BY DOUGLAS TODD, VANCOUVER SUN JANUARY 12, 2013
Many predicted religion would die out as secularism spreads around the planet. But so far they’ve been wrong, mostly.
Religion and spirituality remain extremely powerful across the globe, even while atheism gains more attention, pluralism expands and traditional institutions lose some of their authority. It’s a challenge to keep track of the trends.
The Religion Newswriters Association does its bit to monitor shifting religious winds each year by asking U.S. and Canadian religion writers (including me) to name the year’s top religion stories.
But the results are U.S.-centric. For instance, a majority of RNA members last month voted that the top religion story of 2012 was U.S. Catholic leaders’ opposition to Barack Obama’s required insurance coverage of contraception.
It was a relevant story for Americans and interesting for Canadians. But neither it nor many of the other top-ranked North American religion stories strongly affect the rest of the world. And, after all, that’s where 19 out of 20 people live.
With Canada becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, I am learning Canadians are becoming just as curious about religious upheavals in Europe, India and East Asia as they are about spiritual evolutions in the nearby U.S.
Canadians are donning wider lenses in part because one in five residents was born outside the country.
That proportion jumps to a remarkable one in two among residents of Metro Toronto and Metro Vancouver. Even many people born on Canadian soil remain passionate about what’s arising in their ancestral homelands.
In response, this Vancouver-based religion writer (who is also one of the directors of the newly formed International Association of Religion Journalists) will offer his perspective on 10 key trends in global religion and spirituality.
Here they are, with help from the peerless newsletter Religion Watch (produced by Richard Cimino in New York and Jean-Francois Mayer in Switzerland):
1 The ‘non-religious’ are on the rise, but only in pockets
The trend lines look both good and bad for activist atheists like Richard Dawkins. Ten thousand secularists showed up last year to call out his name at a rally in Washington, D.C. The percentage of “non-religious” people has jumped to 20 per cent in the U.S., 24 per cent in Canada (and 40 per cent in Metro Vancouver).
Many in this cohort, however, are not actual atheists. They are “spiritual but not religious.” Outside of North America, former Communist countries such as East Germany are more assertive, with 52 per cent declaring they are atheists. Europe, Japan and other East Asian countries, such as China, also have high proportions of atheists.
But the respected Pew Forum maintains 5.8 billion of the world’s 6.9 billion people continue to claim a religious affiliation.
2 Homosexuals press for global acceptance, with bizarre twists
The Church of England upset all sides last week by announcing that homosexuals living in civil partnerships could become bishops – but only if they remain non-sexual. Liberal Anglicans in Canada and the U.S. were appalled. Meanwhile, homosexual Iranians are going to extremes. In record numbers compared with other countries, Iranian gays are circumventing Muslim ayatollahs’ absolute ban on homosexual relationships by having sex-change operations. Foreign Policy magazine says the Iranian government judges the operations perfectly acceptable.
3 Lutheranism is behind Germany’s economic strength.
Protestant leader Martin Luther died in 1546. But his Reformation legacy continues in the German ethic of “sacrifice” for the common good. Even though many Germans and Scandinavians no longer attend the once-dominant LutheranChurch, Harvard professor Steven Ozment says they continue to make choices based on Lutheran values of frugality, obligation to the poor and personal responsibility – leading to national economic fairness and resiliency. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.
4 Persecution of Christians – and Muslims – expands
North American media outlets often report on the persecution of Christian minorities in countries such as Egypt and Nigeria. But we hear little about how Muslims around the world are also hounded, intimidated and sometimes killed. The Pew Forum found in 2012 that religious repression is expanding around the planet. Christians are being harassed, or worse, in 130 countries. Muslims are experiencing various forms of bullying in 117 countries.
5 Think North America has polygamy issues?
Try South Africa The several thousand Mormon fundamentalists who practice polygamy in B.C. and the Western U.S. frequently make the headlines. But they are a blip compared to the polygamous arrangements embraced by many South Africans, including President Jacob Zuma. Indeed, South Africa is increasingly shaped by unusual spiritual beliefs, according to David Chidester’s book Wild Religion. Top government figures in South Africa are promoting animistic religions and even a New Age theocracy – while radical Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, UFO devotees and Zulu shamans are also exercising their political muscles.
6 Religions and business join forces in China
Since Canada is home to hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants, it’s worth following trends in their officially atheistic homeland – where Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are managing to lure more converts. While China worries most about these religions gaining political power, Religion Watch reports entrepreneurs and missionaries are working in tandem to market their faiths in China’s teeming cities. Buddhism, once almost dead in China, has especially grown, to an estimated 100 million adherents.
7 Well-off Indians ignite Hindu revival
The cliché about India is it’s a cradle of Eastern mysticism. But it turns out an Indian atheist organization, Andhashaddha Nirumulan Samiti, is flourishing as it works to debunk superstition. The group has offshoots in Metro Vancouver’s huge South Asian community. Indeed, Hinduism has been struggling so much in recent years in the country of one billion people, it’s now become newsworthy that Hinduism is being revived among India’s expanding middle and upper classes.
8 Sun Myung Moon’s death signals end of a ‘radical’ era.
The Korean founder of the so-called Moonies died in 2012.
At its peak, the UnificationChurch was worth billions of dollars and controlled a U.S. media empire. Now the children of the man who claimed he was the messiah are struggling to keep stability in their declining organization, which many labelled a “cult” for its rightwing authoritarianism and proclivity to marry thousands of couples in a single ceremony. The death of Moon marks the end of a generation of radical charismatic religious leaders from the 1960s and ’70s.
9 Eastern Europe and Russia are opening to a spiritual smorgasbord
With the end of Soviet communism, which repressed religion, a dizzying array of spiritual groups are coming to the fore in Russia and Eastern Europe. The young and the well-off are expressing belief in God – with many returning to the Christian Orthodox Church. But, according to Miklos Tomka’s book Expanding Religion, they’re not going back to blindly accepting traditional Christian doctrine. They’re making independent spiritual choices.
10 Muslims want democracy, too
North Americans often complain that Muslims from the Middle East or Indonesia can’t stand democracy. But the Arab Spring uprisings, and reputable polls, suggest otherwise. The journal Politics and Religion has found Muslims across the globe are hungry for democracy, mostly for its perceived economic benefits and security, less for its support of individual freedoms. While the Muslim Brotherhood has received widespread electoral backing in Egypt, specialists suggest that among Arab Spring countries, the one with the most authentically “liberal democratic” Muslims is Tunisia.