If there is one thing you can usually count upon while working as a journalist in the United States – and in particular if you happen to be British like myself – is that Americans are not only unafraid of talking to the media, many do so without hesitation. It is an endearing characteristic of the American people, a wonderful sign that they are not afraid to stand up and be heard.
The answer is Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. At least that was the conclusion of the latest Pew Research Institute survey of attitudes about religion around the world — a look at 24 countries based on thousands of interviews. Indonesia came in first with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important or very important in their lives — and it topped everyone else in the “very important” slot at 95 percent. Beyond that 80 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia say they pray five times a day every day — adhering to one of the five pillars of Islam.
The Church of England has just issued an apology to Charles Darwin for opposing his theory of evolution when The Origin of Species first came out 150 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church says it sees no need to say “sorry” for its initial hostility to the same theory. But both are now reconciled to evolution as solid science and are getting active in presenting their view that it is not incompatible with Christian faith. Is one approach better than the other to get this message across?
The Vatican famously “thinks in centuries”. It’s useful to remember that when reading the announcement from its Pontifical Council for Culture about a conference it plans to hold in Rome on Darwin and evolution. Pope Benedict has shown a keen interest in the issue and debated it in a closed session with some former doctoral students in 2006. The Vatican now wants to hold a week-long public conference next March entitled “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories — A Critical Evaluation 150 years after the The Origin of Species“.
“Comfortable candor” is the way Leith Anderson described the atmosphere at the Common Word conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue that ended at Yale University on Thursday. The term is as interesting for its image as for the person who used it. Anderson is president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals and one of several evangelicals attending the meeting. Among the mostly Protestant leaders who responded to the Common Word dialogue appeal in a letter launched by Yale Divinity School, evangelicals tended to be more cautious and more concerned about pointing out the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. Even with those reservations , these participants faced some criticism in their own ranks for attending and came to the conference not knowing how open it would be.
American atheists are holding a “Coming Out Party” in Westerville, Ohio, this Saturday in a bid to encourage non-believers to publicly declare their conviction that God does not exist.Frank Zindler, president of American Atheists, told me many U.S. atheists felt marginalized in a country where levels of religious belief are high and that the social and family pressures to profess a spiritual faith were huge.”I get an enormous amount of e-mails on our Web site from young people asking me ‘how do I tell my parents?’ It causes a great deal of anguish,” he said.Saturday’s events will include a “De-Baptism” ceremony, which organizers say “will be a fun way for people who feel under pressure to conform to religious orthodoxy to make a statement about their newfound intellectual independence.”According to a comprehensive nationwide survey conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 1.6 percent of U.S. adults identified themselves as atheists, while 2.4 percent said they were agnostic, or do not know if God exists.Just over 12 percent of adults surveyed said they “were nothing in particular” and atheist activists believe many fellow non-believers are in this group. They also maintain that many Americans who claim a religious affiliation are in fact secret atheists.”I think there are a lot of people who may say that they are religious, who in fact are not,” said Ashley Paramore, a board member with the Secular Student Alliance, who is organizing Saturday’s event. What do you think? Do you think there are lots of “closet atheists” in America? And are Americans under pressure to profess a belief in God? Or are these pressures minimal and complaints on this score overblown?
Meetings of theologians don’t usually make news. But trends can make news. A series of meetings can start to show some direction the participants’ thinking is going in. If it’s a new direction, and one with potentially positive results, then we journalists on the Godbeat take notice.
Readers of this blog will know we have been following the “Common Word” initiative for Christian-Muslim dialogue from its beginning last October. We already have a long list of blog posts about how the 138 Muslim scholars invited Christian leaders to a new dialogue, how some churches responded promptly and positively while others (especially the Vatican and some evangelical Protestants) were more wary but came around, how the preparations for their dialogue have progressed, etc. Now the first in their series of dialogue conferences, with a Christian side made up mostly of United States Protestants (including some evangelicals), has kicked off at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
One of the themes at the annual “Christian Scholars Conference” at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, is “faith and politics in the current political climate” — subjects that readers of this blog will know we often touch on.