Oct 6, 2015

Is The 21st Century The Century Of Religion?

October 4, 2015
Forbes
Jean-Pierre Lehmann

I
Dalai Lama visits youth of Tibetan Community in Rikon Switzerland
Dalai Lama visits youth of Tibetan Community in
Rikon Switzerland
write about Asian dynamics in the context of global disorder.

Twenty years ago, I was invited to give an open lecture at St Gallen, the prestigious Swiss university, on the theme of China’s emergence in the global market economy. This was not as banal a subject as it has become twenty years later and should have been (I thought) of particular interest to St Gallen students who specialize in law and economics. When I got to the lecture theater where I was supposed to speak, there was my host, a friend who happened to have dropped by, and … no one else. In striking contrast, the lecture theater next door was absolutely jammed pack with people sitting in the aisles, in the staircase, by the windows, etc. My host had scheduled my lecture on exactly the same date, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same building as an open lecture by the Dalai Lama! So I can well empathize and understand the feelings of Chinese President Xi Jinping whose recent visit to the U.S. was overshadowed by the simultaneous visit of Pope Francis!

I might mention in passing that small Switzerland hosts (at 3,500) the largest Tibetan exile community in Europe. All those mountains make for more familiar territory than they would find, for example, in the Netherlands or Belgium! I should add and stress, however, that the audience jam-packing the Dalai Lama’s lecture in St Gallen consisted not of members of the Swiss Tibetan exile community – he met with them separately – but students and faculty of the university.

As to President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis in the U.S., the FT sums up the discrepancies in media attention:

“From Sept. 20 through Sept. 27, the pope was mentioned more than 21 times more frequently than Mr. Xi on television, nearly 5 times as often in print and more than 3 times as often in online articles. On Sept. 24, the day Pope Francis addressed Congress — nearly half of U.S. TV news reports about individuals were devoted to the pope. In contrast, less than 5% of TV segments focused on Mr. Xi, who had dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama on that day.”

As a Western European, I have seen the dramatic drop in the influence of organized religion in society. Having spent part of my childhood in Spain, churches on Sunday were packed and priests and nuns in habits prominent features of the social landscape. Even though to a lesser extent, this was also the case in secular France. Today, churches across western Europe are empty, the average age in many congregations is well over 60, while priests need to be recruited from Latin America, Africa and Asia as their numbers among Western Europeans have dwindled dramatically – a sort-of “reverse missionary” phenomenon. Thus, even though many Western Europeans like Pope Francis, there seems very little chance that they will return in droves to church. Western Europe would seem to have entered a post-religion era.

From a Western European prism, it could be assumed that this would be a global trend. The assumption, however, could not have been more wrong. Religion is clearly a case where Western Europe is definitely the abnorm and not the norm. In the post-Cold War era, with the collapse of Marxist-Leninist ideologies, it is (to me, anyway) quite astonishing the degree to which religion has “returned” as a major driving force and prominent feature of the 21st century.

In speaking of Europe, I have stressed Western Europe, as this would not be true in Eastern Europe where the Orthodox Churches have seen a considerable revival. In post-Soviet Russia an estimated 47% of the population (67 million) are practicing. Similarly, one could not claim, by any means, that “the West” has entered a post-religion era given the overwhelming importance and prominence of religion in the U.S.

In contemporary China, there is the phenomenon described by Italian writer Francesco Sisci as “a great wave of Christian conversion.” As with all Chinese statistics, the ones on Christianity are elusive and estimates range from 67 million as the most conservative to as much as twice that figure, which would (a) represent 10% of China’s population and (b) make the People’s Republic of China the third biggest Christian country (after the U.S. and Brazil) in the world. Religious revivalism in China is by no means limited to Christianity; there have been considerable developments in Taoism and Buddhism, some approved, some forcefully disapproved and persecuted, notably the Falun Gong. Islam, as with all religions but perhaps even more so, forcefully repressed in the days of Mao Zedong – during the Cultural Revolution Muslims were forced to eat pork publicly – is also, as with Islam worldwide, experiencing a revival. The current Muslim population in China of some 25 million is expected to reach 30 million by 2030 as the birth rate among Chinese Muslims is significantly higher than the average (aging) Chinese population.

Religion has been and in the case of India remains a prominent and deep dynamic of society. However, given the multiplicity of religions in India – Hindus 80%, Muslims 14%, Christians 2.4%, Sikhs 2%, Buddhists 1.1%, Jains, 0.4%, etc – the architects of the Republic of India sought that it should be a secular state in order to minimize the risks of sectarian conflicts. Hinduism is experiencing a revival – with some fundamentalism – and can be expected to continue doing so under the Hinduist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Buddhism, which emanated from India, but has virtually disappeared from the Indian religious panorama, spread out to North and East Asia, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan and much of continental South East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma). Buddhism is also having a wider global impact, including in the West. There are an estimated one-billion Hindus and half-a-billion Buddhists (with China accounting for about half), thus together corresponding to 22% of total global population.

In Latin America and Africa religion remains significantly present, dynamic (notably with the rise of charismatic evangelicals) and influential.

Is all this religious revival a “good thing” for the global community?

I have said little so far about the most explosive religious revival of all religious revivals, notably the rise of Islam and fundamentalist Islamism. In respect to the answer, whether it is a “good thing” obviously most would respond “no,” including the millions of Muslims who live in fear of their fanatical co-religionists. The havoc that has been caused in the Middle East, particularly, but not exclusively, with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), resulting in an estimated 300,000 deaths and over ten million displaced persons, is arguably the greatest calamity currently experienced by the world.

Islam, however, has many strands, including the humanistic Sufism so evocatively described in the remarkable novel by Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love, recounting the narrative of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. One must hope that enlightened and enlightening Sufism will rise, while fanatical and obscurantist Wahhabism will decline.

More broadly, as an agnostic and a sceptic, I would be suspicious of the phenomenon of religious revival per se. Having said that, the force and beauty of spirituality must be welcome in an otherwise excessively materialist world. Though my Utopia would be one populated with seven billion a-religious humanists, I recognize that human beings do need more. As I wrote in an earlier piece on Chinese conversions to Christianity, there is a natural human desire to understand the meaning of life for which the super-natural may be a necessity.

We currently live in eminently perilous times. The 21st century has so far been marked far more by conflict and divisiveness than peace and cohesiveness. The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report for the last few years has interstate conflict in first place. Arguably not since the 1930/40s has the world been in such a state of tension, confusion and uncertainty. There is an understandable fear that a fuse sometime somewhere will be lit that will spark off a wider global conflict.

I participated in Sept. in a fascinating and enlightening conference convened by the Vivekananda International Foundation on the theme of Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Consciousness. I shall write about the conference and its messages more in detail in a subsequent posting. For now, let it be noted that there was an audience of some three-hundred, it was officially opened by Prime Minister Modi (see photograph above), and attended by many Hindu and Buddhist monks and nuns, from India, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, as well as Europe.

In my own remarks I was inspired by the quotation from Swami Vivekananda (a prominent 19th century Hindu philosopher and reformer): “All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.”

Buddhism and Hinduism clearly have a great deal of wisdom to draw from in fostering peace, love and oneness. As with all religions, however, there is often a wide gap between principle and practice. Buddhists in Burma have been persecuting the Rohingya Muslim minority, while Hinduist crimes against religious minorities, notably Muslims, present an ugly feature – most recently of the murder of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob on the grounds that he and his family had been eating beef.

In the context of the aspirations to a better world in the 21st century prominent among both the Millennium Development Goals and the more recently articulated Sustainable Development Goals is the empowerment of women. Organized religions by and large have been traditionally an impediment to rather than a vehicle of female empowerment. Organized religions tend to be male-chauvinistic. In my speech to the conference, I chose another quotation from Vivekananda: “It is impossible to think about the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing.”

I must admit that in my study, research, writing and teaching on globalization in the 21st century, I have tended to neglect religion as a driving force. The evidence would pretty much demonstrate that this was wrong. Religion seems in the 21st century to be enjoying a global revival that was absent in the 20th and downplayed in the 19th.

While it would be too cynical to say that whereas all major global religions preach peace but foment war, efforts clearly need to be directed at seeking to achieve unity in diversity, as in the official Indian motto, and realizing Vivekananda’s dream of oneness.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jplehmann/2015/10/04/is-the-21st-century-the-century-of-religion/

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