In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: October 2007
- Muslim reformists support secular state
- Current Research: October 2007
- Buddhist family deficits
- Computer video games not just playing with religion?
- Varieties and prospects of Salafism
01: As a result of a growing interest in religions and their role in society, new websites and newsletters in different languages are making an appearance. Several of them are edited by people with a background in religious studies. A few months ago, Yunus, a new website on religion, was launched (http://www.yunusnews.com). It describes itself as “dedicated to collecting, filtering and analyzing religious news.” Its editor is Jonas Slaats, a young Belgian theologian currently based in Istanbul. During its first few months of existence, most of the website was accessible to subscribers only. Since September, however, the entire content can entirely be accessed for free. Yunus mixes reprints and summaries from other publications with articles and analyses of its own.
For those who read German, another new source is religionen:info. This monthly newsletter started in June and can be downloaded for free in PDF format (http://www.remid.de/newsletter/index.html). Its editor is Steffen Rink, and the newsletter is part of REMID, an information service launched in 1989 by young researchers in the field of religious studies in order to provide balanced information on all religious groups. religionen:infofocuses on Germany. The 11-page long September issue contains articles on converts to Islam in Germany and on Hasidic Judaism. It also offers an overview of recent publications and websites of interest, as well as announcements of forthcoming conferences in Germany.–By Jean-Francois Mayer
02: Robert Wuthnow’s new book After the Baby Boomers (Princeton University Press, $29.95) is bound to raise the level of discussion about the religious attitudes, beliefs and practices of American young adults. Wuthnow is reluctant to take a generational approach to what has become known as GenX or the baby busters. Unlike the baby boomers, the younger generation is not defined by specific national or world events as much as by demographic and social changes that affect everyone, but especially young adults (those under 45, according to Wuthnow). The book is clear on the fact that young adults today are less conventionally religious (on such measures as church attendance) than their baby boomer predecessors were at their age. He attributes this to the aforementioned demographic changes: young people are delaying or forsaking marriage and childbirth–factors that have traditionally raised religious participation.
The large increase of women in employment drives down the participation of women who have filled the pews in the past. Many young adults, particularly in matters of spirituality, are “tinkerers,“ piecing together available practices and beliefs that help them meet contemporary problems. Education is seen as shaping the main cleavages taking place among young adults, and not always in expected directions. For instance, the college-educated were more likely to score higher on levels of religious orthodoxy than those not attending college.
But on issues of religious tolerance, those young adults without college education were more likely to be intolerant of religious and ethnic minorities. Wuthnow sees a similar split among young adults running through the so-called “culture war“ issues; they are more polarized than the baby boomers in the early 1980s (with 56 percent leaning toward religious liberalism and 38 percent toward religious conservatism). Wuthnow concludes that congregations are ill-equipped to deal with young adults and the changes they represent. To remedy this, they have to become an important resource for “networking, for maintaining intergenerational ties, and for transmitting values” to the upcoming generation as they do for older adults and children.
03: Writing as both an anthropologist and an Episcopal seminarian and soon-to-be-priest, Miranda Hassett admits to a conflict of interest in her recent book, Anglican Communion in Crisis (Princeton University Press, $39.50). But she succeeds admirably in exploring the unusual yet significant alliances and networks that have emerged between conservative American Episcopalians and their allies in Africa. The continuing crisis in the Episcopal Church over gay rights and revisionist theology has split the Anglican communion, with most of the Third World, especially African churches, condemning the liberal U.S. church.
Hassett finds that the American conservative-African alliance did not take shape without a lot of work and planning–often through international conferences and the Internet. But she discounts the view that the Africans were coopted or even bought out by well-off, white conservatives to make the issue of homosexuality the centerpiece of the North-South divide. There was more of an “exchange” of perceived resources between the two groups; In fact, African concern about homosexuality under Western influence in both the church and society also encouraged this alliance.
Hassett also challenges the view that conservative religion stands apart from and is even a reaction against globalization. Both the African churches and the American conservatives share a global outlook and resources (spiritual and material) that have filtered down to the parish level. In studying one parish that left the Episcopal Church and joined a network of churches under the authority of a bishop from Rwanda, the author finds that the white parishioners have taken up Rwandan causes and even view African Christianity as superior to their own faith. Hassett concludes that these new partnerships based on networking and decentralized decision-making over hierarchy and centralized leadership will reshape world Anglicanism.
04: Prema Kurien’s new book, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism (Rutgers University Press, $26.95) is one of the few sociological overviews of American Hinduism. The book provides a historical background to the establishment of Hinduism in the U.S., but mainly focuses on how Hindu groups, practices and beliefs are changing as they are transplanted to America. Her chapters are based on the various structures of American Hinduism and how they reflect important themes and trends. The establishment of home fellowships and study groups, known as bala vihar, show a “defacto congregationalism” emerging in a religion traditionally based on individualized temple worship.
Another chapter on Hindu temples examines how these structures have become increasingly “ecumenical,” including different deities and Indian regional traditions, to satisfy American Hindus from a wide range of backgrounds (although the chapter includes an interesting case study of the more sectarian Swaninarayan sect and its temples in the U.S.). The most controversial chapters deal with Hindu nationalism and its expression in the U.S. Kurien writes that virtually all Hindu umbrella organizations (including the moderate Hindu Students Councils) have “adopted some aspect of the Hindu nationalist ideology.“ She adds that multiculturalism has ironically served to promote Hindu nationalist currents, since it enhances ethnic pride and is defensive about “outsiders” (Western scholars) studying these traditions.
05: Religion and the New Immigrants: How Faith Communities Form Our Newest Citizens by Michael W. Foley and Dean R. Hoge (Oxford University Press, $35) is based on three years of study on the immigrant congregations in the Washington D.C. area. Previous books published on immigration and religion in cities were often anthologies on different religious traditions and congregations. In contrast, Foley and Hoge’s book focuses on the effect of faith communities on civic engagement.
Foley and Hoge used census data on faith communities that had more than 20 percent of immigrants of the same kind to illustrate the diversity of the ethnic and religious communities in the D.C. area, which “has had no urban ethnic enclave.” They then turn to a closer look at religious traditions and immigrant communities and how those communities engage in civic activities. The findings on how the terrorist attack of September 11 stimulated different groups to engage in activism outside of their immigrant and religious communities are especially noteworthy. The study also suggests that the longer an immigrant group is present in the United States, the more specialized social services are available to that particular immigrant group; in the process, their faith communities are less likely to serve as “community centers.”
In their conclusion, Foley and Hoge challenge a previous study by Stephen Warner suggesting that the adaptation of new immigrant faith communities function similarly to that of Protestant congregations. Their study found more diverse components forming congregations, including religious traditions, immigration backgrounds, member’s economic conditions, and even religious leaders’ engagement in civic affairs. For those expecting “thick description” of immigrant worship communities, the book does not provide as many lively illustration of immigrants and their faiths as might be hoped. Having said that, this book provide a clear picture of new immigrant groups and their faith communities and is an excellent contribution to the field.–By Ayako Sairenji, a New Jersey-based freelance writer and researcher.
06: American Sociology of Religion: Histories (Brill, $125), edited by Anthony J. Blasi, will not only be of interest to sociologists but also to anyone interested in the current shape and direction of research in American religion. In fact, the book makes it clear that much of the vigor of the sociology of religion worldwide today is related to the key trends in American religion–its new pluralism has generated fields of studying immigrant religion as well as new religious movements; the sharp growth and entrepreneurial spirit of evangelicals, charismatics and Mormons were influential in shaping the “new paradigm” theory stressing competition and pluralism. An early chapter on the “theoretical trajectory,” by Doyle Paul Johnson, provides an interesting narrative of how these changes took hold in the sociology of religion in the U.S. The new religious interest and diversity in American society informed the selection of other chapters: there are quite exhaustive chapters on the research literature, publications and scholarly organizations on Buddhism, religion and feminism, and new religious movements, but not much on mainline Protestantism nor even evangelicalism.
There is no incompatibility between secularism and sharia (Islamic law), said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (Professor of Law at Emory University) in his keynote speech at the 30th German Congress of Oriental Studies, which gathered in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany (Sept 24-28), and whichRW attended. Issues related to Islam had a strong presence at the conference and was seen by several observers as indicative of new trends in German Orientalism.
Born in Sudan, An-Na’im is one of the leading advocates of Islamic reform. He is currently involved in a major project on the future of sharia (http://www.law.emory.edu/fs). The result will be a book, of which several chapters are already online and which is translated into eight languages in Muslim countries, before the English print edition will come out next year. An-Na’im recently went to Indonesia for the purpose of launching the book in several cities. He reports to have come across many Muslims who agree with his views.
An-Na’im makes a strong criticism of the concept of an Islamic state. He says the state cannot be religious, since it is a political institution, with citizenship as its basis, and there never was an Islamic state at any time in history. Islam and the State were always differentiated, while not always separate, claims An-Na’im. Sharia remains binding for Muslims, but it cannot be enforced by the state; if it is, then it is no longer sharia. Consequently, An-Na’im sees the secular state as the best environment for Muslims: “I need a secular state in order to be a Muslim by conviction.” Moreover, he insists that sharia has always been negotiated: it is fluid, contested, contingent and contextual.
Among the papers on Muslim reformists presented at the conference, one dealt with an important figure in India, Ashgar Ali Engineer, who was born in 1939 in a learned Muslim family and works with the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai (http://www.csss-isla.com). The author of the paper, Fatma Sagir (University of Freiburg), observed how Ashgar Ali Engineer always strives to base his statements on the Quran. He fully identifies himself with Indian democracy, which gives him a freedom of speech he would enjoy in few Muslim countries. In a lecture on “Islam and the State,” which Engineer gave in October. 2006 in London and which was just published by the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (a network of Islamic intellectuals and activists), Engineer stated that the true practice of Islam cannot be enforced and should go along with freedom; otherwise it loses its value. He sees attempts at creating an Islamic state primarily as tools for exercising power and repressing political opponents.
It is worth noting that such reformists are eager not to appear as people who are cut off from the Muslim masses, or to leave to fundamentalists the monopoly of legitimacy in terms of representing Islam. They want to be seen not as people who “relax” Islam in order to make it palatable to the West, but claim that they actually have the true understanding of Islam. It may be that such views will increasingly find a receptive audience in the current context, although their real impact is difficult to assess at this point.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
(International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID), BM Box 5856, London WC1N 3XX, UK – http://www.islam21.net)
01: Though there has been sharp debate over whether church attendance is declining in the U.S., a recent analysis of data suggests a pattern of stability. In the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion(September), Stanley Presser and Mark Chaves write that such debate has intensified as self-reporting attendance figures have been found to tend toward over- reporting. Other recent studies, such as those by political scientist Robert Putnam, have reported decline from the 1960s to the late 1990s.
Presser and Chaves look at religious attendance levels and trends from 1990 to the present through examining interviewer-administered questions about attendance as found in the General Social Survey; interviewer-administered questions about time-use (where respondents are asked to describe their primary activities of the preceding day); and self-administered questions. The authors find that weekly attendance at religious services has been stable between 1990 and the present. Taking a longer view, Presser and Chaves argue that the best evidence–from time-use studies– suggests that weekly attendance at religious services declined between 1950 and 1990, and has remained stable since then.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Cavanaugh Hall 417, 425 University Blvd, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5140)
02: Psychiatrists are the least religious of all the medical specialties, and the most religious doctors are the least likely to refer their patients for psychiatric treatment, according to a recent study. The survey, conducted among 100 psychiatrists and 1,044 other specialists, asked respondents about their attitudes toward religion in clinical practice, such as whether they had inquired about their patients’ religious beliefs.The New York Times (September 18) reports that although psychiatrists were just as likely as other physicians to agree that religious beliefs influenced their practice–with about half saying it did–only 29 percent of them, compared with 47 percent of other doctors, said they attended religious services more than once a month.
Forty two percent of psychiatrists described themselves as spiritual or religious, compared to 53 percent of other doctors. About one-third of psychiatrists, but almost half of other physicians, said they looked to God for strength, support or guidance. Psychiatrists were significantly more likely to be Jewish or have no affiliation than be Protestant or Catholic. The study also found that although most doctors would refer patients to psychiatrists, Protestants were about half as likely to do so as those with no religious affiliation, as they preferred clergy or other religious counselors.
03: Most American Protestant young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 take a break of a year or more from regularly attending services, according to a new survey. The survey, conducted by LifeWay Research of more than 1,000 young adults 18-30, found that 70 percent of those who attended a Protestant church for at least a year in high school had stopped attending for at least a year in the four years after graduation. Only 20 percent of these church dropouts said they had planned to leave while they were attending church regularly.
Ninety-seven percent cited “change of life” factors in their discontinuation of attending services, such as attending college, though the most cited reason (27 percent) was “simply [wanting] a break from church.” Among the former dropouts who are now ages 25-30, a good percentage (35 percent) did return to attending twice a month or more. Another 30 percent attend sporadically, reports Baptists Today.
(Baptists Today, P.O. Box 6318, Macon, GA 31208-6318.)
American Buddhists have yet to deal with the lack of structures and rites of passage that can socialize young people into the religion, writes Clark Strand in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Fall). He writes that the problem is that in most cases, “children aren’t ready for the kinds of rituals that adult converts have mastered– like meditating, going on silent retreat, or reading difficult Buddhist texts. Buddhism has also a “self-help rather than a “religious” model in that it has functioned mainly as a tool to the meet the needs of the individual.” But as a result of these patterns, “Buddhism in America will face a serious crisis over the next few decades, when it will be forced essentially to start over, bringing new Buddhists to the fold instead of making them,” Strand writes.
The largest Buddhist group, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), is doing better than most in keeping Buddhism within the family and in involving teenagers. SGI’s twice-daily chanting practice and home-based (rather than temple- or monastery-based) meetings more easily include children in the broader religious community than Zen, Vipassanta or Tibetan Buddhisim. But even SGI hasn’t integrated rites of passage, such as marriage and burial, into its teachings. While Strand acknowledges that most Buddhist groups have marriage, birth, and funeral ceremonies, he adds that they are not seen as rituals that welcome people into the Buddhist community, leaving even many members still seeking these services in Christian and Jewish contexts.
(Tricycle, 92 Vandam St., New York, NY 10013)
As computer video games become increasingly interactive, they may well encourage the spread of unconventional and “deviant” religions, according to sociologist William Sims Bainbridge. Writing in the Review of Religious Research (September), Bainbridge surveys the video game market and such new simulated online sites as Second Life and finds that the religious content featured on them are “typically heterodox or cultic in nature.”
He writes that a “massive shift is occurring within video game culture, as all of the video game systems are connecting to the Internet and games become social rather than individual experiences. Logically, social games, in which each player must become trustworthy quest companions within an enduring group of players, will have even greater influence upon player’s values, beliefs and personalities.”
Bainbridge continues that “This major shift could have the paradoxical result of greatly reducing the social isolation widely believed to afflict many gamers, while drawing them even further away from conventional society into a subculture rife with religious deviance.” In a content analysis of video game reviews by a Christian website, Bainbridge found that in reviews of 82 games, 19 presented images of alternative or invented religions, “which would be called cults if they existed outside the game. Reviewers seem especially disturbed when the player must perform rituals or otherwise act in accordance with the deviant beliefs of the religion.”
In online virtual worlds, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft (WoW), participants take on “avatars” or characters that represent themselves as they play the games. Both contain virtual churches and WoW contains a high degree of supernatural symbolism; with its “engagement of the user’s emotions, and the many hours each week members may participate, one could argue it has greater spiritual significance than all but a half-dozen mainstream denominations.”
(Review of Religious Research, 618 SW Second Ave., Galva, IL 61434)
Islamic Salafism is not merely the result of Saudi exports, nor is it necessarily a cause of political radicalization. Those are some of the observations which emerged during a three-day, semi-public conference organized by the Leiden-based Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) near Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. The conference, held on Sept. 28-30 and attended by RW, drew scholars from three continents and was under Chatham House rules, which means that statements made during the conference cannot be attributed in reports – hence the absence of references to specific scholars in this article.
Especially in Europe, Salafis are today suspected of preparing a fertile ground for political radicalism, and the fact that there are some groups belonging to the Jihadi Salafi category, for whom violent insurrection becomes a religious imperative, reinforces such impressions. However, Islamic movements appear much more varied than many outsiders think; doctrinal disagreements are frequent. For instance, one of the influential Al Qaeda strategists deeply disliked Salafis and saw their emphasis on doctrinal purity as a weakening factor.
It remains, true, however that borders are porous, and that the religious foundations of Al Qaeda are derived from Salafism to a large extent. But Salafis have been around for a long time, often as purely pietistic, apolitical movements; it is primarily a theological term, not a political category. Many Salafis actually preach submission to the state authority or have cooperated with states in different countries. The diversity of approaches by groups all labeled Salafi actually makes some researchers inclined to avoid a broad use of the word Salafi.
The appeal of Salafism is unlikely to disappear: it is egalitarian, it sounds authentic with its call for returning to the essentials of Islam, it has shallow or simply organized structures of authority, and it is book-oriented (including heavy use of CDs and the Internet). It is true that Saudi funding has significantly contributed to spread Salafi ideas around the world (and continues to do so), but Salafism would continue to develop even without Saudi support. In addition, the Saudi scene itself is complex, and the State is far from controlling everything which takes places in that field.
Regarding the jihadi trends in Salafism, the Internet now seems to contribute mightily to its diffusion. Being active online has become an accepted part of jihad, and one can observe the emergence of jihadi “Internet scholars.” The Web also opens prospects of self-radicalization, without direct contact with organized jihadi groups.–By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the newly established Religioscope Institute at http://www.religioscope.com)