Friday, February 22, 2008

Which religion will usher in an era of peace?

One scholar's answer makes that question seem like a trick. It can be found in the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which follows the November issue of The Economist and asks the question, "Which Religion Will Win?" Inside are articles on "The Contest for Africa," "America's Evangelical Future" and "The Coming Religious Peace."

The last piece is what really caught my attention. I wondered, How could this be? How could we be primed for religious peace after a history of warfare, from David collecting the foreskins of 200 slain Philistines to the 500-year-long and mostly bloody war between Catholics and Protestants to the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites (and Kurds for that matter) preventing Iraq from creating a cohesive society?

The answer, according to scholar and scribe Alan Wolfe, is simple: None.
Consider what is occurring within the growing American evangelical movement. It has built megachurches that meet the needs of time-pressed professionals by offering such things as day-care centers, self-help groups, and networking opportunities. Its music owes more to Janis Joplin than to Johann Sebastian Bach. Its church officials learn more from business-school case studies than from theological texts. And its young people—well, as the children of parents who have gone through a born-again experience, they are not likely to be as obedient as the evangelical leader James Dobson wants them to be. Having opted to grow on secular terms, American evangelicalism is becoming less hostile to liberal ideas such as tolerance and pluralism. New efforts to take it in directions sympathetic to environmentalism and social justice are a direct result of the maturing of the faith, which followed from earlier decisions to make the movement more appealing to large numbers of Americans, especially the young.

Does the pattern hold outside America? After all, it is often said that the promulgation of secular values and lifestyles, one result of globalization, is prompting a reactionary religious backlash. There is some truth to this argument, but it misses the bigger picture. Most of the religious revivals we are seeing throughout the world today complement, and ultimately reinforce, secular developments; they are more likely to encourage moderation than fanaticism.
Agree or disagree with the prediction, there is logic to Wolfe's argument, one he borrows from Marx and Freud and Weber.

Wolfe writes, "When God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins," which is a bit too broad but often rings true. Nowhere is there more Mammon for most than in the United States, and religion has responded to the many demands placed on our lives in the pursuit of Mammon by making participation more convenient and more entertaining.

But, at the same time, the churches that are hiring the MBA-carrying applicants, the churches that are growing, are also the churches less tolerant of the tenants of secularism. Whereas the churches that are more traditional, the churches that are dying, are on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum.

If you look at the graph below from the magazine, based on data from Pew, it's incredibly clear that the United States is anomalous for the religious devotion of its denizens.

But does this mean American religion is destined for a "bubble burst," so to speak? I don't think so. The talk of the U.S. going the way of Europe -- of empty churches and godless worldviews -- is overblown. Especially when considering the fact that right now Mammon is becoming a lot harder to come by.

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