Religious signposts at the close of the 20th century are full of surprises.
* 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.
Christianity's growth pattern (about 1.9 billion adherents) has now made it a majority non-Western religion, says Cox, who visited hosts of churches on four continents researching his book "Fire From Heaven," the story of the remarkable rise of Pentecostalism around the world.
Pentecostal churches, with more than 410 million members, are said to be growing by 20 million a year. To the spiritually homeless in the huge cities of the world, he says, they "held out the possibility of a radically new order that would come about not because of the patchwork efforts of mere mortals but by the action of a loving God." The emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and healing is a return, he says, to "primal hope, primal piety, and primal spirituality."
Pentecostals have spurred Christianity's growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A statistical institute in Brazil predicts that half of that country's population will be evangelical by 2045. According to Christianity Today, South Korea's fervent evangelicalism includes "the world's largest Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches," and "over 5,500 missionaries in more than 100 countries."
New non-Western majority
The non-Western majority is changing the face of Christian practice and priorities for various denominations as well as the World Council of Churches. One example is the recent mention of an African cardinal as among the serious candidates to succeed the current pope.
With the liberalizing Vatican II in the mid-'60s, Roman Catholicism had one of the landmark religious events of the century; and in Pope John Paul II, it has one of the most influential popes of all time. Yet the church is challenged by today's disregard for institutional authority, disaffection with some doctrines, and by contention for followers with Islam and evangelicalism in Africa and Latin America.
The picture differs in Europe and parts of North America. Marty says a "spiritual ice belt" stretches from west of Poland across western Europe, the northern US and Canada, and includes Japan. "In that part of the world," he says, "there are 3,000 fewer Christians now than 24 hours ago, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, there are 16,000 more Christians than 24 hours ago." The southern US, he adds, fits into the growth pattern of the rest of world.
Marty credits pluralism not only for US religiosity, but also for the faster global growth. In Europe where there have tended to be established national churches, religious life has waxed cold and "nobody is much of anything," he says. Polls show that in Britain only 8 percent of the population attends church regularly.
The US tops the religious barometer of the industrialized world. "The overwhelming impression I take away from looking at religion in America, throughout our history and on the cusp of the 21st century, is that we are an incurably religious people," says Randall Balmer, a professor at Barnard College in New York who is writing a religious history of 20th-century America. "If you look at any index of our religious life, we are off the charts compared to other Western countries."
Yet that religious life has become a much less tidy one over the past half century. Dramatic cultural changes have modified the social landscape, bringing greater diversity (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism), spurring disenchantment with institutions of all kinds, and sending many Americans into an individualized search for spirituality.
Some sectors of religious life are flourishing while others are struggling. Mainline Protestant churches - the "establishment" of the 1950s - have seen memberships decline. The number of Americans who say they are Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Methodist is one-third lower than 30 years ago, according to Princeton Religion Research Center. "The mainline lost a lot of young people, partly because of 'coasting,' " Marty says. "You have to win your own kids, and they're going to go seeking on their own."
Catholicism is growing by population growth, but not in attendance. Mormonism has become one of the world's fastest growing faiths and has half its membership outside the US.
At the same time, evangelical Protestantism has emerged as a major force in American life. Evangelical churches (including such disparate groups as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, black churches, and Mennonites) now account for more than 40 percent of Americans.
The movement represents a "whole new phenomenon in American religion," says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif. Over recent decades, many transdenominational entities [like today's Campus Crusade for Christ and Promisekeepers] "have formed new patterns of communication and religious identity."
Meanwhile, many Americans, particularly among younger generations suspicious of institutional authority, are engaged in what sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University calls "spirituality of seeking" in his book "After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s." They explore many avenues and pick and choose among traditions to create a personal faith. From Generation X downward, young people often find their religious communities in cyberspace.
While such seeking can represent a deep commitment to spirituality, some worry about a superficiality to American religious faith. They question how far one can go without being grounded in a major faith, and call on churches to be more responsive.
"My disappointment is that the churches aren't nearly as creative in responding to these needs and feelings as they might be," Cox says. Students 25 years ago tended to be condescending toward religion; today "there is a seeking and a hunger, and people are not reluctant to express it. It takes a long time for churches to reach out and make the kind of changes in themselves they have to make to meet people half way."
Yet there are also signs of a growing commitment in many directions. More people are studying sacred texts, taking courses at seminaries, creating prayer and Bible groups, and filling the growing number of healing services being held by many denominations. "The idea that healing and religion belong together has come back with a strong emphasis in this age ... among many churches and many movements," says Cox.
"The role of healing is huge," says Marty. "The Christian Science Church had this package 100 years ago. It pioneered ... but today it's all over the place. Lifelong nurture of healing ways is likely to remain a therapeutic revolution which includes body as well as spirit."
And the transforming power of religious faith is gaining recognition in many avenues of life:
* Resources are being directed to faith-based institutions because they have proven more effective than others in freeing people from drug and alcohol addiction and other social ills.
Medical research has demonstrated that those who are religiously active tend to be healthier, have a greater sense of well-being, and live longer.
* Religious leaders are being called on to advise international institutions on economic development, participate in developing environmental policies, and consult with scientists on questions of ultimate reality.
As the millennium nears, issues of environmental degradation, materialistic culture, moral decay, global financial disarray, and a growing imbalance in wealth trouble many peoples. They are turning to religion for answers, and in parts of the world, Marty says, the effort to educate and shape cultures religiously is intense.
Whether the future holds "a new age of the Spirit" as some foresee, or brings clashes between faiths such as those seen in the past depends on the choices individuals make in their spiritual search and on the degree to which efforts are made to understand one another.