closing the religion deficit

By James Miller

An editorial in Friday’s Dallas Morning News argued that Hillary Clinton, the incoming U.S. Secretary of State, should move to “close our diplomats’ religion deficit.” The argument was that in order to succeed in international relations, it’s vital for the state department to understand the role religion plays in shaping the politics and culture of the world. This, in fact, was the theme of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s book The Mighty and The Almighty: Reflections on God, Man and World Affairs.

Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

In modern culture, religion is understood as something that belongs to the private realm, not the public realm. The consequence of this is that people involved in world affairs such as politicians and journalists are trained to deliberately ignore the role played by religion in shaping people’s values and attitudes. Religion, it is argued, plays a diminishing role in the world and is therefore best forgotten. World affairs are to be explained by economics, politics and culture, in that order. This results in a “religion deficit” or a lack of basic “religious literacy,” as the title of Stephen Prothero’s recent book put it. 

The fact is, however, that we do not live in a modern world where democracy and science reign supreme. We live is a pluralistic, postmodern world, which lacks a single coherent narrative. We live in a fragmented world dominated by secular post-Christianity, Islam, East Asian values, and conflicts between globalizing traditions and indigenous traditions.

What impressed me most about the editorial in the Dallas Morning News was that the writer paid attention to the religious situation in China.

Consider China. U.S. policymakers understandably think of it as an emerging economic power, but it also is fraught with internal challenges about religion’s place in that vast communist nation.

Evangelical Protestants. Tibetan Buddhists. Islamic adherents. They are among the estimated 200 million or more Chinese citizens who believe in one religion or another.

Their government, however, has never found the space for them other than in an awkward, formal way. The lack of comfort with religious expression is one of the domestic challenges China faces as it seeks to become a superpower. Our diplomats would do well to stay abreast of this tension as a way to understand China’s future.

In an article in Maclean’s magazine, Canadian journalist Paul Webster put it even more strikingly:

Seen just by the numbers, China’s religious reawakening can be called the largest religious resurgence in human history.

The Chinese Communist Party recognizes that religion is one of the top issues that it must deal with in the medium term. In fact a 2005 survey found that government officials were the category of people most interested in learning more about religion

The problem with all of this is that the general understanding of religion in the Western public is dominated by the West’s experience of exclusivist monotheism. Consequently people are highly attuned to the way that religion exacerbates divisiveness, conflict, nationalism and ethnocentrism.

On the other hand, the Western public and media are not particularly aware of the role that religion plays in shaping values, attitudes and behaviours towards nature. This in fact has been a hallmark of religion in East Asia. The Buddhist doctrine of non-violence towards all sentient beings and the Daoist exaltation of naturalness and spontaneity both have the capacity to engender a positive environmental ethics and consequently a positive role for religion in creating a sustainable future for China.

Yes, religion is a problem with which international statesmen must learn to grapple, but it is so much more than that. The world’s religions are also cultural treasure chests on which communities can draw to bring about positive change, and sources of hope and inspiration for countless individuals.

  2 comments for “closing the religion deficit

  1. December 31, 2008 at 01:41

    Quite an interesting analysis indeed! I just happened upon your blog and I know I’ll return. I really agree with the idea of fusing belief systems with sustainability. I wish more folks did too.

  2. james
    January 1, 2009 at 10:59

    Thanks for your comments and support.

    The persistence of religion contradicts the fundamental tenet of modernity: that the world will become increasingly secular as it develops.

    I think it’s important for everyone interested in social and environmental issues to understand how religion works and why it continues thrive in modernity.

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