Religion in the World Today
By Robert Ellwood
Originally printed in the MARCH-APRIL 2007 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ellwood, Robert. â€œReligion in the World Today.â€ Quest 95.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2007): 53-56.
Why is it important to understand religion? What is the real picture of religion in the world today? And why is seeing that portrait, with all its contours, all its foreground activity, and deep background important for Theosophists and others interested in the spiritual evolution of individuals and the world?
To begin with, consider the second object of the Theosophical Society: To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science. Comparative study ought to mean not only the timeless setting of the essences of religions alongside one another; it should also include perceiving how they stand in the world at any given point in time, including the present.
Even more importantly, comparative study relates directly to Theosophy's first object: To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity. Brotherly and sisterly love requires deep understanding of the other. The old saying, To understand all is to forgive all may not be completely true, but surely profound comprehension of what a person's life has been like can go a long way in helping us move beyond indifference or antipathy. Shallow unconcern and heedless prejudice have long plagued the inter-religious world, and still do.
Our understanding must be accurate. Illusions, whether positive or negative, are of little help. Too often our views of other religions are simply projections of what we want to see in them and so are no more than subtle forms of egotism. It is easy to set the ideals of one religion against the actual practice of another, or to judge one by its best representatives and another by its worst.
We must also introduce the factor of time. Frequently differences within the same religion from one century to another have been nearly as pronounced as those between two different faiths. Sometimes it seems that the study of comparative religion ought to be particularly under the guidance of the Third Ray, said to be especially concerned with timing as a way of understanding matters in terms of their particular moment in time. We need to look at the world's religions in terms of the vast sweep of evolution, which may require one aspect of spirituality, and then another, to sparkle most brilliantly in the sun.
Religions in the twenty-first century are significantly different than they were in the nineteenth, when the early Theosophists were writing about them, or even from what they were in the twentieth century. Likewise, after several wars and revolutions, and the phenomenon known as globalization, are the cultures, the nations, and the world, anything like what they were, although early Theosophy can certainly be regarded among the first intellectual and spiritual fruits of incipient globalization!
In this light, then, let us look at the specifics of world religion today, beginning with the most important fact: at the beginning of the twenty-first century, half the world's population of six billion belongs, at least in broad cultural terms, to two world faiths. Christianity claims two billion souls, and Islam, one billion or a little more. These, together with Judaism and its influence, constitute the three Abrahamic faiths (all claiming descent from the Patriarch Abraham's covenant with God), and at this moment the spotlight of history is upon them.
The Christian third of the world is in a remarkable position at present. Its numbers have more than doubled in only half a century, due partly to natural population increase and partly to rapid evangelization, especially in Africa and parts of Asia. There were those who thought that the demise of colonialism would spur the rejection of Christianity in favor of indigenous religions. Instead, although it was initially introduced by missionaries and closely identified with the imperial powers, Christianity has grown much more rapidly in Asia and Africa since independence, as though many peoples decided that once they could have the Europeans' faith without their governors or soldiers, they would take to it freely. Significantly, a great number of Christians in Asia and Africa belong to new, independent, Christian churches which are neither Catholic nor Protestant in a traditional sense, but deeply attuned to native culture.
Characteristically, they make far more use of drums and dancing than one would see in the average European or North American church. Emphasizing healing, exorcism of evil spirits, and ancestrism, these churches may be based on the teaching of an indigenous prophet. Through such prophets, who may be male or female, the voice of Christ and the Holy Spirit speaks anew, as fresh as on the day of Pentecost. The 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches lists Independent churches in greater numbers than Protestant or Eastern Orthodox and ranking second only to Roman Catholic churches.
Christian growth has occurred also in traditionally Catholic Latin America. Rapid population growth, together with changing religious patterns induced by urbanization and an upsurge of Pentecostal and other evangelical Protestant movements, has revitalized both wings of Christianity. Latin America now has fresh importance to the Christian world overall.
What all this means is that the Christian center of gravity is moving to the southern hemisphere, to what is sometimes called the Third World. That shift is only abetted by Christianity's relative decline in its onetime heartland, Europe. Today the great churches and cathedrals of Europe are largely empty, as the population of Europe itself is declining, while Christian numbers are growing, sometimes explosively, elsewhere in the world. To see thronged places of worship and vital Christian faith, one must no longer go to London, Paris, or Rome, but to Nairobi, Seoul, or So Paulo.
While the number of active Christians in the United States remains impressive, some 230 million in 2005, they now represent only a little over ten percent of world Christianity and that percentage will decline as the twenty-first century advances. By 2025, half the world's Christians will live in Africa and Latin America; by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world's three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites, whether in Europe, North America, or anywhere else. Philip Jenkins, noting these religious-demographic projections, comments that soon, the phrase a White Christian may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as a Swedish Buddhist. Such people can exist, but a slight eccentricity is implied (3).
Third World Christianity, responding to current need, usually stresses the kind of sobriety and work ethic that help its members keep their bearings in a society changing from rural to urban. Otherwise, it reflects the traditional values as well as traditional ritual practices of the society. This has led to tension between First World and Third World branches of major denominations like the Anglican Church on such issues as the ordination of women and homosexuals, about which the First World is likely to be more liberal, and toleration of polygamy, of which the Third may be more accepting.
Christianity in these first years of the twenty-first century is more populous than ever, and embedded in a remarkable variety of cultures. At the same time, it is divided into many strands and divided on many issues, and its influence varies considerably from place to place. Still, history shows Christianity to be capable of astonishing surprises and adaptations. Only the future will show how many remain to be unveiled.
Islam, on the other hand, is shaped by outward confidence and a profound level of anxiety. It seems to me that Islam can be thought of as presently undergoing what Christianity underwent in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, an era during which many of those previously mentioned surprises and new adaptations emerged. Today Islam is about 1500 years old; the same age Christianity was in the days of Luther and Calvin. In both cases, religion was emerging from near-medieval conditions into a modern world shaped by nationalism and technological revolutions. Social conditions were changing rapidly. Religion typically responds by embracing some novelties and rejecting others, trying to define itself sharply and to draw boundaries, while striving to return to its original sources, in this case, the Bible and the Qurân, as it perceives them. At present, Islam, like sixteenth-century Christianity, is torn between adaptation or rejection of emerging secularism, whether in the physical and metaphorical form of Galileo's telescope or what is seen in the east today as western decadence.
In the Protestant case, rejection tended to come first, but liberalism and acceptance were also potential in the new form of Christianity and emerged in time along with conservatism. As with Islam today, the Reformation brought terrible violence, culminating in the Thirty-Years War, but the upheaval finally helped push Europe, and the world, into modernity.
Hinduism does not have the worldwide presence of either Islam or the new Christianity, although its direct and indirect influence may be found throughout the world. Vedanta philosophy, yoga classes, and the importance of Mohandas K. Gandhi in inspiring others like Martin Luther King, Jr. to nonviolent action, cannot be discounted. On the other hand, India, which is seventy-five percent Hindu, is expected to become the most populous nation in the world during the twenty-first century, assuring that the Hindu religion will certainly remain a major force.
Hinduism now seems to be torn between conservative and confrontational voices like those of the Bharat Janata Party, and the liberalism of such past exemplars as Swami Vivekananda, Gandhi, or India's philosopher-president Sarvepelli Radhakrishnan, and their contemporary representatives. This situation is characteristic of religions in countries undergoing rapid change and a new openness to the world, as India has been since major European contact. As the presence of India, and therefore Hinduism, grows in the world, their collective choices and influence will hold substantial significance for the globe.
What about Buddhism and the Chinese religions? Because of their great effective losses in China as a result of the Communist revolution, neither religion has the numbers, at least not on paper, that they had before 1949. But Buddhism retains some strength in Japan and in the Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist countries, as well as in the West, where a number of spiritual seekers have discovered the Dharma.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet (1935), perhaps the most prominent world spiritual leader after the Pope, has brought Buddhism wide visibility and respect. But despite his role as a spokesperson for the oppressed Tibetan people, it cannot be said that Buddhism has the geopolitical significance of Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. It remains to be seen whether that ancient pathway to Nirvana has permanently lost ground as an institutional religion or will be able to revitalize itself. Of course, Buddhism's historical and intellectual legacy will linger long, regardless of any outward decline, for nothing is deterministic. Will it find ways to keep its temples, monasteries, and lineages alive over some three millennia, despite the decline of the Dharma predicted by the Buddha himself? Could it undergo a new reformation reshaping Buddhism for a new kind of world? Perhaps that reformation would be centered in the West, where, according to many, the religion has more spiritual power, more creative and adaptive energies than in its ancient strongholds.
Less sanguine hopes can be raised for the Chinese religions, Confucianism and Taoism. A few Confucian temples and rites are nostalgically maintained in Korea and Taiwan. Taoism is more widespread, though it is very difficult to say by how much. In Taiwan, via the Chinese diaspora, and in the People's Republic of China, it is practiced very much as folk religion. There seems little hope, though, for large-scale institutional revitalization.
What is of greater interest is the continuing non-institutional influence of these traditions. Confucian values regarding family, work, the individual in relation to social order, and the state fundamentally continue to shape culture in China, Korea, and Japan whether under communist, corporate, or even Christian guise. One could almost say that Chinese Communism, with its mottos like Serve the people, is Confucianism under another name; just as the Party cadres, or today's world-class Chinese entrepreneurs, are like the elite mandarins of old. Japan's hierarchical society and paternalistic corporations have presented almost a capitalist version of the same.
As for Taoism, it, too, seems to be perpetuated mainly in the form of attitudes perhaps not even consciously attributed to the religion. In fact, the case could be made that Taoism has really had more influence in America than any other eastern religion! Consider how many more martial arts studios there are than specifically Buddhist, Hindu, or Taoist temples; how many surfers wear the yin/yang symbol; how often people talk about the Tao of this or that, or going with the flow. And consider how much cultural influence the Star Wars movies have had, their concept of the Force clearly based on the chi or ki of the martial arts since fundamentally, despite Buddhist and Confucian influence, the martial arts are in the Taoist tradition. Perhaps this is the ultimate fate of religions after their final decline: to become ongoing sources of ethical and cultural values independent of any institutional structure, much as classical Greek and Roman religion markedly influenced the Renaissance, and continue to influence western culture even today.
What are appropriate responses of Theosophists to this world situation? First, a fluid spiritual picture gives us fresh opportunity to reaffirm the principle of spiritual evolution, to note how rapid changes in the religious world indicate a process emphasizing now one aspect, now another. We can try to understand what it is about the present that has led those endeavoring to guide the world's spiritual evolution to showcase what seems now most prominent, while realizing that some features of it may be due to human recalcitrance rather than their plans, and at the same time to recognize that none of the pattern in this or any other age is absolute. This we can also teach others, and so promote a spirit of tolerance and loving understanding.
We can let that spirit of tolerance and love encourage respectful pluralism. Along with the rigid religious mentalities that, regrettably, are still all too much with us, pluralism and acceptance of pluralism are still a growing reality in the early twenty-first century. Even though many people are not yet ready to acknowledge this new reality openly, we can see widespread evidence that religions are regarded more and more as inner maps of Reality that we ourselves reverently configure. We see religion not so much as absolute, objective truth, but more like the famous Zen image of the finger pointing at the Moon. The finger is scripture and doctrine; look not at it, but in the direction it is pointing . . . to that which is beyond expression or containment in human words and concepts, but yet can be glimpsed from afar, even if through clouds and haze.
To be sure, some fingers may point in the right direction more accurately than others. Yet in a world of pointers, people change religions freely; in the increasing number of inter-religious marriages and families, they blend religions; they accept that in a world of many faiths, people need to get along with each other. I know of Christian-Jewish families who observe both Easter and Passover, and Christian-Buddhist families who display both the Cross and the image of the Enlightened One in their homes. Surely this is a step in the direction of the universal brotherhood of humanity of which Theosophy aspires to be a nucleus.
All this is in accord with very traditional Theosophical teachings about the beginning of a time of transition from the Fifth to the Sixth Root Race. The Secret Doctrine, describes the Root Races as stages of cultural and spiritual evolution. The stage in which we have abided for many centuries has been a time when humanity was meant to learn, above all and through experience, the meaning of dwelling in the physical body and in the physical world. It was thus a time of rich development in science and technology now abundantly realized. This era also called for the articulation of clear, objective laws of nature, absolutely essential for certain stages of scientific and technological understanding, but which we are now beginning to see as more relative than absolute. On the quantum level, probability theory works better than law; on the cosmological level, perhaps even more awesome Realities than any human concept can capture underlie multiverses infinite in all directions.
Unfortunately, the mode of thinking during that stage of human development, though now passing away, produced parallels to its kind of science in religion and other humanistic fields. Religions were often seen less as the finger pointing toward the ineffable than as closed systems possessing their own quasi-scientific sets of laws, dogmas, and proofs, whichâ€”being even less appropriate in faith than in the laboratoryâ€”served to divide and ensnare people as often as uniting and liberating them. The next stage is to be a step beyond this level, showing the real heart of religion to be love and personal quest beyond the closed systems. It will show the positive meaning of the many religions as vehicles for what the Buddhists call compassion and sympathetic joy. The coming era should be an exciting time for the enhancement of spiritual vision.
Perhaps then, we can view the spiritual tumult of the present as the beginning birth pangs of a new spiritual age. As in any such process, there will be resistance, setbacks, and times of discouragement. But our role as Theosophists must be to see and understand the big picture, and to support all our fellow human beings in the process of moving from one age into another.
Blavatsky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine. Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1978.
Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.