NEW YORK, JULY 22, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Far from fading away in the shadow of modernity and prosperity, religious fervor is, in fact, growing. This is the argument of an article, “Why God is Winning,” published in the July-August issue of the magazine Foreign Policy.
The authors, Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft, explain that one of the most recent confirmations of their thesis was the win last January of the Hamas party in the Palestinian elections.
After the election, one supporter of Hamas replaced the flag flying over the parliament with a banner proclaiming Mohammad. Soon afterwards the violent protests in many countries over the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed provided further evidence of the strength of Islamic fervor.
This was not just an isolated incidence, Shah and Toft maintain. “Voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests,” they say.
Religiously-inspired politics has played an important role in situations such as the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the victory of Hindu nationalists in India in 1998.
In the United States, evangelicals have played an increasingly important part in elections in recent years. “Democracy is giving the world’s peoples their voice, and they want to talk about God,” the article notes.
The strengthening of religion is taking place at a time when democracy and freedom has spread in the world. The opening up of political processes in countries such as India, Nigeria, Turkey, and Indonesia during the past decade led to a much greater influence by religion in political life.
A similar trend has taken place with regard to economic life. Even though poverty is still a serious problem in many countries a lot people are now better off in economic terms. But as the world’s population has become wealthier and more educated they have not turned their backs on God. A case in point is the rapid economic development in China, accompanied by a strong growth in religious belief.
Citing data from the World Christian Encyclopedia, the Foreign Policy article points out that the two largest Christian faiths — Catholicism and Protestantism — and the two largest non-Christian religions — Islam and Hinduism — have increased their share of the world’s population in the year 2000 compared to a century earlier.
The four religions together accounted for 50% of the global population at the start of the 20th century. This had risen to nearly 64% by the beginning of the 21st century, and it could rise to nearly 70% by 2025.
But the religious upsurge is not evenly distributed, point out Shah and Toft. “Today’s religious upsurge is less a return of religious orthodoxy than an explosion of ‘neo-orthodoxies,'” they argue.
These groups have in common the ability for good organization and political savvy. They are also quick to utilize new technologies to reach potential believers and translate their numbers into political power. This has been the case with Hindu groups in India, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Pentecostals in Brazil.
There are concerns, however, that such groups may be too extreme in their views and that they can also provoke civil conflicts. But even if there are negative aspects to some uses of religious fervor, religion has played a positive role in supporting democracy and human rights in many countries.
Shah and Taft further explained their case in an interview posted on the Web site of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In the text, dated July 18, they note that attention has been focused in recent years on Islam. It is not just an Islamic question, however, and the Islamic question needs to be understood in a broader context of religion in the world.
They also admitted that a number of Western countries, among them European nations, Canada and Japan, are quite secular. Even so, religious debates and groups still play a role in these countries. In Europe, for example, many recent debates on issues such as Turkey’s entry to the European Union or immigration, involve Islam and the role of religion in European identity.
In trying to account for the current strength of religion, Shah and Taft opine that a change began in the late 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. In the developing world, the secular leaders and ideologies that promised progress began to fail. This was the case, for instance, in both Egypt and Iran.
The subsequent defeat of Soviet communism accelerated this process, creating a vacuum that religious groups were able to fill. In addition, a number of “prophetic” religious leaders, from John Paul II to Islamic figures, have exercised a large degree of authority and influence over their followers in recent times. The mobilization of religious believers in the United States has also been an important factor in influencing political and social life, with consequences both inside and outside America.
Until recently, however, religion’s role in politics was given little weight by analysts. That has changed now and both academic circles and governments are taking religion more seriously.
Another view of religion in the modern world comes from Ronald Inglehart, chairman of the World Values Survey, and a professor at the University of Michigan. A transcript of an interview with Inglehart at the National Press Club, dated May 8, is also available on the Pew Web site. The most recent values survey, the fifth, is now being carried out, with results to be published next year.
Inglehart underlined the complexity of the situation regarding religion. In many countries religion is declining. But, he continued, “there are more people alive today with traditional religious beliefs than ever before in history, and they’re a larger percentage of the world’s population than they were 20 years ago.”
There was secularization involved with economic changes, although the United States does provide an exception to this process. But the secularization took place mainly in the period of industrialization, and is still going on in some countries. This led to a decline in religion in many countries and the weakening of established religious organizations. In many Western nations, for example, church attendance is down.
The situation has changed, however, in the post-industrial or knowledge-based societies. In these countries there is an increasing debate over issues related to religious values, for example, over the question of same-sex marriage.
So while traditional churches may still face many challenges, there is a greater interest among the population for spiritual questions. Questions of culture and religion, therefore, do have greater weight in today’s world.
Inglehart also pointed out that there is a notable difference between the economically advanced countries and the developing nations. The new interest in religion in developed countries is different in that it is less accepting of authority and linked to what is termed new age beliefs. In the developing countries, however, there is significantly more emphasis on traditional religion and this has not changed in recent years. In fact, they are not secularizing and are placing more emphasis on traditional religion.
This divergency in religious attitudes is a possible source of conflict, Inglehart noted. This conflict is not inevitable, but is a potential fault line where it could occur. So globalization has not brought with it greater conformity and convergence in terms of cultural and religious values. A situation that will no doubt be closely studied in coming years.