The vast, huddled masses of researchers and analysts in the teeming cyber-sweatshops at Mead GHQ continue presenting their list of Top Global Trends in the 2010s. For earlier posts in this series, go here, here, here and here.
God is Back, the 2009 book by John Micklethwaite and Adrian Woolridge of the Economist, points to two trends in world religion. The first is the global upsurge in religious belief and practice. The second is the increasing tendency for religious believers to go for ‘hot‘ rather than ‘cool’ versions of their faith. Interestingly, these trends transcend any particular region or religion; they are global, or nearly so. Religion is notoriously on the march in the Islamic world, but across sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity has established itself as the principal faith in many countries — and the established Christian denominations face competition from Pentecostal and indigenous African churches. Christianity, Islam and traditional Chinese forms of religion are rapidly gaining ground in China — including movements like Falun Gong that the government condemns (and persecutes) as ‘dangerous cults.’ Overseas Chinese communities in Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere are increasingly Christian, although other forms of religious faith are also present. Christian churches are springing up across Vietnam; both Hinduism and Islam are becoming more assertive in India. The civil war in Sri Lanka saw an upsurge in Buddhist militancy especially among the clergy; both Islam and Christianity are regaining vigor in post-Soviet Russia; Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelical Christianity continue to gain strength and visibility in Latin America. Even the “dark continent” of Europe feels the global upsurge in religion; Islamic and Christian immigrants are bringing their faith with them and even intensifying their commitment as they struggle with the process of adjustment. But ‘old stock’ Europeans are also paying more attention to religion; there are modest upticks in religious interest and observance, especially among the young, in a number of European countries. In Israel, once one of the world’s most secular cultures, we have also seen an increase in both the number of people engaged in religious practice and in the intensity of their commitment.
These trends look set to continue and even accelerate during the 2010s, and we are therefore likely to see a growing role for religion in the domestic politics of many countries and in the international arena as well. Over the next decade, policy makers, opinion leaders and regular people who are interested in world affairs for one reason or another will simply not be able to understand the dynamics of world politics without a grasp on the global religious renaissance.
In the 2010s, the trends that have been promoting the religious renaissance will be stronger in some cases but in no case any less strong than before; we must therefore brace ourselves for a decade in which rival religions are on the march. Here’s why:
Urbanization: As noted here, the world is entering the ‘peak urbanization’ years when migration from the country to the city is at flood stage. Rural people leaving traditional communities and trying to find their way in large cities are often drawn to religious groups where they will be welcome and where they can find help and guidance as they adjust to urban realities. Such religious groups also provide places where their children can be educated in important values — and where they can find marriage partners with the ‘right’ religious views and background.
Insecurity: A tumultuous global economy and a world of rapid and accelerating cultural and economic change creates an environment where many people are drawn to question the meaning of life and to seek divine help as they try to understand and navigate the perils and uncertainties of a changing world. Mass immigration into Europe, for example, is not only likely to promote increased interest among immigrants as they struggle simultaneously to define and protect their identity and to adjust to the demands of a new and different culture and economy. The presence of so many immigrants with different cultural and religious values has already begun to lead ‘old stock’ Europeans to ask basic questions about their own identity and value. The secular cosmopolitan culture that had gained so much ground in Europe since the 1950’s is likely to be increasingly challenged by both nationalist and religious revivals going forward. The sense of cultural insecurity in Europe is likely to mesh with a growing sense of economic insecurity in the general turbulence that lies ahead, increasing the potential for new and sometimes dangerous movements to take hold.
That mix of cultural and economic insecurity will be felt around the world, often with the addition of personal insecurity for people in or near conflict and near-conflict zones. Insecurity leads people to ask existential questions and seek reassurance; religion is humanity’s most widespread and easily accessible means to manage such situations.
The Spread of Education: At later stages, an increase in education can create a large group of secular intellectuals, trained to be skeptical of simple religious pieties. But when, as in much of the world, education means basic literacy with at most a year or two past elementary school, the impact is often to increase popular religious interest and awareness. For the first time, masses of newly literate people can read their sacred texts on their own. Since many of the people getting access to basic education and literacy will be experiencing the kind of economic and social change and insecurity that tends to lead people toward religious concerns and ideas, the combination of a new interest in religion with a new ability to encounter the very compelling and resonant scriptures of the great world faiths is likely to promote a very significant and continuing increase in religious intensity and commitment in large parts of the world.
The Failure of Secular Ideologies: During most of the twentieth century, secular ideologies (communism, socialism, fascism, nationalism, liberal democracy and cosmopolitan secularism) competed successfully with religion. In the developing world, native religious traditions were often seen as part of the forces holding the country back from modernity and technological success. Arab intellectuals developed the idea of Arab nationalism as a way of creating a new, secular Arab identity that brought Christian Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Shi’a Arabs together under one big tent. Across much of Asia, communists actively sought to destroy religious institutions that they believed were keeping their countries backward.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, the situation changed. Fascism has been on the ropes since 1945; communism and socialism were crippled after 1989. Secular nationalism has been largely in retreat across the developing world for a variety of reasons ranging from the failure of secular regimes to generate lasting progress in much of the Islamic world (though in the Turkish case it is ironically and uniquely the success of secularism at building a new and more complex society which has led to a revival of religion in politics) to the inherent difficulties of forging strong secular nationalisms in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural countries that characterize much of the developing world. Liberal democracy and cosmopolitan secularism are the two secular ideologies which remain as strong as they were in the twentieth century, but these ideologies have rarely done well in the ideological competition among poor people outside the areas of European settlement.
The competing secular ideologies that once held religion in check have melted; the problems of life that demand ideological or religious answers seem more acute than ever. This is why religion is on the march.
There is another aspect to the religious renaissance of the 2010s. While all of the world’s great religions are gaining members either by demography (believers are having children) or conversion, three religions in particular will be making news — and two of those are growing at extraordinary rates.
The three religions that will be front and center in the world’s newspapers and on its leading websites are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These three faiths have a great deal in common; that perhaps is why so much of world history revolves around the conflicts between them. These religions all look back to the God of Abraham; they do not, however, agree on what their common God thinks people should do.
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, God told Abraham thousands of years ago that “all the nations of the earth will bless themselves in his [Abraham’s] name.” The name Abraham means ‘father of nations,’ and while religious demography is one of the world’s most baffling and difficult subjects, the promise appears to be coming true. There are something like 6.7 billion people in the world today. At a (very) rough estimate, about 2.1 billion of them are Christians and 1.5 billion Muslim. (Another 14 million are Jewish. ) It appears that the Abrahamists became a majority sometime in the last decade and just as the 2010s will see a majority of the world’s people living in cities, this will be the first full decade in which a majority of the world’s people are members of the squabbling and contentious family of this mysterious nomad. The Abrahamic majority will grow; on present trends we can expect something like two thirds of the world’s population to hold an Abrahamic religion later in this century.
This does not, alas, mean that we are headed for a quieter and more peaceful world anytime soon. Religious violence like the fighting that broke out in the central Nigerian city of Jos this weekend is more likely to increase than decrease in the 2010s. The same factors that lead to increasingly strong religious commitments like urbanization and the rise of insecurity are also associated with outbreaks of communal violence. As Muslims and Christians stream into the bulging cities of sub-Saharan Africa, and as Muslims and Hindus (along with a small but rapidly growing Christian minority) move to the city in India, religion both offers identity and stability for members of these groups; it also sets up the potential for conflict between groups often competing for jobs, housing and other resources.
These local conflicts may be more numerous; they may also be more consequential. Given the increasingly dense and information-saturated global networks which even the poor can increasingly access, local conflicts will be more easily seen as part of regional or even global competition between the faiths. Poor relations between Christians and Muslims in one part of the world can increasingly sour the climate in other parts of the world. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is not very likely to end in the new decade, will also raise the temperature between Christians and Muslims in other parts of the world from the UK and France through Nigeria and Kenya to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. (We can hopefully note that good news will also travel faster and that progress in intercommunal relations in one part of the world can improve conditions in other places. Unfortunately, however, bad news is more dramatic and usually gets more attention than quiet progress.)
Hot religion and the march of Abraham: look for these trends to shape the decade of the 2010s.