World Religions Report

The Modern Search

© Phil Nijhuis/EPA/Newscom

First Encounter

You learn from your university’s newspaper that your campus will be hosting a large gathering

of religious leaders for three days. There will be large and small meetings, some of them open to

students and the general public. At the end of each day there will be a nondenominational service

in a nearby church or temple, and at the end of the conference there will be a large meeting that

everyone may attend. You decide to go to the final conference meeting.

The gathering is in a modern auditorium, which is usually used by the theater department. Upon

entering, you see a stage full of people in bright-colored clothes. Among them you notice Sikh

representatives in white, Hindus in orange, Buddhists in gray and orange, Muslims in brown,

Christians in black and purple, and Native Americans in various-colored tribal dress. To open the

session, a cantor sings a Jewish festival song and a Native American chants a song in praise of

the sun.

After the music, the president of the university thanks everyone for attending. Next, the keynote

speaker sums up the ideas discussed at the various meetings held over the three days. After his

remarks, he opens the floor to questions and asks the audience members to please use the

microphones standing in the aisles, so that everyone can hear. People line up quickly. The first

question is a bit startling and provokes laughter.

“Why are most of you men?” a faculty member asks the keynote speaker. “I see only a few

women among you. Where are all the female religious leaders?”

Before answering, one of the representatives pauses to collect his thoughts. The silence is


“Women ministers and religious leaders do exist,” he says at last. “In fact, some religious

groups, like Christian Science, were begun by women. But I admit that most religious traditions

are only beginning to appreciate gender as an issue, and many religions are still closed to the idea

of female clergy. Fortunately, some religious schools are now training female candidates.

Although leaders in most religions are still male, we can expect in the future that more leaders

will be women.” Nice try, you think. The people around you do not seem convinced either. A

man on the far left of the auditorium comments, “Religious leaders have been getting together to

engage in dialogue for years. But has it really led to anything substantial? For example, have any

religions come together to help survivors of catastrophes, such as the people of Haiti and Japan

whose lives were devastated by earthquakes?”

A Buddhist monk answers. He speaks about the relief-work groups from Asia, like the Tzu Chi

Foundation in Taiwan and the Ruamkatanyu Foundation in Thailand. But he concedes that their

work has been done primarily in coordination with other organizations of the same religion. “It is

hard to get religions to work together on global matters. I wish I knew why.” A Christian bishop

adds information about Christian welfare groups, such as Catholic Relief Services and World

Vision, but he admits the same problem of getting different religions to work together. “And

there’s always the issue of sensitivity to the local religions of the countries needing assistance.

Sometimes they don’t want our help.”

Another audience member asks about the future of religions. “Will the future just bring more of

the same—the same religions, the same rituals, the same beliefs? Or is it possible that religions

will influence each other and even blend? Can new beliefs emerge from the old religions? Could

there be entirely new religions?”

A Shinto leader from the West Coast answers. “Some religions and denominations are very open

to new ideas. My own religion of Shinto has many modern offshoots, like Tenrikyo and Omoto,

which try to address the problems of the modern world. And there are branches of old religions

that deliberately reject prescribed beliefs—among them are the Unity Church, the Unitarians, and

some forms of Judaism. They want to be open to new ideas.

For example, they seek new understandings of what God might be and of what revelation


Another representative adds that interfaith meetings like this really are having an effect on belief

and practice. “Some Christian groups now practice meditation and silent prayer. These new

practices have been influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. And, in turn, Hinduism and

Buddhism have taken ideas from other religions, such as the need for social involvement and

welfare work. Maybe we are only at the beginning of our dialogue. I wish I could be here a

hundred years from now to see what comes about.”

The questions and discussion go on for another half hour. At last, the keynote speaker makes his

closing comments from the stage. Many of the leaders say a final prayer, and the conference is


You walk out with Marianne, a friend from one of your classes. “What do you think?” you ask.

“I’m not quite sure,” she says. “I’m thinking about it, though, because I have to write a paper

about the conference. What about you?”

“I think it was ‘same old same old.’ My parents are regular churchgoers, and they hear the same

teachings as they did when they were children. I stopped following their religion, but I did try

several others for a while. Right now I’m still looking. Maybe I’ll have to invent my own! What

about you? What are you going to write?”

“I think I’m going to write about where religions could be headed in the future. Bringing women

into leadership positions is inevitable, and it will change religions. I think it could make them

more tolerant. And I also think that new religions will emerge. Maybe they already have—but

we don’t see them as religions yet. People will always need a moral code. But maybe morality

needs rethinking.”

Marianne and I make plans to meet again and to talk more about what we’ve learned. As I walk

away after saying good-bye, I wonder, What new religions will emerge? What will the future


Modern Influences on the Future of Religion

It is obvious that religions in the modern world face both challenge and inevitable change.

Numerous social and technological developments are responsible for bringing about change.

Women are demanding roles in arenas traditionally dominated by males—including institutional

religions. Scientific advances in such areas as reproduction, genetics, and organ transplantation

pose ethical questions that people in earlier times never had to answer. Many Western cities are

homes to religions, such as Hinduism and Islam, that not too long ago were considered exotic

and foreign. Finally, television, the Internet, cell phones, immigration, and travel expose human

beings worldwide to new cultures and religions.

Change is happening so quickly that we must wonder about the future of religion. What if we

could return to earth a few hundred years from now? Would the religions that we know now

have changed a great deal? What religions would even still exist? Would there be new great


In ways that weren’t even imagined a few decades ago, today’s political, religious, and economic

movements are spread by technology—and involve people who were previously overlooked.

© Monique Jaques/Corbis

We cannot know exactly how the religious landscape will look in another several hundred years,

but we can make a guess based on the influences at work today—influences that are pulling

religions in different directions. As we’ve seen throughout this book, religions in general tend to

be conservative and often change more slowly than their surrounding societies. But, indeed, they

do change. They change as a result of forces both from within themselves and from their

surrounding cultures.

In this chapter we will first look at a few of the modern developments that are shaping our future

in general and the future of religions in particular. We will consider the recurrent theme of

change in religion. And we will look at two alternatives to organized religion. The first is the

environmental movement and its almost religious view of nature. The second is what has come

to be called eclectic spirituality, a union of various sources of inspiration, often expressed

through art and music, which are frequently associated with spirituality.

The New World Order

A century ago the great majority of people lived rural lives, and many people were ruled by

monarchs. Now the majority of people live in cities, and monarchs are in short supply. The

economic and political landscape has changed rapidly. The Berlin Wall fell, uniting Germany,

and Communism ended in the Soviet Union. Although China remains Communistic in name, it is

now a major force in world capitalism. International companies are becoming as powerful as


Once people had to travel far to experience different cultures. Now people in large cities have

their pick of international cuisines—Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, French, Vietnamese. And

contact with people of different cultures is a daily occurrence. In large cities one can watch

television programs in many languages, attend religious services of different cultures, and visit

community centers of varied ethnic backgrounds.

We cannot help but wonder how this rich cultural change will affect religion. So far, most of the

world’s religions have remained fairly separate traditions—even those that have spread to

different countries and cultures. But globalism may make it impossible for individual religions to

remain separate.

Modern capitalism will also challenge religion, primarily by exposing relatively broad segments

of populations to its promotion of financial success as a means to attaining personal satisfaction.

In the past, many religions preached the values of poverty, simplicity, and detachment—values

that at one time were consistent with life as experienced by the vast majority. Now, many

religions are influenced by capitalist ideals, which esteem individual and group betterment; but it

is a betterment that can be measured in material terms and can be paid for with money. As

Robert Ellwood, a noted scholar of religions, has commented, the “idea that poverty could be a

state of blessedness in itself, a favorite of preachers as recently as a century ago, is now

hopelessly discredited.... Even the most conservative pulpiteers nowadays exhort their poor to

get ahead, but to do it by nonviolent means.” 1 We know that money can be used just as selfishly

in the modern world as it was in the past. But money is not always used for selfish and useless

reasons; take, for example, scholarships, contributions to disaster-relief projects, endowments to

the arts. The modern culture of money-based betterment will increasingly challenge religions to

produce what material cultures value. It will challenge the religious idealization of poverty and

will question religions carefully about how much they contribute to measurable human

betterment. 2

The global economic crisis that began in 2008 will be a further challenge to religious thought and

action. Religions may be influenced by the crisis to develop a new approach to the financial

world, and religions could conceivably offer help by providing both theoretical and practical


Globalism will also challenge any incomplete visions of reality offered by traditional religions.

Finally, urbanism will challenge traditional religions to confront the tribulations of large-scale

city life and to take advantage of urban opportunities, such as a wide choice of educational and

career opportunities.

Multiculturalism and Interfaith Dialogue

The new world order makes cross-cultural contact practically unavoidable, as television, radio,

film, travel, books, and the Internet all work to narrow the gulfs that once separated people,

nations, and even religions. It will thus be very difficult in the future for any religion to belong to

a single culture or to be unaware of the teachings and practices of other religions. With

awareness often comes adaptation, a phenomenon we have already seen with current religions.

For example, certain forms of Pure Land Buddhism outside Japan have adopted the use of hymns

and the Christian tradition of Sunday school. In Western forms of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism,

married laypersons sometimes take leadership roles that have traditionally been performed by

monks. African and Native American forms of Christianity now deliberately make use of native

art, music, and dance. Roman Catholicism, which only a generation ago celebrated its rituals in

Latin with uniform prayers and music, is today often as much a reflection of its specific

community as it is of Rome. Some Christian monasteries and other religious groups have

adopted Zen meditation. Moreover, entirely new religions may frequently blend elements from

several religions. We see this, for example, in the Unification Church, which began in Korea and

blends Christianity and Confucianism, and in some new Shinto religious offshoots, which blend

elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Another response to the growing awareness of cultural multiplicity can be seen in the

increasingly frequent meetings held by representatives of different religions. The fact that these

interreligious meetings are now being held is really a hopeful new direction. (It was not typical

in the past.) Although religions have too often battled each other, they all preach human harmony

and offer visions of peace. They have much to gain from and share with each other.

One of the earliest examples of modern religious dialogue was the first World Parliament of

Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), a disciple of

Ramakrishna, brought the inclusivist Hindu approach to the attention of the world through his

insistence at that conference that all religions value holiness and love. And in 1993, Chicago

hosted a second World Parliament of Religions, with simultaneous meetings of religious leaders

at many places around the world. Yasumi Hirose, an interfaith representative of Omoto, has used

the language of several religions to speak of his hope. “Unless we awake to the love and

compassion of the God who created the heavens and earth, and realize that all creatures are filled

with Divine Spirit and live by the grace of Amida Buddha, it will be impossible to change history

to bring about a new century of co-existence.” 3 There is ongoing dialogue as well in less

spotlighted circles, such as the Ecumenical Institute at Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota, where

scholars of different faiths spend months in conversation, study, and reflection. These dialogues

may well chart a new path for religion in the future.

Women’s Rights Movements

Some of the most significant movements of the past hundred years have sought to liberate

women from oppression and inequality. Just as the nineteenth century is seen as the century in

which slavery was abolished worldwide, the present century may well be seen by future

generations as the century in which women worldwide achieved real equality and political


In many societies, women have been restricted by tradition in multiple ways. They have been

kept from acquiring an education, owning land, having professional careers, traveling, marrying

and divorcing as they wish, voting, and holding office. But education and women’s political

movements—along with scientific advances that produced contraceptives and minimized the

complications of pregnancy and childbirth—have slowly changed attitudes toward women’s

roles and rights. As a result, women are now indispensable in the workplaces of many cultures;

they are earning their own incomes and making use of their new economic power. This new

independence has led women closer to equality in government, business, and the arts.

Young monks share school desks with female students, an uncommon occurrence in Buddhist

cultures even today.

© Thomas Hilgers

Many religions, following traditional patterns, have been slow to allow women to assume

leadership roles. But there have been notable exceptions; this has been especially true of smaller,

more charismatic groups, such as some of the New Religions derived from Shinto and those

Christian churches (such as the Christian Science Church and the Foursquare Gospel Church)

whose founders were female. Christian churches in the Lutheran and in the Episcopal and

Anglican traditions now ordain women priests and bishops. And in 2006, the American

Episcopal Church elected a female bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop.

Resistance to allowing women in key roles is, however, still strong. In Christianity, the Catholic

and Orthodox Churches so far have staved off pressures to ordain women or otherwise allow

them full participation in decision making. In Judaism, females have been ordained in the

Reform and Conservative branches; the Orthodox, however, still will not accept the notion of a

female rabbi. Buddhism is seeing stirrings in its communities of nuns, who traditionally have

played only a small role in leadership.

Women’s gains have been broader in areas that don’t affect a religion’s basic power structure.

Thus we find new translations of sacred literature and prayer forms that attempt to be more

gender-neutral. For example, words such as Ruler, Creator, and Parent are used in place of the

exclusively male terms Lord and Father in some translations of the Bible. Unity Church

congregations address God as Father-Mother—a term used as early as 1875 by Mary Baker Eddy

(see Chapter 9), the founder of Christian Science, in her explanation of the Lord’s Prayer.

There is also heightened interest in religions that envision the divine as being female or that

value its feminine aspect. This explains the renewed attention paid to early nature religions that

worshiped a major female deity (such as Astarte) or in which women have had an important role.

As discussed in Chapter 11, Wicca worships the Goddess in nature and in all women. In Judaism

and Christianity, research into the contributions of women is common and even encouraged.

Bible studies now talk of the great matriarchs, as well as the patriarchs, of Hebrew history. In

Christianity, there is growing interest in medieval female mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen

(see Chapter 9), Margery Kempe (c. 1373–1438), and Mechtild of Magdeburg (c. 1210–1285).

Likewise, Hinduism is being appreciated not only for its female divinities but also for the many

female gurus it has produced; Shinto and shamanistic religions are being studied for the

important roles women have played in them; and Daoism is receiving attention for its female


Much of this new insight still remains theoretical. Whether male- dominated religions will be

able to stand firm against the momentum of women’s movements is anyone’s guess. But many

observers assume that women’s liberation efforts, at least in industrialized countries, will

eventually succeed.

Reassessment of Human Sexuality

Scientific developments and the economic and ideological developments that we have already

discussed in this chapter have all broadened our understanding of human sexuality to include

more than procreation as its purpose. Psychology has contributed an understanding of sexuality

as being essential to the makeup of human beings. Biology has demonstrated the human

connection with the animal world and its great variety of sexual expression. Anthropology has

raised awareness of the variety in attitudes toward sex among different cultures and across

historical periods. At the same time, through its development of artificial insemination and in

vitro fertilization, science has expanded the possibilities for reproduction and, as a result,

transformed reproduction into a more intentional event—and even forced the rethinking of the

purpose of marriage. The growing availability of medicine, clean water, and public sanitation has

led to an explosion of the world population.

These advances and findings have all contributed to our new understanding of sexuality. Many

people now grant that sex has key functions in human existence beyond the creation of children;

among these functions are intimacy, pleasure, self-expression, and even self-understanding. The

acknowledgment of these functions has led many to question traditional sexual ethics and to

rethink the appropriateness of sexual prohibitions in religious traditions.

The ongoing clash between traditional views of sexuality—views often codified in religions—

and modern outlooks on sexuality probably will not be resolved anytime soon. What we are

likely to see, however, is greater tolerance for beliefs and practices that are somewhat

contradictory—as is evident in teachings about the indissolubility of marriage as compared to the

actual toleration of divorce or annulment.

Another area of controversy exists regarding same-gender sexual expression and relationships.

Some religions hold that all homosexuality runs counter to divine or natural laws. Although

some religions and denominations accept homosexuality as an orientation that occurs naturally in

some people, they say that acting out that orientation in sexual behavior is wrong; still others

value compassion and privacy more than any traditional judgment of sexual acts and thus accept

gay men and lesbians as full members. Of course, for heterosexual men and women, with full

membership come the rights to a religious marriage and ordination. Few religions, however, have

yet to extend the same benefits to gays and lesbians. Nonetheless, as the contradictions in a

partial acceptance of gay members become more obvious and even painful, religions are

beginning to reconsider past practice. Same-gender commitment ceremonies are celebrated in

increasing numbers of religious congregations—examples are to be found among Jewish

congregations, Unitarians, Quakers, the Metropolitan Community Church, Unity Church,

Episcopalians, and Lutherans. In 2003 the Episcopal Church in the United States consecrated as

bishop a man who is in a gay relationship, but this has caused conflict with other branches of the

Anglican Church, particularly in Africa.

Although debate over what constitutes legitimate sexual expression will continue, there is no

denying the impact that the sexual revolution has had on religion. Traditions that emphasize

conservative principles will be most challenged by the changing views on sexuality.

Some countries, some states, and some religions recognize and perform same-gender marriage


© Rick Friedman/Corbis

The orbiting Hubble telescope captured this image of the Carina Nebula.

NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

Science and Technology

One of the engines that powers to some degree all of the movements that we are analyzing has

been science. Modern science made great early progress in the sixteenth and seventeenth

centuries, with the work of Copernicus (1473–1543), Galileo (1564–1642), Kepler (1571–1630),

and Newton (1642–1727). At first, the developments were theoretical, without much practical

application. While theoretical science continued to advance, applied science in the eighteenth

and nineteenth centuries led to many practical benefits, including the invention of machinery that

could do the work that human beings had formerly done by hand. Scientists investigated the

mysteries of lightning and electricity; inventors made engines powered by steam and coal;

researchers made advances in understanding and preventing diseases; engineers designed train

tracks that linked large cities to each other; and the telephone and electric light became

commonplace. In the next century came the airplane, radio, television, and computers. Over

these same centuries, scientific theory advanced, resulting in the theory of evolution, molecular

theory, the theory of relativity, and theories regarding astronomy and quantum physics. These

accomplishments have transformed both our physical world and our view of the universe.

Some religions have tried to reject or even ignore the contributions of science, arguing that

science displaces God, questions religious belief, and undermines morality. Scientists, however,

argue that science gives us a valuable view of the universe that should be appreciated. It

represents, they say, the collective work of thousands of people over many centuries. If we think

about how long it took for human beings to draw a map of the whole earth, we can admire the

efforts of science to give us an even grander “map”—a general view of reality.

The current scientific view of reality can be summarized quickly. Scientific theory and research

state that our universe emerged in a great explosion approximately fourteen billion years ago.

(What came before the explosion is not and possibly cannot be known by science.) In fact, the

universe is still expanding from that explosion. As the universe cooled, galaxies formed; there

are at least a hundred billion galaxies, each containing about a hundred billion stars. Our planet,

earth, is about six billion years old, belongs to a galaxy we call the Milky Way, and travels

around a sun whose energy will be exhausted in another six billion years. All physical things are

made of smaller units, called molecules, which in turn consist of even smaller units, called

atoms; and, ultimately, the physical world can be seen as various forms of energy. Phenomena

such as lightning and earthquakes have natural causes. Carbon-based life-forms—possibly

assisted by lightning, volcanic eruptions, and matter from comets—began to emerge on earth in

one-celled form several billion years ago and, growing more complex, evolved in many

directions on land and sea, finally producing the plants and animals we know today. The human

being, which appeared in early form several million years ago, is part of the same evolutionary

process but is the most complex life-form known so far.

Just as science has advanced our understanding of reality, so it has replaced earlier worldviews.

For example, we now see the earth not as a flat surface but as a sphere, in orbit around the sun;

and we know that earthquakes are generally caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Just as

surely as electricity, television, and basic literacy are penetrating to the far corners of the world,

so also will the scientific model of reality. Prescientific religions may continue to exist in the

remotest cultures, but major religions will have to accommodate the scientific view of reality. It

is the anvil on which all religions will be hammered and tested.

Science and Ethical Issues

Science and technology have broadened our knowledge and enriched our lives. In addition, they

have given people new choices. In some cultures and religious traditions, having choices can

pose ethical dilemmas that force people to examine their most basic philosophical positions.

Following are some areas that may raise ethical questions in some of the religious traditions we

have considered in this text:

 Fertility assistance

Through fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization, medical science has made conception

possible for some women who in earlier times could not have conceived. But fertility

drugs often produce multiple births and the potential for some of the babies to die. Is the

survival of one or a few babies worth the potential loss of the others?

 Birth control

The number of contraception options for women and men is growing all the time,

including a contraceptive pill for men that will be available in the future. However, in

some religious traditions, divine will, not contraception, determines the number of

children born.

 Ethical termination of pregnancy

At what point in its development is an embryo or a fetus to be considered a human being

and thus accorded basic human rights? Is there a moral difference between early abortion

and late-term abortion?

 Ethical termination of adult life

Do individuals have the right to end their own lives? Do they have the right to end the

lives of others, such as spouses, relatives, or friends?

 Organ transplantation

Human body parts that have failed can sometimes be replaced by organs from another

human being. Among the organs that are commonly transplanted are hearts, kidneys,

livers, and corneas. Do we have an obligation to donate our body parts for

transplantation? Is it ethical for people to sell parts of their bodies before or after death?

 Genetic manipulation and stem-cell research

Scientists are hopeful that research on the human genetic code will result in heightened

intelligence, extended life spans, and new treatments for disease. What kinds of

experiments are ethically acceptable and on whom should the experiments be performed?

 Species rights

Most laws derive from an assumption that human beings have basic rights. But some

thinkers assert that animals, trees, and other elements of nature have rights of their own.

Some argue, for example, that all animals and sentient beings have the right to not suffer

from human infliction of unnecessary pain.

The founders of the major religious traditions never had to address these issues specifically. That

does not mean, however, that their followers today should not concern themselves with these

issues. At the same time, some would argue that these issues should be decided not in churches

and temples by religious authorities but rather in secular courts by representatives of civilian

governments. Deciding who should determine what is ethical and how ethics should be

expressed in law are themselves important issues for this century.

The scientific approach to reality generally has helped—at least potentially—to make the earth a

more interesting and pleasant place for human beings to inhabit than it was in past centuries.

Granted, applied science has done a great deal to alter the landscape for the worse. Applied

science has damaged non-industrial cultures and polluted the environment. But science has also

done much to help. Through advances in sanitation and medicine, in particular, it has reduced

infant mortality, extended human life spans, and made human life generally more secure. Today,

life spans in industrialized countries are double what they were two hundred years ago. People

now routinely expect to live 80 years or more. Scientists are working on life extension, and

someday it may be common for people to live 100, 110, or even 120 years. (We know that this is

at least possible, because Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997, lived to be 122.)

And scientists will attempt to extend human life even further. When this happens, death and the

afterlife will seem increasingly distant, and the earth will seem more like our permanent home.

The resultant feeling of security that has grown up among people of industrialized countries may

have helped them place a new value on the earth and on earthly life. It has helped foster an

approach to living that is secular, rather than traditionally religious.

Embryonic stem cells can potentially be used to repair damaged tissue in diseases such as

Parkinson’s and insulin-dependent diabetes. However, most research using stem cells is

controversial because it requires the destruction of a human embryo.

© Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library/Getty Images


The word secular is often used as the opposite of sacred.As mentioned in earlier chapters,

secularism refers to the modern tendency to separate religion (which deals with the sacred) from

everyday life (the secular). In earlier centuries, as we have seen throughout much of this book,

religion and everyday life were quite commonly intertwined. Today, they remain intertwined

mostly in societies that have one predominant religion.

The impetus to separate religion from public life found its greatest support in Europe. Primarily

because of the horrific religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, influential

thinkers there began to envision a type of nation in which there would be no state religion. They

wanted individuals to be free to practice their religions as they chose. This model was drawn on

in the creation of the new United States and was detailed in the Bill of Rights, which was

appended to the Constitution. Because the model is based on a general separation of church and

state, it has led to a secular type of government. 4

Furthermore, the model of no established religion has encouraged a secular style of life. After all,

if people are free to practice any religion, they are equally free to practice no religion at all.

Secularism thus has come to refer to a way of looking at life in which human values and rules for

living are taken from experience in this world, not from divine revelation, from a world beyond

this one, or from religious authorities or religious traditions.

As science finds ways to extend human life and make it more secure, secularism seems to be

gaining ground. For many people, traditional religious worldviews have lessened in influence.

Religions of the future will continue to be challenged by the secular vision, particularly when

they have to work within secular political entities. To survive on a large scale, they will have to

add to and give greater meaning to the modern secular world. This may not be impossible,

however. After all, science seeks to describe reality, but religions seek to describe and create

meaning. As the philosopher K. N. Upadhyaya has explained, “Religion is not antagonistic to

science.... The antagonism comes only through a misunderstanding. It has to be understood that

science deals with the physical. Religion, on the other hand, deals with something that is beyond

the physical.

Conflict in Religion: Religions, Sacred Texts, and Violence

Religions almost universally preach peace. But they also face questions about the use of

violence. Are there situations in which violence is justified?

Most religions accept that violence is justified if it is needed for the protection of oneself or

one’s family—a position that many people hold as reasonable. There are exceptions, though.

Jainism and early Buddhist teachings reject using violence for any purpose whatsoever. The

Dhammapada, an early Buddhist document, says this: “All beings tremble before violence. All

fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you

do? He who seeks happiness by hurting those who seek happiness will never find happiness. For

your brother is like you. He wants to be happy. Never harm him.” 5 Nonetheless, in later

Buddhism, particularly in China and Japan, Buddhist teachings about detachment and transience

were sometimes employed to idealize the skillful soldier and the warrior-monk. And Buddhist

sculpture shows many figures holding symbolic swords and other weapons.

Hinduism values nonviolence highly, as we see in Gandhi’s teachings about non-harm (ahimsa).

But we also know that the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most influential book in Hinduism,

endorses fighting to overcome serious injustice. In the popular epic the Ramayana, Rama and his

brother Lakshman engage in warfare in order to rescue Rama’s wife, Sita. And some of the

Hindu deities, such as Durga and Kali, are known for their love of blood. Animal sacrifice is still

used in Hindu worship, and human sacrifice has not been unknown.

The Daodejing says that the person of the Dao opposes force. “Whenever you advise a ruler in

the way of [Dao], counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe,” for “thorn bushes spring

up wherever the army has passed.” 6 It says that the person of the Dao hates weapons. But then

the text adds that “he uses them only when he has no choice.” 7 This opens a very wide door for

fighting, as anyone who has seen a Chinese martial arts film can attest.

We see a fairly militant approach in some religions, possibly as a result of the tribal nature of

their original societies. Perhaps because biblical Judaism grew up in a land without strong

natural borders, it viewed Yahweh as “Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3)—a commander of angelic armies

that could protect his people. Psalm 135 makes clear this notion of Yahweh as a national

protector: “He struck down all the first-born in Egypt, both man and beast.... He struck down

mighty nations and slew great kings” (Ps. 135:8, 10). 8

Psalm 18 also sees him as a personal protector: “Thou settest my foot on my enemies’ necks”

(Ps. 18:40). Psalm 137 is even more graphic about the treatment of the enemy: “Happy is he who

will seize your children and dash them against the rock” (v. 9). Since God “sets the time for war

and the time for peace” (Eccles. 3:8), warfare seems at times to be approved and even

commanded by God. The Books of Joshua and Judges, for example, offer much justified warfare

(Josh. 8:1–29). Yet we should also recognize that the Hebrew Bible balances this harshness with

a vision of a God of compassion, concerned for the good of the lowly and poor (1 Sam. 2:8).

Christianity began with strongly nonviolent principles, evident in the Sermon on the Mount

(Matt. 5–7). We know that Jesus refused to lead an armed revolt against the Romans. Early

Christianity continued this pacifism, and Christians at first did not become soldiers. Yet change

came quickly, both in society and in sacred texts. The Book of Revelation—one of the last

biblical books written—portrays Jesus on a white horse, dressed in a robe that is covered with

the blood of battle. Out of his mouth comes a sword; he rules with an iron rod; and he tramples

on sinners like a harvester crushing grapes under his feet (Rev. 19:13–15). (This passage inspired

the rhyming words of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “the Lord,” who holds “a terrible swift

sword,” tramples out “the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”) After Constantine

became emperor, Christians were no longer prohibited from becoming soldiers—perhaps

because Constantine was a soldier himself. A century later, Augustine elaborated principles that

justified warfare. He also approved of using political force to compel “heretics” (nonmainstream

Christians) to conform to orthodoxy. By the time of the Crusades, the cult of the Christian soldier

was complete, and it had military patrons such as Saint George, Saint Barbara, and Saint

Michael, who are often portrayed holding swords. (Saint George is the patron saint of England,

and his red cross is in its flag.)

We find a similar mixture of responses in Islam. The name of the religion itself is related to the

Arabic word for peace, and Muhammad worked tirelessly for harmony among the many tribes of

Arabia. Yet Muhammad thought that violence was sometimes justified, and he led his followers

into battle. As the Qur’an records, God commanded him, “Prophet, rouse the faithful to arms.” 9

Muhammad spoke of a final day of divine reward and punishment, just as Zoroastrianism,

Judaism, and Christianity also teach, and he described vivid punishments prepared by God for

sinners: “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers.... They shall be lashed with

rods of iron.” 10

Yet the Qur’an equally counsels fairness and patience, such as in this passage: “If

you punish, let your punishment be commensurate with the wrong that has been done you. But it

shall be best for you to endure your wrongs with patience.” 11

What we see in the scriptures of many religions are words of peace and compassion, side by side

with warnings of violence and punishment. Unfortunately, most texts offer possibilities for

individual believers to choose passages that give authority to their cruelty and anger. Only

scriptures (like those of the Jains) that allow no harm whatsoever can avoid being used to justify

the use of violence.

But the methodology of the two is—or should be—exactly the same: observation,

experimentation, and verification.” 12

We might note, too, the many contemporary scientists, such

as physicists Russell Stannard (b. 1931) and Paul Davies (b. 1946), who have shown

considerable interest in religion.

Agnosticism is a concept often associated with a secular worldview. The English biologist T. H.

Huxley (1825–1895), who coined the term, was of the opinion that the existence of God could be

neither proven nor disproven from a scientific point of view. He argued that agnosticism—a

middle ground between theism and atheism—was the most reasonable theoretical position to

hold. It is a view that is commonly held today by scientifically minded people, because it

accommodates the study and teaching of science without reference to God or gods. Some people

have found that everyday life can be carried on, too, without reference to God or gods.

Agnosticism may begin to replace traditional theistic religious belief and practice. This tendency

may also generate attempts to redefine the conceptions of God; it may inspire a turn toward the

nontheistic religions (such as Jainism or Theravada Buddhism); and it may promote the

development of nontheistic expressions of values and beliefs.

Communism, even where it has now been abandoned as an official ideology, succeeded in

creating a fairly secular milieu. In Russia and many parts of eastern Europe, new generations of

people have been raised without religion. Schools in the Communist era often spoke of religion

as an outdated method for providing solutions to life’s problems—as outdated as horse-drawn

carriages and whale-oil lamps. The same antireligious stance has also been true of China,

particularly since the Communist Revolution of 1949. The resultant secularism among many

mainland Chinese may have a significant influence on the world as China, with its population of

more than a billion, gains power in the international arena.

Some people welcome secularism—possibly with the same relief felt by many in the early

confederation of the United States—because they seek lives free of religiously inspired hatreds.

Machines, such as computers, cars, and telephones, are secular in that they do not ask the

religion of the person who operates them. In secular cultures, some wish that human beings

could be similarly accommodating.

Science offers explanations of reality that once came only from religion. Secular governments

often promote values that were once primarily espoused by religion. And secular governments

run hospitals, schools, and welfare programs, which at one time were under the exclusive control

of religion. What, then, does this leave for religion? Will current religions move in the direction

of secularism? Will religions survive as pockets of belief and practice in a basically secular

environment? 13

Could completely secular “religions” emerge? Or will religious instincts be

expressed in increasingly nontraditional forms?

Environmental Challenges

Four centuries ago, the total human population was about 500 million. Now, the world’s

population is about 7 billion. This growing population has migrated to cities to find jobs, and

cities with a million people—once extremely rare—are now sprouting like mushrooms.

Megacities—such as Mexico City, São Paulo, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, and Cairo—are

becoming more common, even though most of them find it difficult to cope with their unchecked

growth. Some cities have become bleak, inhospitable urban environments.

The view from the moon... gave new meaning to the word “religion.” The English word for

religion came from the Latin word religare. It means to connect. Religion is about how we are

all connected to each other and to every creature and to the earth. Religion is about including,

about every part belonging to the whole. “Religion” is the old word and “ecology” is the new

word. The view from the moon shows that religion and ecology share the same meaning of


James Parks Morton, Dean Emeritus of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York,

speaking of the photo of the earth taken from the moon 14

At the same time, the natural environment is being ravaged to provide resources for the

increasing world population. The rain forests of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Brazil are

disappearing to provide wood and farmland; and the habitats of many animals, including those of

the great apes, are being threatened. Nuclear energy is used to make electricity, but no one

knows where to safely store the spent fuel. (The dangers of radioactivity were underscored by the

2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.) Pesticides are used for growing and storing many foods,

despite their related health dangers.

The great religions of the past grew up in a quite different world and did not have to deal with

the moral issues raised by population growth, urban life, corporate business policies, nuclear

waste, and environmental pollution. Old religions today must try to discover within themselves

the wisdom to handle these entirely new challenges. They will have to fundamentally rethink

morality. Doing so will not be easy or straightforward, as we will see in a moment.

The Recurring Challenges of Change

If our textbook pilgrimage of world religions has revealed a common denominator among

religions, it is this: all religions that survive must ultimately adapt to changing circumstances,

whether they acknowledge the adaptations or not. If there is a second common denominator, it is

probably the fact that adaptation is seldom achieved without confusion and pain. Indeed, debate,

struggle, and the formation of new divisions are necessary means for religions seeking to remain

relevant in a changing world.

This NASA photo of earth has sometimes been called a religious icon that makes viewers realize

the beauty of the earth and the interrelatedness of all its parts.


The recent history of Roman Catholicism is a good case study of a religion’s process of

adaptation. Catholicism, because its adherents are spread across the globe, is always being

challenged somewhere by changing circumstances. At the beginning of the twentieth century,

Catholicism was challenged by new “scientific” understanding, particularly Darwinism and

modern biblical criticism. Its response was initially a set of proclamations against the evils of

modernism and secularism. Nonetheless, despite its apparent conservatism, it was also adapting

to the changing world order. This was particularly true in its development of new Catholic social

doctrine, spelled out in papal encyclicals, concerning social justice and workers’ rights. The two

world wars increased the pace of social change and the need for religious adjustment. The

movement of social and religious “tectonic plates” eventually produced a Catholic earthquake in

the person of Pope John XXIII (1881–1963). This elderly, mild-mannered pope stated his desire

to open the Church to the modern world, and he initiated meetings of the world’s Catholic

bishops that were intended to help Catholicism remain relevant. By the end of the Second

Vatican Council in 1965, Roman Catholicism had a different face, marked by an emphasis on

human equality, a new tolerance for the secular world, an acceptance of separation between

church and state, and an openness to diversity. This was the face of an old religion taking major

steps to adapt itself to the modern world.

But the case study does not end with the liberalization initiated by John XXIII. As history would

have predicted, the pendulum swung back, particularly at the urging of Pope John Paul II, the

first pope from a Communist country, and from his successor, Benedict XVI. Pope John Paul II

insisted that only males could be priests and bishops. He also appointed bishops who reflected

his own conservative beliefs; he reasserted the primacy of Rome; and he condemned the thought

of some liberal Catholic theologians. Nonetheless, he also furthered his church’s defense of

human social rights, condemned the excesses of capitalism, and fought capital punishment. He is

often credited with being a major force behind the downfall of Communism in Russia and

eastern Europe. His death in 2005 ended one of the most influential papacies in history.

Although Benedict XVI, the first pope chosen during this century, attempts to strike a balance

between the conservative and liberal factions of his church, his general approach has been

conservative. At some point in the future, however, the pendulum will undoubtedly swing in the

other direction.

This case study, with its tensions and vacillations, is typical of many religions. As we saw in

preceding chapters, religions must adapt and change. Often they fight the forces of change, but

such conservatism can be a stage of adaptive development that eventually evolves into flexible

forms of belief and practice.

The inevitability of conservative reaction to the onslaught of change is one way to understand a

phenomenon that is sometimes called fundamentalism. Fundamentalist movements—occurring

in many parts of the world—are often fueled by calls for a “return to the values of our founders”

and to an earlier, more traditional vision.

Fundamentalist movements reflect an effort to simplify a religion. They emphasize what

followers see as the basics, the essential elements, of a religion. The personal rewards of

fundamentalism are multiple: a sense of bettering society, of uniting with like-minded people,

and of repairing a religion to make it useful once again as a clear guide to what is right and

wrong. Although fundamentalist movements are motivated by many reasons, they represent

primarily a response to the threat of change.

The best-known example of fundamentalism is possibly the Islamic Revolution in Iran, initiated

by the late Ayatollah Khomeini (see Chapter 10); but Islamic fundamentalist movements are also

occurring in many other countries, such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and

Algeria. As mentioned in earlier chapters, we see fundamentalism active in other religions as

well—in Christianity, especially in the United States and Africa; in Hinduism in India; and in

Judaism, particularly in Israel. Some people see religious fundamentalism, especially if it takes

control of nations’ armies and weapons, as one of the greatest dangers currently facing the

human race. Others believe that the attraction of fundamentalism will either be eroded by the

secular values (including democracy) that they see spreading throughout the world, or it will be

replaced with new religious ideals.

The image of a swinging pendulum is a recurrent metaphor in this chapter. We return to it one

last time, as we imagine the pendulum swinging away from fundamentalism toward another

phenomenon, which may well be at the other end of the arc: a kind of neopantheism expressed

through a semi-deification of nature. Just as Muslim and Christian leaders have articulated the

aspirations of traditional monotheistic movements, so other thinkers have articulated the

“doctrines” of the “nature movement.” Among the many important writers have been Julian

Huxley (1887–1975), Rachel Carson (1907–1964), David Brower (1912–2000), and E. O.

Wilson (b. 1929).

Major religions are now taking note of the inescapable ethical attention that the natural world

demands. Buddhism in both Asia and the West is quickly developing environmental awareness,

and so is Christianity. These developments in traditional religions are an entirely new and

important extension of religious morality. The potential of the environmental movement to

grow—and to influence existing religions—suggests that it is a possible new scaffolding for the

cathedral of humanity’s future religious expressions.

Environmentalism: A Religious Phenomenon?

The Green Movement, as we have seen, is flourishing. It now extends to a host of practical areas,

including architecture, waste disposal, car design, clothing materials, energy sources, agriculture,

and much more. The threat of global warming and related environmental damage has moved it to

the forefront of our consciousness. So significant is the need to care for nature that the major

religions have made environmentalism an important ethical commandment.

Sensitivity to nature, however, did not begin with the Green Movement. Because nature can be

viewed contemplatively, it has long been a source of religious inspiration. In Asia, we can see

great sensitivity to nature in the origins of Daoism, and the beauties of nature appear as a major

theme in the poetry of China and Japan as early as the seventh century. In the West, we find

awareness of the spiritual aspect of nature in the medieval thought of Francis of Assisi and the

Cistercian monks. A profound feeling for nature reasserted itself in the Romantic movement of

the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which taught that nature was the most important

manifestation of the sublime.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the movement toward nature was strikingly

evident in the painting of the Impressionists, among whom Claude Monet (1840–1926) was a

significant example. Monet not only painted occasional scenes of nature in the countryside, but

he left Paris to create a country home with a garden featuring a large water lily pond, which he

painted regularly for the last forty-three years of his life. The garden he created at Giverny is

virtually a place of pilgrimage today; his paintings of nature hang in many major museums; and

reproductions of his paintings of water lilies have made his work well known and loved

throughout the world.

The great open spaces of North America also inspired a feeling for the spirituality of nature—as

depicted in the works of European and American painters of the nineteenth century. Travelers

who visited the western part of North America wrote of its extravagant beauty. One of these was

the Scottish-born naturalist John Muir (1838–1914). In several books, Muir demanded that

beautiful regions that are important to the whole nation be protected. Because of his efforts,

Yosemite was made a national park; in fact, his work helped ignite the establishment of the

national park system and local nature preserves. Muir Woods, a fine grove of redwoods just

north of San Francisco, is named after him.

This photo, showing both what’s above and below the waterline, focuses on a piece of an

Alaskan glacier that’s in the process of melting. This phenomenon raises concern over the effects

of human behavior on planet earth.

© Paul Souders/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Today, signs of this new approach to the natural world—an approach that is both practical and

spiritual—are evident everywhere. Earth Day was established a few decades ago as a celebration

of nature. Television is crowded with wonderfully photographed programs on animals and

insects, forests and lakes, coral reefs, fish, and oceans; these nature films have become an art

form in their own right. Many specialty stores now sell nature-themed items—from semiprecious

stones and interesting mineral formations to posters of dolphins and whales. A whole new type

of environmentally sensitive travel is becoming popular; ecotourism takes people to places like

the Amazon and the Galápagos Islands. Zoos, which used to be little more than prisons for

animals, are undergoing a revolution in design; they now try to provide a familiar, comfortable,

and spacious environment for their animals. Legal protections are being created for endangered

species. Art and music—discussed in more detail later in this chapter—have actually pointed the

way to environmentalism through over a century of works that have been strongly inspired by

the natural world.

As environmental consciousness has spread, the issue of sustainability has moved from the

fringes into the mainstream. As we have seen in earlier chapters, it has been embraced by leaders

of several religions. It has also become part of political-party platforms across the world. What

remains is the hard work of transforming sustainability from a goal into a set of actions that

produce real results, and those results might be achieved more quickly if politicians and religious

leaders worked together rather than separately. Chapter 2 suggested that the Green Movement

can be seen as a sort of twenty-first-century indigenous religion. Indeed, the entire environmental

movement has interesting parallels with traditional religions. For example, it has a strongly

prophetic aspect because of its moral rules. Like many religions, it dictates what a person should

or should not eat, wear, and do. (Some bumper stickers illustrate this: “If it’s got a face, don’t eat

it,” “Fur looks good on animals,” and “Think globally, act locally.”) Environmentalism also has

a mystical aspect in its emphasis on the fundamental unity of human beings and the universe. In

fact, it offers as its supreme experience the sense of oneness with animals and the rest of nature.

So far, this movement is deficient in the sacramental, ritualistic element that usually

characterizes religions—although this aspect has great potential for development in the next

centuries—and may even have already begun. The religion of Wicca, for example, re-creates

pre-Christian nature rituals. And we might also be seeing the beginnings of additional nature-

based rituals for the major seasons: Earth Day marks spring; summer and winter solstice

celebrations mark the turning points (measured by daylight hours) of summer and winter; and

Thanksgiving meals and rituals mark autumn.

Like religion, environmentalism also has its “sacred places.” Destinations of ecopilgrimage

include Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains, wildlife preserves in eastern Africa and Costa Rica,

Mount Everest, the whale sanctuary at Maui, Glacier Bay and Denali National Parks in Alaska,

and many others. (The word sanctuary, used in reference to animal preserves, is religiously

significant.) Environmentalism is also developing its role models, many of whom, interestingly,

are women: Dian Fossey (1932–1985), Jane Goodall (b. 1934), Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934), Pamela

Anderson (b. 1967), and Ellen DeGeneres (b. 1958). There is a growing body of

environmentalist “scripture”—for example, Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (b. 1946). And sacred iconography extends from the nature

photographs of Yosemite by Ansel Adams (1902–1984) to popular paintings of whales and

porpoises by Christian Lassen (b. 1956), Robert Wyland (b. 1956), and others. Equally important

are environmental films, such as An Inconvenient Truth, by Al Gore (b. 1948), who received the

Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on climate change.

Watching a sunset in silence can be a form of meditation.

© Thomas Hilgers

Eclectic Spirituality

It is quite common now to hear people say that while they are not particularly interested in any

one religion, they are interested in spirituality. It is not always clear what they mean by

spirituality, but the fact that people use this word to describe their religious stance does reveal an

important contemporary phenomenon. Individuals now assemble elements of different belief

systems to create their own spiritual system. Highly valued are practices that promote inner

peace and a feeling of harmony between oneself and the outer world. The key belief of those

who embrace eclectic spirituality is the interrelatedness of all elements in the universe. That

belief is often expressed in an attitude of respect and reverence for all people and creatures.

Respect and reverence are often cultivated through contemplative acts that dissolve separateness

and promote ways of seeing beyond the superficial to the essential relatedness, even oneness, of

all beings.

Traditional religions often engender spirituality, and eclectic spirituality is marked by

borrowings from traditional religions. These borrowings range from meditative practices inspired

by Buddhism to dancing inspired by Sufism. But there are other means to attain spirituality, and

many find it outside traditional religion. We have all had the experience, for example, of going to

a movie theater, sitting down in the darkness, and gradually being drawn into a film that does far

more than merely entertain. At a certain point, we recognize that the film is evoking in us a

response that is somehow fundamental to the human experience and at the same time

transcendent—an experience of the “spiritual.” Often we sense that others in the audience are

sharing in that experience. At the end of such films, there is a silence that may prevail even in the

lobby as people leave the theater. Musical concerts can also induce a similar experience.

Psychologists such as Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) and Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) wrote

extensively about the necessary spiritual development of the human being. Maslow became

preoccupied with it, first describing what he called “peak experiences,” which are rare and

transient, and then describing what he called “plateau experiences,” which are contemplative

experiences in everyday life that may be frequent and long-lasting.

A heightened interest in spirituality may also have influenced the changing attitude toward the

home. People increasingly think of their home as their “sanctuary.” They want to include

elements in their apartment or house that will promote tranquility in everyday life. (This may in

part explain the popularity of home makeover programs on television!) Some homes feature

intriguing elements of religious design: a small home altar, a meditation area, or a garden room

for reflection. Plants and gardens are taking on a new importance, reminding us of their

significance in several Asian religious traditions. Indoor and outdoor fountains, of all shapes and

sizes, have become popular. They recall the use of water in so many religions, such as Shinto,

Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Sometimes larger houses even have “cathedral” ceilings. The

home—as well as the church and temple—is now being conceived of as a sacred space.

Contemporary Issues: Religion and Pop Culture

Popular culture often presents religious themes. Comic strips and animated cartoon films, for

example, look uncomplicated but sometimes have a depth that belies their appearance. (Pablo

Picasso and other artists have highly valued comics for their economy of line—a great deal can

be said with minimal drawing.) Some comic strips indict society in a prophetic way (such as

Doonesbury and Dilbert); other comic strips often are explicitly religious (such as Peanuts). In

many of Disney’s animated films (Bambi, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Lion King, Dinosaur,

Finding Nemo), a host of loving animals have been created with such personality and charm that

their portrayal as conscious, feeling beings on a par with human beings may have contributed to

the growing animal liberation movement.

The creation of Superman and other heroic comicbook figures may be a popular form of biblical

messianism. Like the messianic agent given authority by the Ancient of Days in the seventh

chapter of the Book of Daniel, Superman comes to earth from another world to bring justice and

truth. Biblical influence may have inspired the semibiblical “Krypton names” of Superman and

of his father: Kal-El and Jor-El. (We might recall that El means “God” in Hebrew and occurs in

names such as Israel, Samuel, and Michael). Superman and other similar heroes help reinforce

the human desire for justice and compassion.

The cult of Elvis Presley (“Presleyanity”), while perhaps not what one would call “spiritual,” has

multiple religious parallels: the death of Elvis at an early age, his later “apparitions” to the

faithful, the supposed healing power of his photos, the common image of him dressed in white,

the commemoration of his birth and death, the pilgrimage to Graceland and other sites where

Elvis lived and worked, and the marketing of his gospel music. Followings centered on other

musicians—Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, and the Grateful Dead—

show similar religious parallels. These followings suggest that the religious urge remains, though

its forms of expression change.

Because eclectic spirituality is difficult to define, we will try now to understand it through

examples. We will look at three aspects that most frequently characterize modern spirituality: the

sense of interrelatedness, an attitude of respect and reverence, and a contemplative approach to

experiencing reality.


As we saw in earlier chapters, many religions have emphasized a relatedness among all beings,

expressed perhaps most strongly in Buddhist and Hindu thought but also in the mystical

teachings of many other religions. Science has also shown great interest in interrelatedness,

sometimes linking the worlds of religion and science. The scientific exploration of the subatomic

world has helped us understand that the connections that we observe in the visible world mirror

the structures in the very building blocks of the universe. This same interest in interrelatedness

helps account for the popularity of such abstruse topics as chaos theory, cosmology, and the

meteorological relations between ocean temperature and distant weather patterns; it also explains

the popularity of such books as The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris (b. 1944) and A Short

History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (b. 1951).

Popular interest in interrelatedness is also evident in the reinterpretation of some artworks,

particularly the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers and

close-to-the-earth architectural forms have always been regarded as technically excellent. Her

paintings have become so popular that one was reproduced on a commemorative U.S. postage

stamp. Their recent popularity, however, may hinge more on their expression of interrelatedness

and interchangeableness: because many of her paintings depict objects at very close range, the

viewer may be unable at first glance to tell if the painting represents a flower, an adobe church, a

hillside, or even a seashell. This ambiguity is surprising because, in fact, O’Keeffe’s work is

often closer to realism than abstraction. However, even that distinction is broken down by

O’Keeffe’s highlighting of the abstract within the specific. Overall, her paintings express

interrelatedness on several levels; they invite the viewer to contemplate patterns and underlying

similarities. Some reproductions of O’Keeffe’s paintings have become almost icons of


This painting by Georgia O’Keeffe is based on a red canna lily. Her paintings often take our

everyday eyes into that which is usually unseen.

Collection of The University of Arizona Museum of Art & Archive of Visual Arts, Tucson. ©

2012 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Abstraction has been used repeatedly to suggest both the state of interrelatedness and the human

experience of oneness. Georgia O’Keeffe’s nonrepresentational works frequently use curves of

color with this intent, as in her paintings Music: Pink and Blue and Blue #1. 15

Mark Rothko

(1903–1970), one of the greatest painters of pure spiritual experience, achieved a similar effect

by superimposing squares of subtle color, which seem to float luminously above their

backgrounds. Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) created spontaneous but very complicated worlds of

relationship in color by spattering paint on canvases that he had placed on the ground. Other

spiritually oriented painters include Mark Tobey (1890–1976) and Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991).

These artists’ works can evoke a feeling of being either out in space, surrounded by stars and

blackness, or within an atom, amid the active particles and surrounding emptiness.

The later paintings of Mark Rothko are like windows into eternity.

© Thomas Hilgers

Reverence and Respect

As we’ve already discussed, nature is coming to be seen not as something only to use, but rather

as a part of ourselves that must be nurtured for the well-being of all. Beyond this

reconceptualization of nature, best expressed in environmental movements, is a turn to nature as

revelation—as an expression of the spirit that permeates all reality and as a phenomenon to be

revered. This attitude is perhaps best expressed in the art of photography.

In an article that compares the qualities of some creative photographers with the virtues of the

Daoist sage as espoused in the Zhuangzi, writers Philippe Gross and S. I. Shapiro describe

Daoistic ideals, often using both the words of the Zhuangzi and of modern photographers

themselves, placed side by side. The authors conclude that the vision of the Daoist sage and of

many great photographers is the same: “Both... have the capacity for seeing with unconstricted

awareness and are therefore capable of seeing the miraculous in the ordinary.” 16

According to

Gross and Shapiro, the virtues shared by the Daoist sage and the contemplative photographer

include freedom from the sense of self, receptivity, spontaneity, acceptance, and

nonattachment—attributes that promote a general attitude of respect and reverence.

I’m not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic

experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself.... First you must lose your self. Then it


Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer 17

Contemplative photography reached a peak of sorts in the nature photography of Ansel Adams

(mentioned earlier). His black-and-white photographs of Yosemite National Park, whose

mountains and waterfalls recall the subject matter of traditional Chinese landscape painting,

evoke a feeling of respect for the power and the beauty of nature. Another devotee of nature,

Eliot Porter (1901–1990), photographed in brilliant color to let nature speak fully of its beauty.

He became well known for his photographs of trees turning yellow in autumn, of reflections in

ponds, and of river canyons. These photographs often elicit the same reverence in the viewer as a

Daoist sage might have experienced in contemplating a waterfall or a distant mountain.

Photography has been particularly effective in recording the most minute details of the human

face and of human life, once again inviting insight, respect, and reverence. Photography of the

American Civil War by Matthew Brady (c. 1823–1896) includes portraits of people in terrible

circumstances. Not long after, Edward Curtis (1868–1952) sensitively documented the vanishing

indigenous life of Native Americans. Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Walker Evans (1903–

1975) produced moving studies of people during the Great Depression. More recent masters have

been Edward Steichen (1879–1973) and Diane Arbus (1923–1971). Steichen’s influential

anthology of photographs, called The Family of Man, includes studies of the spiritual expressed

in human faces and actions from around the world. Arbus drew our respectful attention to

marginalized people in our urban societies.

The ability to evoke an attitude of respect and reverence is by no means limited to the art of

photography. The details of ordinary human life can be treated with reverence in painting as

well. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) did this repeatedly in his works—from his earlier portrayal

of peasants in The Potato Eaters, to his later paintings of the neighborhood postman, of

sunflowers arranged in a vase, and of a neighborhood cafe at night. The same attitude of

respectful attention can even be found in cartoons (consider the role of Lisa in The Simpsons). In

fact, this attitude can be expressed by any art form or technique that promotes contemplation—

the method for revealing spirituality—to which we now turn.

Contemplative Practices

Although eclectic spirituality emphasizes the interrelatedness of all creation, it does not maintain

that each person is automatically able to see interrelatedness. However, one can develop this

ability, as well as acquire an attitude of respect and reverence, through a variety of contemplative


As we saw in the earliest chapters of this book, native forms of religious practice have often

made use of techniques that result in trance states, in which ordinary reality is viewed in a

transformed way. In later chapters we reviewed the forms of mysticism that exist in many of the

world’s religions, and we touched upon the different contemplative activities—such as

meditation, Sufi dancing, tea ceremony, and hatha yoga—that have to some extent supplanted

the cultivation of trance states. The fact is that anyone—even the person who does not practice a

traditional religion—is free to try any of the following contemplative practices.

Traditional religions provide a number of the practices that attract people who are charting their

own eclectic spiritual path. Most religions make use of songs, chants, and other forms of

music—some of them elaborate. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism use complex chant, often

accompanied by bells, drums, gongs, trumpets, conch shells, and cymbals. Christianity has

produced a great amount of chant and other choral music. Shinto uses chants and gagaku (the

solemn instrumental music derived from ancient Chinese court music). Much religious music is

intended to help listeners experience a connectedness with the sacred. Until recently, there were

few opportunities to experience religious music without attending a religious service. Today,

however, through recordings and Web sites, people can listen to this music and use it as part of

their own contemplative practice at home or even in a car, while commuting or traveling.

Along with traditional religious music, some forms of secular music are also used for

contemplative purposes. Today, a common form of contemplative practice is to listen to these

types of music in a meditative way. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth

century, the Impressionist schools (particularly in France) developed not only a style of painting

but also of music. What is notable about Impressionist music is that it aims not so much to

satisfy classical requirements of form but to convey a sensual impression, through music, of a

primarily nonmusical experience, such as the coming of dawn or the feeling of standing in a


Much Western contemplative music today is a direct descendant of that earlier evocative music.

One example of Impressionist music is Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy

(1862–1918). In his tone poem La Mer, Debussy uses music to describe a sunrise and a storm on

the ocean. His Nocturnes for orchestra include a meditation on clouds (Nuages), and his Clair de

Lune (from the Suite Bergamasque) creates the feeling of a quiet moonlit night. Another French

composer, Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), even used a wind machine to evoke nature in the full

version of his Daphnis and Chloe. And both Ravel and Debussy created music for piano that

suggests the relaxing play of fountains. A third composer in this contemplative line was the

Englishman Frederick Delius (1862–1934), whose works are generally short impressions of

seasonal moods. Among the finest are On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Night on

the River, and Brigg Fair. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), who

studied with Ravel, suggests with a solo violin the flight of a bird in The Lark Ascending—a

delicate work that, when experienced in a quiet environment, has helped many a listener

experience a connectedness with the sacred. His Fantasia on Greensleeves and Fantasia on a

Theme of Thomas Tallis are equally contemplative. The moods created by these composers are

today frequently echoed in what has come to be called New Age music, some of which is

performed on synthesizers. Trance-inducing techno music may also be seen as a new form of

spiritual music.

Religion on the horizon: Is it dawn or dusk?

© Thomas Hilgers

In addition, the spread of modern orchestral instruments in Asia and the use of the synthesizer

have made it possible for Asian composers to create complicated cross-cultural works that offer

new windows through which listeners can experience that which is within and beyond. The

Japanese composers Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929–1997) and Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996), for

example, are often cited for their efforts to transport listeners through transcultural music.

Whether eclectic spirituality will expand into a fully developed religion is impossible to say. It is

easier to predict that world growth will result in more crowded spaces, more noise, greater

competition, and increased stress. Under such circumstances, the need for contemplation can

only grow.

Personal Experience: A Picnic

Inspired by a week of wonderful weather—clear, sunny days, with just a little breeze—some of

my friends wanted to get together to catch up on each other’s lives.

We decided on a picnic at a favorite park and divided up responsibilities for the food, drinks, and

supplies for our meal. Our feast consisted of sandwiches, sushi, chow fun (a rice noodle dish),

potato salad, hard-boiled eggs, green olives, apples, tangerines, and chocolate cake.

During the meal Peggy asked me, “What have you been thinking about?

” “I’ve been thinking about the good and bad effects of religions, and I’ve been wondering about

their future.”

“Why that topic?” John asked. “Aren’t all religions good?” (John was laughing.)

“It’s complicated,” I said. “Some people see religions as mostly bad—as institutions of

persecution and mental oppression. Others are more moderate. They see good aspects in

religions, too.” Then I asked him: “Do you think that all religions are good?”

“You know me,” John said. “I’m an engineer. I think that religions are anti-science and give

people a lot of wrong answers.”

Peggy threw out some general questions. “Are some religions good and others bad? And how

can we identify which is which?”

“When I look at religions,” Robert said, “I don’t see any one of them as being entirely bad or

entirely good. There can be good and bad elements in the same religion. So maybe what we need

to think about is where religions should be going. And what an ideal religion would be.”

“The problem is that many religions focus on life after this one,” Peggy said. “They should focus

more on this life, don’t you think? They should teach us how to open our eyes and appreciate

every moment.”

“If you identify with just one religion,” John said, “you tend to dismiss the others. Maybe the

best religion would move beyond religion. Maybe we need a religion of no-religion.”

“So how are you going to get religions to move in that direction?” I asked.

A gray-and-white bird flew down onto the grass. It looked up hopefully, and John tossed out a

small piece of bread. More birds followed, John tossed out more bits of bread, and we began to

talk about birds instead of religions and people.

Reading: A Starry Night *

* Excerpt from Audrey Sutherland, Paddling My Own Canoe. Copyright © 1987 University of

Hawaii Press. Used with permission.

The author Audrey Sutherland has helped popularize kayaking, camping, and trekking. She has

written books about her travels in Hawai`i and Alaska. The following reading, from Paddling My

Own Canoe, describes an experience at a hiker’s cabin in Hawai`i, where she was camping for

the night.

A full moon is rising over the mountain’s left shoulder. What have I been doing, cowering in the

corner bunk each night with all of Van Gogh’s Starry Nightout here? I bring the air mattress and

the down bag out onto the grass. So it was not just the glory that the thin, bearded painter saw,

but the vast wheeling across the sky, the movement through the night of the stars and planets

spinning on their axes, whirling through their orbits. I watch and sleep, until the rain on my face

sends me back inside. But as I step through the door, I look back across the bay. The setting

moon has created an unearthly miracle. Arched above the mountain is a moonbow—a lunar

rainbow—of pale colors arched on a dark cloud. 18

Test Yourself

1. The modern culture of________________________betterment will increasingly challenge

religions to produce what material cultures value.

1. nature-based 2. money-based 3. spirit-based 4. peace-based

2. Entirely new religions may frequently blend elements from several religions. For example,

the______________________ Church, which began in Korea, blends Christianity and


1. Unitarian 2. Unification 3. Trinity 4. Trimurti

3. One of the earliest examples of modern religious dialogue was the

first___________________, held in Chicago in 1893.

1. Council of World Religions 2. World Religion Convention 3. Religious Ecumenical Council 4. World Parliament of Religions

4. In Christianity, there is growing interest in medieval female mystics such


1. Mary Baker Eddy 2. Catherine the Great 3. Elizabeth I 4. Hildegard of Bingen

5. In 2003, the________________________ Church in the United States consecrated as

bishop a man who is in a gay relationship; this has caused conflict with other branches of

the Church of England.

1. Episcopal 2. Baptist 3. Catholic 4. Presbyterian

6. The term ________________________has come to refer to a way of looking at life in

which human values and rules for living are taken from experience in this world, not from

divine revelation.

1. agnosticism 2. secularism 3. tritheism 4. monism

7. ___________________,even where it has been abandoned as an official ideology,

succeeded in creating a fairly secular milieu.

1. Communism 2. Theocracy 3. Nazism 4. Democracy

8. Scottish-born naturalist ____________________helped ignite the establishment of the

national park system and local nature preserves.

1. Wilson 2. Jane Goodall 3. Christian Lassen 4. John Muir

9. In Europe, a contemplative interest in nature can be traced back many centuries to the nature

mysticism of some medieval monks and friars, beginning with Saint__________________.

1. Augustine 2. Anne Jahouvey 3. Francis of Assisi 4. Anselm of Lucca

10. The key belief of those who embrace ___________________is the interrelatedness of all

elements in the universe—a belief that is expressed in an attitude of respect and reverence

for all people and creatures.

1. the new world order 2. structuralism 3. eclectic spirituality 4. secularism

11. Based on what you have read in this chapter, what do you think twenty-first-century

religious leaders view as the greatest threat to religion? Using information from the media

and this chapter, explain your answer.

12. Why do you think eclectic spirituality has become very popular in the contemporary

world? Do you think the majority of twenty-first-century Americans find eclectic

spirituality more appealing than traditional religions? Explain your answer.



Allison, Jay, and Dan Gediman, eds. This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable

Men and Women. New York: Holt, 2007. A collection of essays, from the weekly NPR segment

begun in 2005, that portray the personal credos of Americans.

Ammerman, Nancy, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. New York:

Oxford University Press, 2006. Essays on unusual aspects of lived religion.

Azara, Nancy. Spirit Taking Form: Making a Spiritual Practice of Making Art. York Beach, ME:

Red Wheel/Weiser, 2002. An encouragement of inner growth through the creation of art.

Byock, Ira. Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life. New York:

Riverhead/Penguin Putnam, 1997. A book for both patients and caregivers about the spiritual

possibilities of dying, written by a compassionate specialist in hospice care.

Gottleib, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New

York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A hopeful, ecumenically oriented book that argues that

religion can be a powerful force for environmental activism.

Hoffstaedter, Gerhard. Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in

Malaysia. Denmark: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2011. A study of how the modern

Malaysian government has influenced Islamic identity in Malaysia.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization, and World Religions.

Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. A discussion of the links between feminism,

ecology, and religious thought.

Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New

York: HarperOne, 2001. A defense of the religious impulse and its way of looking at the


Sutherland, Audrey. Paddling My Own Canoe. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1978. On

the surface, a lyrical description of paddling along the shore of Moloka`i; underneath, a charming

classic by a legendary canoer and kayaker that presents a spirituality akin to Zen.

Wirzba, Norman. The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York:

Oxford University Press, 2003. An argument for a new religiously based environmentalism.


Gifts from God: Women in Ministry. (Films Media Group.) A CBS News special in which Jewish

and Christian women who are in the ministry discuss their experiences.

God Is Green. (Directors Mark Dowd and Bruno Sorrentino; 3BM Television.) A documentary

profiling the rise of the evangelical environmental movement.

An Inconvenient Truth. (Director Davis Guggenheim; Paramount.) An award-winning

documentary that speaks of the perils of global warming.

Journeys of the Spirit: A Pilgrimage to New Mexico. (Films Media Group.) A CBS News special

on an ecumenical gathering at the Sanctuary of Chimayó, New Mexico.

The Land and the Sacred: Nature’s Role in Myth and Religion. (Films Media Group.) A three-

part series exploring the spiritual relevance of the environment in Africa, Asia, Europe, and

South America.


Music has pointed the way for modern spirituality and contemplation. Here are important

musical selections. Especially approachable pieces are starred:

Debussy: *Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,*Nocturnes, La Mer, Syrinx

Delius: *On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Night on the River, Brigg Fair

Fauré: Berceuse

Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain

Ravel: *Mother Goose Suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Daphnis and Chloe (concert version),

String Quartet in F, Piano Concerto in G

Satie: *Gymnopedies nos. 1–3

Vaughan Williams: *The Lark Ascending, *Fantasia on Greensleeves, *Fantasia on a Theme of

Thomas Tallis, Serenade to Music (orchestral version), String Quartets nos. 1 and 2


Center for Religious Tolerance: The Web site of a

nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote peace and harmony through interfaith

activities and dialogue.

Marvel, Believe, Care: An online Christian environmental

resource, devoted to raising awareness about the importance of caring for God’s creation.

Religion Beyond the Classroom

Visit the Online Learning Center at for additional exercises and

features, including “Religion beyond the Classroom” and “For Fuller Understanding.”

Experiencing the Worlds Religions. Tradition, Challenge, and Change, Sixth Edition

Chapter 12: The Modern Search

ISBN: 9780078038273 Author: Michael Molloy

Copyright © McGraw-Hill Company (6)