The Modern Search
© Phil Nijhuis/EPA/Newscom
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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
Could completely secular “religions” emerge? Or will religious instincts be
expressed in increasingly nontraditional forms?
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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: http://centerforreligioustolerance.org/. The Web site of a
nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote peace and harmony through interfaith
activities and dialogue.
Marvel, Believe, Care: http://www.marvelbelievecare.org/. 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 www.mhhe.com/molloy6e 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)