Over the winter break, I was thankfully able to find some of those rare moments where I could read. One of the most interesting things I read was an amazing report on the religious landscape of our globe put together by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. The report is a comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories conducted by top-notch researchers from around the world. It includes both quantitative and qualitative studies of world demographics in regard to global faith communities, religiosity, religious bigotry and extremism, violations of religious rights around the world and more as of 2010.
Here are some of the eye opening facts and findings from this very helpful report. About 84 percent of human beings belong to a faith tradition. Christians (2.2 billion) and Muslims (1.6 billion) make up more than half of the human family. Around 1.1 billion, 700 million of whom live in China, do not belong to any faith tradition. The study concludes this fact by saying: “This makes the unaffiliated the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims, and about equal in size to the world’s Catholic population.” In terms of median age, Muslims (23) and Hindus (26) are the youngest of all; Jews (36) and Christians (30) are among the oldest. More than 61 percent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region and almost one-in-three lives as a religious minority.
A separate study by the Forum on Religion and Public Life provides rich materials to those who hate religion and blame religion for everything bad in the world. Religious extremism and bigotry is still thriving in many regions and among many religions. Nearly a third of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, especially religious minorities. What’s more, hate crimes against religious groups and religion-based violence have increased in recent years in some countries.
However, the study mentions nothing about where and how religions have been sources of peace, comfort, grace, reconciliation and charity. Before I self-critically engage with the findings of this study, I would like to tell those people who single out religion and religious people as “the sources of all evil” the following: If you think religious people are evil, violent and destructive, please also consider the non-religious ones. The entire 20th century, with more than 100 million killed in a zillion different wars and conflicts, has showed us what kind of alternative we are talking about.
Having said that, the Pew’s report puts out enormous challenges to people of faith. Scientific and scholarly findings unambiguously suggest that world religions are far from fulfilling their promise to humanity. The findings of the Pew report and similar reports humble us, as people of faith, to see that the empty side of the glass is too big to ignore, too obvious to deny.
I read the whole report remembering a famous T-shirt slogan in mind: “‘God is dead!’—Nietzsche … ‘Nietzsche is dead!’—God.” To me this humorous slogan is very true but incomplete. It is true in the sense that the Nietzschean predictions of the 19th century that God is dead and all the religions were going to disappear rapidly turned out to be wrong. Far from dying, both God and religion are much more alive than before and furthermore, as the Pew study concludes, many members of the non-affiliated also consider themselves to be spiritual.
However, the entire Pew study and the painful realities of current world affairs beg the following question: If God is not dead, in the face of all this ongoing bloodshed, cruelty, greed and ugliness, for God’s sake, “WHERE IS HE!” If God is mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, peace and more, and if two-thirds of humanity believes in many different variations of these concepts, then why is the world going through a famine of these ideals? To me, there are two possible answers to these hypothetical questions. It could be that God is not any of those, and religions are nothing but fiction and delusion. Or, we the agents and deliverers of very many divine blessings fall short in this core mission of religion. I hope religion is not just getting the right belief or doctrine; I hope and pray that religion is not just following the endless list of do’s or don’ts. I don’t think creating the most perfect religion is God’s divine project. God’s divine project is us, humanity. Individually and collectively we prove our exceptional potential to build and create a godly global society.
Therefore, I have a single wish and prayer for 2013: I hope and pray that during this new year, religion and faith will be a source of comfort, peace, healing and reconciliation to all more so than ever before. People will be inspired by their religions to do good for themselves and for fellow human beings. All members of the human family, individually and collectively, will do a better job in upholding and living the ideals of their faith traditions. Amen!
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Abdullah on Twitter @aantepli.