“A seismic shift in religion worldwide”

JERRY (no locale listed) SENDS THIS:

We’ve been seeing a seismic shift in religion worldwide. It manifests differently for different religions and different countries. This includes a struggle for the soul of Islam, the secularization of Europe, struggles in Protestant groups, etc…. I’d love to see you try to make some sense of where we’re headed at the “forest” level rather than looking at the “trees.”

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This fitting New Year’s theme requires longer-than-usual response. Compare Jerry’s first words with this quote: “We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide.” That sentence begins “The Next Christendom” (Oxford University Press, 3d edition, 2011) by Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins. He refers to the dramatic shift of global Christian momentum toward growing churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including places rife with poverty, pestilence, and oppression.

Meanwhile, many churches are stagnant or declining in more affluent North America and especially (yes) secularized Europe. The “World in 2013″ edition of Britain’s “Economist” magazine has a dour piece titled “Christianity at Bay” that emphasizes opposition to Christian tradition in the West, including gay marriage, with only passing mention of the church upsurge elsewhere.

The authoritative “forest” data on all faiths, nation by nation, come from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. The center projects that trends in 2025 will basically continue the following patterns in religions’ shares of the worldwide population in 1900 as compared with 2000:

– During the century, Christians of all types together slipped just a bit, from 34.5 percent to 33 percent.

– All Muslims (inclluding groups spurned by orthodox Sunnis) expanded from 12 percent to nearly 20 percent.

– The non-religious population scored even bigger gains, from negligible numbers to 12.7 percent, more due to Communist tyranny than voluntary secularization.

– Hindus were up slightly, Buddhists down slightly.

– There were massive losses for ethnic and tribal traditions such as Chinese folk religions, animism, and shamanism, dropping collectively from 31 percent to just over 10 percent.

– The small Jewish population declined even more sharply.

(A new Pew Research Center survey reports a different but roughly comparable global percentage breakdown as of 2012.)

Statistics aside, some other generalizations:

Indeed, there’s a major “struggle for the soul of Islam.” It pits devout, relatively moderate traditionalists against politicized or violent salafis, jihadists, and binladenites with thin religious credentials but ample zeal and growing populist appeal. From the West’s viewpoint, Islamic culture appears handicapped by inability to accommodate modern political, intellectual, economic, and religious freedom, and by the movement that continually terrorizes the innocent in God’s name, fellow Muslims included. Consider on how many Fridays Muslim thugs have murdered worshippers at mosques (not to mention murders of Christians at church).

A thought experiment for Muslims and other Religion Q and A followers: Will future historians regard all of that the worst damage inflicted on the moral stature of a great religion since Europe’s Catholic and Protestant rulers cocluded the Thirty Years’ War in 1648?  (The intra-Christian carnage in the cross-and-crown era was vastly exceeded by the death tolls under anti-Christian regimes in the 20th century.)

Turning to “forestry” within the United States:

– Christianity suffers from self-inflicted wounds. Seemingly unending sexual molestation scandals have undercut the standing of Catholic leadership. The homosexual issue and other biblical disputes profoundly divide Protestantism between conservative evangelicals, often portrayed as obscurantists or bigots, over against liberals, who seem adrift and uncertain about their heritage. Recent decades produced an unprecedented slide among relatively liberal churches and steady gains for the conservative Protestant congregations, which sometimes barely resemble the familiar churches of old as they strive to attract new members.

– Guilt by association with the above factors and lack of solid institutions somewhat weaken U.S. Islam’s effectiveness.

– Other immigrant faiths and home-grown creedal creations expand spiritual options but don’t broadly shape U.S. culture.

– Judaism faces a severe decline from secularism, sagging piety, and intermarriage.

U.S. religion over-all is threatened by alienation from the younger generation, by eroding respect, by challenges to the “free exercise of religion,” and by increasingly assertive secularism, cynicism, and atheism promoted by the media, lawyers, and academics.

Anything you’d like to add?

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Jerry

    Let me ask a couple of followup questions: do you expect these trends to continue over the next few years or are you seeing any signs that something new might change the trends? I’ve read a lot in the past of intentional communities specifically including Christian ones. How do these groups fit into the “forest”?

    • Richard Ostling

      Hard to say. Straight-line projections are always iffy. “Intentional communities” are of value to participants but more organized movements will presumably have greater impact.

  • MJBubba

    You mention challenges that include “atheism promoted by the media, lawyers, and academics.”
    I am aware that the media and academics skew much more secularist than the general population. Are lawyers also similarly skewed?

    • Richard Ostling

      I did not mean to tar all lawyers but a subset actively aids secularization through cases against religious expressions in public spheres while downplaying the Constitution’s “free exercise of religion” aspect.

  • FW Ken

    You might want to check whether the “seemingly unending sexual molestation scandals” are actually endless reporting. The percentage of priests accused is about half of the percentage of men in general who abuse. There is a tremendous amount of information out there on sexual abuse that’s being ignored in favor of scapegoating the Catholic people.

    • Richard Ostling

      Yes, indeed, teachers and coaches and family members also commit these heinous crimes, and alas so do Protestant and Jewish clergy. But I believe it’s inarguable that Catholic leaders’ handling of errant priests has brought considerable damage to the church — and to the standing of religion generally.

  • Sabrina

    There seems to be an increasingly vocal group who are decrying religion, but I say they’re still in the majority. I live in a city that is supposedly the least churched/least religious in the USA. Sure there are definitely some very vocal atheists and secular humanists living here, but I can tell you if one rides around Corvallis, Oregon (population: 50,000) they’ll see more churches than one can shake a stick at…and they do not sit empty on Sunday mornings, either. My own parish, while decidedly not a mega-church, is considered one of the fastest growing Eastern Orthodox parishes in the US. Also there is a significant community of neo-pagans and Wiccans living here. Plus I know of people who do believe in God but for one reason or another choose not to be affiliated with an established church or faith community. I would say that rather than secularism prevailing in North America and Europe, maybe there is an unnoticed trend toward people just being more quietly religious/spiritual because of the pressure to be secular in the public sphere? It seems like whenever anything starts to draw noticeable disapproval, the disapproved thing tends to go underground vs actually dying out. For a number of people, religious has been a deeply personal thing for them and they’d rather live it than talk about it. In short, I’m wondering if maybe this so called trend of irreligion, to paraphrase Mark Twain is really a matter of “the reports of (the) death (of religon) are greatly exaggerated.

  • Sabrina

    There seems to be an increasingly vocal group who are decrying religion, but I say they’re still in the minority. I live in a city that is supposedly the least churched/least religious in the USA. Sure there are definitely some very vocal atheists and secular humanists living here, but I can tell you if one rides around Corvallis, Oregon (population: 50,000) they’ll see more churches than one can shake a stick at…and they do not sit empty on Sunday mornings, either. My own parish, while decidedly not a mega-church, is considered one of the fastest growing Eastern Orthodox parishes in the US. Also there is a significant community of neo-pagans and Wiccans living here. Plus I know of people who do believe in God but for one reason or another choose not to be affiliated with an established church or faith community. I would say that rather than secularism prevailing in North America and Europe, maybe there is an unnoticed trend toward people just being more quietly religious/spiritual because of the pressure to be secular in the public sphere? It seems like whenever anything starts to draw noticeable disapproval, the disapproved thing tends to go underground vs actually dying out. For a number of people, religious has been a deeply personal thing for them and they’d rather live it than talk about it. In short, I’m wondering if maybe this so called trend of irreligion, to paraphrase Mark Twain is really a matter of “the reports of (the) death (of religon) are greatly exaggerated.

  • http://alessandrareflections.wordpress.com/ Alessandra

    FW Ken: “You might want to check whether the “seemingly unending sexual molestation scandals” are actually endless reporting. The percentage of priests accused is about half of the percentage of men in general who abuse. There is a tremendous amount of information out there on sexual abuse that’s being ignored in favor of scapegoating the Catholic people.”

    True. The institution with the biggest number of cases is the public school system (aside from familial environments). And 80% of the abusive priests in the US were men with a homosexual problem. No one in the media talks about the scourge of sexually abusive homosexuals in the Catholic Church, but that’s what it was.

    Regarding trends, it will be interesting to see what happens concerning Catholic priests – http://americamagazine.org/node/147272

    Since I find mandatory celibacy horrible, hopefully at least, the priest shortage crisis might lead more people to reconsider the question. Mandatory celibacy attracts men with deformed psycho-sexual dynamics, like homosexuals, pedophiles (of all orientations), perverse and/or hypocritical heterosexuals, etc.

  • Brian Westley

    “And 80% of the abusive priests in the US were men with a homosexual problem. No one in the media talks about the scourge of sexually abusive homosexuals in the Catholic Church, but that’s what it was.”

    Then where did you get your figures?

  • http://alessandrareflections.wordpress.com/ Alessandra

    …The report drew the 81 percent figure from the John Jay study on the nature and scope of clerical sexual abuse of minors, which was released at the same time as the report.

    The study said 22 percent of the alleged victims were under 11 years of age. It said about 51 percent were 11 to 14 years old and 27 percent were 15 to 17 years old. It said male victims tended to be older than female victims, and “over 40 percent of all victims were males between the ages of 11 and 14.”

    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/abuse/abuse01.htm


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