As always religion is making headlines in all sorts of ways. Just a quick glance at the news and you will find a myriad of stories and scandals, all involving faith at their very heart. Here are just a few recent examples of faith in action across the globe.
In America evangelical Christians are feeling victorious now that they finally have their conservative majority on the Supreme Court, thanks to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. And with Trump in power Christians are smiling even more because finally, after eight long torturous years under Obama, they can say “Merry Christmas” again. Praise Jesus indeed. And if you want to know how serious this situation can get then look back to December 2016 when in Perth, Australia, a Muslim woman was subjected to a brutal verbal and physical attack after a man said “Merry Christmas” to her but she replied with “Happy holidays.” Local police investigated reports that the man stole the woman’s headscarf after the incident, which saw him smash a broken beer bottle over the back of her neck and throw rocks at her. And a happy new year to you too.
Something Trump may not be happy about is the fact that modern-day witches are planning a ritual to hex his recently appointed Supreme Court justice. Dozens of these witches say they plan to gather in New York later this month to hex Kavanaugh, who was sworn in to the nation’s highest court recently despite facing several allegations of sexual misconduct. Dakota Bracciale, a Brooklyn-based witch who is organizing the October 20th event, said the witches see the hex as a radical act of resistance that continues witchcraft’s long history as a refuge and weapon for the “oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized.” She has also said that “Witchcraft has been used throughout history as a tool and ally for people on the fringes of society who will not ever really get justice through the powers that be. So they have to exact their own justice.”
Moving from witches to fear mongers and everyone’s favourite extremist Muslim preacher Anjem Choudary is to be freed on parole this month. Choudary, leader of the banned extremist group Al-Muhajiroun, is to be given automatic release after serving half of his five-and-a-half-year sentence. His group has inspired a number of Britons to join ISIS. Choudary was jailed in 2016 for “inviting support of a terror group” but is now somehow entitled to automatic parole. The system works, I guess?
Over in Turkey another Muslim preacher, Murat Bayaral, is getting his beard in a major twist. Bayaral recently said men without beards cause “indecent thoughts” in other men because they look like women, which is why all men need to grow beards to show they are clearly male. Speaking on a Turkish TV show he said if a man was mistaken for a woman “you could be possessed by indecent thoughts.” He added that “Men should grow beards. One of the two body parts that separate men from women is the beard…For example, if you see a man with long hair from afar you may think he is a woman if he does not have a beard. Because nowadays women and men dress similarly. God forbid! You could be possessed by indecent thoughts.”
Here in the UK a British man arrested this summer on suspicion of sending racist letters across England urging a “Punish a Muslim Day” and offering points for acts of violence, has pleaded guilty to soliciting murder and 13 other offenses. David Parnham entered his guilty plea at the Central Criminal Court in London. The police said Parnham had waged a two-year campaign of terror since 2016, sending “malicious” letters and “highly offensive” packages to scores of people and organizations. The letters and packages, some with suspicious white substances, were sent to mosques, Muslim members of Parliament, and Queen Elizabeth, among others. The letters urged people to commit violence against Muslims to earn an escalating number of points. Parnham was caught because his DNA and fingerprints were recovered from some of the letters, including one sent to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist on death row for massacring nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Over in India certain tech companies are asking devotees how much would they pay for a prayer? In the world’s largest democracy many people are embracing apps that allow them to pay for a ritual to be performed on their behalf. In recent years, tens of thousands of Indians have turned to ePuja and other prayer-by-proxy companies, whose smartphone apps and websites make summoning a godly intercession as easy as ordering a pizza. Another such company, Shubhpuja, has marketed itself as a way to “connect to God in one click.” The offer appeals to Hindus in India and abroad who do not have the time, money, or physical ability to travel to the temple with the best reputation for resolving their particular problem. Just select a puja and a temple, pay a fee, and the company gets a priest to perform the ritual. Shubhpuja even allows customers to Skype into rituals as they’re being performed. ePuja has since facilitated about 50,000 pujas for customers in over 60 countries, with one of the most common requests being asking for help to secure a marriage. And who says romance is dead?
Staying in India, the Hindu nationalist-led state of Uttar Pradesh is changing the Muslim name of the Indian city of Allahabad to Prayagraj. The new name harks back to the city’s ancient appellation, Prayag, before it was changed by Mughal-era rulers in the late 16th century. Prayag in Sanskrit means a place for sacrifice, in reference to the Hindu belief that the creator of the universe, Brahma, made his first offering at the area in the city where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet. The Uttar Pradesh health minister, Siddharth Nath Singh, told local media “The city used to be known as Prayagraj since the beginning. To those who are opposing the decision, how would you feel if the name your parents gave you was to be changed?” Changing Allahabad’s name has been a longstanding demand of Hindu nationalist groups in India which regard the three centuries in which huge areas of the subcontinent were ruled by Mughal dynasties as a period of foreign occupation.
Meanwhile, over in China the authorities are still locking up and detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in internment camps, in a systematic attempt to erase them and their culture. Muslims in Palestine are also suffering in similar ways, as they have been for several decades now. Six Palestinians were recently shot dead by Israeli forces, not that you would know anything about this as the news lately has been focusing heavily on the horrific murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the Turkish government. As a quick side note, since when have the powers that be in the west so readily believed the words of the Turkish authorities? Anyway, if Khashoggi was indeed tortured, murdered, and dismembered by the Saudis, as suggested by the Turks, then the Saudis can add his name to the list of at least 17 Yemenis who were killed in a recent Saudi-led airstrike. And that is just the murder tally we know of for this week. It does seem like Western patience with the oil-rich desert kingdom is starting to wear thin.
Because Khashoggi was allegedly murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, the incident has only increased tensions between the Turkish leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the defacto leader of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This recent dispute pits the two staunch, headstrong nationalists against each other, both of whom have ambitions to reshape their regions. Whilst both leaders sit in opposite ideological camps, one thing they share in common is a history of refusing to back down from a fight. Steven A Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies both countries said “These are two people who each think he is the most important person in the Muslim world…Ego is a factor on both sides.”
Back in America Trump welcomed the recently freed US pastor Andrew Brunson to the White House, hours after he arrived in Washington back home from Turkey following two years in detention. The 50-year-old evangelical pastor was convicted of terror-related charges and sentenced to over three years in jail. But he was immediately freed, taking into account the time already served and good conduct during the trial. Brunson thanked Trump, saying “you really fought for us.” In the White House the pastor asked Trump if he could pray for him, Trump replied “Well, I need it probably more than anyone else in this room, so that would be very nice, thank you.” The pastor then kneeled and placed a hand on Trump’s shoulder. As Trump bowed his head the pastor asked God to “give him supernatural wisdom to accomplish all the plans you have for this country and for Him. I ask that You give him wisdom in how to lead this country into righteousness. I ask that You give him perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth.” The best of luck with that. The American pastor was unwittingly caught up in a geopolitical fight between the US and Turkey, and his release was seen as a good sign of easing tensions between the two countries.
In other faith related news, the Catholic sex abuse scandal finally kind of takes its first major scalp, that of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the head of the Archdiocese of Washington, whose resignation was accepted by Pope Francis. Wuerl submitted his letter of resignation three years ago, when he turned 75, as is customary for bishops. But in September Wuerl travelled to Rome to urge the Pope to finally accept it because of growing accusations over his role in handling sex abuse allegations in the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has also given an explanation as to why these sex scandals are occurring throughout the Church. He said recently the devil is alive and well and working overtime to undermine the Church. In fact, the Pope is so convinced that Satan is to blame for the sex abuse crisis and deep divisions racking the Church, that he has asked Catholics around the world to recite a special prayer every day in October to try to beat him back. Since he was elected in 2013 Francis has made it clear that he believes the devil to be real. In a document in April on holiness in the modern world, Francis mentioned the devil more than a dozen times, calling him “the malign one, the great accuser.” He went on to say that “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”
As you would expect these words caused quite a stir, even among Catholics such as Paul Horan, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, who reacted as follows:
The suggestion that Satan is responsible and that exorcisms need to occur to rid the church of the wickedness of child abuse is an outrageous act of desperation by church leaders running scared and out of ideas in the 21st century where people are better educated and can think for themselves without fear of rancour from the church! The Devil isn’t responsible for clerical child abuse. Wicked evil clerics are. Satan didn’t do any of this and neither did he request that it happen…I wouldn’t be surprised if I get excommunicated for expressing such blasphemies. – Paul Horan
Speaking of Satan, in America in August Satanists turned out to cheer the unveiling of a bronze statue dedicated to a goat-headed winged creature called Baphomet in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Satanic Temple organisation arranged the rally outside the Arkansas State Capitol building to protest a Ten Commandments monument already on the grounds. Although the eight-and-a-half foot tall icon was only allowed to be on display temporarily, Satanists argued they should be allowed to erect the winged goat effigy on a permanent basis under freedom of religion rights outlined in the US constitution.
There are so many other stories that could be mentioned, such as Israelis getting a little too excited because the Biblical prophecy of a pure red heifer being born has suddenly happened, signalling the end of days. And there has been much debate about religious freedom versus personal freedom, all in regards to a gay couple asking a Christian bakery to make them a pro-gay cake featuring Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, both of whom are not gay themselves. The bakery refused to bake the cake and much legal chaos has since ensued.
What these and many other ongoing stories illustrate is that belief, the way it influences people and the countries they inhabit, is fundamental in explaining who we are and where we came from. After all, it is in deciding how we live with the gods that we also decide how we live with each other.
However, despite all the religious goings on all over the world, there are still plenty of voices out there that see it as something antiquated and on the way out. Case in point is Bill Maher who recently on his TV show Real Time With Bill Maher preached the following eulogy:
You can add to this recent figures that show the Church of England being in steep decline. According to the latest data from the British Social Attitudes survey, released last month, the proportion of the population identifying as C of E has fallen to a record low of just 14%. Among adults under the age of 24 it is an alarmingly low 2%. In contrast a majority of the British population say they have no religion. According to David Voas, professor of social science at University College London and co-director of British Religion in Numbers, there are many ways of defining religious affiliation. “But, very clearly, we’re at a point where, under any definition, a minority of the population – in practice, single figures – is Anglican. There can no longer be a majoritarian argument for an established church.” We shall see if this is the beginning of the end for the happy union between Protestant church and English state.
Whilst I get where people like Maher are coming from on the decline of religion, the numbers worldwide just do not support such views. In a recent newspaper article Neil MacGregor, author of the brilliant new book Living With The Gods: On Beliefs And Peoples, made the following observation:
Fifty years ago, religion was on the retreat as science advanced. Now it is centre stage of global politics…Belief is back. Around the world, religion is once again politically centre stage. It is a development that seems to surprise and bewilder, indeed often to anger, the agnostic, prosperous west. – Neil MacGregor
Journalist Caroline Moorehead, in reviewing MacGregor’s book, made a similar point about how religion and religious practice seems to be increasing across the globe:
Far from shrinking away, organised religion appears to be spreading. In Japan, one of the most secular countries in the world, young pregnant women are once again choosing to wear specially propitious sashes and taking offerings to the temples, in the name of children they have lost or aborted. In India, the numbers of Hindu pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela festival to celebrate the virtues of detachment and compassion have now reached 100 million, making it the largest religious event in the world. Faith is providing cohesion and reassurance. – Caroline Moorehead
As though further proof were needed, please find below selected quotes from a very interesting article that has various facts and figures to counteract the views of naysayers like Maher, and instead back up the views of yaysayers like MacGregor and Moorehead. Enjoy!
Religion: Why Faith Is Becoming More And More Popular
Harriet Sherwood, 27 Aug 2018, theguardian.com
If you think religion belongs to the past and we live in a new age of reason, you need to check out the facts: 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. Members of this demographic are generally younger and produce more children than those who have no religious affiliation, so the world is getting more religious, not less – although there are significant geographical variations. According to 2015 figures, Christians form the biggest religious group by some margin, with 2.3 billion adherents or 31.2% of the total world population of 7.3 billion. Next come Muslims (1.8 billion, or 24.1%), Hindus (1.1 billion, or 15.1%) and Buddhists (500 million, or 6.9%).
Which religions are growing, and where?
The short answer is religion is on the wane in western Europe and North America, and it’s growing everywhere else…Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world – more than twice as fast as the overall global population. Between 2015 and 2060, the world’s inhabitants are expected to increase by 32%, but the Muslim population is forecast to grow by 70%. And even though Christians will also outgrow the general population over that period, with an increase of 34% forecast mainly thanks to population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity is likely to lose its top spot in the world religion league table to Islam by the middle of this century.
It’s mainly down to births and deaths, rather than religious conversion. Muslim women have an average of 2.9 children, significantly above the average of all non-Muslims at 2.2. And while Christian women have an overall birth rate of 2.6, it’s lower in Europe where Christian deaths outnumbered births by nearly 6 million between 2010 and 2015. In recent years, Christians have had a disproportionately large share of the world’s deaths (37%).
But 23% of American Muslims say they are converts to the faith, and in recent years there has been growing anecdotal evidence of Muslim refugees converting to Christianity in Europe.
What religions are oldest and are there any new ones?
The oldest religion in the world is considered to be Hinduism, which dates back to about 7,000 BCE. Judaism is the next oldest, dating from about 2,000 BCE, followed by Zoroastrianism, officially founded in Persia in the 6th century BCE but its roots are thought to date back to 1,500 BCE. Shinto, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism bunch together around 500-700 BCE. Then along came Christianity, followed about 600 years later by Islam.
Some might argue that the newest religion is no religion, although non-believers have been around as long as humans. But periodically new religious movements spring up, such as Kopimism, an internet religion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Pastafarianism (officially recognised by the New Zealand government but not the Dutch), and Terasem, a transreligion that believes death is optional and God is technological.
In 2016, the Temple of the Jedi Order, members of which follow the tenets of the faith central to the Star Wars films, failed in its effort to be recognised as a religious organisation under UK charity law. In the last two censuses, Jedi has been the most popular alternative religion with more than 390,000 people (0.7% of the population) describing themselves as Jedi Knights on the 2001 census. By 2011, numbers had dropped sharply, but there were still 176,632 people who told the government they were Jedi Knights.