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January 12, 2010

Five Spiritual Trends With Staying Power

The intersection of Eastern and Western religious beliefs is no longer just a topic for intellectuals

By Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun
January 9, 2010

A year ago I wrote about five religious trends to watch for in 2009. I suggested what will happen to the religious right, the religious left, religion-based terrorism, Eastern spirituality and all those people who like to say they're spiritual but not religious.

With the dawn of our new decade, I'm coming to the conclusion the five trends have real staying power, which could see them sticking with us to 2020 and beyond.

Here are the five religious and spiritual shifts I predicted, plus my analysis of what's happened in the past year or more to indicate they could be long-lasting:

1. Eastern spirituality will flower

The days are gone when just a few intellectuals discussed the intersection of Eastern and Western thought. Now, instead of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Masao Abe and John Cobb taking part in East-West dialogues, Asian spirituality has gone mainstream in the West.

Nova Scotia-based Buddhist monk Pema Chodron is being profiled in mass circulation women's magazines, teaching the controversial idea of living with "no hope." And small spiritual armies of young Buddhists, calling themselves Dharma Punx, are spreading around North America.

It's not only whites jumping on the Eastern spirituality train. Inspired by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Thailand's Sulak Sivaraksa, more Asians are transforming Eastern spiritual traditions--making them less quietistic. They're committed to "engaged Buddhism," which is putting them on the non-violent frontlines of justice.

The Taiwan-based Chu Tzi movement, which has millions of followers in 40 countries, including Canada, down-plays religious rites and zealously emphasizes international charity projects.

Meanwhile, instead of having scholars highlight the atheistic philosophy of Buddhism, scholar Jeff Wilson has discovered, droves of North American converts and ethnic Buddhists (especially women) are increasingly being drawn to more supernatural reverence of the Chinese figure, Kuan Yin.

2. Religious terrorism will be the new normal

The recent failed attempts by extremist Muslims to kill a Danish cartoonist and blow up a plane to Detroit have broken a long quiet spell in terrorist activity on European and North American soil. A Pew Forum survey found in December that religion-rooted hostility is widespread around the world, though not necessarily growing. Nine per cent of countries are experiencing some form, however minor, of terrorism -- not only from Muslims, but from Christians, Hindus, atheistic leaders and others.

With North Americans keeping their attention mostly on Muslim terrorism, global surveys are showing Islamic anger is based largely on a sense that brothers and sisters in the faith are being vilified and oppressed by Western financial, political and military powers.

Unlike in the days of George W. Bush, virtually all Western observers, including U.S. President Barack Obama, maintain it takes more than military might to stop terrorism, as the dubious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are proving. It takes intelligence-gathering, multilateralism, interfaith dialogue and negotiation.

The anti-terror campaign, perhaps surprisingly, includes "terrorist rehabilitation," according to Religion Watch magazine. Government officials are offering psychological and spiritual counselling to thousands of jailed suspected terrorists to counter their militant ideology.

3. Religious liberals will build on advances

Momentum is rising among spiritual searchers yearning for an alternative to conservative versions of Western religion. They're finding it in progressive Christian, Jewish and Islamic writers. Marcus Borg, Donna Butler Bass, Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner, Tariq Ramadan and Canada's Ron Rolheiser have in recent years become major public intellectuals and hugely successful authors.

Polls are showing liberal religious people are not as partisan and aggressive as evangelicals, but they're making waves in public policy. Even though Obama didn't win any more white evangelical Christian supporters than previous Democrat presidential candidates, he is retaining solid support from black Protestants, mainline Protestants, white and Hispanic Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, not to mention the religiously unaffiliated. Since achieving office, Obama also has been raising the profile of one of his favourite Christian theologians, the late Reinhold Niebuhr.

If black civil rights, South African apartheid and the Vietnam War brought together religious progressives in the '60s and '70s, possible environmental disaster now galvanizes them. That was illustrated by the way Christians pressed government leaders to make a dramatic commitment against global warming at December's Copenhagen climate summit.

4. Religious right will regroup

The religious right has been hit with some body blows -- particularly with the rise of Obama, the failure of the war they backed in Iraq and the defeat of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In addition, more U.S. states have recently been legalizing same-sex unions.

But the religious right retains its passion, anger, money, followers, political connections (including with Stephen Harper's Conservative party) and influence on major media outlets, particularly through hugely popular talk-show hosts such as Glenn Beck, a Mormon.

Even though Palin is an embarrassment to many women and some of her fellow evangelicals (especially in Canada), she remains a bigger name than ever since resigning last year as Alaska's governor, promoting her autobiography and prodding the Republican party in her Pentecostal direction.

The religious right was reinvigorated by last year's no-holds-barred crusade against Democrats' attempts to bring in universal health insurance. Zoning in on laws that ban federal funding of abortion, conservative religious activists mobilized against the U.S., adopting even a pale imitation of Canada's medicare system. They called Obama a "socialist" and likened him to Adolf Hitler. Palin called the health plan "downright evil."

5. Secular spirituality will strengthen

The populist mantra taking us into the next decade is: "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."

It's commonplace for people now to oppose religious organizations, while embracing a host of spiritual practices and beliefs. This "secular spirituality" manifests itself in mainstream publishing, widespread nature reverence and pop culture figures such as Oprah, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra.

"Secular spirituality" is also making a rare foray into academia. Hundreds of university based researchers are studying the scientific benefits of "mindfulness" and various forms of meditation and contemplation, which have been practised for centuries by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Jews, not to mention artists, musicians and poets.

With polls showing more people are becoming "spiritual tinkerers" who mix and match an often dizzying variety of beliefs and practices, secular spirituality is also making its way into movies, including the newly released 2012 and Avatar.

Filmed in Vancouver, apocalyptic 2012 warns of environmental cataclysm. The movie ties into a New Age belief that the ancient Mayan calendar predicts that the year 2012 marks either the end of the world or the beginning of a new and glorious spiritual era.

Canadian director James Cameron's blockbuster movie, Avatar, also develops an eco-spiritual theme. The heroes are humanoids, known as Na'vi, who practise a powerful indigenous form of nature spirituality that holds the potential to heal the universe.

In line with the current trend to treat global culture as if it were a vast spiritual smorgasbord, Cameron took the title of his movie from Indian religion. An "avatar" is an incarnation of a Hindu god.

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