Interfaith News Roundup

Trying to Understand the State of Religion

Robert Jones, director, Public Religions Research Institute – Photo: PRRI

Maureen Fiedler, who moderates Interfaith Voices on public radio, provides an illuminating survey of the changing trends in American religion in her interview of Robert Jones, director of the Public Religion Research Institute, which recently made available the massive American Values Atlas.

The new General Social Survey, the “gold standard” of sociological polling, reports that since 2012, 7.5 millions Americans have left religion. This puts the not-affiliated population in the U.S. at 23 percent, up three percent in that same period. 

That venerable institution in Christian congregations for nearly 200 years, Sunday school, seems to be a threatened institution, decreasing across the English-speaking world, according to USA Today.

It’s being argued – for good reason – that Europe badly needs to do better at “interfaith dialogue” and all the good things that can grow out of it. Religious minorities throughout the European Union are having a tough time, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia have reared their ugly heads, and Hungary’s prime minister has vowed to do away with “liberal democracies” in favor of illiberal countries like Turkey and Russia.

The Pew Research Center has a fascinating series of predictions of what religion in 2050 will look like. Big surprises!

 “The Blasphemy of ISIS: A 7-Point Pro-Guide to Islam(ism)” by Haroon Moghul is a masterful explanation of words (e.g., Muslim, Islam, Shar’ia) being bandied about in the media inappropriately. His annotated lexicon of Muslim language leads straight to his conclusion about ‘Islamic State’ terrorists: “We must fight back against this seizure of our religion by those who do it the most harm. They know nothing about it, while claiming to be the sole representatives of it.” Should be required reading for anyone interested in religion or interfaith.

Thirty professors are participating in “Secularism,” a multidisciplinary, interfaith course at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Just reading about this many-fasceted jewel of an educational exercise will be both informing and inspiring to interfaith activists. 

Ten Commandments for Talking to Your Kids About Religion” by Wendy Thomas Russell is written primarily for those who no longer affiliate with any tradition. But it is full of wisdom for every parent.

The Continuing Horror

The China religious-freedom watch keeps getting worse. In western China, a Muslim has been sentenced to six years in jail for refusing to cut his beard. His wife’s sentence for repeatedly wearing a burqa was only two years because she signed a confession and said she was “reborn.”

In a bar in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), the New Zealander owner and two associates were sentenced to two years in prison for using an image of Buddha with headphones on for an upcoming event. A religious dictatorship is shaping up in the troubled nation, and the implications for non-Buddhists are increasingly difficult.

A Sufi leader in Kabul and nine colleagues praying with him were shot to death in their mosque, a shock to all, since mosques are considered one the few ‘safe’ places in Afganistan. The assailants didn’t identify themselves. Sufism, a mystical, interfaith-friendly tradition in Islam, has about 100,000 followers in Afganistan.

In one of the saddedst stories this past month, Reuters reports that 765 people accused of being witches in Tanzania were killed in 2013, up 185 from 2012. Older women and albinos suffer the most. Legal measures to end this atrocity to date have failed. 

Stories to Keep Hope Alive

The best news this past month was a surplus of stories about people around the globe who are not letting themselves be intimidated, regardless of difficultires or dangers, in the quest for a world that values each one of us.

Religion News Service reports that “Bread for the World, the World Bank, and leaders of 30 faith groups and organizations issued today a call to end hunger and extreme poverty by 2030.”  The good news is that those living in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day), has been cut in half since 1990, to under a billion. The new coalition would like to cut that to zero in the next 15 years.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, responding to weeks of tragic news involving Muslims, more than 150 people from numerous religious traditions gathered in a “Ring of Solidarity” at the San Ramon (California) Islamic Center. Afterwards they met in small groups to get to know each other.  “The best way to love your neighbors is to get to know them,” said a local interfaith leader.

For years, Kenya has been the victim of vicious tribal conflicts. Since 1999, the Catholic Church has been training women, 340 to date, to be grassroots peacemakers, and the results are beginning to pay off.

Mike Haynes, brother of David Haynes, British refugee worker beheaded by the ‘Islamic State,’ has become a full-time interfaith activist since his brother’s execution and met in solidarity with Pope Francis.

Frank and Rejeanne of Waterloo, Ontario – Photo: Colin Boyd Shafer, INTERLOVE Project

Young Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle East have taken to the internet to make peace go viral. They are discovering the interfaith joys of their everyday lives and generating one good news story after another.

Colin Boyd Shafer's The INTERLOVE Project is a wonderful portrait photography project that tells the stories of people in interfaith relationships. It is an excellent example of how love can conquer all.The INTERLOVE Project's website currently has more than 30 compelling love stories up so far.

Who would have guessed!? The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio is turning out to be an interfaith activist, working closely, recently, with Orthodox Jews concerning circumcision law and Muslims about adding two school holidays. Predictably, he’s picking up flack from the left, and Hindus want to know why Diwali can’t be a holiday. 

Zaytuna College has become the first fully accredited Muslim university in the U.S. The Berkeley, California institution began as a seminary, has 50 students and 15 faculty members, and is nestled among the seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union, a block and a half from the University of California, Berkeley.

The Catholic Church in Kenya is going into the farming business, devoting 3,000 acres of land it owns to address the needs of the 1.6 million (out of 46 million) that need food assistance.

Before a concert in Idaho, Joan Baez went to a parking lot to speak to four protestors carrying large signs accusing her of being a “baby killer.” A remarkable tale for anyone interested in peacemaking.