In This Issue
- On/File: October 2003
- Findings & Footnotes: October 2003
- Militant Islam taking root in Syria?
- Current Research: October 2003
- Black Muslims facing identity crisis
- Low-key approach draws Catholic young adults
- Christian colleges’ countercultural appeal
- Converts clash with ethnic Orthodox parishes
01: In accounts of prominent political conservatives who have recently converted to Roman Catholicism, the name of Fr. C. John McCloskey often makes an appearance.
McCloskey, director of the Washington, D.C. archdiocese Catholic Information Center, is an Opus Dei priest who has been instrumental in the conversions of such figures on the right as failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, “Crossfire” co-host Robert Novak, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, economist Larry Kudlow and pro-lifer Bernard Nathanson.
McCloskey’s success in tutoring prospective converts may lie in his staunchly orthodox doctrinal approach along with his openness to free-market conservatism. McCloskey’s connections and proximity to Washington’s media elite has made him the “go-to” cleric for producers seeking an orthodox take on such issues as the church’s sex abuse crisis.
(Source: National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 5)
02: Off The Map is one of a number of new outreach efforts that soft sells evangelical Christianity by emphasizing dialogue over debate and confrontation.
The ministry seeks to help Christians connect with non-Christians through its downplaying of preaching and direct conversion. The ministry leads conferences to train evangelicals how not to engage in evangelism, using video clips of interviews with non-Christians who explain the insensitivity and hypocrisy they encounter among evangelicals. This approach may view feeding the hungry as a way of preaching the evangelical gospel — a position many evangelicals view as diluting and de-emphasizing the doctrinal content of the faith.
(Source: Dallas Morning News, Sept. 13)
03: The recent formation of the Church of Craft is another example of a “free religion” that syncretizes art and spirituality and creates new faiths on an ad hoc and often non-dogmatic basis [see May RW for more on this trend].
As its name implies, the church is based on the practice of arts and crafts, viewing creativity and self-expression as a form of spirituality. The church, started about three years ago, now has branches in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Montreal and Stockholm, among other cities.
Like other free religions, founders of the group started conducting weddings and other rituals as performance art but then realized that they raised questions of spiritual meaning for participants. The group has few of the trappings of traditional religions, such as prayer and sermons, but its meetings, often held on Sundays, create a sense of community and the art and craft work is seen as a “non-denominational spiritual practice.” The church is seeking legal recognition to clarify their tax status as an official church.
(Source: New York Times, Sept. 20; Church of Craft’s website is: http://www.churchofcraft.org)
04: Revolve is a new kind of Bible as it is packaged as a glossy magazine aimed at girls aged 12-17.
Mimicking a teen pop-culture magazine, Revolve is published by the youth division of the evangelical Nashville-based Thomas Nelson publishers. The biblical text (from the New Century Version–known as an “easy reading” translation) is surrounded by color photos and chatty sidebars with splashy headlines. The stress on being “extreme,” which has gained a place in many evangelical youth ministries, marks Revolve’s attempt at relevance, frequently using words such as “radical” “risk-takers,” “raw” and “out-on-a-limb.”
At the same time, standard moral and evangelical advice is offered in blurbs surrounding the biblical text, such as: the “Top Ten random things to know about being a `Revolve’ (magazine) girl — don’t call guys, maintain good posture, “don’t kiss and tell.”
(Source: Courier-Journal, Sept. 16)
05: Meditainment Ltd. is the one of the first and most ambitious computer-aided meditation programs.
The London-based company packages meditation aids via computer (at its site:http://www.meditainment.com) video tapes, CDs, DVDs and big screen presentations. The company’s “programs held in cinemas in England have drawn many to its “communal meditation” sessions. The programs feature calming, complative music, sounds (such as birds chirping) and are secular, promoting no spirituality and religion.
In fact, founder Richard Latham, a wealthy British web designer says that he is “simplifying meditation, making it quick, easy and pleasurable.”
(Source: The Globe and Mail, Sept. 20)
01: Sociologist Thomas Luckmann’s 1967 book Invisible Religion was a landmark study of how religious faith was becoming privatized in the modern world, predicting much of the upsurge in alternative and individualistic spirituality.
The September issue of the journal Social Compass revisits Luckmann’s study, applying its theories and findings to a changing Europe. The issue includes an article by Luckmann updating his views as well as contributions on invisible religion in Italy and Eastern Europe.
It is interesting to note that while Luckmann and the other contributors still see organized religion losing its hold in Europe, they tend to see the large number of Europeans seeking transcendence outside of institutions as reflecting the “resacralizing” taking place in other parts of the world.
For more information on this issue write: Social Compass, Dept. of Sociology, Van Evenstraat 2B, Leuven, B3000, Belgium)
02: With his new book Following Our Bliss (Harper SanFrancisco, $24.95), San Francisco Chronicle religion writer Don Lattin furthers his reputation as a leading recorder and interpreter of alternative religions and spiritual “seeking.”
The book expands upon some of the trends documented in his earlier Shopping for Faith, which was co-authored with RW’s editor. But this time Lattin tells the story of American spiritual journeys and experimentation through the perspectives of the sixties generation and their children. His interviews with the second generation members and dropouts from religious communes and new religious movements — including Esalen, radical Catholicism, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, and Zen Buddhism — are especially revealing.
Lattin finds disenchantment and anger among those brought up to follow in their parents’ dreams and visions (particularly as they often led to shattered family structures), but also notes how in some cases the younger generation continues in these paths even as they significantly change them in the process (for instance, the less communal style of the Hare Krishnas).
Much more of a first person and sympathetic account than “Shopping,” the book also provides engaging accounts of more recent developments in alternative spirituality–from drug-induced raves and their conflict with churches to the New Age and social action.
03: The new book Challenging Religion, (Routledge, $95) edited by James Beckford and James Richardson, covers a wide range of issues in contemporary religion, although the focus is on new religious movements.
The book, published in honor of sociologist and new religious movement specialist Eileen Barker, includes chapters on the counter-cult and anti-cult movements, church/state issues and religious minorities in Europe, Singapore and the former Soviet Union. Although some of the chapters are heavily academic and theoretical, this over-priced book does provide new insights on these controversial issues.
RW contributing editor Jean-Francois Mayer’s chapter on religion and the Internet finds the medium less of a catalyst for creating and furthering new religious movements than for actually assisting anti-cult groups, as well as aiding spiritual practices, strengthening global links with fellow believers, and providing access to a wide range of information.
A chapter on new religious movements in the former Soviet Union notes that much of the apocalyptic fervor after the collapse of communism has simmered down in recent years. Such groups as the Mother of God Center and the Church of the Last Testament have become more accommodating, moderate and even ecumenical toward other groups.
A more populist and militant form of Islam is increasingly finding a place in Syria, although the government is actively discouraging political forms of the faith.
The Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 3) reports that “Young Syrians are filling mosques, many women have taken to wearing the head scarf known as the hijab, and underground women’s religious discussion groups are increasingly popular despite being banned. The austere Wahhabi brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden is preached in some small towns in northern Syria. Even longtime secular Baath partisans are embracing religion.”
Much of this Islamic revival is spread through a network of mosques based in conservative neighborhoods. In Damascus, the revivalists represent between 60 to 65 percent of pious Muslims, according to Samir al-Taqi, a Syrian political analyst. But other observers say the resurgence is a reaction to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as ongoing conflicts between the Palestinians and Israelis [with the recent bombing by Israel likely to heighten such tensions].
The Syrian authorities are monitoring the movement and trying to control it. But there is the fear that a constituency is being created for Islamic leaders who might emerge if the regime falls or there is instability.
01: Religious belief and practice continues to be an important factor in accumulating wealth, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by Lisa Keister of Ohio State University, analyzes longitudinal data and finds that people who attend religious services regularly build more wealth than those who don’t. The study, published in the September issue ofSocial Forces, also found that Jews amassed the most wealth and conservative Protestants the least and mainline Protestants and Catholics somewhere in between. That finding appears to conflict with the first finding, since conservative Protestants attend services more than mainline and Jewish believers.
But Keister maintains that it is the distinctive teachings and the practices that influences how people generate wealth. Jewish teachings have less of an afterlife orientation than conservative Christians and stress wealth as a good in this life.. Thus Jews who attend synagogue would hear those teachings on a more regular basis. It is also the case that regularly attending any religious services may create social networks that can lead to jobs, investment tips and money to loan for a new business.
02: A majority of Americans support displaying Christian symbols on public property, although many hold that symbols of other religions should also be displayed, according to a new poll.
The survey, conducted by USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, arrives in the middle of several church-state battles across the U.S. (the most well known case being in Alabama) over whether such symbols as the Ten Commandments on government buildings violate the separation of church and state. The poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they approve of Ten Commandments monuments in public areas, ,but only 10 percent agree that it is acceptable to display only Christian symbols.
Fifty eight percent say it is acceptable to display Christian symbols as long as other religious symbols are also displayed. Respondents were generally tolerant of other, unspecified faiths–but less so of Islam. Though most approve Ten Commandment monuments, 64 percent oppose a monument to the Koran.
03: Those regularly attending religious services are more likely to engage in small acts of kindness than non-attendees, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Council (NORC). There is already evidence that regular religious attenders are more likely to devote time and money to charitable causes, but the NORC survey found that those never attending services noted on average 96 acts of helping others in the year, while those attending noted 128 acts of kindness.
Respondents were asked to recall acts of kindness and empathy, prompting such memories by providing a list of 15 different kinds of altruistic activities. Other variables, such as age, location (cities or small towns) were overshadowed by religion in predicting altruistic acts, according to the e-newsletter Sightings (Sept. 22).
04: Although its results are contested and not too clear, a recent poll of the American Jewish community suggests a significant decrease in the numbers of Jews.
The National Jewish Population Survey concludes that the number of American Jews has decreased by five percent to 5.2 million in the past decade, largely due to rising levels of intermarriage and a continued low birth rate. The survey, conducted every 10 years, is two years late, due to sharp differences about its conclusions and methods among pollsters. Preliminary findings were released last year but then suddenly retracted after it was learned that some of the data was lost by the overseeing agency, the United Jewish Communities. An outside agency recently concluded that the survey, taken among 4,500 respondents, was sound.
The survey found that the growth in intermarriages increased from 43 percent in 1991 (which itself was recalibrated from 52 percent due to an overly broad definition of who is Jewish) to 47 percent from 1996-2001. While more children (29 percent) are attending a Jewish school full time, only one-third of children of interfaith couples are being raised Jewish. It was also found that only 40 percent of Jewish households belong to a synagogue
05: Has the rate of artistic achievement and technological progress declined in recent times due to the decrease of religion among creative elites?
That is the provocative conclusion of writer Charles Murray in a recent study he conducted on achievement and progress. In The American Enterprise magazine (October/November), Murray writes that in weighing the measures of artistic and scientific accomplishments by the size of populations, the “overall story is one of recent decline in high achievement in both the arts and sciences, usually starting sometime in the 1800s.” For instance, the population doubled in France between 1630 and 1930 with no related increase of important playwrights.
Murray acknowledges that there are only so many significant achievements that can be made in the finite world of scientific knowledge, but the declines in the accomplishment rate for the “visual arts, literature, and music are not so comfortably explained away.” The visual arts accomplishment decline rate [Murray doesn’t define the criteria for accomplishment] began in the 1600s while the rate of production in music started to ebb in the mid-1700s, hitting bottom in the 1900s.
Murray speculates that one–but not the only– important factor for this continual decline, which still continues today, is that many artists and musicians turned away from addressing “fundamental questions of existence” and a “well-articulated vision of the true, the beautiful, and the good.. Great accomplishment in the arts is anchored in pursuit of transcendental goals like truth and goodness.”
(American Enterprise, 1150 17th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036)
06: Recent figures show that evangelicals in England represent one-third of churchgoers and that this segment of Christians is likely to grow in the future.
The book Religious Trends, published by the Christian Research Association, finds that evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals, which include Anglicans, make up this one-third segment of British Christians. Six percent of this group reject any centralized denominational authority.
The study notes that the evangelical tendency to have a greater proportion of growth from conversions — rather than from births — could create inroads into the mass of Britons who say they are Christians but who have only a rudimentary faith. Religious Trends uses figures from the last national census, which shows 72 percent of the population of the UK as saying they are Christians.
The recent census has received an unusual amount of attention because it was the first one that included religion in nearly 100 years and because it found more Christians than expected (at least as found in earlier surveys). In Quadrant (September), the newsletter of the Christian Research Association, sociologist Steve Bruce questions this 72 percent figure for nominal Christians. Since church attendance is higher in Scotland than in England and Wales, why did the census show a larger number of nominal Christian identifiers in the latter nations?
Bruce writes that the answer to this puzzle may have a lot to do with British anxiety about national identity. “The England and Wales census produced a higher than expected number of non-churchgoers identifying with Christianity at the same time as public opinion was much concerned with the growth and politicization of Islam . . . race riots in northern England towns, and disputes about asylum seekers.” The census’ method of asking respondents (the heads of households) to tick off their faith and ethnicity amidst a list of non-Christian religions and various ethnic groups highlighted “what is for many people a crucial issue: how much should Britain change to accommodate non-Christian religions imported in the last 50 years?”
Bruce adds that such concerns may help explain the fact that Christian activity is higher in Scotland than England yet only 65 percent of Scots (as compared with 72 percent of English) claimed a Christian identity. Since those of other faiths form less than two percent of Scot but six percent of the English, fewer Scots felt impelled to assert their nominal Christian identity.
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ)
The movement of African-American Muslims that broke away from the Nation of Islam nearly 30 years ago is undergoing a period of turmoil and identity crisis after its leader recently stepped down.
The resignation of W.D. Mohammed as leader of the American Society of Mosques revealed divisions and problems in a movement that has largely been credited with bringing American blacks into mainstream Islam. Mohammed, the son of Elijah Mohammed who started the Nation of Islam, broke ranks with the group over its black nationalism and race-based theology.
An in-depth Los Angeles Times report (Sept. 13) notes that Mohammed’s society (which has had several different names during its existence) now comprises the largest presence of Muslim prison chaplains in the U.S. and is the most active among Islamic groups in providing social services to the ex-prisoners, the homeless and the hungry. But Mohammed’s resignation “threw open long festering concerns” in the movement. He himself criticized other leaders (up to 80 percent of the society’s imams, he claimed) for their resistance to integrating into mainstream Islam.
He said that the leadership failed to engage in Arabic and Islamic studies. Others raised concern about how some imams used Mohammed’s name to raise funds while failing to provide Islamic services in return, reports Teresa Watanabe. African-American Muslims and non-black Muslims have criticized the society as weakly grounded in Islamic scholarly traditions. Such turmoil may serve the purpose of taking the spotlight off one charismatic leader and disperse authority throughout the society, according to observers.
Meanwhile, other groups seeking to advance African-American Islam are emerging. The most prominent one, the Muslim Alliance of North America, gives priority to domestic social issues, while targeting the needs of non-black, American-born Muslims as well.
A largely unnoticed Catholic young adult ministry has proven to be an effective way of drawing 20- and 30-something generations to reconnect with the church. America magazine (Sept. 22) reports that since 1981, a program known as Theology On Tap has spread across the U.S. due to its informal style of discussion and socializing, often held in non-confrontational locations, such as bars and restaurants.
Nationwide, 381 parishes and organizations have asked permission from the Chicago-based Theology on Tap organization to hold gatherings, not to mention other programs based on the ministry but not officially registered as hosts. In Chicago, the program is based in individual parishes, while in other cities, Theology on Tap is organized by the diocese. Originally intended to create a positive Catholic experience for alienated young adults, the program has come to serve as a bridge between secular activities “and more religious activities for many individuals both inside and outside the parish,” writes Phyllis Hanlon.
As detailed in a 100-page manual by program founder Fr. John Cusick, Theology On Tap usually includes a talk, straight socializing, a question-and-answer session and discussion. Speakers relating scripture to everyday life tends to draw the largest crowds, according to Hanlon.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019)
Baby boomers who converted during the Jesus movement and the charismatic renewal in the 1970s are largely driving the trend of parents insisting on Christian college education as an alternative to today’s secular culture.
That was one of the findings of a Washington Times (Sept. 8) report on the new growth of Christian colleges. The newspaper visited nine thriving Christian campuses to find out why these institutions are “faring better proportionately than their secular counterparts. Enrollment for the 104 evangelical schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCU) increased 47 percent during the 1990s, dwarfing the growth rate of secular private and public colleges and universities, which grew by 17 percent and four percent, respectively.
While only totaling about one percent of the nation’s 15.8 million college students, Christian colleges are competing with secular schools by their improved programs and facilities and their strongly values based education, which appeals to parents, writes Julia Duin. She adds that it is those colleges that have retained or renewed their Christian identity that are showing the most growth and increased donor funding. For instance, more conservative Southern Baptist schools such as Baylor and Palm Beach Atlantic University are more likely to be the recipients of “faith-based giving” among parents and other donors than more liberal Wake Forest and Furman universities.
The trend is being fed by the more conservative Generation Y (or “millennials”) as well as by baby boomer parents who are pressing for the once discarded notion that colleges should act “in loco parentis,” or in the absence of parents. “Christian institutions are saying, `We will partner with parents to raise your kids. We see ourselves as having a much broader role than just giving out information in the classroom,” says Ken Mahanes of Palm Beach Atlantic.
During the last two decades, there were flurries of reports of new converts moving into Eastern Orthodoxy and changing these churches in the process.
But an article in the current issue of the journal Nova Religio (November) finds that these new Orthodox converts — often coming from Protestant backgrounds — are discovering as many obstacles as opportunities in their new religion. Phillip Charles Lucas focuses on two case studies of convert movements which have had difficulty finding a place in Orthodoxy in the U.S. The most well-known is the 2,000 former evangelical Protestants who shocked many in 1987 by converting en masse to the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Just as surprising to many was the news in the late 1990s that many in this group of converts were being disciplined or expelled by a Antiochian bishop for insubordination. A large group of the converts in California had angered church officials by insisting on keeping their traditions, music and leadership style rather than submitting to the rules of the Antiochian church. Many of these converts next tried to find a home in the more Americanized Orthodox Church in America, but they again were charged with insubordination by a bishop, and now are in a state of ecclesiastical limbo.
A similar scenario played itself out in the case of the former Christ The Savior Brotherhood, a group making the journey from esoteric mysticism to Orthodoxy in the 1980s. Because of the group’s background and connection with two defrocked priests, as well as their racial diversity, members were greeted with suspicion by ethnic members even when they were officially accepted by the Orthodox Church in America in 2000.
Lucas writes that the converts have often retained a Protestant tendency to question church authority if it conflicts with their vision of an ideal Orthodoxy. Tensions between ethnic members and converts are likely to continue in the near future due to the waves of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Prospective converts to Orthodoxy may choose to steer clear of the ethnic and political nature of Orthodox churches and opt for the more independent church movements such as the Charismatic Episcopal Church, concludes Lucas.
However, the converts’ increasing numbers and influence in Orthodox churches (as well as assimilation) may eventually tone down the ethnic factor and lead to a more united, de-ethnicized Orthodox church, Lucas concludes.
(Nova Religio, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Suite 303. Berkeley, CA 94704-1223)