A Transnational Approach to Religion

Kwok Pui-lanBy Kwok Pui-lan

Scholars have predicted that religion will decline because of modernization, secularization, and the development of science and technology. The decline of church attendance in Europe and America since the 1960s seems to reflect this trend. But if we look beyond the North Atlantic, a different religious landscape emerges.

One Sunday last September, I worshiped at Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, the largest church in China, which can sit 5,000 people. The church was filled to the maximum. Protestant Christianity in China enjoys phenomenal growth. In 1949, China had about 700,000 Protestants; today the number is estimated to be 50-55 million, if we include membership in the underground churches. Religious fervor is not limited to the churches alone. In Buddhist and Daoist temples, many devotees burn incense, offer prayers, and make donations. A Chinese scholar in religion told me that even though religion was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), popular religiosity never vanished, for it is very much a part of the fabric of Chinese life.

Several years ago I attended an interfaith meeting at a city near Bandung in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Every morning devout Muslims chanted their prayers at dawn. At the community center we visited, Muslim women talked enthusiastically about their faith and the community services the center provided. Little kindergarten girls wore headscarves and pink uniforms to go to school. Islam has been mobilized for the construction of national identity and it is so integrated in their lives that I saw no sign of its influences abated.

It is myopic and colonial to use a narrow Eurocentric lens to gauge the diverse religious phenomena of humankind and to project the future of religion. Instead, we must adopt a contextual, multiaxial, and transnational approach. As sociologist Roland Robertson has said, globalization will not obliterate traditional religion, and will enhance it in some cases, since it prompts people to think about their heritage. Globalization has brought about disruptions and disjunctures, but it also provides impetus for developing new religious forms and for renegotiating identities in a world in flux.


Read More from: The Future of Religion

In the 21st century, Christianity will be a non-Western religion, as Christian demographics has shifted to the global South. At the turn of the 20th century, 70 percent of the world’s Christians were Europeans, but by 2025, Africans and Latin Americans will make up the majority of Christians. To understand the tremendous church growth in Africa, we have to pay attention to the responses of the church to the poverty and suffering that has plagued the continent, the adaptation of African Indigenous Churches to African cultural forms, and the roles of indigenous leadership. As Lamin Sanneh of Yale University has said, it is noteworthy that such vitality has occurred without the structures and institutions that defined Western Christianity. In China as well, it was only when foreign missionaries had left and the Chinese assumed the responsibilities of propagating the Gospel that rapid church growth occurred. It is regrettable that Philip Jenkins uses the concept “the new Christendom” to characterize the coming of global Christianity. By using the medieval concept of Christendom, Jenkins reactivates a Eurocentric script, without paying sufficient attention to the enormous diversity of Christianity in the global South.

We will benefit from a comparative and transcultural frame in studying the decline of mainline Christianity in Europe and America and the rise of religious diversity. Many religions coexisted in Europe before Christianity became the state religion during Constantine’s reign. It was because of imperial formation that one religion and a monolithic culture were forced upon the peoples. Some of the religions of Old Europe went underground but continued to exist in other forms, such as some elements in Celtic Christianity. Today in Europe and America, it is no longer a taboo for people not to attend church and to try out other religious and spiritual paths.

The seeming decline of Christianity leads people as diverse as Samuel P. Huntington and Pat Buchanan to ask “Who are we?” as Americans. In Europe, the debates over wearing headscarves to schools in France and the controversy over the cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper point to the uneasy attitudes toward religious minorities. But the questions about religious toleration and religious rights of minorities are not new. Many countries in Asia and Africa have a long history of struggling with cultural and religious diversity in national formation. They may provide insights for countries on both sides of the North Atlantic to deal with religious minorities and diversity of religious expressions.