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Secular and Sacred

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I’ve read the last page of the Bible. It’s all going to turn out alright.
Billy Graham

To the bewilderment of many Europeans and even many Americans, the 2004 U.S. presidential election highlighted the fundamental yet rising significance of religious conviction in the U.S. today. Perhaps it is not surprising that a country founded and regularly refreshed by immigrants seeking freedom from religious persecution should not only be the first modern secular state but also the one that has sustained the highest levels of religious participation. In the U.S., the epitome of modernity, churches and organized religion have endured as a potent popular and political force. Church attendance remains stable. Sixty percent of Americans say that religion plays an important role in their lives, according to a 2002 Pew Research Center survey. This is so unusual in the developed world that Pew titled its survey report "Among Wealthy Nations...U.S. Stands Alone in Its Embrace of Religion." Pew’s conclusion: "Americans’ views are closer to people in developing nations than to the publics of developed nations."

Not only have the practice and influence of religion remained strong in the U.S.—they are also growing. Driven by the continued rise of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. since the 1970s, religion has been moving back into the everyday discourse of American civic and political life. In 1984, 22 percent of voters believed that presidential candidates should discuss the role of religion in their lives; 75 percent said that it should not be part of a presidential campaign. The same survey taken by The New York Times during the 2004 presidential campaign showed a dramatic change in those figures: 42 percent wanted to hear about candidates’ religious beliefs, while just 53 percent thought that religion should be kept out of the campaign.

Poor Nations Very Religious, Wealthy Are Less So...Except for the U.S.

Source: "Among Wealthy Nations...U.S. Stands Alone in Its Embrace of Religion," The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, December 19, 2002. Reprinted by permission of The Pew Global Attitudes Project.

This is a considerable shift in 20 years and confirms the wider fact that the secularization trend is reversing itself in the U.S. It should not be surprising, then, that during his visit to the Vatican in June 2004, President George W. Bush, leader of the world’s first constitutionally secular nation, actively sought the intervention of Pope John Paul II in the U.S. election campaign, asking the Pope to acknowledge his anti-abortion credentials. Meanwhile, Bush’s campaign team targeted membership lists from Christian churches.

Is the U.S. a curious anomaly—or leading evidence of the broader durability and permanence of the sacred perspective? Secularists have long assumed that with increased prosperity, better education, and the advance of scientific understanding, societies would inevitably turn away from religion. However, this appears to have occurred as expected only in Europe, and emphatically not in the U.S. The evidence elsewhere remains ambiguous and to some extent contradictory. In Muslim countries, for example, opinion appears to embrace both the promise of modern governance and adherence to strict religious rule. A 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey revealed that this dissonance still persists. "People in Muslim countries place a high value on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, multi-party systems, and equal treatment under the law," the survey found. At the same time, most Muslims "favor a prominent—in many cases expanded—role for Islam and religious leaders in the political life of their countries."

Meanwhile, around much of the world, we are witnessing the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism, a Christian movement born in the U.S. in the early twentieth century now believed to have more than 20 million adherents in the U.S. and more than 400 million adherents worldwide, as well as the world’s largest church—the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, which in 2003 had 780,000 members. It is interesting to observe that this is a new strand within Christianity—one that places emphasis on the spirit and that is energetic and engaging for its participants, providing grace plus community and belonging. In fact, much of the current growth in religious conviction involves novel forms of the monotheistic religions (perhaps because the moderate establishments of each were largely acquiescent in the move toward secularism). Worryingly, they include a powerful rise in new forms of fundamentalism.

New Fundamentalism

The rise of fundamentalism around the world has been a subject of commentary since the September 11 terrorist attacks. But it was the object of quieter (and generally wiser and more balanced) review long before that. Fundamentalist belief systems are less filled with love and hope than Pentecostalism. They are characterized by exclusivity, certainty, and separateness; they create the potential for increased tribalism and violence, as well as profound assaults on the prevailing secular worldview.

The rise in Islamic fundamentalism continues to be widely regarded as a threat to the Western world, and the U.S. in particular. Less acknowledged is the fact that fundamentalism was on the march during the twentieth century in all three of the monotheistic religions of Abraham and has also been spreading into other religious systems wherever the modern world is making new inroads. In India, there has been a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism, with reported violence against Christian and Muslim minorities. In South Korea and Taiwan, a "neotraditionalist" Confucianism has emerged. Japan has experienced growth in radical Buddhism, and the Sikh religion has become progressively more fundamentalist, spurred by threats of Hindu and Muslim violence in Northern India. As Phillip Longman says in his book The Empty Cradle, if the birthrate in the developed world continues to decline, it is fundamentalism that will benefit. "In a world of falling human population only fundamentalists would draw new strength," Longman writes. "For the deep messages of the Bible and the Koran...are relentlessly pro-natal."

Religious fundamentalism is not, as is sometimes assumed, a return to old established ways. It is an innovative new phenomenon. The term was first used by American Protestants in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Christianity (in the U.S.) was the first major religion to give birth to a fundamentalist movement. Given the U.S.’s place at the vanguard of secular modernity, this may seem surprising. But fundamentalism is always associated with a sense of threat against the survival of a religious belief system; primarily, it is a fear-driven response to the encroachment of modernity and a coercive secularism. Acclaimed religious historian Karen Armstrong is unequivocal on this: "Fundamentalism is an essential part of the modern scene. Wherever modernity takes root, a fundamentalist movement is likely to rise up alongside it in conscious reaction." As the encroachment of modernity becomes stronger, so the fundamentalist reaction becomes more extreme and entrenched.

This may represent a collective, almost instinctive reaction to increasing complexity and tempestuous change. In a highly unstable world, some will inevitably search for a firm and steady anchor, an absence of ambiguity, and a clear, simple, and authorized set of rules. But fundamentalism can also be viewed as a subset of another, broader reaction to globalization and increased interdependence and interaction: a desire for separateness. Fundamentalist beliefs are by nature exclusive and divisive. A single set of absolute truths can tolerate no competing set of perspectives.

Religious fundamentalism often also holds the promise of a better life in the next world to compensate for earthly suffering or reward committed sacrifice. This is a potent promise—and is one reason that fundamentalism can foster conditions for extremism and violence among many faiths and in many forms. Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City and the 1995 assassination of Israeli President Yitzak Rabin demonstrate that Christianity and Judaism are not immune from spawning their own forms of violence and should also remain causes of concern. However, there is no doubt that the tendency toward violence within fundamentalist movements is significantly increased by a societal conflict of lingering tensions, conflict, or even war, and that such conditions exist today in many parts of the Islamic world in particular. Islamic fundamentalism (and the extremist violence it can foster) is, without doubt, one of the most significant challenges of the next several decades. It is all too easy to imagine it getting worse before it gets better.

What’s Driving Islamic Fundamentalism?

In all the monotheistic religions, fundamentalism builds upon a return to Holy Scripture as the literal foundation for a belief system. Mainstream moderate religious followers tend to embrace a fluid and evolving faith, one in which scripture is considered as much a product of iterative development as the origin of the belief system and is subject to reinterpretation over time. Fundamentalism rejects this openness, seeking to lock down the religion according to the most literal and inflexible interpretation.

The earliest seeds of this reaction in Islam were arguably sown in the eighteenth century with the emergence of the reform movement known as Wahabbism, which, while not itself a fundamentalist movement, sought to eradicate all the characteristics and forms of the religion that had been added since the time of Mohammad. Saudi Arabia, home of Osama bin Laden and most of the September 11 hijackers, is a Wahabbist kingdom.

The teachings of the Sunni Egyptian Sayyid Qutb are a more direct and powerful source of today’s Islamic fundamentalism. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb served more than a decade in prison in the 1950s and 1960s before being executed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. He wrote extensively during his imprisonment, producing an enormous multivolume work called In the Shade of the Qu’ran. Qutb’s writings laid the foundation for today’s Islamic extremism and violence and provide the philosophical underpinnings for Al Qaeda. The core of his philosophy is simple: for centuries, the Christian West has been driving a wedge between the godly and the scientific, between reason and belief. The result is a "hideous dichotomy" that has led to great and growing human misery and despair that is now being exported steadily all over the world.

Islamic fundamentalism has developed upon a core philosophy not fully understood by those it challenges. But, crucially, it is the broader context of many Islamic nations that has fueled its growth: five centuries of relative economic, scientific, and technological decline; a recent history of occupation and subjugation by the empires of Europe; in some states, the imposition of alien, secular approaches to governance by elites that have not shared power and have often not shared the benefits of modernity; a demographic swell of young men in Middle Eastern countries, with stagnant economies providing few opportunities; unresolved tension and conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors and between Pakistan and India; an infrastructure of education, especially the madrasas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, that promotes fundamentalist beliefs; the prolonged and much resented Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and a growing mistrust of the U.S., widely regarded as a nation attempting to impose an insidious and profoundly unwelcome form of imperialism. Hence, the combustible combination of inflammatory ideas and people eager to adopt them that emerged in the last two decades of the last century and that will undoubtedly help shape the first decades of this new one.

The challenges posed by a rise in this tension between secular and sacred are complex and perplexing. To be sure, the heaviest burden must be carried by the majority of people in the Islamic world—people who seek harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships with the rest of the world while promoting the essence of their great religion. But they must be helped by the West, especially by the U.S. Frankly, this will require a greater sophistication of thought, word, and deed in the West than has so far been in evidence in the years following September 2001. The responses to date have included a "hearts and minds" campaign in the Islamic world, run like a corporate marketing program, to "re-brand" America in the Islamic world. Unfortunately, the authenticity of this campaign was undermined by other key signals from the U.S., including the unhelpful rhetoric of "good versus evil" and the repeated assertions that the U.S. has embarked upon a divinely ordained mission.

When Jerry Falwell proclaimed that September 11, 2001, was "God’s punishment" of the U.S. for its secular ways, he was inadvertently speaking in the language of the hijackers. When President Bush talked of a "crusade" (a comment he later withdrew), he clearly did not realize the inflammatory nature of that phrase. The continued use of terms such as "evil-doers," coupled with attempts to push the margins of legality in the detention and treatment of prisoners, have created a dangerous atmosphere. This arguably helped create the conditions for the events at Abu Ghraib, which shook even the U.S.’s champions. The United States has never had a greater need to learn and demonstrate cultural competence in a fraught world. In dealing with Islamic fundamentalism’s threats and violence, it must learn to step carefully back from its own tendencies in that direction.

Christian Fundamentalism

Indeed, while confronting the challenges of religious extremism, attention should not be focused solely on Islam. Though they have garnered much less attention, much stricter forms of Christianity are emerging, particularly in the developing world. A survey by Philip Jenkins in the Atlantic Monthly in October 2002 reported that the rising popularity of Christian faiths in the poorer regions of the world is likely to transform their relationship with the developed world in the next quarter century. In Africa, Latin America, and Asia, Pentecostalism is growing rapidly; so are stricter forms of Protestantism and less-tolerant forms of Catholicism. In his survey, Jenkins notes that "African and Latin American churches tend to be very conservative on issues such as homosexuality and abortion," in contrast to the far more liberal attitudes in many "northern" churches. The stage is set for significant schisms within the Christian faith, the largest faith in the world.

The drift toward fundamentalism in Christianity is not confined to the developing world, however. A similar dynamic is underway in the U.S., perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the spectacular popularity of the Left Behind book series—11 novels about the lives of people "left behind" after the sudden, apocalyptic disappearance of millions of Christians. Described by Salon.com as "a Tom Clancy-meets-Revelation saga of the Rapture, the Tribulation, and presumably, the eventual return of Jesus," more than 60 million copies of the Left Behind books have been sold. Time magazine estimates that only half of Left Behind readers are evangelical Christians.

Another Path to the Sacred—The Rise of Spirituality

There is another, quite different "sacred" response to global modernity on the rise today: neo-spirituality. Known for its embrace of inclusiveness, holism, and tolerance, neo-spirituality most commonly manifests itself in New Age world-affirming philosophies, the revival of Eastern religious practices and traditions, and the growth in psychotherapy and human potential that has emerged since the 1960s, especially in Europe and the U.S. These various forms of spirituality are often referred to as "self- religions" because, as Steve Bruce argues, "New Agers believe that the self is divine or, if it is not yet, then it can become so with the right therapy, ritual, or training." In Holistic Revolution, William Bloom, one of Britain’s leading holistic teachers and practitioners, argues that the rise of this phenomenon is in part a consequence of an increasingly modern, secular world. "A planetary culture of free-flowing information is absolutely bound to manifest new ways of enquiring into meaning. This is to be applauded. It is liberating and deeply democratic," Bloom writes. "It encourages and empowers people to taste around until they find those pieces of the jigsaw that fit their character and temperament."

Spirituality is born of the same impulse that fuels more traditional religion and fundamentalism: a belief that a deeper level of reality can be perceived and a more profound wisdom discovered. But spirituality resides at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum from fundamentalism, attracting those who are drawn to a journey of discovery and growth, to a postmodern perspective of multiple truths, to finding new questions rather than more certain answers, and to learning and experimenting rather than subscribing to a rigid set of infallible and static givens.

These amorphous, fluid, and increasingly democratic characteristics make it difficult to pinpoint and analyze neo-spirituality as a "movement." As pointed out by U.S. social researchers Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, who have studied at length this modern turn toward living a more spiritual and ethical life, the many millions of people pursuing this path are largely hidden from mainstream political or religious analysis because their beliefs are multifaceted and difficult to categorize. But even if neo-spirituality is not an easily defined movement, it is certainly a powerful trend. In the U.S. today, one of the fastest growing religious groups comprises people who classify themselves in census returns as "nones"—those who do not subscribe to any particular branch of religious belief yet are not atheistic. Their ranks in the U.S. have doubled in the last decade, to around 30 million. In the UK (where Cosmopolitan magazine has recently appointed a "spirituality editor"), a 2000 survey by David Hay and Kate Hunt found that 76 percent of people acknowledged having had a religious or spiritual experience—far more than belong to and participate in churches. In China, Falun Gong, an integrative practice that incorporates Buddhist and Taoist principles with body and mind exercise and healing techniques, claims 100 million members; that is 40 million more people than belong to the Chinese Communist Party. Threatened, the Chinese government has denounced Falun Gong as a dangerous "cult" that "under the pretense of religion, kindness, and being nonpolitical, participates in political activities," and has declared it illegal.

Looking forward, we can anticipate two likely neo-spiritual dynamics in the coming decade. First, neo-spirituality will likely continue to integrate and align Western and Eastern philosophies and practices and draw heavily from self-improvement methodologies. The popularity of yoga, meditation, holistic medicine, and alternative therapies continues to rise. Roughly 16.5 million Americans now practice yoga regularly, an increase of 43 percent since 2002, according to research by Yoga Journal magazine. Americans spend $27 billion annually on alternative medicine, and 88 percent believe in its efficacy. One study in the early 1990s found that New Agers represent 20 percent of the population, and are the third largest religious group in the U.S.

The second dynamic we are likely to see is the integration of spiritual and religious belief with deep concern for the physical environment. Groups within mainstream Christian and Jewish religions are already moving in this direction, as seen in such nascent movements as "What Would Jesus Drive?" and "Rabbis for the Redwoods." And there is growing evidence that evangelical are "going green"; in October 2004, leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, adopted an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," proclaiming that it is every Christian’s duty to preserve and protect the planet. This convergence might even fuel a resurgence of Gaia-like concepts and belief systems. The Gaia theory, developed by James Lovelock, suggests that the Earth be viewed as a coherent system of life, self-regulating and behaving as if it were a super-organism made up from all living things and their material environment. "We now see that the air, the ocean, and the soil are much more than a mere environment for life; they are a part of life itself," Lovelock writes.

Fundamentalism and spirituality, then, represent two extremes of the re-emerging sacred: one a reversion from modernity to traditionalism, the other a struggling journey into postmodernity. The more established conventional religions will find themselves increasingly squeezed and threatened by these two flanks. Meanwhile, the assumptions of a dominant secular worldview may be seriously undermined. It is likely indeed that the tension between the sacred and the secular will play out in several interesting and different ways. The West will need to learn how to combat Islamic extremism without fueling it. Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq will struggle to find a balance between Islam and the secular structures of the modern world in order to define their own futures. The environmentalist movement will struggle to express its spiritual intuitions about the nature of nature and our place in the world within a secular worldview. And our organizations and institutions, born and matured in an era of deep secularism, will need to learn how to align with the growing desire—indeed, insistence—of the sacred world, in its many manifestations, to reintegrate with and help shape modern society.

The tension between the secular and scared worldviews—and, in particular, between different sacred belief systems—seems set to be an important source of political and social strife in the coming decade. Therefore, it will contribute to the growing dilemmas about the optimal projection of power in a volatile world, as well as to the growing sense of threat and vulnerability. The next dynamic tension explores these issues.

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