At a glance:
- Have religious people retained their creative flexibility in the 21st century?
- What defines religions and what purpose do they serve?
- There’s a tendency in all religions to become literal and fundamentalist at some stage in their history.
It stands as what might often seem to be a solitary symbol of the unity between the world’s religions. The Haus der Religionen, in Bern, Switzerland brings together worship rooms for eight faiths in a single building. “It was a local project that we never expected to get such publicity for,” says Anne Hampel, spokesperson for the Haus, which was inaugurated five years ago with the intention of encouraging those of different faiths to mingle and converse.
“The Swiss government now likes to bring international dignitaries here on visits. But really it’s a laboratory for something that hasn’t been done before, a space to allow people to get to know each other beyond the borders of religion.”
It’s an important gesture in times of growing religious violence around the globe: Islamic extremism in the Middle East, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, and the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Pew Research Center, last year more than a quarter of the world’s countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred.
It was, perhaps, ever thus, some say out of a perversion of core teachings, others because religions underscore certainties and sanctify martyrdom. And when, despite a broad and gradual shift towards secularism—according to 2015 figures, 16 percent of the global population now describe themselves as having no religious affiliation at all (which isn’t to say they’re all atheists)—the remaining 84 percent of the world’s population do identify themselves with a religious group.
Most of these people identify with one of the big five world religions: Christians are the biggest group, accounting for around 31.2 percent of the global population (that’s some 2.3 billion people), followed by Muslims at 24.1 percent, Hindus at 15.1 percent, and Buddhists at 6.9 percent. Folk religions account for six percent and Judaism 0.2 percent.
They’re on the increase too. Yes, religion may be on the wane in Europe and North America, but, largely down to birth rates, it’s growing everywhere else, with Islam the fastest-growing—more than twice as fast as the global population, in fact—with a 70 percent increase in the numbers of Muslims expected within the next 40 years.
The number of Christians is expected to grow by 34 percent, again outpacing population growth but meaning it’s likely to lose its top spot.
Do these civilisation-shaping religions have anything in common, as might have been suggested by a publishing project two years ago that launched a split-page format book aiming to show the similarities between the Bible and the Quran, all those shared prophets, interest in Jerusalem, pilgrimage and singing? Might Pope Francis’s call for all religions to come together to combat modern forms of enslavement have much chance of actually happening?
“Not much,” according to Zeba Crook, associate professor of religious studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, an expert in Christianity and author of Religions of a Single God. “The fact is that some religions, like Islam, have founder figures and some, like Hinduism, don’t. Some have scriptures and some don’t. Some practice sacrifice and some don’t. Some go for resurrection, others for reincarnation,” he says.
“Look closer and they’ve all crossed paths through history and exchanged ideas— and they have some weird things in common really, such as the fact that Christianity and Buddhism have a separation of the monastic and laity, whereas Islam doesn’t and Judaism doesn’t.
“But all that really unites them,” Crook adds, “is an ethical framework that’s basically the same or at least similar—the sense that there’s something bigger than you, that’s beyond human. They’re not about saying be good for goodness’ sake, but because there will be consequences. Ethics haven’t always been a universal part of the religious experience, but it’s how the big five have been shaped.”
But another crucial characteristic they’ve shared is, as Crook stresses, the ability to adapt to survive. “You have to remember that most religions die—that there are many more dead ones than living ones,” he says. “The worship of Zeus doesn’t exist now because Christ killed off that. Christianity almost died off at the hand of Muslims when they reached Spain. It could have easily happened. Others won’t survive—Scientology, for example, just isn’t growing at the necessary rate.”
But ancient religious peoples were also creative peoples and not just in their art, stories, traditions and communities. Destroy their temple or kill their leader and they respond by using that event to create something new. That, he contends, is why the major religions are still around and, together with their critical mass, why they will always be with us.
The question, rather, is whether they have retained that flexibility in the 21st century—in the face of science’s ever more potent ability to explain the workings of the world and beyond; in the face of growing scepticism about religious claims; in the face of intellectual and physical freedoms butting up against doctrine? As often seems to be cited as some kind of liberal litmus test, what of their attitudes to sexuality, for example?
That’s not an easy one to answer since each of the big religions—and one reason for conflict within as well as between the faiths—has multiple sub-denominations. A Muslim, for example, might be Sunni, Ibadi, Shia, Sufi or Ahmadiyya, each with their own take, each subject to the influence of local culture. Christianity, likewise, is rapidly disappearing in New Zealand, but seeing massive growth in Africa. In the US, Christianity is politically significant and often evangelical, but, literally just across the border, it’s neither the case in Canada.
“Often the influence of a religion is just an accident of history. It’s totally random,” argues Crook. “Religious people like to talk about god’s hand at play, but those who study the history of religion tend to see things in much more materialistic terms. Religions talk about faith, but history isn’t so predictable.”
The major religions almost universally condemn adultery and, more trickily these days, premarital sex. Psychologists have even argued that, far from religions being inherently sexually conservative, it’s people with restrictive reproductive attitudes that seek out religion to underpin those values: the number of lifetime sex partners turns out to be a very good indicator of church attendance.
But sub-denominations can have widely different ‘policies’ while claiming to be of a same faith: most schools of Buddhism skirt around homosexuality, for example, but Tibetan Buddhism specifically discourages it—but not for women. One Christian branch, Anglicanism, is currently slowly tearing itself apart over its attitudes to homosexuality and gay ordination; the Catholic Church might often be presented as a coherent entity, and yet Catholics in Africa have huge families while those in North America tend to have standard nuclear families.
“How so? Because they use contraception in open defiance of the teachings of their church,” says Crook.
“I hope that religions become more like me—more cosmopolitan, more metrosexual. And some are. But that’s just a hope. Study religion and over time you become more and more conscious of just what a human construct religion is.”
Take the role of geography and, by turns, of family and peer groups. They don’t like hearing it, but most religious people’s faith, or their version of it, is— with the exception perhaps of Buddhists—in part a product of their location: 75 percent of religious people live in a country where they form a majority of the population—97 percent of all Hindus live in India, Nepal and Mauritius; 87 percent of Christians live in the 157 Christian majority countries, and so on.
Even the religiously unaffiliated are connected by territory. Asia-Pacific may be the most populous region in the world and the most religious—being home to 99 percent of Buddhists, 99 percent of Hindus and 90 percent of those practising folk religions—but it’s also home to 76 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, 700 million of whom are Chinese.
And that’s while China has seen a 10 percent year on year growth in Protestantism over recent decades. For all that so-called ‘fundamentalist’ atheists might wish it, religion just won’t go away. At least not yet. Certainly, in an age of identity politics, religion is something people might be more, rather than less, keen to cling to.
“You can see how the big religions fit into the evolution of culture as tools that allow people to like each other and live together, since the major feature of all religions is the simple idea of treating each other nicely—that’s the golden rule,” says Dr Willis Monroe, a historian at the University of British Columbia and one of the academics behind the creation of its Database of Religious History, a grand project that aims to data-fy expert understandings of the world’s religions in a way that allows them to be cross-referenced.
Indeed, psychologists have theorised that people are nicer to each other when they think someone is watching, especially a someone with the power to punish their bad behaviour even after they’re dead; a belief in the all- powerful creator gods of moralising religions may once have helped people cooperate and so allow complex societies to grow. This is why small societies have historically not needed big gods—there’s no benefit to community.
“But the major differences between religions now are often facets of their respective traditions that are all to do with identity—aspects of diet and dress, for example,” adds Monroe. “These are the things that differentiate people from each other, that creates in and out groups.”
And, in turn, tensions between people. Perhaps the lesson of history is that, in order to survive—in order to dial down the inter-faith conflict that kills so many every year—the major religions will need to become fully matters of private, individual conscience.
That lesson has been taught before: Judaism became a secular religion for many Jews precisely so they could better fit into a Christian society—standing apart from it just wasn’t working out for them; likewise, the Christian experience of the European wars of religion, sporadically from the 16th to early 18th centuries, finally accepted the notion that one’s religion should be a state of mind, not a lifestyle, that whoever happened to be king should not require a wholesale change of religion.
But, again, that’s not an idea that’s universally accepted: separation of church and state may be a foundation stone of Christianity, but is nonsensical to Islam and the 27 states where it’s enshrined as the state religion. Indeed, arguably it’s Islam that has the biggest problem right now—not simply in its tiny Islamist and even smaller Jihadist minority, so much as in the fact that its arguably more honest, literalist reading of scripture (and the majority conservative mindset that follows)—buts up against growing universal liberalism that champions, among other things, the rights of women, and sexual and racial minorities.
As Muslim reformers the likes of Maajid Nawaz have argued—and highlighted in the new documentary Islam and the Future of Tolerance— Islam has yet to embrace a more metaphorical, contextual reading of its holy book that might allow it to adapt to modern mores in the way that the likes of Christianity and Buddhism have done, albeit while both retaining their own sometimes violent fundamentalist seams.
But, again, that’s not an idea that’s universally accepted: separation of church and state may be a foundation stone of Christianity, but is nonsensical to Islam and the 27 states where it’s enshrined as the state religion.
“There’s a tendency in all religions to become literal and fundamentalist at some stage in their history and that literalism—seeing the Quran as the revelation to Mohammad, taken directly down and so of unquestionable authority—is in a way a failure of imagination. Christianity, in contrast, rests much more on faith in the figure of Christ, and on the church,” argues Douglas Hedley, professor of the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge, UK, and author of Living Forms of the Imagination.
“Really the situation is full of ironies. Historically, it would be odd if Islam was unable to adapt structurally because it comes out of the same territory as Christianity,” he adds. “And Islam has a foundation in a great philosophical and spiritual tradition throughout Persia, though the current Iranian state is about as far from that tradition as you could get. The problem now is that the dominant form of Islam is the fundamentalist Wahabi. And clearly there’s a dimension of that Islam which is pretty terrifying.”
Yet, outside of theocracies at least, religion looks in the longer term to be morphing into a more personal, pick ‘n’ mix phenomenon. Perhaps this explains the growing appeal of Buddhism, precisely because, as Ellen Goldberg puts it, “it could well be seen as more philosophy than religion”. Goldberg is the associate professor of religions of Southeast Asia at Queen’s University, Ontario. And she argues Buddhism’s appeal— what has made it adaptable—is that “it doesn’t carry the baggage of so many other religions”.
There’s no sacred script, for example, not even a god figure nor anything much to have faith in. Being the oldest of the world religions, Buddhism has had time to seed its ideas around the world, even to enter new territories as a kind of exotic but pragmatic corrective to the flaws of the prevailing tradition, as it might be said to have done in the US in the 1960s. This perhaps explains why most Buddhists—72 percent of them—live as a religious minority in their home country.
“Of course, Buddhism is growing in the west in particular because of participation in meditation and mindfulness, even in yoga. But it’s also growing because it works in a modern context, it deals with those hallmarks of modernism, secularism and science,” argues Goldberg. “It’s been disenchanted, in a way. Dig down and it’s actually too complex to appeal on a mass level. But its elegant world view does mean it has place in what is now much more of a spiritual marketplace.”
“I’m a Christian and a Confucian. I can see the usefulness of certain ideas for certain circumstances,” as Robert Cummings Neville, the philosopher, ex-dean of the Boston University School of Theology and exponent of what he calls Boston Confucianism—a non-East Asian expression of the tradition—puts it.
“The fact is that education is spreading around the world and that brings with it yet another form of religion—in some sense more religious, in engaging the ultimate, but much less denominational, belonging to one or other label,” he says.
“You can read the Tao Te Ching and get the [spiritual point] while recognising it’s a political text. At the same time, you can be intrigued by the stories of Buddha or Jesus. That kind of education— getting over the religion handed down by your parents— is the future. The age when a religion is the name of your whole culture is passing.”