Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What Christians can learn from Muslims

It never seems to end. The furor around Innocence of Muslims, the trashy video that lampoons the Prophet Muhammad, has not abated in spite of numerous pleas by saner Christian and Muslim elements to those who are rioting, or promoting it, to stop the violence. Extremists on both sides refuse to listen to reason. Instead, they continue to display their hatred and foment violence by brazen attacks on others.

Fortunately their numbers are small, and those killed as a direct result of the riots have been few. Many more protesters of the video expressed themselves in a non-violent way, although the media have largely ignored them, and focused on the violence. That is what sells.

I had hoped to leave this issue and continue with my new series on the role of faith in the public square. Yet the issue faith and politics arises here too. Now I will anticipate some of what I will say in future posts.

I want to make what (hopefully) are my final comments on a video that is so bad that it should never have been made and ought never have been disseminated. Both Christian and Muslim extremists are responsible for that.

These protesters do not represent all Muslims

Many people, especially in the West but not only there, have used this furor to sharpen their criticism of the intrusion of religion into politics. Blasphemy laws in many countries, especially Pakistan but also others that are now considering such legislation, deserve to be condemned for their sledgehammer approach, but that is no reason to condemn religion as such and to exclude it from the public square.

This film should cause us to reflect on many issues: the nature of blasphemy is one. There is a huge cultural gap between Christians and Muslims in their understanding of freedom of expression and what constitutes blasphemy. This is related to their differing understandings of the role of religion in politics.

The question I want to raise today is this: What can Christians learn from Muslims? Much, in my opinion, but I will only select one or two closely related things.

Christians can learn nothing from Muslims, I can already hear many Christians scream. Islam only practices warfare, they claim. Muslims are all terrorists. We, they explain defiantly, can teach Muslims a thing or two about peace and love!

Really? Now is not the proper moment to explain that the Qur'an teaches peace and that Islam, as the word implies, is a peaceful religion. Nor will I spend any time outlining how real the Crusades still are for many Muslims today. I could also point out that Muslims too adhere to the commandments to love both God and neighbor (even though the Qur'an does not use precisely this language).

My intention is not to teach Muslims. No doubt, there are things they could learn from Christians, but that is not my job right now. My purpose today is to teach Christians, especially those who are critical of Islam.

Christians and Muslims worship the same God. They do not worship him the same way, of course. But there is only one God who is worshiped by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. For more on this topic, read the new book of Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response.

There are many differences, of course, between Christians and Muslims. One, that I have mentioned several times in previous post, concerns the public/private distinction in religion. Under this understanding, religion should be restricted to the private sphere and thus has no role in the public square. This is based on the Muslim idea of community.

Is this true?

While some Christians reject the public/private distinction, many accept it uncritically. It is used to justify the separation of church and state. In a later post I will explain this relationship further. The consequences of this rejection are enormous. It gives a distorted picture of the Christian faith. Muslims can thus help Christians recapture a neglected aspect of their faith.

Muslims emphatically deny the distinction. Not only do they reject it but also the individualism that it presupposes. Instead, they see themselves as part of a community. The rejection of individualism, moreover, is expressed in the Islamic understanding of human rights, which are commonly interpreted as communal rights not individual rights.

Ummah (Arabic: أمة‎) is an Arabic word that means "nation" or "community." The word can mean nation in the modern sense, but it generally refers to the entire Muslim people or community. In modern Hebrew, the cognate word Ummah (אוּמָה), from the root ʿam (עַם), means "nation" or "people." The full implications of this lie beyond the scope of this post, but I will make a few suggestions.

Christians today urgently need recapture the idea of community or koinonia, which is intrinsic to the biblical understanding of the church.

Koinonia (koinwnia) is the Greek word that is translated into English variously as communion, association, fellowship, sharing, common, contribution, and partnership. But none of these words adequately captures what the early Christians meant when they spoke of the koinonia they had with one another and with Christ.

Christianity from the very beginning existed as a corporate reality, as a community. To be Christian meant to belong to the community of believers. One could not be a Christian by oneself, as a isolated individual.

If the idea of community is understood properly, it will help to break down the individualism that has infected the Christian faith for several centuries already. Then, for example, there will no longer be an undue emphasis on the importance of making individual decisions for Christ, as is almost universal today. 

Among other things, it will make the practice of infant baptism more understandable to many Christians who have been shaped by Baptist modes of thought. At baptism, children are incorporated into the church not because of a decision that they have made personally, but through the covenantal promise (to use Reformed terminology) that God makes.

The idea of community will also help Christians to understand better how they can involve themselves in politics without falling into the theocratic trap that Muslims have too often been victims of. Muslims have misconstrued the role of their faith by trying to apply the Qur'an directly to political affairs, but so have some Christians who have suggested that the Old Testament should be normative in the state.

Thus I am not suggesting that Muslims are right in everything, but their rejection of the public/ private distinction, at least in religion, and the related emphasis on community is very helpful for Christians.

Everyone, including secularists, should try to learn more about Islam and Muslims. Then they will see that many of the differences between them and Muslims cannot be written of as merely a "clash of civilizations." 

They go far beyond cultural differences, because Muslims live in many cultures, but are basically religious and rooted in totally different understandings of the world and the place of humans in society. 

Only then will people outside of the Muslim world fathom better why Muslims have reacted the way they have to this video and all the other highly offensive actions that they perceive as an attack on their faith.

Christians can indeed learn much from Muslims, but only if they are willing to learn. In addition to what I have already mentioned, I would add the importance of faithfulness and regularity in prayer, and an absolute submission to God (which is what islam means).

Some of this learning may take the form of reminders of what is inherently and originally biblical, but has been neglected for a long time. Muslims may indeed have learned some of these things from Christians. Be that as it may, now Muslims can return the favor. For that we should all be thankful.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Loving our Muslim neighbors

Mark 12: 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 31 The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.

Matthew 5: 43 You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father   in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The video Innocence of Muslims has provoked violent reactions by Muslims in many countries all over the world. Westerners typically cannot understand why Muslims are so upset. For example, if Jesus would be portrayed as a pedophile, many Christians might object, but most would not start riots and kill people in order to vent their outrage. For Christians in the West, especially in the US, free speech is a paramount right.

Unfortunately, this video does portray Muhammad as a pedophile and a womanizer, and that is blasphemy, according to Muslims. Blasphemy is a sin that must be punished. In much of the Muslim world, punishing blasphemy is more important than free speech.

A scene from the video -- Muslims find any portrayal of Muhammad offensive

This video, most Muslims agree, is so offensive that it does not deserve the right to use free speech as a defense. Many deplore the violence that it provoked, but they cannot accept the argument, at least in the West, that free speech justifies its production.

Even in the West, there are voices that insist that this video does not meet the standards for free speech as protected under the US constitution because it incites violence. There are limits to free speech, as the US Supreme Court has famously recognized.

Those who produced this video seem to be Christian extremists who intentionally wanted to provoke Muslim extremists. Both hate each other. Both are intent on destroying the other and the society that each represents.

What does all this have to do with the words of Christ that I just cited? Plenty! Christ demands that all those who call themselves by his name must live according to the commandments that he proclaimed, and not by the principles of the world.

Christians may not be able to persuade Muslims to forego violence. That is a job for other Muslims. But there is much that Christians can do to help defuse the crisis surrounding this video and its aftermath.

Christians should begin by recognizing Muslims as neighbors. A neighbor is someone we must love. As the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates, our neighbors are those who take care of us and whom, in turn, we must care of. That is long list of people we are commanded to love.

Christians deplore this violence, but at the same time they need to acknowledge that Muslims have different views about what constitutes blasphemy and the role of free speech in society. This knowledge will help to reinforce their acceptance of Muslims. The ignorance of Christians and Muslims about each other is abysmal.

How many Christians can truthfully affirm their love for Muslims? If the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves means anything, we must love Muslims -- all Muslims, including the extremists.

Christ commands his followers to even love their enemies. More specifically, Christians must pray for them. We must pray that these extremists will stop their violent behavior. We must pray for peace throughout the Middle East, and indeed throughout the world. Peace is only possible when people love each other.

Loving Muslim extremists does not mean that we condone their behavior. We must condemn what they are doing, and at the same time support the efforts of moderate Muslims to control the extremism in the Muslim world. As widespread as these riots have been, those who perpetrate violence constitute only a tiny fraction of all Muslims, and the leaders who incite it are an even smaller group.

As an aside, let me add that I blame the media in part for publicizing the violence. Without such publicity, the whole affair might have died out long ago. Extremists of every stripe revel in publicity. That way they can justify their behavior not only to themselves but to their followers. Now the whole world becomes their stage.

I also blame YouTube for publishing this video and continuing to make it available. YouTube claims it does not want to censor any videos, but it already does so with pornographic material. YouTube should delete this video immediately, as they did in Egypt. Others, of course, may continue to disseminate this piece of trash, since once something is published on the Internet, it will never disappear entirely.

I especially blame those who produced the video. It was purposely intended to be provocative. Others have pointed out that the egregiousness of its smears, the apparent deception by the producers of the cast and crew as to its contents, and the deliberate effort to raise its profile in the Arab world a week before 9/11 by dubbing it in Egyptian Arabic, indicates that this was all done intentionally.

As Christians, we must condemn their behavior and should do what we can to prevent those who profess to be fellow believers from similar actions in the future. We must pray that they too will see the error of their ways and stop behaving in a manner that is contrary to the gospel.

Similarly, Muslims must speak out more loudly against Muslim extremist behavior. The voices that do that already -- and they are many -- are drowned out by the noise that the extremists are making. The media should allow these moderate voices to be heard instead. The world needs to hear good news, not the awful stuff that  is published every day in newspapers and broadcast on radio and TV about what the extremists have done. But bad news sells, good news does not.

Loving our Muslim neighbor also means that we stop assuming that all Muslims are terrorists, or potentially so. We should do what we can to build bridges to the Islamic community so that Muslims realize that we are their allies, not their enemies.

Islam is a religion of peace, in spite of the practices of Muslim terrorists. This violence simply reinforces the belief of many Christians to the contrary.

Christians and Muslims worship the same God, albeit in different ways. Should we not acknowledge openly that we are brothers and sisters?

You may disagree with me, but if you do, please remember Christ's commands to love our neighbor, and even our enemies. Brothers and sisters may have disagreements at times, but they do not regard each other as enemies. Instead, they love each other.

1 John 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Do liberals and conservatives live on different planets?

In 1992 John Gray wrote the best-seller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. He used a metaphor that men and women are from distinct planets that has now become part of popular culture.

When I look at the political landscape today, I wonder if a similar observation can be made about people at each end of the political spectrum. The same thing can be said about the religious scene, as I will explain later.

First, politics. Whether we talk about Democrats and Republicans in the US, or those who vote NDP or Conservative in Canada, or for corresponding parties elsewhere in the world, it seems that the gulf between these groups is so great that one wonders whether they are living on different planets. They seem inherently incapable of communicating with each other. Each speaks a language that only they can understand.

This thought occurred to me when I compared the reactions of President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney to the riots in Cairo as a result of the video Innocence of Muslims (which is a piece of trash that I regret having watched after all the furor it has provoked throughout the Muslim world).

Protests in Indonesia against the video

Romney interpreted the US embassy statement out of Cairo, soon after the riots began, as siding with anti-American protesters instead of standing up for American values of free speech. Romney blamed Obama for what he called an "apology." "It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney added afterwards to reporters.

"Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined," Romney wrote about Obama in the first chapter of his 2010 book No Apology.

"It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable. There are anti-American fires burning all across the globe; President Obama’s words are like kindling to them," Romney explained.

This is not merely campaign rhetoric. For Romney and the Republican base, free speech is paramount. Thus apologies are never necessary. Free speech trumps all other rights, even the rights of Muslims and others who may be offended by a particular statement or some other form of expression. Only child pornography can be curtailed, and some people would even exempt that.

Even Democrats who immediately condemned this video had to acknowledge how important this right is. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton said as much when she dismissed it as "disgusting and reprehensible," but at the same time had to extol the right of free speech. Clinton explained that in the US, "We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be." 

What the Republicans especially have to realize is that no right is absolute. My freedom stops when it meets the freedom of others. Thus there are limits to any freedom.
For every freedom there are also corresponding duties and responsibilities. The rest of the world is aware of this when they talk about human rights, but many Americans seem oblivious to this fundamental truth.

The gulf between Democrats and Republicans is vast. The two recent nominating conventions illustrate that very clearly. I watched both (or at least the important parts), but I wondered if the speakers at each were talking about the same country. The US has become so polarized that it is sometimes difficult to have a civil conversation between ardent Democrats and Republicans. 

This vast gulf carries over into what news network people prefer to watch. Some years ago, I stayed at someone's place in Florida, where only Fox was allowed to be viewed. No wonder the gap is growing. 

In Canada a similar polarization is taking place, encouraged by a Conservative government. At the other end of the political spectrum, the NDP is experiencing a phenomenal rise in popularity, since it represents a viable alternative to the moribund Liberals. The NDP, by the way, is not socialist as many Americans have been led to believe, but they are moving to a more centrist position.

A parody of the difference between liberals and conservatives, yet here too there is a moment of truth

The difference between Democrats and Republicans, or between their counterparts elsewhere in the world, may be described as a liberal/conservative split. Yet neither of these terms should be interpreted exclusively in the classical sense, but rather as a shorthand to indicate the two political poles.

These poles, in turn, are an expression of  two different world views. I would describe the world view of one as open and the other as closed. The latter term refers to people who are more traditionally inclined, while open means those who are more receptive to new ideas and changes as well as to people who are different. 

This is hardly a complete description, but it is suggestive of where some of the differences between these two world views lie. You may disagree with this characterization, but it is one attempt to explain the deep-seated nature of these differences and the animosity between these parties and their adherents.

For example, some Republicans evidence a hatred of President Obama that borders on the irrational. Other politicians elsewhere have become victims of similar hatred. How can one explain such a visceral dislike?

Aside from some swing voters, most people are firmly committed to one or another party. They form the base of those parties. The terms open and closed, in my opinion, help to explain that commitment. As a result, various political groups find it difficult to communicate with each other. They seem to be living on different planets.
This chart illustrates these differences in a more detailed way (click to expand chart)

Similar attitudes prevails in churches, mosques, and synagogues. The differences between various religious factions are often intractable, and sometimes result in the formation of new denominations.

Those who are more traditionally inclined often find it difficult to understand those who are more open by nature, much less accept them.

Similarly, those denominations that are the most traditional often find it very difficult to be truly ecumenical. Unity is only possible when others return to the traditional fold or accept that tradition unreservedly.

I do not want to disparage tradition, but I simply want to point out the relation that I see between a more traditional attitude, whether in politics or in other spheres, and a more open attitude that accepts changes.

This may be an oversimplification on my part, but I am trying to come to grips with the inability of groups that are at the two poles to communicate with each other.
Another complex chart illustrating the political differences in three dimensions

Tell me what you think about my comments. Am I being one-sided or reductionistic in my characterization? Are liberals and conservatives really so different, or do they indeed live on different planets?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Judaism and the public square

A series on the role of religion in the public square, and specifically how various faiths see their role

Judaism is the eldest of the Abrahamic religions, and thus I want to begin with it. Judaism can be traced back to the time of Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago, even though he lived before the revelation of the Torah to Moses. Similarly, both Christians and Muslims regard Abraham as their forefather.

But some modern scholars claim that Judaism and Christianity were originally intertwined, so that Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity were born at the same time. Be that as it may, Judaism is old and venerable, and deserves priority.

What is indisputable is the diversity that exists withing Judaism today. To attempt to describe the Jewish position on the role of this faith in the public square is difficult, if not impossible, my research revealed.

In fact, Jews cannot even agree on who is a Jew, and thus the number of Jews in the world today is much in dispute. It is estimated that there are approximately 16 million Jews in the world, or a little more than 0.2% of the world population. About 30% of Jews are found in Israel, and another 38% in the US and Canada, with most of the rest living in Europe.

The divisions within Judaism run very deep, both within Israel and elsewhere in the world, and shape the diverse attitudes to their faith and the world at large. The largest Jewish religious movements are Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism. A major source of difference between these groups or denominations is their approach to Jewish law. All of them have further divisions.

In Israel, the divisions are slightly different. Most Jews there classify themselves as "secular" (hiloni), "traditional" (masorti), "religious" (dati), or Haredi. What would be called "Orthodox" in the diaspora includes what is commonly called dati (religious) or Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel.  The term "ultra-Orthodox" should be avoided, however, since it implies extremism. In Israel too, there are many further divisions.

For about two millennia Jews did not have a homeland. In addition, they were persecuted and their political involvement extremely curtailed. Since 1948, they do have a country of their own, where they are very active politically. Israeli Jews belong to many political parties.

Even the Haredim, who have traditionally shunned involvement in many aspects of Israeli society, including the workforce, are active in Israeli politics. In the Knesset, the Haredi parties have held the balance of power between the country's major political powers and have exerted an influence far beyond what their numbers warrant.

In contrast, Modern Orthodoxy, which is a movement within Orthodox Judaism, has tried to synthesize Jewish values and observance of the law with the secular, modern world. Religious Zionism, a movement that  supports building a Jewish state in the land of Israel, is similar in many ways, although they are not identical.

These are only a few of the many movements within contemporary Judaism that play a role, to a greater or lesser degree, in the public sphere within Israel. Outside Israel, Jews also play a significant role, but now as individuals, not as movements or parties.

In the US, Jews were initially denied the vote, although they were granted equality and were active in community affairs. By the beginning of the 20th century, Jews were integrated into American life to a large degree, although they remained conscious of their ethnic identity.

Towards the end of the 20th century, Jews had become relatively wealthy. Although their wealth has become a stereotype, of the 400 richest Americans, over 100 were Jewish, as were more than 30% of American billionaires. Today Jews earn more money than any other religious group in the US.

In the last century, the more secular Jews tended toward liberal or even leftist political views, while more religious Jews were politically more conservative. Modern Orthodox Jews have been less active in political movements than Reform Jews. The Orthodox vote Republican more often than less traditional Jews. But the vast majority of Jews in the US have been aligned with the Democratic Party

In contemporary political debate, strong Orthodox support for school voucher initiatives undermines the belief that the Jewish community seeks a high and impenetrable barrier between church and state. Other Jews, however, do not support school vouchers.

Jews have been highly visible as leaders of movements for civil rights for all Americans, including themselves and African Americans. The historic struggle against prejudice faced by Jewish people, some argue, has led to a natural sympathy for any group confronting discrimination.

Until the first half of 20th century. Jews were discriminated against in some forms of employment, not allowed into some social clubs and resort areas, given a quota on enrollment at colleges, and not permitted to buy certain types of property. Numerous polls indicate that Jews are no longer the focus of hostility, and that antisemitism is at a low point in the US today.
Although Jews constitute only 2.2% of the American population, 12 of the 100 members of the Senate are Jewish, as are 24 of the House of Representatives. Three of the justices of the Supreme Court are Jewish. The list of Jews involved in activism is also very long.

In Canada, the list of Jewish politicians, jurists, public servants, and activists is equally impressive. Similar lists can be compiled of Jews who are active in political life in Europe and elsewhere.

Jewish ideas of the relationship between Judaism and politics has developed in many different directions. In Europe, many Jews favored various forms of liberalism and saw them as connected with Jewish principles. Some Jews allied themselves with a range of Jewish political movements.

Many religious supporters of the Jewish left have argued that left-wing values vis-à-vis social justice can be traced to Jewish religious texts, including the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)  and later texts, which include a strong endorsement of hospitality to "the stranger" and the principle of redistribution of wealth in the Biblical idea of Jubilee, as well as a tradition of challenging authority, as exemplified by the Biblical prophets.

While Jews in the diaspora have also been represented in the conservative side of the political spectrum, even politically conservative Jews have tended to support pluralism more consistently than many other elements of the political right. This pluralist tendency may be due to the fact that Jews, unlike Christians and Muslims, are not expected to proselytize. 

The wailing wall in Jerusalem -- the holiest place in Judaism

Outside of Israel, Jews have not organized Jewish political parties. This is hardly surprising, since Jews have historically always been a minority in the countries where they resided. They have thus aligned themselves with existing parties, as is especially noticeable in the US, as I have already noted.

It is difficult to generalize how individual Jews see the role of the Jewish faith in politics. Although Jewish politicians typically do not hide their ethnicity, their view of the role of faith in politics is as diverse as their political allegiances. This is true everywhere in the Jewish world; and it may reflect the same diversity on the role of faith in politics that many Christian politicians display.

I have tried introduce Judaism as fairly as I could. Some Jews, no doubt, may object to my comments, as may some Christians. My purpose is simply to encourage discussion of the role of faith in the public sphere. 

In future posts, I hope to discuss Christianity, in its various traditions, and Islam, which is not as monolithic as  many people suppose. You can help me through your comments. This is a learning experience for all of us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What is religion, and what is its role?

Symbols representing some world religions,
 from left to right:
row 1: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism
row 2: Islam, Buddhism, Shinto
row 3: Sikhism, Bahá'í Faith, Jainism

What is religion? I have mentioned religion many times in this blog, but I have never defined the term. That is not easy, as many of you realize. There are maybe as many definitions as there are scholars of the subject.

Thus I will not attempt to provide a definition that will please everyone. Following the lead of some scholars,  I will list several characteristics of religions, although not every religion needs to display all of them:
  • Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

One does not have to accept every one of these characteristics or the precise wording in order to recognize that this list is helpful to distinguish religions from non-religions. Using this list, atheism would not be a religion, since it lacks everyone of these characteristics (or so atheists insist).

I grew up in a tradition which claims that everyone is religious, in the sense that people everywhere believe in something. But is that true? As we shall see in a later post, some atheists deny this claim emphatically. Then, is this traditional understanding of religion still helpful when one is talking to atheists? 

The etymology of the term religion is uncertain, and is thus not particularly helpful in explaining its meaning. Many languages use a word that translates as religion, but they may use it in a different way, as in Sanskrit where it also means law. And some have no word for religion at all.

Thankfully, I do not have to resolve all these issues now. Most of us can recognize a religion when we see it. But are we then not using some version of the aforementioned list?

I want to start a new series on religion in general and the major religions of the world in particular. Previously I dealt with several teachings of these religions, especially Islam, but I have not yet introduced them properly. Now I want to make amends. 

I will first deal with the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Within Christianity, I will examine various traditions, including (in this election year in the US) Mormonism. I will discuss some other religions as well, if I have the time and patience.

This series will not be Religion 101 or a course on Comparative World Religions. Instead, I will focus, as I will explain further, on the role that certain religions already play in public on the world stage, and thus the role that religion can and, indeed, ought to play in the public arena.

The above chart illustrates the spread of various faiths in today's world (Christianity here is broken down into three main families: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), but it does not show how many of these religions can be found in other countries where they have become your neighbor and mine.

Since religion is a well-nigh universal phenomenon, it is easy to surmise why many people claim that everyone believes in something. Many dictionary definitions of religion include the word faith; in fact, these words have become virtually interchangeable, although religion differs from private belief in that the former has a social aspect.

A recent global poll (2012) reports that 59% of the world's population is religious, 23% are not religious, and 13% are atheists. This report notes, among other things, that religiosity is higher among the poor and lower among the college educated. It also remarks that religiosity has declined 9% worldwide since 2005.

World nonreligious population by percentage, Dentsu Institute (2006) and Zuckerman (2005)

The data can be broken down more precisely for individual counties; in the following chart the percentage of population in each country that consider themselves non-religious (2006, averages involve data from multiple sources). The countries are listed in declining order (and in this format in order to save space):

  Estonia 75.7  Azerbaijan 74  Sweden 46-85 (average of 65.5)  Czech Republic 64.3  Vietnam 46.1-81 (average of 63.55)  Denmark 43-80 (average of 61.5)  Albania 60  United Kingdom 39-65 (average of 52)  Japan 51.8  China 8-93 (average of 50.5)  France 43-54 (average of 48.5)  Russia 48.1  Belarus 47.8  Hungary 42.6   Ukraine 42.4  Netherlands 39-44 (average of 41.5)  Latvia 40.6 South Korea 36.4  Belgium 35.4  New Zealand 34.7  Germany 34.6  Chile 33.8  Luxembourg 29.9  Slovenia 29.9  Venezuela 27.0  Spain 23.3  Slovakia 23.1  Australia 22.3  Mexico 20.5  Lithuania 19.4 Italy 17.8 Canada 16.2 United States 16.1 Argentina 16.0 South Africa 15.1 Croatia 13.2 Austria 12.2 Finland 11.7 Portugal 11.4 Puerto Rico 11.1 Bulgaria 11.1 Philippines 10.9 Ireland 7.0 India 6.6 Serbia 5.8 Peru 4.7 Poland 4.6 Iceland 4.3 Greece 4.0 Turkey 2.5 Romania 2.4 Tanzania 1.7 Malta 1.3 Iran 1.1 Uganda 1.1 Nigeria 0.7  Bangladesh 0.1

It has been estimated that there are about 4,200 religions in the world. The five largest religious groups by population are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

In this series I want to examine some of these religions, especially those that are the most widespread and influential on the world stage. Influence is especially relevant for this blog. I will focus particularly on how these religions see their role and how they play it in public life.

In Canada, for example, public life became completely secularized during the last century, and thus religion lost most of its influence in education and politics. But religion was at one time one of the institutional bases of the public sphere in Canada. Although it will never regain that traditional role, it should not be overlooked or underestimated. Similar developments have taken place in other countries.

Today, many faiths are challenging the assumption that religion is a matter only of private concern. They are demonstrating its historical and continued relevance to public life. The contemporary relevance of religion in the public sphere is what I want to emphasize in this series.

While writing this series, I do not want to neglect current events in the world. I will interrupt it, if necessary, in order to discuss topical matters. The world does not stop turning so we can first deal with our immediate concerns. Thus I will probably alternate on a weekly basis, or add some posts in between.

My hope and prayer is that this series will be a learning experience for everyone concerned. I, for one, enjoy doing the research for each post. Even picking a topic is stimulating. I hope you will enjoy this series as well.