Vanguard: The Global Religious Resurgence
The Second Coming –
the Global Religious Resurgence
In recent years, the belief that the onset of modernity would ultimately lead to a decline in religious belief – a theory known as the secularization thesis – has been challenged by what seems to be a revival in religious adherence across the world. This resurgence is characterized by the growing saliency and persuasiveness of religious beliefs, practices and discourses in both personal and public life, as well as the growing role of religious or religiously related individuals, communities and organizations in the public sphere. Witness for example, the dramatic rise of Islam in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and elsewhere; the steep increase in the number of Christians in Africa and Latin America; and the wave of religious violence and terrorism. Outside of Western Europe, religion is gaining traction and visibility in the public sphere too. An Islamist party rules once-secular Turkey, Hindu nationalists may return to power in India and “ever more children in Israel and Palestine are attending religious schools.” In the US, President Obama’s leadership is couched in messianic terms, even as religious conservatives continue to assert their power in politics, the media and culture. Even in China “underground house churches are proliferating so quickly that neither the authorities nor Christian leaders can keep reliable count.”
What is the extent of this global religious resurgence, and how can it be explained? What does rising religiosity portend? This issue of Vanguardwill attempt to take a closer look at these areas.
The global resurgence of religion is taking place throughout the world in different religious traditions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, among others. However, the world religions that have the most rapid growth rate are Islam and Evangelical Protestantism. It is estimated for example, that the percentage of adherents of Islam will change from roughly 20% today to approximately 23% in 2025. Meanwhile, in the next several decades, Christianity will remain the most adhered-to religion in the world (roughly 33%), though within Christianity, there is a shift of mostly evangelical adherents from Europe and North America to Latin America and Africa. Hence, if a strictly numerical notion of religious resurgence were to be taken, it should focus on Islam and Evangelism as the main contemporary examples of this phenomenon. Several other features characterize the religious resurgence.
First, the religious resurgence is global in a geographic sense. Indeed, the global resurgence of religion seems to be following a massive general demographic shift in population from the developed countries in the North – Europe and North America, to the developing countries – the global South. It is estimated that the North will account for only 10-12% of the world’s population in 2050. The massive demographic shift is complemented by a cultural shift to religions with high birth rates and high levels of religiosity in the developing world compared to low birth rates and low levels of religiosity in the developed world. These are all therefore major contributors to the resurgence, most strongly evidenced in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, China, and South East Asia.
Although the resurgence of religion is taking place in countries at different levels of economic development, for the most part, religious fervour is inversely related to material progress. Religion is less prevalent in developed countries where people are secure and comfortable with their material surroundings than in developing countries. In 2008, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious beliefs, gauged by responses to several questions about faith. According to the findings of the study, most of the wealthy developed countries, with the notable exception of America, were found to be less religious than poorer developing countries. As highlighted in the graph below, the Western European countries are the least religious, along with the more prosperous countries in Asia – Japan and South Korea. At the same time, the Eastern European countries were more religious than their counterparts in the West, but less so when compared to poorer Latin American, African and Asian countries.
Not everyone agrees that there is a worldwide religious resurgence. Some argue that religion never really went away, and that the visibilty of religion is attributable to the communications revolution. Others argue that religion seems to be witnessing a decline. An Apr 09 Newsweek poll of Americans’ attitudes about religion and faith, has for example, revealed that the number of Americans claiming to be Christian has declined by 10 percentage points since 1990, while the number who claimed no religious affiliation has increased. Still, according to Newsweek, just because Americans are “less Christian” does not mean that they are becoming less religious. According to the poll, Americans continue to hold steadfast in their faith in a spiritual being, and America continues to remain vibrantly religious – far more so, for instance, than Europe.
Seeking Existential Security
What accounts for this religious revival? Social theorists and academics see the rise in religiosity as a defensive reaction or backlash to globalization and modernization. Increasing numbers of people who have become disenchanted with the seemingly destabilizing effects of modernity – the fragmentation of society, the emptiness of consumerism and materialism, the breakdown of families, widespread socio-economic grievances, erosion of traditional morality and values, social dislocation and culture shock – are turning to religion to establish meaning and order in an otherwise rapidly changing and often confusing world. Hence, they focus on their individual culture or religion even more to retain a sense of self and identity, and to give them solace and comfort. In this instance, religious resurgence is a response to a general ‘atmosphere of crisis’, and serves as a familiar touchstone that individuals turn to in times of stress. Little wonder then that we are witnessing a surge in the number of worshippers seeking divine intervention at temples, synagogues, churches and mosques during the current economic crisis.
Rather than leading to secularization, the social upheaval and economic dislocation associated with modernization has therefore led to a renewal of traditional religions. Interestingly, it should be noted that whilst religious resurgence is often represented as a backlash to globalization, it also owes its strength to the communications revolution wrought by globalization. Religion has harnessed modern technologies and communications, whether the television or internet, to spread its message. Ironically, then, however much it attempts to contest it, religious resurgence and globalization do not represent a contradiction but are essentially two sides of the same coin. Religious resurgence has drawn strength from the effects of globalization.
Most observers agree that one effect of rising religiosity is manifested in the accompanying emergence of fundamentalist trends in almost every major world religion. Although but a facet of the general religious revival, religious fundamentalism, in its most extreme form, has manifested itself as religiously motivated terrorism. Although only a small minority of fundamentalists have gained notoriety by committing acts of terror, even religious fundamentalists at their most law-abiding seem to be gaining increasing influence. It is crucial therefore, that we take a closer look at fundamentalism.
Although the term “fundamentalism” was first coined by conservative evangelicals within the mainstream Protestant denomination to describe their desire to go back to the fundamentals of their faith, as a generic term, it is now used to describe a multitude of groups both within and outside the Christian faith who claim that the “profound social crisis” caused by modernity can only be overcome by a return to the foundations of their respective religious traditions. Such fundamentalists have in common a fear that their way of life is under threat from the unwelcome liberalization of social mores and values, and the influences of secular-oriented governments. As a result, religious fundamentalists, believing themselves to be beleaguered, seek to alter prevailing socio-political realities by trying to reform society, either by violent or non-violent means in accordance with what they believe are suitable religious tenets and to change the laws, morality, social norms and, if necessary, the political configurations of their polity to build a more traditional society. Fundamentalists may also struggle against co-religionists, whom they perceive as lax in their religious duties, and against members of other faiths.
Conflict or Peace?
Would a more religious world, with its attendant increase in religious fundamentalism, necessarily mean a more fractious world? To be sure, most observers agree that fundamentalism can, and will continue to breed pockets of bitter, sometimes violent religious clashes, terror or tension, especially where they intersect with other social, political and economic realities, and these could persist. Under this argument, the potential for intra and inter religious conflicts between competing belief systems will also continue to exist as evidenced by religiously motivated conflicts in Nigeria (Muslim-Christian), the Middle East (Sunni-Shiite), and even closer home in the Philippines and Indonesia (Muslim-Christian).
But scholars also point to increasing evidence of what can be termed a negation of fundamentalism, violent or otherwise, in any faith as religions also evolve in ways that encourage moderation. Under this argument, religions are flourishing in ways that allow them to fit more easily in secular societies, thereby weakening their potential for disruption.
The growth of the evangelical Christian movement both in America is a case in point. Mega-churches are being built to meet the needs of professionals by offering such services as day-care centers, self-help groups and networking opportunities. Evangelical music owes more to pop culture than to hymns, and church officials learn more from business school case studies rather than theological texts. Having opted to grow on secular terms, the Christian evangelical movement has become more accommodative and tolerant of pluralism. The pattern is prevalent in other religions too. For example, it has been reported that Muslims in both North America and Western Europe are turning their mosques into all-purpose religious institutions and accepting innovations in gender equality. Proponents of this alternative view have also highlighted that the secular underpinnings of the religious revival, and religion’s ability to adapt itself to the cultural practices of the societies that they are based in, could promote religious peace too. Under this argument, secularism and religion are not mutually exclusive opposites, but can interact and work together.
As can be seen above, religion is increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with, as it becomes a refuge for the fears, anxieties and desires that seem to be a response to the peculiar difficulties of life in the modern secular world. It is likely to remain an essential part of the modern scene, and its role, and interactions within the secular public domain will need to be negotiated by communities and governments around the world.