In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: September 2004
- Islamic revival in Jerusalem?
- Christian exodus accelerates since Iraq war
- World Bank pays new attention to religion
- Current Research: September 2004
- Court’s caution on church/state issues signaling privatized religion?
- Cultural theorists seeking Christian resources
Findings & Footnotes: September 2004
01: The Twilight of Atheism (Doubleday, $23.95), by historian Alister McGrath, makes no secret of being an evangelical polemic, but the book does provide an interesting account of the rise and decline of organized atheism.
McGrath’s thesis is that the heyday for atheism was from the period of the French Revolution to the collapse of communism and the atheist state in the late 1980s. He finds this state of decline in the failure of secularization to expand around the world as well as in intellectual circles–such as in the predominance of postmodern thought over Enlightenment-based rationalism–and in atheist organizational life.
On the latter issue, he argues that the move to include agnostics in freethought-atheist groups signals a “loss of confidence” from its historic “firm and principled commitment to the nonexistence of God, and the liberating impact of this belief.” McGrath adds that such inclusiveness means that atheism has lost its cutting edge and is now trying to extend “its numerical embrace at a time of decline and demoralization.” McGrath tends to focus on the declining fortunes of organized atheism after the murder of Madelyn Murray O’Hare, but he fails to pay attention to the fairly more vigorous secular humanist movement and the emergence of the largely Internet-based “brights” (a new name for atheists) phenomenon.
02: Compared to what it used to be only 20 years ago, the bibliography on new religious movements has exploded and would be quite difficult for anybody to read everything published on this subject.
In recent years several encyclopedic works have come off the presses. Such is the case with the more than 400- page long New Religions: A Guide (Oxford University Press, $40), edited by Christopher Partridge. What makes the book attractive is its top quality design, with many well-chosen illustrations. Entries are written by well-qualified academics.
The book is not organized alphabetically, but according to each religious tradition/origin. Entries on individual groups alternate with essays of a more general nature, ranging from “Global Network of Divergent Marian Devotion” to “Postmodern Spirituality”. It makes for well-informed and reading, and succeeds in never becoming just a dry directory; one could even read it from cover to cover without getting bored.
Another interesting new volume — although its price will probably prevent most potential readers to buy it — is the Encyclopedic Sourcebook of New Age Religions (Prometheus Books, $99), edited by James R. Lewis. Bringing together the terms “New Age” and “religion” might be viewed as contradictory by many. But Lewis, who had co-edited with Gordon Melton the 1992 volume “Perspectives on the New Age,” has witnessed since that time the emergence of specific groups and movements that have arisen out of the New Age movement and which can be understood as a subculture with older roots than what used to be strictly called “New Age.”
Beside historical chapters and general analyses of New Age and its practices, the book offers monographs on a dozen groups (Kashi, Lazaris, Damanhur, Course in Miracles, but also the older “I AM” Religious Activity).
The book combines original chapters written specifically for that volume and reprints of articles previously published in various periodicals. The last 250 pages of the 680 page long volume is an anthology of texts. Since more than 20 authors have contributed to the book, assessments and prospects are bound to diverge.
“The New Age has permeated the capitalist mainstream, offering packages of transformational techniques,” ventured Michael Hill in a reprinted article originally published in 1993. But writing ten years later, Olav Hammer comes to a more sobering conclusion: “Unlike powerful and institutionalized religions, the New Age is likely to have a relatively limited effect on society as a whole,” due to its inner weaknesses and inconsistencies.
— Reviewed by Jean-Francois Mayer
Islamic revival in Jerusalem?
Although it is impossible to quantify, there is a return to religion among an increasing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, according to an article by Isabel Kershner in the July 26 issue of the Jerusalem Report, an Israeli news magazine.
The article focuses on activities led by Sheikh Najeh Bkeirat for Muslim women. Claims of a “Muslim awakening” are confirmed by observers of the Palestinian scene. According to the Sheikh, the collapse of major ideologies and systems (such as communism) play a significant role in those developments.
Israeli officials estimate that the Palestinian Authority is not very respected among Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which means that Islamic elements have little competition, especially because most traditional local ruling families are no longer present due to emigration. Palestinians number 250,000 in Jerusalem out of a total population of 692,000. They have permanent resident status, but are not Israeli citizens.
New mosques are being built and religious observance is growing; lunchtime mosques have been opening in commercial districts. Everybody agrees that this religious reawakening will not necessarily lead to radicalism and violence. However, this might be one potential development, and for this reason Israeli authorities are paying attention.
— By Jean- Francois Mayer
(Jerusalem Report, P.O. Box 1805, Jerusalem 91017, Israel – Website:http://www.jrep.com)
Christian exodus accelerates since Iraq war
Christians are feeling new pressures in Iraq and already there is a steady exodus of adherents of this minority faith out of the country, according to several reports.
In the first coordinated attack against Christians, Islamist insurgents murdered 12 and injured 60 in the bombings at five churches in early August. Even before the attack, there has been mounting pressure against the Christian community, which is estimated at about 800,000. The New York Times (Aug. 5) reports that attacks on Iraq’s tiny Christian minority have been steadily increasing since late spring. As a result, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Christians are now fleeing the country in record numbers.
Iraq is home to some of the world’s oldest religious communities, including Assyrians, an early, now independent Christian sect; Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize papal authority; and the Mandaeans, who follow John the Baptist. Ajmal Khybari, an official at the refugee agency’s Damascus office, said about 4,000 Iraqi families had registered as refugees in Syria.
Although they represent less than 5 percent of Iraq’s population, Iraqi Christians now make up about 20 percent of the total refugee flow into Syria from Iraq. Rita Zekert, the coordinator of the Caritas Migrant Center, a Catholic charity in Damascus said last year’s wartime influx of Iraqi refugees included Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Kurds in percentages roughly proportionate to their numbers in Iraq. “But nowadays, 95 percent of the people coming to us are Iraqi Christians,” Zekert says.
Though Iraqi Christians are heading to Jordan and Lebanon as well, Syria is the preferred destination, for its low cost of living, cultural similarities with Iraq and policy of freely issuing visas to citizens of other Arab countries. The new refugees tell of Christian shopkeepers killed by Islamist gangs for daring to sell alcohol, and of family businesses sold to ransom stolen children.
Some say that attacks on Christians had become common since Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled, in part because of the perception that Iraqi Christians are aiding the Americans. Despite the growing frequency of attacks, the leaders of Iraq’s Christians are urging their members to remain in Iraq or, if they have already left, to return.
World magazine (Aug. 14) reports that the new insurgency against Christians comes at a time when many churches are showing signs of new growth. “More importantly, they are acquiring a multiethnic face, as Assyrians and Chaldeans, Kurds and Turkomans, even former Bathists and an occasional Muslim convert — freed from the police state — can worship together.
Clergymen, too, have formed transethnic and transdenominational ties because for the first time in memory they can travel the country freely and meet together,” writes Mindy Belz.
(World, P.O. Box 20002, Asheville, NC 28802)
World Bank pays new attention to religion
In recent years, the World Bank has been moving to strengthen its understanding of and alliance with religious institutions, according to World Bank officers speaking at a conference organized by Aspen Institute in Lyon, France as well as at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona.
In an unpublished paper Katherine Marshall, counselor to the President of the World Bank and in charge of Development and Dialogue on Value and Ethics, writes that there are important intersections between the worlds of economic and social development and those of religion and faith. Today, Marshall writes, “a broadening recognition that the two worlds are and need to be linked in important respects.” A partnership with religious institutions may significantly help to implement development efforts, for instance.
The World Bank has attempted to create such bridges with the world of faith over the past few years, though not without controversy. An initiative to enhance the dialogue with religion, under the leadership of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and James D. Wolfenshohn, president of the World Bank, met strong opposition from the executive directors of the bank. Aside from thorny issues of church-state relations, many saw religion “as opposed in many respects to the fundamental goals of development institutions.”
Those issues raised by the governing body are not yet resolved, and the discussion within the World Bank continues. But Wolfensohn himself is still convinced that a dialogue process is necessary for the sake of the development agenda. Moreover, the new interest in civil society seems to be conducive to greater attention paid to the world of religion, which has previously gone unnoticed by many development practitioners.
Marshall is also co-editor of a book published in 2004 by the World Bank, Mind, Heart and Soul in the Fight Against Poverty, one of several publications recently issued by the World Bank on issues related to faith. The volume documents a variety of cases of cooperation between religious and development institutions. It remarks how religious institutions tend to be grounded close to their communities and are in a good position to understand human aspirations.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
Current Research: September 2004
01: The divisions over such issues as stem cell research, same-sex marriage and abortion are more pronounced and influenced by religious ideology among members of Congress than among their constituents, according to a study of congressional voting patterns over the last quarter-century.
The study, conducted by sociologists William D’Antonio and Steven Tuch, finds that religious affiliation helped create an ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats that virtually ensures a partisan split on most votes before lawmakers. The researchers checked the religious affiliation of members of Congress against their votes on abortion cast from 1979 to 2003 and then correlated those results with votes on other issues, such as military spending, welfare and tax reform.
The Washington Post (Aug. 28) reports that what D’Antonio and Tuch discovered were “trends in voting patterns relating to religious affiliation that went beyond the broadly acknowledged impact of evangelical Christianity in American politics, which began with the emergence of the Moral Majority in 1980.”
Democrats were more likely to support abortion rights and Republicans, anti-abortion measures. But members of Congress were more likely to vote on abortion issues based on personal convictions, religious or otherwise — votes that often conflicted with others in their party.
Today, there appears to be few, if any, disputes within parties over abortion, though the general population is more divided on the issue, particularly over the extent to which the procedure can be performed. “But on Capitol Hill, ethical nuances have given way to the party line, with Democrats typically favoring access to abortion and Republicans generally rejecting it,” the article adds.
James Guth, who has examined religious affiliation and voting patterns in the House of Representatives, says a “substantial increase” in the number of evangelical Protestants in Congress, most of them Republicans, has contributed to the moral climate of voting on abortion and other cultural issues.
02: A recent study of college students finds that the most religious tend to be politically conservative, except on the issues of the death penalty and gun control. The study, conducted by UCLA, surveyed 3,680 students at 46 colleges and universities and found that one-fifth of students described themselves as “highly religious.”
About the same percentage said they had low levels of religious engagement (defined by attendance at services and campus religious organizations and reading sacred texts). America magazine (Aug. 16-23) reports that the largest gap between the highly religious and those less so was in attitudes about casual sex (seven percent of highly religious students found it acceptable compared to 80 percent of the least religious) and on views on legalized abortion (24 percent wanted to keep it legal compared to 79 percent of the least religious). But on gun control, 75 percent of the most religious and 70 percent of the least felt that the federal government should do more to control the sale of handguns. Thirty eight percent of the most religious opposed the death penalty, compared to just 23 percent of the least religious.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019)
03: A new poll suggests that the Republican effort to court Jewish Americans has not been very successful. The Washington Times (Aug. 17) reports that the poll that shows George Bush trailing Sen. John Kerry among Jewish voters in the race for president by 53 percentage points.
The poll, conducted for the National Jewish Democratic Council, finds that Kerry leads Bush 75 percent to 22 percent–less than the 79 percent that exit polls said was won by the 2000 Democratic ticket of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. This low rating comes aftere Bush has shown strong support for Israel and has pursued a political outreach that included an official White House menorah-lighting ceremony and a Hanukkah party this past December.
This could set up an “ironic double win,” because polls show Kerry leading among Arab-Americans as well — a switch from Bush’s success with that bloc in 2000. The NJDC poll shows a dip in support from last year, when an American Jewish Council poll found Bush with 31 percent of support.
04: As many as 16 basic human needs motivate people to embrace religious faith, claims a recent study. Previous psychological research has explained religion in terms of one or two basic needs, such as fear of death and guilt.
Ohio State psychology professor Steven Reiss, who conducted the study, posits 16 human desires often motivating religious adherence, including power, family, status, romance and tranquillity. To develop what he calls his “sensitivity theory,” Reiss used a 120-question survey of about 10,000 people, reports the September issue of Science & Theology News.
(Science & Theology News, http://www.stnews.org)
05: Protestant ministers in the United States often have moderate familiarity with the core beliefs of Islam but little familiarity with religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions, according to a recent poll by Ellison Research.
Protestant clergy tend to be most familiar with Roman Catholicism and Judaism among non-Protestant faith groups, the study found. Forty-seven percent of respondents are familiar with the core beliefs of Islam, 43 percent with New Age beliefs, 28 percent with Buddhism, and 27 percent with Hinduism. Familiarity with different faith groups does not vary much by different areas of the country, but there are some differences denominationally.
On average, of five major denominational groups examined separately in the study findings, Methodists and Pentecostals are the least likely to be familiar with the beliefs of other faith groups, while Lutherans are the most likely.
06: Evangelical fathers are innovating a “neo-traditional” style of parenting that blends discipline with strong involvement and responsibility, according to research by sociologist Bradford Wilcox.
In an interview with Christianity Today (August), Wilcox, who recently wrote the book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, (University of Chicago Press) says that the tendency to equate patriarchal religion with domestic violence stands on shaky ground. Wilcox finds that practicing evangelical husbands have the lowest rates of domestic violence in the U.S. While evangelical fathers do exert stricter discipline and spank their children more than most other fathers, they have high rates of what Wilcox calls “familism,” which entails high views of the marital vow and involvement with their children.
Compared to the average American husband, evangelical men are more likely to spend time with their children and wife. Wilcox found that even though evangelical fathers do less housework than other men, they are more likely to thank their wives for the work they do. Wilcox notes,. however, that evangelicals who don’t practice the faith have the highest rates of domestic violence of any group in the U.S., as well as high divorce rates.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
07: While Buddhism has had disproportionate influence on Americans in relation to its actual size, it is mostly the non-affiliated who have felt such impact, according to a recent study.
In the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (September), Robert Wutnow and Wendy Cadge write that Americans affiliated with Buddhist groups only number an estimated one to four million, yet the number of people claiming contact with Buddhism or Buddhists has been found to be as high as 25-30 million.
Thirty percent of Americans claimed to be very or somewhat familiar with Buddhist teachings. The authors find that most Americans come into contact with Buddhism through their workplaces and travel, and by the “cultural capital” accrued from higher education. Contacts facilitated or inhibited by the kind of religious community in which one participates had little to do with the level of contact with Buddhists.
Contact with converts rather than with those born Buddhist proved to be the most influential. Evangelical and mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews were all less likely to be influenced by Buddhism than were people with no religious preference. But Buddhist influence has also been dispersed through non-Buddhist institutions, such as mainline congregations offering meditation seminars and the New Age movement.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148)
08: The rise of dissociative psychiatric disorders may be related to the growth of experiential spirituality in the last 30 years.
That is the provocative thesis of Tanna Luhrmann, an anthropologist writing inCriterion (Spring), the magazine of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Luhrmann writes that complaints of dissociative disorders, involving amnesia and in extreme cases the feeling of being possessed and having multiple personalities, became especially prominent in the 1980s and ’90s.
Patients and therapists often traced their problems to traumas, such as child abuse as well as satanic cult rituals and even alien abduction, although many investigators have challenged such claims.
Luhrmann writes that Americans in earlier centuries experienced similar psychosomatic complaints but by the early 20th century, such symptoms had disappeared from the medical record. “During that time, less than one paper per year was published on disassociation. By 1970, the rate began to rise; between 1980 and 1990, more than eighty clinical papers on dissociation and multiple personality disorder appeared each year.” It was during this period that experiential spirituality–from the New Age to charismatic Christianity–flourished, encouraging an inward consciousness and practices (such as various kinds of prayer and meditation) that create trance-like states.
The “intense interest in unusual spiritual experience in our culture — and trance phenomenon in particular — may provide an environment in which people who have been traumatized–either by actual childhood sexual abuse or simply by chaotic families — are more likely to pay attention to anomalous experiences…and report these experiences to clinicians.” Just as new religious forms compel people to have unusual experiences and form relationships with “unseen companions,” dissociative patients also attend to unusual experiences within themselves and relate these episodes to particular memories and parts of their personality.
(Criterion, Swift Hall, 1025 E. 58th St., Chicago, IL 60637-1577)
09: The large evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Korea are helping women negotiate rapid gender and social changes while reinforcing the traditional family, according to research by sociologist Kelly H. Chong.
In the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Summer), Chong writes that women have played a central role in the evangelical expansion in South Korea, which today has some of the world’s largest congregations. Economic and cultural changes have raised the educational and occupational levels of women, yet the traditional Confucian family structure remains the same, with arranged and semi-arranged marriages the norm. The high expectations that these modern changes have raised outside the home clash with “loveless marriages” and family conflict, leading women to seek healing and escape.
Through ethnographic research in congregations, Chong finds that a significant segment of these women converts suffer from stress-related illness and seek healing through their evangelical faith. Because there are few channels in Korean society where women can speak about domestic troubles, the churches have become important places of emotional release and healing, especially through the practice of prayer and the sharing found in small groups, writes Chong. The strong social dimension of these congregations serves as an “extra-domestic, female-centered community that serves as a crucial source of female autonomy.”
While these churches teach obedience and submission to husbands, the sociologist finds that women can turn submission into a way of reforming their husbands (leaving them in a “debt of long-term gratitude”) and make them more domestic. The evangelical church serves a “double role…providing women with the means with which to cope with domestic distress,” while “revalidating their conservative longings and internal ambivalence” about the family structure.
(Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 45 Francis Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138)
Court’s caution on church/state issues signaling privatized religion?
Recent church-state issues before the Supreme Court reveal a new caution and concern over religious pluralism and potential conflict in society, writes Richard W. Garnett in Commonweal magazine (Aug. 13).
The rulings handed down on such cases as “Elk Grove vs. Newdow, involving the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as the Court’s refusal to even review explosive debates involving the Ten Commandment monument in Alabama’s Supreme Court building and traditional mess hall prayers at Virginia Military Institute, shows an “uncharacteristic determination and avoid attention and sweeping, controversial conclusions,” writes Garnett.
Last spring, in the case of Locke v. Davey, Chief Justice William Rehnquist had crafted a “narrow, similarly cautious opinion reaffirming that publicly funded scholarship programs may include religious schools, but rejecting the far-reaching argument that under the first Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, they must.”
The Newdow case involving eliminating “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance was struck down by the Court on technical grounds that had little to do with an atheist’s objections to reciting these words. Rather, the ruling was framed around the questions of whether upholding the school’s pledge policy would send a message to nonadherents that they are “outsiders” and cause “political divisiveness along religious lines.”
The Justices’ fear that religion and believers should steer clear of political divisiveness and making a “public nuisance is in line with the growing national concern over American society being fractured on cultural issues. But the new caution may “enforce an ideology of privatized religion,” Garnett concludes.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115)
Cultural theorists seeking Christian resources
Cultural theorists, a broad term for academics in the humanities considered to be post-modern and post-Marxist, “are now turning to analysis and exposition of the conceptual resources and classic texts of Christianity as prompts and supports for their own work.”
In First Things magazine (August/September), Paul Griffiths writes that such prominent cultural theorists as Terry Eagleton, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have attempted to rehabilitate Christian themes and writings to breathe new life into their cultural criticism and theories. Eagleton has moved beyond Marxism to reclaim concepts and language from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to sustain his theories on justice and virtue in a world dominated by the free market.
Badiou has turned to St. Paul to elucidate his concepts of political freedom and universalism to counter particular ideologies. Griffiths notes, however, that Badiou has little use for the traditional Christian content in Paul’s writings. In contrast, Zizek sees biblical Christianity as depicting a “community of those free from political and economic domination,” even if he makes little room for the organized church.
He also views Christ’s death as a “self-sacrificial gesture of renunciation.” Griffiths concludes that “these yearnings of pagan or half-pagan cultural theorists for a Christianity half-forgotten or never properly known,” fall outside the parameters of orthodox Christianity, yet Christians need to engage such thinkers.
(First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010)