‘I think there is a great future for religion’

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • June 5, 2007
{mosimage}WINDSOR, Ont. - Despite numerous predictions of its demise, religion is very much a part of the world, and perhaps more alive and vital now than it has ever been, speakers told delegates at a conference at Assumption University here May 16-18.
And, as McGill University theologian and author Dr. Gregory Baum told a plenary session at the end of the three-day gathering — which attracted academics and experts from around the world — if anything, “I think there is a great future for religion.”

The conference, appropriately enough called The Future of Religion, covered topics ranging from the role religion can play in legal and social policy, to Islam and modernity, perspectives on the debate between Darwinism versus intelligent design, the rise of the religious right in the United States, and some of the current philosophical challenges to religion such as by best-selling author Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.

Assumption University president Fr. Paul Rennick said that, 80 years ago, a book with a similar sounding title, Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, predicted that religion “didn’t have much of a future.” So Assumption, as part of the “intellectual component” of celebrations for its 150th anniversary as a post-secondary institution, organized the conference and put an opposing spin on those words for the conference title. “Religion is here and it’s a very significant part of life,” Rennick said.

Baum said not only is religion here but it has persisted despite, in addition to Freud’s, the numerous predictions that it could not survive the rise of a modern industrial and increasingly secular society. Baum referred to esteemed sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Peter Berger who predicted the retreat or death knell of religion.

In fact, he said, Calvinism adapted to the rise of capitalism and the two went hand in hand in sociologist Max Weber’s famous phrase, the “Protestant ethic.”

Baum said that, today, religion survives and flourishes for any number of reasons. Pentecostalism in Latin America, for example, has allowed those populations to adapt to modernization while linking “to their ancient traditions” through highly dramatic and mystic-like religious experiences.

But, Baum said, one of the chief reasons for the resurgence is that religion has become a way of “affirming identity,” something “not predicted by either liberalism or Marxism.” He said this is illustrated by the political role that some emerging societies have given to Islam and Hinduism. And while institutional churches in the West may have lost some attendees, many people nevertheless describe themselves as spiritual.

But Baum warned that another trend, the growing ecumenical movement in North America, can be problematic for a church like the Roman Catholic Church.

“People are beginning to think of themselves as Christian rather than Catholics,” he said, causing “destabilization” in the church and “an unresolved conflict between mission and dialogue.”

Meanwhile world events, particularly 9/11 and the rise of radical Islam, have pushed religion to the forefront of public discourse. But, said conference keynote speaker Dr. Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil and Middle East scholar and professor of religion at Wake Forest University, how the debate is conducted is all important.

Kimball, a former director of the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches, criticized the “clash of civilizations” theory put forward by Harvard political theorist Samuel Huntington which has informed much of Western policy makers’ view of the political dimension of modern Islam.

Kimball labelled this analysis “unhelpful and dangerous” and a “recycled version of the Cold War thesis” which leads to an “us versus them” mentality that can result in a “war-like approach” as has already happened.

Yet, he said the Muslim world is much more diverse than many in the West think. Of 53 countries with Muslim majority populations, for example, only three countries recognized the Taliban and “you find a lot of debates going on within Islam today” about the proper role for government.

Kimball acknowledged events set off by 9/11, and the response to them, has sharpened tensions greatly and “as we move forward we are in for a difficult time ahead.”

But, he said, the way “to mitigate” this is to ratchet up interreligious dialogue in, for example, the tradition of Pope John Paul II, who made a point to address Muslims and seek commonality among Christianity and Islam.

“Should not believers come together?” he asked. “It flows from fidelity to God.”

Kimball said countries like Canada and the United States can point the way by using their own societies as successful models of religious pluralism.

“We’ve been engaged in a rather lengthy experiment now,” he said, and “we have to realize that we have something that has been working and nurture it.”

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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