The Past, Present, and Future of Religion


Every year, numerous pundits and forecasters offer their crystal-ball takes on financial futures, political potentials, and what they think will be the calendar-defining or epoch-making events in the year to come.

But what about religion?

As 2022 ended, I had the chance to look back on, and forward to, the year in religion.

Working with the Religion News Association (RNA) – a 73-year-old trade association for reporters who cover religion in the news media – I helped oversee a poll of its membership on the top religion stories over the previous year. Then, in my capacity as Editor for ReligionLink – a monthly resource for reporters writing on religion – I put together some predictions for the big religion news to come in 2023.

The two experiences gave me an opportunity to reflect on religion’s persistent and ubiquitous role in global events. They also underscored once more how a basic knowledge of religion is not so much about understanding worlds beyond, but the world we live in right now.

Everywhere you look, religion!

Reviewing religion headlines in 2022 to select a short list of candidates for the “Top Religion Story” of the year, it was hard to narrow things down.

When the dust settled, we had a list of 50 different items – 20 from the U.S., 20 from around the globe, and a list of 10 religion “newsmakers” – that covered a wide range of events, countries, traditions, and personalities.

In the U.S., we had stories like the mixed success of Christian nationalist candidates in the midterm primaries and a blistering report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Top international stories included controversies around Qatar’s hosting the soccer World Cup and Pope Francis’ historic apology in Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools for Indigenous children.

Newsmakers included distinguished figures who died (e.g., Queen Elizabeth II as former head of the Church of England and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist), prominent politicians and leaders like Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and everyday heroes like Christa Brown, whose advocacy for fellow survivors of sexual abuse helped force a reckoning over the Southern Baptist Convention’s history of mishandling cases of sexually abusive ministers and of mistreating victims and Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, who offered a cup of tea to a guest and then navigated a 10-hour hostage siege by an armed visitor before reaching safety.

In the end, RNA members voted that the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade was the top U.S. religion story, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine was named the top international religion story. The Iranian women who protested against their nation’s theocracy were named 2022’s newsmakers.

The stories – and newsmakers – were a diverse array, touching on almost every major headline from the year that was.

Wherever you looked in the news, religion was there – influencing decision makers, motivating the masses, complicating conflicts, or playing a role in efforts at making peace.

The same holds true when looking ahead to 2023. Although it is impossible to be sure about any predictions (especially my own), it looks like religion will play an active role in world-shaping events that will grab our headlines, fill our screens, and grip our imaginations over the next twelve months.

From its role in the global economic downturn to how communities will respond to our aging population and the damaging impact of climate change to blockbuster movies and the ongoing war in Ukraine, religion will feature prominently in the news to come.

Why study religion? It’s pretty obvious…

This is why it just makes sense to study religion.

As my alma mater, the University of Florida Department of Religion says on their website:

Religion has always been with us. Religion is powerful and persistent. Religion shows no sign of disappearing.

Religion is a cultural, political, and economic phenomenon that has marked, shaped, and radically altered the course of human history. It is no different today.

While many believed that the modern world would spell the end of religion, it remains an obstinate and overwhelming factor in peoples’ lives.

In 2020, nearly 84% of the world’s population still identified with a particular religious tradition (e.g., Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism). A further 9% were in some way religious and/or “spiritual.” That means that 9-out-of-10 people around the globe have some kind of religious belief or practice that defines their world and their interactions with it.

Although studying religion is often an elective – or left out of the curriculum completely – understanding what it is, how it works, and why it matters seems to be essential to comprehending the world itself.

Looking at last year’s headlines – and looking ahead to this year’s news – we become quickly aware of how religion is integrally involved with how civilizations are shaped, politics play out, and economies evolve.

To read the news and, by extension, understand the world’s peoples and societies, as well as the conflicts within and between them, it is essential we understand religion.

Religion in 2023 and beyond…

When I started writing for Patheos this time last year, my column began with the basic premise that without “religion class,” we fail to appreciate “how religion is part-and-parcel to our everyday lives, whether we consider ourselves ‘religious’ or not.”

Here at “What you missed without religion class,” we looked at an old-school pilgrimage revived in southern Germany, the motivations behind women’s protests in Iran, and what James Bond has to say about religion on the occasion of the film series’ 60th-anniversary. At each turn, and by studying religion, we learned more about the world and what makes it tick.

Reviewing 2022’s top stories with the RNA and playing prophet with ReligionLink, I know there will be plenty of fodder for our future consideration as well.

My hope, and invitation, is that you will continue to join me as we take that religion class we never got growing up and learn how we can understand, and negotiate, the increasingly pluralistic 21st-century world.

1/4/2023 1:02:57 AM
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  • Ken Chitwood
    About Ken Chitwood
    Ken Chitwood is a religion nerd, writer and scholar of global Islam and American religion based in Germany. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and numerous other publications. He is the author of The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow Ken on Twitter @kchitwood.