Religion, Resource Mobilization, and Restrictions on Religious Beliefs

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An interview with Brian J. Grim, Director of Cross-National Data, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, conducted by Raffaele Marchetti specially for

In the interview R. Marchetti and B.J. Grim talk about presence of religion in contemporary society, causes of religion’s growing role in past two decades and connections between religion and realm of politics. In course of the conversation they also touch upon the problem of correlation between religious pluralism and stability, the trend of increasing restrictions imposed on religious freedom in different parts of the world and the phenomenon of religious transnational mobilization.

RM: Religion and international affairs. The relation seems by now pretty established. Do you agree with this? And if so, can we identify a specific period in history in which religion “has come back” on the world stage?

BJG: I think religion has been an important factor all along, but its importance has gone up and down. Even during the cold war period dominated by real-politik, in which a certain reading tends to neglect the importance of religion, we should remember, for instance, that the lack of religious freedom in Soviet Union was a frequent point of criticism from the West. Beyond this specific case, a more general trend took place at the end of the Cold War when a new impetus was generated by the prospect of a new world order. In addition, in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, a demographic boom created conditions for new generations that felt free from previous political alliance and found in religion a new resource for new identity to coalesce around. So rather than seeing that religion has gone away and come back, I see religion as having always been present, but in different ways.

RM: Why do you think now religion is so much appealed to? What has changed with reference to the seventies and eighties?

BJG: I think demographic changes and economic development are important factors. People who are gaining economic prosperity, are “standing up” and also beginning to think more about their identity. And religion is important in providing an answer to the investigation on new national identity in many countries. Good examples might be many Central Asian countries that were former members of the Soviet Union. After the break up, they started to “rediscover” the religious dimension. Another factor is global migration. Currently, more than 200 hundred million people are not living in their country of birth. This would be one of the largest country in the world, if taken together. Take the case of Europe. A large influx of Muslim migrants contributed to bring religion to the fore for a number of different reasons.

RM: Does the same dynamic apply also to the case of the US?

BJG: To a certain extent it does. For instance, in a recent report we noticed growing protests against the building of new mosques, especially after 9/11. However, the US is not secularized as Europe. For instance, a substantial portion of the U.S. population go to church regularly, in contrast to Europe where church attendance has fallen off in many countries. Also in the U.S., religion has been an active participant in national discussions, including in the so called “Cultural War” issues of life, abortion, gay rights, etc. And regarding the issue of migration, most migrants to the U.S. are Christian. So, the impact of migration inflows in terms of religious change has, arguably, been lower here than in other parts of the world.

RM: An overall trend seems the growing pluralization of societies, due to migration and other factors. Do you confirm this? And if so, is this something we should be welcoming as an enrichment of the “set of choices” available to individuals or something we should be worried about for the tensions it may create?

BJG: It is a big question and the answer definitely depends on the places you look at. For instance, Singapore is a very diverse country. Large groups of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and secular people all living together in a fairly peaceful way. By contrast, Iraq is largely homogenous and still had a bitter civil war between two factions of the Muslim community. As I look at the world demographically, it is hard to say whether pluralism has a correlation with stability, or not.

RM: What are the sources of mobilization of religion? Why do so many people appeal to religion rather than to other factors such as ideology to mobilize political constituencies?

BJG: Think about what is different in religion in comparison with other types of organization. With religion it begins with birth, carries you through the main stages of life, sends you off when you die. Put another way, many people have a “cradle to grave” association with religion – you can participate as both a baby and when old. It encompasses many generations. Religion entails the possibility to pass to future generations a cultural and spiritual heritage. All of this gives to religion a different character than belonging to a tennis club or even a political party. And then, there is also a philosophical or doctrinal difference: religion is not simply examining how we should live and get along with each other, but more profoundly how that affects our eternal salvation. It provides answers about what ultimately matters.

RM: What are the most important religion-related societal trends nowadays in your opinion? Which religions are growing more?

BJG: At the Pew Research Center we track a number of trends. We look at migration, fertility rates, economic conditions, health conditions. These are all factors that can contribute to the growth of a religion or to its decline. We will have a report on the growth rates of several major world religions, probably by the end of the year. In the past we have compiled a report on the global Muslim population from which it is clear that the Muslim population, as a whole, is growing faster than the world population, partly because many Muslims live in developing countries with high growth rates. But we also point out that fertility rates have been dropping in many countries with large Muslim populations. So the growth rate of the world’s Muslim population is slowing down, and it is getting closer to the growth rate of the overall world population.

RM: In a recent report released by the PEW research center you looked at restrictions on religious freedom (Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion)? Can you tell us something more about it?

BJG: When people think about religious freedom usually they think about constitutions, laws and police. The innovation of our report is to look also at how social groups can hinder the possibility to practice a religion. So, for instance, a terrorist group that attacks members of a minority faith can make it difficult for people to freely practice the minority faith. And if a terrorist group is associated with a particular religious tradition, public hostility toward that tradition also may result. Or to give another example: Members of the dominant branch of a religious tradition sometimes try to restrict the activities of minority groups or sects within that same religious tradition. In short, there are many ways in which groups and individuals in society – not just governments -- can directly or indirectly affect religious freedom. We try to take that into account in our studies.

RM: What is the general picture that comes out of your report?

BJG: If you consider together all the factors that I have just mentioned you notice that about a third of the countries in the world have high or very high restrictions on religion – either government restrictions or societal restrictions, or both. But because some of these countries are very populous, the overall result is that three-quarters of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom. Of course, not everybody experiences these restrictions in the same way. In many cases, the restrictions are most keenly felt by religious minorities or groups out of favor with the government. But this gives a sense of how widespread restrictions are. Also, we found that this trend is growing between 2006 and 2010.

RM: What are the reasons for this trend of increasing restrictions on religious beliefs and practices?

BJG: We don’t get into the exact reasons, but we can document to types of restrictions. So, for instance, there is a growth in the number of countries in which women are harassed because of religious affiliations. Also, we find there is a general correlation between government restrictions and social hostilities – countries that have relatively high government restrictions on religion tend to have more social hostilities involving religion, and vice versa.

RM: In conclusions, I would like to turn to religious mobilization that crosses borders? So far we have discussed mainly domestic trends. Do you see any significant religious transnational mobilization?

BJG: Christians are, numerically, the world’s largest religion. About one-third of the world’s total population is Christian. So, not surprisingly, there are plenty of Christian networks that operate transnationally. It is quite natural for religions to look after “your brother” somewhere else. However, this is a factor that may cause tensions. Think for instance about the tension between China and the Vatican. But of course there are other significant cross-border religious trends. One important is the migratory trend whereby migrants bring with them their religious faith while keeping their connections back home. We also monitor a different kind of trend: the transnational terrorist networks.

RM: Many thanks, Brian.

BJG: Many thanks to you, Raf.