December 16, 1995

An intensification of political activism and fundamentalism by organized religious groups during the past decade lends credence to the view that religion will play an increasingly active role in the politics of the coming century. Yet it is not immediately clear what factors have contributed to this religious revival and whether they are likely to support or inhibit its continued development. A few observations may help identify issues that need examination.

Religious activism and fundamentalism are not new forces in society and politics, nor is this the first time they have served as a rallying point for extremism and violent confrontation. A half century ago Hitler and Stalin made religion the justification for an unprecedented extermination of Jews and other religious minorities. The outbreak of violence between Muslims and Hindus at the time of India's partition in 1947 left more than three million dead before the communal madness could be quelled. At the time it must have appeared to many in Europe and Asia that this type of unimaginable barbarism was a pernicious trend likely to escalate in the coming decades. In fact, it turned out to be an aberration rather than a trend, a resurgence of primitive tendencies on the way out. The genocide in Bosnia fifty years later only illustrates that deep seated tendencies die slowly and that can temporarily rise to the surface under unstable conditions.

This granted, it is undeniable that strong religious sentiments are becoming closely aligned to political forces in many parts of the world. Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists in the Middle East, the Christian right in North America, Hindu nationalists in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka have all become more vocal and politically active in recent years. The reasons for this resurgence vary from country to country, but may all be accounted for by a few prominent factors.

Increasing political and social freedom is one common factor. The end of colonialism in Asia after World War II enabled unsettled social tensions between religious and communal groups to rise to the surface. After several centuries of domination by Muslim conquerors from the Middle East and Christians from Europe, it was natural for the predominately Hindu population to seek to re-establish its historic identity and rightful position in Indian society. What is surprising is that communal harmony was so quickly restored following the division of the country. The end of colonialism in Arab and Far Eastern societies had a similar result.

The spread of education and democracy after 1950 leading to a veritable democratic revolution in South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and most recently Africa has extended social freedoms to millions of previously suppressed people around the globe. This, coupled with rising levels of economic freedom and prosperity, has released people from near total preoccupation with physical survival and freed their energies to express previously suppressed tendencies. These events also illustrate the inadequacy and potential danger of democratic freedom when extended to populations with very low levels of education or to those lacking a history or commitment to secularism. Democracy without education and secularism can become a breeding ground in which anachronistic, parochial or communal ideas flourish.

To a great extent the increased intensity of religious activism is itself only a frightened or frustrated reaction to the rapid modernization and secularism of society around the world and the breakdown of traditional distinctions and ancient prejudices that have divided humanity into hostile or warring groups in past centuries. The sudden intrusion of foreign ideas, life styles and cultural forms, the increasing intermingling and intermarriage of people of differing religious and cultural background has evoked defensive and sometimes hostile reactions from communities seeking to preserve their distinguishing identity. Even if the magnitude and intensity of such occurrences were to increase significantly in coming decades, it should be regarded as a last assertion of declining social provincialism, rather than as a newly emerging tendency.

If an increasing clash of fundamentalist tendencies is not inevitable, what then will be the primary characteristic of religious activism in the next century? The vociferous and violent expressions of isolated fundamentalism mask a far more dominant and significant movement of the religious mainstream in the very opposite direction. Tolerance, communication and cooperation between religious groups far exceeds anything in the past. There is a growing recognition of the common values underlying and uniting great religious traditions and growing emphasis on this common core rather than on their superficial differences. This movement is a natural extension and expression of the increasing respect and value accorded to the individual, the safeguarding of basic human rights, and the increasing commitment to the full development of human potentials. In the coming century religious thought and expression is likely to focus far more on this common spiritual basis that unites people with people and with God.