An Ethical Musings’ reader wondered: “What is happening to religion? Are we further apart in our beliefs or could we be merging?”
A quick global examination of religious belief reveals three significant trends.
First, religion based upon a literal reading of a person’s faith group’s scripture is increasing, especially in its Christian and Islamic expressions as seen in the Global South. This observation distinguishes between Islamic extremism (and by inference extremism in all of its other religious manifestations) and historic forms of Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite. Islam, more than any other major religion has taught a literal reading of the Koran.
Second and concurrently, belief in organized religion is decreasing in the developed world. This trend is observable even in the United States with its traditionally high levels of religious belief. For example, a recent Pew survey found that a majority of Americans believe in a higher power but only a slim majority believe in the God described in the Bible.
Third, religious belief in China is increasing. One possible explanation is that the increase represents a delayed reaction to religion’s suppression during the era of harsher Communist rule that began with Mao. A second possible explanation is that people are turning to religion as a vehicle for protesting against the lack of democracy and individual freedom that matches China’s economic development. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive.
The net effect of the first two trends on the future of religion is hard to determine. Predicting that belief in traditional expressions of Christianity and Islam will diminish in the Global South as development progresses is easy. Illustratively, educated people tend reasonably and quickly to discard overly simple answers to questions that depend upon reading Christian scripture as both a theological/spiritual text and a scientific text. Unfortunately, rejecting that approach often leads to dismissing religion in toto as superstition of no value.
Alternatively, even people living in the developed world, as shown in the Pew survey previously cited, tend to believe in a higher power. The title of Episcopal Bishop John Spong’s book, Christianity Must Change or Die, thus points to one possible future for religion. The world’s major religions may die because of their inability to adapt and thereby make way for a new (or multiple new) religions to emerge. Of course, some religions may adapt; other religions may die.
I optimistically see signs that religious belief is slowly converging. If a higher power (God) exists, then reasonably only one such power exists. Different names for God point to the same ultimate reality; different religions are different paths for cultivating a closer relationship with that power. The ethical teachings of the world’s major religions center around two precepts: love for God (the higher power) and neighbor. This commonality reinforces my belief in the singularity of religion rightly understood and the slow but eventual convergence of religious belief.
However, in the short run I observe two sources of divergence. First, some believers hold firmly to the distinctives of the believer’s own faith tradition in a reaction against religious convergence, a reaction similar to that by some people against economic and political globalization. Second, religion has often been, and continues to be, a vehicle for protesting injustice. This is particularly evident in the history of Islam and is now evident in China. Broader moves toward more fully establishing justice will gradually diminish the number of people who turn to religious belief as a vehicle for political protest. In other words, neither of these sources of divergence, regardless of their present potency, will derail the longer-term convergence of religious belief in a form that embraces pluralism while preserving the ethical emphasis on loving God and neighbor.