Global Religion in the 21st Century

Finding different religions’ places in an interconnected world.

Winter Kremlin

As the world continues to become more connected, how do our faiths collide?

Photo by Fotolia/kichigin19

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How is religion changing in the twenty-first century? In God in the Tumult of the Global Square (University of California Press, 2015), by Mark Juergensmeyer, Dinah Griego and John Soboslai shows how religion has leapt, in some contradictory ways, onto the world stage. While many religious leaders and activists respond to this change in different ways, Jeurgensmeyer, Griego and Soboslai explore the directions global religion is headed. This excerpt, which describes the purpose of religion in different societies and their responses to change, is from Chapter 3, “Religion Resists and Soothes.”

In Moscow, it took an hour in congested traffic to get from our hotel to Lomonosov Moscow State University—just blocks away—where a gathering of scholars and religious officials had come together to discuss the profound changes that had occurred in Russia’s religious society since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. It wasn’t just the traffic that symbolized the remarkable changes in Russian society in recent decades. Along with aggressive modern capitalism has emerged a renewed Russian nationalism. At the heart of it is religion, so it was appropriate that our gathering included representatives of Russia’s leading religious communities.

Perhaps the most imposing figure in the group was Father Mikhail Zakharov, an archpriest in the Russian Orthodox Church, who wore a long beard, flowing black robes surmounted by a silver cross, and the elegant cylindrical black hat that is characteristic of Orthodox dress. He is a scholar in addition to being a cleric, a member of an institute for the study of religion and society, and was pursuing advanced scientific research in physics. But even more interesting was the fact that he had formerly been a member of the Communist Party. He had come to accept Marxism, he explained, because of his love of philosophy, and this same interest propelled him in the direction of theology and a leadership role in the church. When he left the party, he said, it was like “going through purgatory.” But now, he affirmed, the church had been reaccepted into Russian society and was playing a major role in its social and cultural reconstruction.

This was exactly the point that interested us. Just how, we asked him, was the church playing this role, and how did it fit into post-Soviet Russian sensibilities?

Father Mikhail explained that the church had been closely associated with the monarchy and with Russian nationalism throughout history, so it was natural for the church to have a close relationship to power in the post-Soviet era. But, we wondered, doesn’t this create a sense of marginalization among Muslims, Jews, Protestant and Catholic Christians, and others who are a part of a society in Russia, which—as in the rest of the world—is increasingly becoming multicultural?

“No, under no circumstances,” Father Mikhail said, in a booming baritone. He went on to explain that in the history of Russia, there had been Muslim communities side by side with Russian Orthodox ones—the Tatar, for instance—and that relations were always congenial. He went on to insist that “there had never been any significant controversies” between the religious communities, and that, quite the opposite, the influence of the Orthodox leadership helped to make the official policies more tolerant by making them more sensitive to religious issues.

A representative of the Moscow Muslim community who was at the workshop hastened to confirm that his community was treated well, by and large, and that they appreciated the state support that was rebuilding mosques along with Orthodox churches. We visited one of these state-supported mosques, and it was indeed an elegant and well-crafted structure, overflowing with a crowd that seemed to be largely from the Caucasus region. Olga Leonova, a professor of sociology at Lomonosov, explained that Russian society has no problem with “ordinary Muslims,” but some of the ones from the Caucasus region were influenced by separatist ideologies that were common in Chechnya, as well as a radical jihadi ideology that was sometimes associated with it. The Muslim representative explained, however, that the main issue with Chechnya was political, not religious. From a religious point of view, he insisted, Muslims were treated fairly, and no limitations were put on their religious activities.

The discussion shifted to other matters, but this brief exchange illustrated two profoundly similar tendencies regarding the social role of religion in the global age. It was soothing, in that it provided familiar practices and identities that reminded Russians of their deep heritage and the profound bonds of spirituality that united most of them and that touched on a legacy that reached back through centuries. At the same time, it was oft en resistant to change, especially regarding the acceptance of an emerging multicultural society. As we found out in Russia, Orthodox leaders were not the only ones asserting their influence in the public arena. Non-Orthodox Christians and Muslims, especially newcomers from the Caucasus region and Kazakhstan, were trying to stake their own claims to Russian identity and social acceptance. The leadership of the Orthodox Church said that they welcomed these new groups, and perhaps they did. Still, from the perspective of many of the minorities and the newcomers, it is the church that is the most resistant to change. In God in the Tumult of the Global Square, we see how religious institutions and leaders have been buffeted by the storms of globalization and the currents of antiauthoritarian popularism that characterize the global age. In this article, we look at several responses to that —resistance, on the one hand, and creatively embracing the multicultural global era, on the other.

Resistance to Global Religion

The Russian clergy are not the only religious conservatives who are defensive about traditional religion and wary of social change. Their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe, the Christian religious right, are at least as vocal about nationalism, on the one hand, and their fear of multiculturalism, on the other. At times, these passions have led to violence. Many conservative American Christians imagine that Muslims in their country are a threat to the American way of life. According to the television evangelist Pat Robertson, Islam is “not a religion,” but a political ideology that is “demonic” and “bent on world domination.” Alas, he is not alone in this way of thinking, that has led to violent assaults on Muslims living in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. When Anders Brevik attacked a youth camp in Norway in 2011, killing seventy-seven young people who were supporters of a liberal political party, his real target was the multiculturalism of a modern European society that he thought would bring about the destruction of traditional culture.

Resistance is a common response of many religious activists to a global era that challenges traditional ideas of identity, authority, and security. While some see the plurality that comes with international migration as promising deeper understanding among people, others feel their identity and ways of understanding the world challenged by an influx of outsiders. Religious institutions and their leaders often regard such changes as a danger to their way of life and to a social order that they regard as divinely blessed. That is where religion and xenophobia can become intertwined. All notions of nationhood are imagined, as the anthropologist Benedict Anderson has observed, and these imagined communities have imagined pasts that give foundation to the identities that unite them. Religious leaders’ attempts to create or re-create such a past bolsters the common core of their community and cements their own authority.

The idea of an “imagined past” does not suggest that historical events did not happen or that their importance was inflated. It recognizes, however, that history is oft en rewritten and usually abridged to favor society’s winners. Alternative beliefs about what happened in the past—what others think really happened—have a great deal to do with changing social structures. Any conception of history is filtered in transmission; certain aspects of the past are brought to the fore and others are hidden, which results in an idealized version of history. The past is not remembered; it is constructed. Religion provides a particularly effective framework for the re-creation, as the past is constructed in alignment with accepted narratives about the way the world should be.

Such a move is evident in some of the religious responses to globalization in the Middle East, according to Mohammed Bamyeh, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh who comes from a Palestinian family. Bamyeh observed that “much of religious mobilization in the Middle East has become conservative” in a way that it had not been before, in part “to preserve the cultural integrity of society” in an era of global social changes. That integrity is a result of common cultural practices and identities based around a sense of belonging. It seeks to impart what it means to be Tunisian or Lebanese, or even Arab or Muslim, by pointing to forms of being that are common to communities of the area.

This conservatism may, in part, stem from the fear of what Ayatollah Khomeini once described as “Westoxification,” an inebriation of things Western. At the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the new government led by the ayatollah was as concerned about the erosion of cultural values in the period of Western influence permitted by the shah as it was with the West’s economic and political power over the country. In other areas of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the spread of symbols of Western economic influence—including the ubiquitous Coca-Cola vending machines and McDonald’s hamburger franchises—have symbolized a new economic and cultural colonialism sponsored by the West in general and America in particular. In order to combat such a threat, some religious institutions have promoted a return to forms of life that existed prior to European colonialism, which abated only in the last century. Bamyeh pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood, so influential in the post-revolution politics of Egypt’s Arab Spring protests, as one of the main groups to deploy such a move. The implication is that their form of religious politics can resist the tide of Westernization and globalization and return the country to an imagined simpler past.

Many of these new right-wing religious movements around the world aim not just at political change but also at social change, and they embrace traditional cultural values. For this reason, many new religious movements are opposed not only to Western influence on politics but also to foreign efforts to provide health services, economic relief, and social support. Samah Faried, a former political advisor for the European Union in Cairo, noted during our Cairo workshop that many in Egypt—especially the powerful right-wing Islamic groups—were hostile to the influence of international nongovernmental humanitarian organizations. Considering that such international humanitarian movements act in what they believe is the best interest of others, why should they be so feared?

One of the participants in our Cairo workshop, Amr Abdulrahman, political organizer for the Egyptian National Congress, argued that the answer lies in fear, primarily the fear of outside influence on Egyptian affairs. This fear has roots deep in Egyptian history. Abdulrahman explained how the opposition to foreign funding was part of the revolutionary program of 1952 that ultimately overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Led by the Free Officers Movement, Egyptian military officials wrested power from King Farouk and his British backers, ending what amounted to foreign rule over Egypt. As the revolution began to transform into an expressly Egyptian government, the focus on foreign influence was at the forefront of concerns. That led to an explosion of Egyptian nationalism, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a national player, and an emphasis on domestic affairs. Nearly sixty years later, this spirit of resistance continues to be a factor in the attitude to foreign influence—from both official state policy and private aid workers.

Southeast Asia also has seen an increase in right-wing religious nationalism in recent decades, according to Siti Syamsiyatun, a participant in our Shanghai workshop and director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies. Again, fear seems to motivate the religious resistance to change. She said that although Islam in Indonesia has traditionally been moderate and tolerant of religious diversity, in recent years there has been a rise in the more rigid, conservative forms of Islam associated with the Salafi religiosity that is prominent in Saudi Arabia. Syamsiyatun noted that the promotion of polygamy and large families is foremost among new ideas infiltrating Indonesia, compelling some feminist groups to find ways to protect their community against the outside Salafi influence, while still maintaining their connection to the religion.

As an activist for women’s issues in Indonesia, Syamsiyatun noted that the struggle for women’s rights in Indonesia has to be framed in Muslim terms in order to be widely accepted. She noted that there has been a surge in Muslim women scholars since the 1990s, and now they are challenging the traditional leadership to be accepted as equals. Traditionally, she said, males who have a high school education are entitled to the title of scholar, Ulema, but women require a doctorate for the same status. Opposition to this discrimination is growing. But the Muslim feminist movement in Indonesia has been careful to base their positions on traditional Islamic principle. Couching opposition to polygamy, for instance, in terms of gender equality rather than religious doctrine would result in resistance from male scholars opposed to what they might regard as “Western ideas.” So they point to the rights of women that were advocated by the Prophet himself and that have been a part of Muslim tradition.

Even organizations such as Indonesia’s Muhammadiyah movement, which was founded upon a blend of Western and Islamic ideas and is known for engaging in myriad social programs in Indonesia, are beginning to shore up their Muslim identities rather than participating in more interfaith projects. An article by A. N. Burhani, an Indonesian scholar who was in our workshops, examined the relationship between Muhammadiyah and other civil society groups to show that two Islamic precepts illustrate the way the organization has engaged with other groups in recent years. The first is that of fa-istabiqū al-khayrāt, which means “to compete with one another in good works” and has long been considered by scholars to form the core of Islamic interfaith pluralism. Burhani asserts, however, that many in the Muhammadiyah movement are now interpreting this precept as a guide to relations only with other Islamic organizations, while interaction with non- Muslims are meant to follow another principle, the idea of lakum dīnukum wa-liya dīnī, meaning “unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.” This principle is interpreted as seeing other religious groups as rivals rather than competitors, with the former carrying a more negative connotation than the latter and creating an environment of conflict instead of possible cooperation.

This defensive interpretation is not the only one, nor is it fixed in stone, according to workshop participant Mark Woodward. He noted that when people needed to work together on a common cause, they would oft en say, “you may be a Baptist and you may be a Catholic, and I may be NU [a member of Nahdlatul Ulama, another Islamic group in Indonesia], and she may be from Muhammadiyah, but for these purposes, we’re going to put those differences aside.” The key, according to Woodward, is the social context, and whether isolationism or interaction appears more advantageous to the issues at hand. Other participants in our workshops pointed to the importance of making a distinction between politics and culture. Muhamad Ali, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside, who was born in Jakarta, noted that engaging in politics marks a group as being dangerous, while operating on a more cultural level is seen as innocuous. “In the field of culture,” Ali said, “it is easy for Muhammadiyah to cooperate with other religious organizations, Muslim and non-Muslim.”

At the same time, it is possible for Muslim groups in Indonesia to be devoted to social service and still be narrowly sectarian. This was the point made by another workshop participant, Mary Zurbuchen, who lived in the country for many years and was formerly the Ford Foundation’s director of Asia and Russia programs. She discussed how some Muslim groups in Indonesia engage in social-service projects while explicitly promoting an antipluralist agenda. It was not that they were unaware of other faiths and other varieties of Islam—quite the opposite. Interfaith contacts have been accelerated by the processes of globalization, but they have evoked fears about group solidarity. Some groups have exploited such fears to increase their recruitment. According to Zurbuchen, “the issue of murtad, of apostasy” is raised by the challenges of Christian evangelists, and Muslims from a Salafi perspective have promoted the idea that “prolonged exposure to Christians could be dangerous.” The prestige of some of the Muslim extremists who make these claims is enhanced by their pretensions to authority in the matter.

In other parts of the world, the emphasis on intense, personal forms of religiosity can encourage the believers to become more socially active and more tolerant to others. An example of this is the phenomenon of Christian “cell groups” in Central and South America. At our workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean, Virginia Garrard-Burnett, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas, Austin, described these cell groups as consisting of small numbers of Christians who meet together regularly to study the Bible, sometimes up to four times a week. Rather than considering the theological implications of the scriptures, their focus is centered on what lessons the Bible can offer about life in the world. “They apply the Bible to their lives,” Garrard-Burnett said, raising questions such as, “ ‘if I’m a changed person, how does that play out in society?’ ” and “ ‘how do you cope in a world where you don’t drink alcohol anymore?’ ” The religious text serves as a way for them to enter into larger questions about the role of the person in society.

Yet these cell groups, which Garrard-Burnett notes are “widespread in Latin American Protestant groups and charismatic groups,” have consequences on civil society in general. Their focus on how redemption can change the world can be applied to larger assemblages, and a focus on the local can be channeled into effects on an international level. For instance, Garrard-Burnett notes that some politicians, such as Harold Caballeros, the leader of a major political party in Guatemala, “have actively pushed for the increase of the cellular groups and want to expand this idea of redemption to the whole country.” These groups do not vote as a bloc, nor do they mobilize their members as a unit, but they can still wield substantial influence on society.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, the traditional Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is largely perceived as defending the status quo. In our Buenos Aires workshop, this observation was underscored by Kurt Frieder, director of Fundacion Huesped, the largest organization in South America dedicated to improving the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. He was dismayed at the church’s unwillingness to engage with changes in the world. According to Frieder, in Argentina and throughout Latin America, “local conservative groups still hold great power” and in those circles “the Catholic Church’s voice and opinion is almost decisive when it comes to some conflictive matters related to education, health, and civil-society activity.”

There are also instances of religious leaders consciously trying to extricate religion from the messy business of politics. In Iran, one of the most religious regimes on earth, Muslim theologians have pleaded with the ruling clergy to free Islam from politics. Abdolkarim Soroush, acclaimed as Iran’s most infl uential scholar, has argued that Islam should be practiced separately from political aff airs for the sake of both religion and politics. Th e legal scholar Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im, who teaches at Emory University Law School, has written a compelling book presenting ideas fi rst formulated by the great Sudanese theologian Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, arguing that shari’ah law should not be imposed on believers but voluntarily embraced; hence, the best form of political order for a Muslim country is secular. When we were in Cairo and met with the Grand Muft i of Egypt, as we noted earlier, he too insisted that Islam should be free from politics, implying that the Muslim Brotherhood was employing religion largely for political purposes. In Kenya, there has been a turn away from religious politics. At one time, Christian churches and Islamic institutions in the country played a political role in encouraging the country to turn toward more open and democratic political systems, but in more recent years, religious leaders of both faiths have become less involved.19

The efforts of the Christians and Muslims in Kenya to escape politics are a way of distancing religion from state power and the status quo. But they are also a way of disengaging from the world. In its own way, it is also a form of resistance to the winds of global change that are sweeping through the world. For the individual believer, a retreat to personal piety may come as a relief, since perhaps more than anything else, religious beliefs and private practices can offer a balm of comfort in a bruised and battered world.

How Religion Soothes

Though religion often resists global change, it also provides soothing alternatives. Personal piety is one way that religion provides a salve of comfort at times of social turmoil. Another is identity—the sense of belonging to a stable and comforting community.

Take the situation of Nigeria, for example. In the northern part of the country extremist militants such as Boko Haram have ravished the countryside, slaughtered villagers, and kidnapped young schoolgirls from their classrooms. In other parts of the country, corruption and ethnic tensions wreak havoc on public life. There are two main religious affiliations in the country— Islam in the north and Christianity in the south. Though they can be utilized for extremism and violence, for most Nigerians these communities of faith are ports of safety in stormy social seas.

Nigerian scholar Jacob Olupona, professor of African and African American religion at Harvard, spoke about the growing social importance of religion in Africa at our workshop on Africa and the Middle East. Olupona said that when divisions of ethnicity become too contentious in a country like Nigeria, political leaders “oft en turn to conservative forms of religion to build their constituency.” Religious bonds are able to provide a secure identity that transcends narrow tribal allegiances but do not rely on the political agenda of nationalism or any other ideology perceived as foreign.

The construction of a religious identity—like any other group identity— relies on an external point of reference, a “them” that we can point to and define as “not us.” Religion constructs these boundaries in a number of ways, basing them in belief, social or linguistic components, or geographic locale. Whichever aspect of personhood is highlighted, it always has a counterpart in the wider world: those who believe or practice or look different. Such a process marks those outside the group as “other.” In times of peace, it is comforting for people to know who “we” are and that “we” are not “them.” In times of crisis, the other can become demonized, can be made the cause of one’s woes. Either way, religious identity provides a feeling of solidarity; one can trust those in one’s community.

In the twentieth century, this sense of social solidarity was created by nationalism. It was enough to consider oneself Nigerian or American, German or Indonesian. These nationalist identities carried an implicit recognition that the needs and causes of one’s fellow countrymen and countrywomen would be placed above those of other countries. In the global era, however, nationalism—along with the political autonomy of the nationstate— is under siege. The changing global infrastructure is radically challenging those sources of identity. Large groups of Turks now live in Germany; Mexicans and Asians are flooding into the United States. Boundaries that had previously determined belonging have become porous, and populations are interwoven to such a degree that the problems of one country can put a great deal of strain on others. People who decide to live outside the country of their birth are no longer cut off from the families and communities they left behind, and that continued relationship has taken the emphasis off assimilation into the new culture.

At the same time that these global demographic shift s are changing the ethnic character of traditional societies, the weakening of the nation-state in an era of globalization has unleashed internal tensions that were previously stifled, usually through autocratic rule. Hence, in such places as Nigeria and Indonesia, as well as in Iraq and Syria, ethnic tensions have flourished. In the latter cases, religion has compounded the problem by being linked with particular ethnic groups. In other cases, such as Indonesia, religion provides an alternative identity that unifies a people beyond nationalist borders. And in yet other cases, religion is fused with a revived nationalism, as it has been in Iran and Russia and among right-wing Christian nationalists in Europe and the United States.

In places where immigrant populations are upsetting the traditional communities, religion oft en provides a secure social location. In the United States, for example, large numbers of Korean immigrants convert to Christianity and are able to fit into America’s dominantly Christian culture through their own form of ethnic Christianity. In Europe, immigrants from Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries come together to worship in mosques that are oft en accepted into European society as alternative forms of religiosity within a common nationalist umbrella. In Oslo, for example, the Norwegian government has authorized the construction of a handsome modern mosque prominently located in the downtown area, demonstrating the nation’s attempt to accept the reality of its new multicultural identities.

Rather than trying to assimilate completely into the new national culture, immigrants oft en try to do both—relate to their new surroundings and maintain their family traditions, thanks to improved communications and movement technologies. Benedict Anderson has called these “email/internet nationalisms.” The result is not a melting pot, in which all are spiced by each other’s culture, but more of a cultural stew: an increased multiculturalism where numerous cultures exist side by side. Although globalization has oft en been accused of being a force of homogenization, intent on making all cultures look like Western Europeans, its dynamics has also led to an increased cultural heterogeneity within Europe and the United States as well.

This new multiculturalism works well in many areas. But it is also resisted, both by some members of the immigrant community, who, like angry young Algerians in Paris, feel that they are neither one thing nor another, not really Algerian or French. And it is also resisted by conservative elements in the host country that fear social change. It is this attitude that propelled people such as televangelist Pat Robertson in the United States to rail against Muslims and motivated Anders Brevik in Norway to attack a youth camp for a political party that supported multiculturalism. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the angry religious nationalists are Buddhists: Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, has imagined hordes of Muslims swarming into his country from Bangladesh and demolishing Myanmar’s traditional culture.

Such people see multiculturalism as a threat to their way of life and identity. The us-versus-them way of thinking has defined citizenship for so long that a conception of identity beyond that seems inconceivable. This constructed dichotomy has long been seen as inevitable, but it need not remain that way. In the words of one of our workshop participants, Surichai Wun’gaeo, “we are trapped by national identities, but human identity could go beyond.” The onset of globalization, therefore, can provide an opportunity to escape the in-group/out-group mentality that has defined communities for most of human history by replacing it with a transnational identity, with a focus on common values supported by a variety of religious communities.

In the meantime, religious identities formed around the world’s great faith communities provide a host of social benefits. They can also play a significant role in soothing the transition to a more globalized world. As we have just seen in the case of the Muslim mosque in Oslo, religion can provide a basis of identity that is not necessarily threatening to national identities and can reside within a multicultural framework under the aegis of the nation-state. Faith communities also provide networks of support. This was the point made by James Wellman, a sociologist at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies at our workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean, when he said that such communities “give culture a network and allow people to survive because they care for one another and build up social capital” that gives them social support in the wider society. According to Wellman, these communities provide “a durable network of more-or-less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”

Such networks are no longer confined to geographic realities. At our Shanghai workshop, Tadaatsu Tajima of Japan’s Tenshi College noted the importance of faith connections that span geographic locations. According to Tajima, “the Catholic Church, as well as many other religions, retains an ability to provide a nest for ‘birds of immigrant feathers to flock together,’ ” adding that “religion provides old and new immigrants a place to recognize their own identity; therefore, they can survive in the host country, feeling safe at home.” As global religious institutions are unbound by nationality, they can provide a haven in any country. The newly arrived faithful find instant networks of support, making housing, employment, and companionship easier to find.

For those uprooted from their native community and attempting to find their place in a new country, a religious identity can smooth a difficult transition. One of our Shanghai workshop participants, Master Kai Sheng, a professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University of China and a Buddhist monk, shared how people at times take on a religious identity even when it is not normally how they understand themselves. “Ordinary Chinese people do not believe that Buddhism is an identity,” Sheng said, but then he described Chinese people he knew who went abroad to do business. “Back home, they don’t have a religious identity,” he said, “but when they go abroad . . . they will use Buddhism as a religious identity.”

Moreover, the forces of globalization are having an impact beyond just business travelers, according to Sheng. Where there is a multitude of possible identities, there is anxiety and disorientation, and “more choices mean no choice.” In such situations, Sheng continued, people need a religious identity in order to find their location in a sea of globalization.

The Reinvention of Religion

As we have seen so far, traditional faith communities around the world have responded to the turmoil of global changes by resisting, on the one hand, and providing soothing networks of support, on the other. But— to strain the metaphor—there are other hands, other ways of responding to globalization, and religious communities have been adapting in creative ways.

Throughout history, religious traditions have survived, in large part, because of their ability to adapt to the cultural contexts in which they are rooted. Though believers will claim that the heart of their religion has not changed, and perhaps this is true, the way that believers interact with others oft en has. In the current multicultural environment, one of these changes is a focus on values that can be shared across sectarian lines—through interfaith alliances—in addition to identities and beliefs that are, by their natures, specific and culturally divisive.

At the Shanghai workshop, Somboon Chungprampree, a Thai Buddhist who is a representative of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, spoke about the harmonizing role that religion can play in an increasingly connected world. He focused on three concepts that most religious traditions share: justice, reverence for nature, and spiritual development.

According to Chungprampree, these three values can be appreciated by members of any faith. Changing the focus from the politics of identity to a sense of shared spiritual depth can foster interfaith cooperation across borders.

The possibilities of interfaith collaboration were a popular theme in our workshops. In Delhi, Ranjana Mukhopadhyaya, a faculty member in the department of East Asian studies at Delhi University, talked about how Muslim and Buddhist communities worked together after a flood tore through the region of Ladakh. Ladakh is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has seen recurring violence over the dispute. Religious politics come into play, since most of the people in Kashmir are Muslim, and Pakistan was carved out of the Indian subcontinent at the time of independence in 1948 to provide a secular locus for people with Muslim identities. What complicates the Kashmir situation is the large Hindu population still living there, and the fact that the rule of the state of Kashmir prior to independence was Indian-administered and preferred the region to continue to be ruled by India. The area of Ladakh complicates the picture even more, since most of its citizens are neither Muslim nor Hindu, but Buddhist. Some even call it “Little Tibet,” though it also contains a sizable Muslim community. The fact that Muslims and Buddhists could work together in that area in a time of intense flooding is a testimony to the ability of people to reach across faith boundaries and cooperate on issues of common concern.

This cooperation did not occur in a vacuum. Mukhopadhyaya and her colleagues had been trying to encourage interfaith relations in Ladakh for some time. They had convened members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Ladakh for a dialogue, and only a month after the groups met, a cloudburst sent torrents of rain into the arid, mountainous region causing floods and mudslides. Many Ladakh villagers were caught completely unprepared for such a natural disaster. In part because the groundwork for cooperation had so recently been laid between Muslim and Buddhist leaders, a great deal of assistance was quickly secured from outside agencies in a collaborative way.

Another example of how interfaith cooperation has brought international attention was off ered by Rosalind Hackett of the University of Tennessee, an expert on religion in Africa who participated in our Africa and the Middle East workshop. When she was in Uganda in 2004, she found that the Lord’s Resistance Army, which would gain infamy in later years, was engaged in a conflict with the government of Uganda’s President Museveni. Hackett was “struck by the neglect—the national and international neglect—and lack of interest in what was an extreme humanitarian and political crisis.” What brought this crisis to international attention was the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), an interreligious organization of Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim communities in Uganda.

A similar story about an interfaith group giving voice to the voiceless came from our workshop on South and Southeast Asia. There, Surichai Wun’gaeo spoke about the Coordinating Group for Religion and Society (CGRS), a small group of Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and Muslims working for civil rights in 1970s Thailand. The CGRS used their global networks to bring awareness to the issue of violent repression during a coup that ousted the government.

Another way that religion reinvents itself through being open to the shared values of other religious traditions is by affirming a common spiritual depth at the heart of all religious communities. This is the spiritual side of interfaith relations. In California, for instance, local Episcopal churches hold yoga classes without any sense that this Hindu practice is inappropriate for a Christian church. It is a spiritual practice, after all, and spirituality is spirituality. T. N. Madan, perhaps India’s most distinguished sociologist, suggested during our workshop in New Delhi that it was precisely outside of the formal institutions of Hinduism that “the riches of the South Asian perspective may be discovered.” These, Madan implied, could be appreciated by people of all faiths.

The logical extension of this way of thinking is to see the spirituality of all aspects of life, even in ideologies and movements that are not explicitly religious. When polls are taken about religious identity in the United States, the group that is growing the fastest is not Christian or Muslim or atheist, but those who choose “none of the above.” These “nones,” as we mentioned earlier in this book, oft en describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” They are not opposed to religious ideas and practices, but they are not affiliated with any particular organization or tradition. Increasingly, the organized forms of religion are learning to live with the “nones.”

An example of the way that this anti-institutional attitude toward religion has affected traditional religion is found in the Philippines. In our workshop in Shanghai, Dominador Bombongan, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at De La Salle University of the Philippines, gave the example of Catholic and Episcopal Filipino youth. While young people in the Philippines have become less and less concerned with regular attendance at church and participation in other traditional church activities, they still consider themselves Christian. Their focus has shifted from the doctrinal dimension of the church to a more experiential dimension; they desire practical guidance in their day-to-day lives rather than abstract concepts. Religion has become more personal for these youths, “something that inspires [them] to goodness,” Bombongan said, “rather than frightening [them] with hellfire.”

 In Muslim countries, too, there are signs of openness to less rigid forms of religiosity in the era following the Arab Spring in 2011, which resulted in a shift in political and religious perspective across a great many countries. According to Mohammed Bamyeh, the religion found in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt and Morocco after the Arab Spring was “not the same religion that you see in the prerevolutionary period.” He went on to explain that it was impossible to imagine “that everyone will just stay with their old ideas forever and not be influenced by the transformations that are happening.”

It would be a simple conclusion to say that these young people in the Philippines and Egypt are becoming secularized. Rather, Bombongan sees these young people as illustrative of a process of reflexivity brought on by the current age. The increased perspective offered by global processes is not destroying local expressions through a cultural homogenization but rather is allowing people to see that there is not just one way to be a Catholic, a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Muslim. So many variations exist on a religious theme that people can determine how they want to be religious. Such a situation requires solutions based in the local contexts that people exist within. As Jeff rey Haynes remarked, in discussing the changes in the global, it is important to stay oriented to the local.

Part of the reason why religion is able to reinvent itself—adapt to different cultural contexts—is that it is always at least in part a local phenomenon. The authority of the papacy gives the illusion that the Roman Catholic Church is a uniform institution, and the centrality of Mecca gives the appearance that all Muslims think and act the same. But in both cases, the realities on the ground are much more complicated. “There is no such thing as Catholicism,” said Jennifer Hughes, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, at our workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean. By that, she meant that there is no monolithic thing that one can call “Catholicism” in the singular. Rather, Hughes said, we need to focus on specific communities in their individual context. Hughes thought we need a local view, “a local approach to looking at global Christianities.” Virginia Garrard-Burnett echoed that point later at that workshop. She talked about the Pentecostal communities in Guatemala, describing them as “hydra-headed” to affirm that theirs is not a single movement, but a diverse body of networks and agendas.

Because they are local, religious communities in their diversity can more easily adapt to the cultural environments around them. They might become defensive and escapist, as we have seen earlier in this article, but they are poised to be able to respond creatively to the cultural contexts in which they reside. As Hughes says, these local groups can “preserve, shape, and narrate very specific community identities.” Hence, local religious communities can preserve old cultural forms or be open to new ones.

And they can do both at once. Robert Dowd, director of the Ford Program at Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies in our Africa and Middle East workshop, made this point when discussing the women of Côte d’Ivoire, stressing that they “would see themselves as truly Christian . . . and as truly traditional at the same time.” It is not a matter of having to choose between mutually exclusive identities presented as an either/or, “religious” or wholly “traditional.” These women can see themselves as both Christian and modern, or Christian and global citizens. As Dowd observed, we can be many things to many people, all at the same time. “The world is very complicated,” Dowd noted, adding, “religious identities are very complex and nuanced.” Those complex identities can allow for greater flexibility when dealing with the challenges of the global age, and at times, they can help bring people into a greater awareness of the problems facing people elsewhere in the world.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from God in the Tumult of the Global Square, by Mark Juergensmeyer, Dinah Griego and John Soboslai, and published by the University of California Press, 2015.