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New Thirst for Spirituality Being Felt Worldwide

Africa, Asia, Mideast, Latin America, and U.S. South see rapid religious growth.

By Jane Lampman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1998



Religious signposts at the close of the 20th century are full of surprises.

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* In a 1998 Gallup poll, more than two-thirds of Americans said religion could "solve all or most of our problems."

* While the world's population has grown by 60 percent since 1970, the number of evangelical Christians has risen by 126 percent.

* One of every 7 human beings was a Muslim in 1950; today it is 1 of every 5.

* The Internet now carries some 140 million pages related to religion; "spirituality" is the fastest growing field in US book publishing.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Thirty years ago, futurists were predicting a "scientific, secular, Epicurean global society" by the year 2000, says Martin Marty, writer, educator, and director of the Public Religion Project. Some theologians asserted that God was dead. And even America's top theologian, Paul Tillich, said that the words "spiritual" and "spirituality" were gone from the culture and could never be recovered.

Science and technology, it was widely assumed in the West, held the keys to the future, and religion was in decline.

But at the end of this century of tumultuous change, massive population shifts to urban centers, unprecendented warfare, rise and collapse of ideologies, spread of consumer culture, and breakneck technological developments, the majority of the planet's peoples are focusing with new earnestness on matters of faith and the spirit.

Those who chart the course of religious trends - and communicate with believers across the United States and on other continents - see a religious transformation taking place that indicates we are entering a new era.

Whether it is a peasant family in the developing world jarred by the traumatic move to the megacity or a young adult in the US seeking a sense of identity beyond "a random accident in the universe," an intense search is under way by millions to find a spiritual center for their lives.

For some, this has meant a return to "fundamentalist" roots of faith - whether in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism. In some instances, that has taken a political, even militant turn.

For many others, it has meant venturing into new realms of worship. An emphasis on "experiencing" God is displacing dogma and creed. Individual seeking and the expectation of practical results from faith are supplanting reliance on institutional hierarchies. Healing is being reconnected to religion.

These changes have come about because of a "double-barreled disillusionment both with conventional religion and its institutional expressions" and with the "bright promises of science and progress," says Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and widely read author on religious themes.

Collapse of ideologies

Alternatives have also collapsed, says Dr. Marty. "Nothing in human history compares to the attempts this century to impose ideologies that cover all the things in life religion is supposed to cover." Meanwhile, things those "in the West believed in - the pure triumph of reason, of science, haven't worked out."

As seekers turn in new directions, many in science and medicine are reexamining the relevance of religion, and many in the church are having to rethink the focus of their ministries.

The religious trends of the past century have reshaped the global landscape and the nature of the American experiment.

As religions have spread around a shrinking globe, they find themselves "elbow to elbow, cheek by jowl," says Dr. Cox. Such proximity creates both tensions and the opportunity for dialogue. "How we balance these tensions with dialogue and the deepening of our understanding of other traditions is the big theological question" of tomorrow.

Islam has become a major actor on the world stage (1.1 billion followers) and is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States.