The latest Pew Research Centre report shows the share of people without religion as a percentage of global population is expected to decline from 16 per cent in 2010 to 13 per cent in 2050. And the share of people with religion will increase within the same period.
Two reasons, among others, explain the rise.
First, the contribution from China, where more religious "nones" are expected to embrace religion. China has an estimated 700 million people with no religion, or about half of the world's religiously unaffiliated people. China's new religious converts will contribute a substantial share to the global rise in number of people of faith.
Second, the high rate of population growth in the Islamic world. Due to higher fertility rates among Muslims, there will be a significant increase in the number of Muslims globally and that will add to the share of the religiously affiliated in the world.
The rise should be seen in the context of religion's impactful comeback. Sociologists who saw religion as marginalised due to an all- encompassing secularisation have been proven wrong. There was a strong resurgence in religiosity from the middle of the last century and a strong wave of de-secularisation is still sweeping the world today. It is therefore not surprising that a rising tide of religion will engulf the world for decades to come and manifest itself in more people embracing religion.
For better or worse?
Will the world be a better place if more of its inhabitants believe in religion?
Unfortunately, religion's image has in this early part of the 21st century been severely damaged.
There has been a rise of fundamentalism in every major religious tradition, an increased contribution of religion in destructive identity politics and the recurrence of horrific killings, mass destruction and horrendous acts of crime against humanity in the name of religion.
According to an earlier Pew Research Centre report released in 2013 of a study of 198 countries, the number of countries with a high occurrence of religious-based conflicts had increased from 40 in 2007 to 65 in 2012. It is, therefore, to be expected that the global rise in the number of people with religion can give rise to a feeling of consternation.
Is this a fair evaluation of the standing of religion in the world today? Scholars are divided on the issue. Those like Professor Charles Kimball argue that religion has not become evil. What is evil are perpetrators' corrupt use of religion to conjure up violence and terrorise the world.
Another scholar, Ms Jessica Stern, has identified five grievances which are socio-cultural in nature that drive religious terrorism. They have nothing to do with religion. There is a lot more literature to defend religion but it is becoming harder to convince people that religion has no or little part to play in the current state of global insecurity, because religiously linked violence is unceasing and rampant.
Given its powerful appeal, religion has and will continue to be appropriated in conflicts, according to Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, a scholar on religion. He noted the ambivalent nature of religion and admitted that there has been a religious dimension in many conflicts.
Another scholar, Mr Oliver McTernan, is more direct. He believes that one can find sufficient ambiguity in the founding texts and stories of each religious tradition for the actors of violence and terrorism to justify killing for the glory of God. Furthermore, each tradition has also its heroes who saw themselves as acting on divine authority to destroy the enemies of God.
There is now an unprecedented rise in violence, conflicts and controversies in which the perpetrators draw inspiration, motivation and impulses from religion through a de-contextualised understanding of sacred text. Based on current global events, this trajectory of doing evil, inciting hatred and committing cruelty in the name of religion will persist in the coming decades. The defenders of religion may feel exasperated that their articulations will be defeated by the unending misery caused by the actors of violence who profess to be adherents of religion.
New religious consciousness
The world's religious communities are now at a point in their existence when they need to carry out a self-evaluation on what had gone wrong with respect to expressions of religiosity by those who chose the path of destruction and their supporters.
Going back into history may be helpful as there was a similar situation that occurred between 800BC and 200BC. The world was then fraught with hatred, violence, resentment, vanity, cruelty and the desire to dominate or replace the other. Those major ills plaguing humanity were spontaneously countered by major religions and philosophies of that historical era, which arose in four different parts of the civilised world that had little contact with one another.
Monotheism in Persia/Judea, Taoism/Confucia- nism in China, Hinduism/Buddhism in India and philosophical rationalism in Greece gave rise to a great transformation in religious consciousness. The themes of love, compassion, mercy and peaceful co-existence dominated their teachings to counteract the feelings of selfishness, greed, hatred and vanity that caused the violent and destructive behaviour of human beings.
There is a need today for such a new religious consciousness to re-emerge as a global response to religiously motivated violence, conflicts and controversies. This new religious consciousness is founded not only on "right belief" but, more importantly, emphasises "right action" as an important way to prove the embrace of right belief.
That is all the more important as it is now apparent that religious extremism, radicalism and fundamentalism are the consequences of an obsession with "right belief" rather than "right actions".
Such a response would entail religions embarking on a transformational shift in their preaching to focus more on the messages of compassion, mercy, humility, love and kindness. This is not a new call.
There is an increasing scholarly interest today about the ideas of global religion, inter-religious theology or the new inter-faith alternative which discourses about religion's contribution to global peace, harmony and well-being of the human race. This call for a new religious consciousness can be a positive outcome when religious communities re-examine themselves and reaffirm the principal role of religion as a wellspring of goodness.
Mohammad Alami Musa is Head of Studies in the Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU.
This article was first published on May 16, 2015.
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