Where Religion Stands Today
Where Religion Stands Today
Faith Played a Major Role in Sweeping Political and
Cultural Changes 1,000 Years Ago, Many of Which Still Resonate; Around
Globe, Diverse Faiths Fuel a Search for Meaning
By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2000; Page B09
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
and as a watch in the night.
-- Psalm 90:4
Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, had a way with faith
persuasion. "Be baptized or be killed," he told the Saxons, whom he
conquered around 800.
Conversion style aside, the Frankish ruler established a precedent that
helped create Western Europe as we know it today. One after another,
kings and warlords, including wild-haired Viking marauders from the
North, looked upon Charlemagne's Christian reign as "a model of settled
kingship, a government they could imitate," said Thomas Head, professor
of history at Hunter College in New York.
Around the turn of the millennium, so many kings had copied
Charlemagne's style that virtually every kingdom in the West was at
least nominally Christian or soon would be, Head said. Latin became the
common language not only of religion, but of government and science as
well. Christianity became a "glue for society" that brought stability to
Similarly, Islam provided a common language--Arabic--among the nations
it took over in the centuries after its founding in 630. The influence
of Islam ranged from Spain to North Africa to the eastern rim of the
Mediterranean, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike sharing trade routes
and advancements in science, philosophy and art.
So it was that religion played a major role in sweeping political and
cultural changes 1,000 years ago, many of which resonate today. But what
was happening on the personal, individual level? What caused people a
millennium ago to follow a particular belief--other than fear for their
Chester Gillis, associate professor of theology at Georgetown
University, believes he has the answer. People now, as then, "sense the
need for an absolute or transcendent or divine presence in their lives.
The vast majority of the world has that innate sense for the divine, a
search for the ontological grounding of their own person."
Gillis said that "every culture historically" has shown evidence of this
search for transcendent meaning. "It has taken different expressions,
been fractured into various religions and denominations. But it is still
This constant is important to recognize today because some people
contend that religious belief is declining, which simply isn't so, he
said. It's true that particular groups, such as some mainline Protestant
denominations, are experiencing drops in membership or attendance. But
members who fall away often find a new religious community, whether it's
a more vibrant, Pentecostal megachurch or some private New Age
Even when they stop identifying with organized religion, many people
still consider themselves to be spiritual, with a belief in a higher
being, Gillis said. "They would never say they are atheist or not
That spiritual constant also is at work globally, where the movement of
people from country to country has created an unprecedented mix of
religious faith and "true world religions," he said. It's not just the
case in such well-established cosmopolitan centers as Washington and
Paris, but in many other cities as well.
Earlier this month, Gillis attended the third World's Parliament of
Religion, in Cape Town, South Africa. Thousands of people from numerous
faiths gathered to hear Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and other leaders
ask for peace and reconciliation in 2000 and beyond.
But what impressed Gillis the most was the religious makeup of Cape Town
itself, a city that offers its residents more than 20 faith options,
from indigenous African religions to Zoroastrianism to Judaism,
Catholicism and Protestantism. Such diversity is "something you think of
immediately" with London or New York, but not Cape Town, he said.
In the United States, which is home to dozens of religions and hundreds
of denominations, religious diversity has become "far more commonplace
than the framers of the Constitution ever imagined," said Diana L. Eck,
professor of comparative religion at Harvard University and director of
the school's Pluralism Project, which tracks the country's growing
"We're still predominantly Christian, no doubt about it," she said. But
because of an "interfaith explosion" in the last decade, "America for
the first time in our history is really, really challenged to make good
on our promise of freedom of religion."
Eck cited an incident in which a Sikh man, stopped for a traffic
violation, was stripped of the Kirpan, or ceremonial sword, his religion
requires him to carry. And Hindus, recently targeted for conversion by
Southern Baptists, as Jews and Muslims also have been, "felt deeply
insulted not because [the Baptists] might want to convert them, but
because they held mistaken views of who they are."
Eck and Gillis agree that followers of America's "traditional"
religions--Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism--need to open new paths
of understanding to different cultures and faiths. No longer are
Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains living "on the other side of the
world, but across the street."
Eck believes accepting the beliefs of others "deepens faith" without
endangering it. And increased understanding doesn't mean "leaving your
religion at the door or shedding it, but affirming a commitment to live
On the other hand, the country's--and world's--increasing religious
diversity might require adjustments in traditional ways of thinking and
"My sense is that [America's] faiths have never been static and will
continue to change and breathe the air of the new times, or die," Eck
Gillis agreed, adding that religions encountering new faiths often make
adjustments not in belief, but in music, worship and other forms of
expression. "Even religious claims are subject to a changing expression
about the absolute."
A breakdown of the world's believers and non-believers today.
ADHERENTS WORLD TOTAL
SOURCE: 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year
Chinese folk religionists 397,162,000
Roman Catholics 1,026,501,000
Other Christians 373,832,000
Ethnic religionists 248,565,000
Other religionists 1,001,000
Others (including nonpractitioners) 28.2%
Total Population 5,929,839,000
About 300 million people lived in the 11th century, when vast groups of
people converted to Christianity and Islam while others practiced the
older religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Confucianism. Some
960: The Sung Dynasty is founded in China, bringing more than 300 years
of prosperity and dominance in technology, commerce and industry. A
revival of Confucianism provides a moral base.
1000: Icelanders convert to Christianity, after similar conversions of
Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Following Charlemagne's model, newly
Christianized Hungary consecrates a king.
1009: Muslims destroy the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, an act many
Christians mistakenly attribute to Jews, fueling anti-Jewish sentiments
that increase in coming generations.
1033: The anniversary of Jesus's death inspires new pietistic movements
that lead to the founding of mendicant orders and encourage Christian
pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
1054: Bishops of the Eastern and Western churches excommunicate one
another over the issue of papal authority, a schism that will be
completed in 1204, when Rome's Crusaders sack Constantinople.
1066: William of Normandy conquers England, defeating King Harold II at
the Battle of Hastings. The conquest is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry,
a 231-foot-long embroidery made about a decade later.
1098: Rome begins the first of several mostly ill-fated crusades to
recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims.
©Copyright 2000, Washington Post Company
Page last updated/revised 020500
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