Religion on the up

Some things are so ingrained that we’d be astonished if they disappeared. For South Africans, that includes a summery year-end break centred on Christmas along with the end of First Quarter Easter long weekend. That applies whether one regards these as especially religious times or simply predictable periods of recuperation and recharge. Enter the worried intellectuals and politicians.

Faced with “complaints and requests” regarding our public holidays “discriminating” against people of non-Christian belief, the statutory Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities has found itself obliged to look, as slowly as it can, at the desirability of SA’s many Christian-based holidays. This country’s holiday roster is globally average in number of days off, but particular in almost entirely splitting these between commemorations of secular massacres and Christian orthodoxy.

To argue against the latter, for reasons of a separation of Church and State, would not be to bring us closer to a post-Enlightenment modern approach. It would be the opposite. For South Africans are deeply religious across the board and are exactly in line with their international counterparts in this.

The 2001 census has 84% of South Africans describing themselves as religios (80% being Christian). Nor is the other 16% made up only of people choosing no faith, and includes minority beliefs including traditional aboriginal ones and other such. The 2011 census didn’t even bother to update on this. A wonky 2011 claim by the Win-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index of a sudden collapse in the belief structures of locals has had its claimed methodology convincingly ridiculed by local philosopher Jacques Rousseau.

Around the world, with only Western Europe excepted, religion is on the march. Results released last month by the US Pew Research Center puts worldwide religious affiliation at 84% (exactly the SA figure). Christians make up one-in-three people, Muslims 23%, Hindus 15%, Buddhists, 7%. The unaffiliated form 16%, and smaller belief groupings form the balance.

The increase in US Christian observance has included the rise from about half at end-World War II to well over 70% a decade ago. A spin-off in American-styled evangelical church growth is especially evident in parts of Asia, including in officially non-believing mainland China.

Phenomena such the Alpha Course devised by England’s Brompton Holy Trinity Church, American hip evangelist Rick Warren’s runaway bestseller “The Purpose-Driven Life”, and churches seating football-crowd-sized “new-born” congregations in South Korea’s Seoul, are just current manifestations of a revival few intellectuals might have imagined just three decades back.

“God is back”, a recent blockbuster study by not-religious Economist editor-in-chief John Micklethwait and fellow staffer Adrian Wooldridge identifies the “global spread of the American megachurch”, with related branding, marketing and even franchising as core to especially Christian growth successes. This is especially found in more conservative religious interpretations.

Significantly, new adherents are mostly to be found in the middle class young of every hue: “The very things that were supposed to destroy religion – democracy and markets, technology and reason – are combining to make it stronger”.

Here at home, those concerned to up-end state-sanctioned religious holidays in order to promote greater inclusivity and tolerance, or whatever, will need something like the strength of God on their side if they are to pull it off.

(Published in The Citizen, January 2013)

– By Paul Pereira