a tight control of religious expression, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where it is completely absent. Balci notes that JT centers in India have become sites of pilgrimages for Central Asians. He concludes that Turkish and Arabic Islamic groups have appealed to Central Asian elites, while the JT reaches the poor masses. Yet in Kergyzstan last December, a JT leader was appointed as new mufti at the top of the religious establishment. JT’s “diffusion throughout Central Asia and its proselytism of young people, could in the coming years enable it to burst out of the circle of the marginalized and introduce itself to elites. Its current non-political state does not mean that it will never be politicized in the future, especially if the socio-economic conditions continue to deteriorate.”
(Religion, State, and Society, http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/crss20/current)
Many Hindus and Sikhs have left or are considering leaving Afghanistan due to increasing discrimination by the country’s religious majority, reports Hinduism Today (April/May/June). Hindu and Muslim residents estimate that the population has declined to about 7,000 from the approximately 200,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan before 1992. One issue in contention is the Hindu and Sikh custom of burning their dead, which many Afghanis sees as anti-Islamic. Attempts have been made to stop the practice by disrupting funerals, throwing stones and shouting insults. The magazine also reports that Hindu and Sikh children are subject to bullying in their schools.
(Hinduism Today, http://www.hinduismtoday.com)
01: There are a growing number of Muslim chaplains in the military in Western nations and, like their counterparts in the prison chaplaincy [see March RW], they tend to operate along the lines established by Christian churches in such ministries, writes Kristina Stoeckl and Olivier Roy in the current issue of the journal Religion, State, and Society. Much of this issue (Vol. 43, No. 1) is devoted to Muslim chaplains in the Western military, with case studies of the chaplaincies of Austria, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Spain. An article by Ines Michalowski is particularly informative as it compares Muslim chaplains in five nations: Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and the U.S. She finds that the market-based system of religion in the U.S. plays out favorably for the distribution of Muslim chaplains in the military. Somewhat unexpectedly given its public secularism, France has accommodated Muslim chaplains to a greater extent than in other sectors of society—such as schools, and more than in Germany where Islam is not yet recognized as an official partner for the state. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/crss20/current.
02: The current issue of the evangelical ChinaSource Quarterly (March) is devoted to the subjects of cults in China. While taking a “counter-cult” position themselves, the contributors acknowledge that evangelicals and any unregistered religious group are often viewed as just as “cultist” as more heterodox groups. An editorial suggests that Chinese evangelicals face both ways on the subject—disassociating them from the cult label while seeking to counteract groups that they themselves consider actual cults, such as Eastern Lightning, now known as Almighty God sect. To make matters more complicated, before the recent government crackdown on the Almighty God group, which was charged with a murder last year, it had been in the forefront of launching attacks against unregistered churches.
The issue includes articles on the unofficial house churches and the tendency to label them as cults, and an interesting account of the Almighty God movement. This secretive movement, which venerates a female Christ figure, started in rural areas. Then, as it expanded into urban areas in the 1990s, around the same time that Christianity was growing in cities, it adopted the strategy of trying to absorb an entire group into its organization. The movement is said to use “moles” to infiltrate churches and to recruit leaders of unofficial churches, thereby gaining control of these congregations. This issue is available at: http://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinasource-quarterlies/cults-in-china.
03: Following in the path of other American sociology studying urban changes in the last century, the new book Religion & Community in the New Urban America (Oxford University Press, $35), by Paul Numrich and Elfriede Wedam, draws on the case study of Chicago. Although, it makes the less common point that religion plays a significant role in shaping city environments. Numrich and Wedam conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of 15 Chicago congregations of several faiths, which shows how they are not just passive adapters to urban restructuring, but actually have a degree of agency and even a “city-building” dynamic that has often been ignored by urban planners and scholars. Numrich and Wedam categorize these congregations, consisting of Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim congregations of various ethnicities, on a continuum of weak to strong neighborhood impact.
Congregations that serve metropolitan areas, such as a megachurch and the Hindu temple, were found to have less urban impact than congregations that are more rooted in their neighborhoods. Although, their strong internal ties among members may have their own social effects. The latter congregations also tend to encourage common beliefs and “uniting rituals and internal norms.” The authors also find that although advocacy on social issues tends to have an impact on urban problems, there were several exceptions. Large “territorial claims,” as expressed in imposing structures, also did not necessarily lead to impact in urban life. Rather, urban impact more likely comes from the presence of local programs that address inequality and congregational memberships that show racial and ethnic diversity.
04: Strength for the Journey: Feminist Theology and Baptist Women Pastors (Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies, $20) by Judith Anne Bledsoe Bailey, provides an interesting if limited examination of an understudied group, the movement of ordained women associated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). For a little more than a decade, there were women pastors in the SBC, right up to the time that conservatives took control of the denomination and prohibited the practice in 1984. Even after that time, there was ordination of women among Baptists in the South. Although, they took place in state associations that had split off from the SBC, such as in Virginia or in the new “moderate” denominations or networks that had formed, namely the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Bailey interviews 20 women who were ordained either when they were in SBC churches or in congregations that had later split from the convention and attempts to trace the influence of feminist theology in their ministries. Bailey, a feminist theologian, is somewhat surprised to find that although the women were influenced by feminism in their educations and ministries, they are not strongly feminist in their theology; most do not use inclusive and feminine language for God in worship. More of the younger women wholeheartedly embraced feminist theology than the older ones (somewhat in contrast to the pattern in secular feminist groups). Bailey argues that the hesitancy of a segment of the interviewees to call themselves feminists is because Baptist women in the South are “often reluctant to own the benefits of the women’s movement and feminist theology. There is a tendency (among moderate and conservative women) to depend upon feminism while disallowing the feminist.”
05: It is difficult to run a brief review of such a huge publishing feat as represented by The Changing World Religion Map (Springer, $959), edited by Stanley D. Brunn. In its almost 4,000 pages and five volumes, the anthology covers almost every corner of the world. Many of the subjects are not related to formal geography, including other humanities and the social sciences, but the frameworks of place, space, mapping and human/nature interfaces are retained. Brunn notes that religion has long been an oddity in the academic discipline of geography. But with the rise of human and environmental geography in the last decade, it has changed somewhat and is addressing topics at the interface with religion such as globalization, environmentalism, tourism and social media. RW will be surely dipping into these volumes for background material for the near future, but the more geographical chapters that are especially noteworthy include: The Protestant ethic and its connection to ecological modernization, climate change and religion, atheism and the formation of secular space on the Internet (by Christopher Smith and Richard Cimino, RW’s editor), the growth of religious pilgrimages from across the religious spectrum, the relationship between religions and regional identity including a chapter on “A Geography of California Consciousness, Muslim space in suburbia, the geography of Christian hymns, the geographical patterns of gay ordinations, the geography of Jewish intermarriage, and a virtual geography of religion.
A Continuing Survey of New Groups, Movements, Events and People Impacting Religion
The Practice is an “experimental gathering” that began last year and takes place within Willow Creek, one of the premier megachurches in the U.S. Although Willow Creek was influential in the spread of seeker-sensitive services and “entertainment evangelism,” the new service, which is celebrated every Sunday evening, shows the growing evangelical interest in more historic forms of worship and spiritual disciplines that were once confined to the more liturgical churches. Started by Willow Creek worship leader Aaron Niequist, The Practice is reported to be an 18-month ecumenical experiment that helps participants learn the “rhythms of grace” in daily life through such practices as weekly eucharist, contemplative prayer and Sabbath observance. The group was recently led by a Jesuit priest in the Catholic practice of Ignatian spirituality, which involves visualizing the events of the gospel and immersing oneself in God’s dream for humanity. Niequist is also one of the authors of the New Liturgy, a series of recordings of liturgical music bridging contemporary and traditional sources. (Source: http://www.practicetribe.com/)