Findings & Footnotes

Baylor University historian and prolific author Philip Jenkins’ latest book Fertility and Faith (Baylor University Press, $29.95) plots drastic changes ahead for religious institutions due to a “demographic revolution” of plummeting fertility rates often below replacement rates across much of the globe. Jenkins’ specialty of mining available data and other reports to tease out provocative analysis and forecasts is put to good use as he establishes the intimate connections between fertility trends with changes in religious belief and belonging– that have been too often been ignored by demographers (though there is now an emerging field of religious demography). He argues that the global birth dearth not only drives down numbers of the potential faithful but also changes patterns of morality and politics that in turn affect religious belief and belonging.

The association (if not causal relationship) between record low fertility and secularization in places like Western Europe and Japan may not be as much as a surprise as the appearance of similar trends in the U.S., Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and their respective religious traditions. He argues that the evidence is piling up that these regions may be following a European trajectory, even forecasting that the 2020s may be for the U.S. in terms of secularization what the 1970s were for Europe.  In other cases, such as Islamic countries, Israel, and India, it is not secularization but polarization and a “two-tiered” demographic divide between fertile devout Muslims and slow-growing liberalizers that Jenkins sees developing, with the scale being tipped in favor of the believers. Meanwhile Africa and India’s close connection between high fertility and growing faith communities will have a longer endurance, even if birth rates fall somewhat in the decades ahead. As fertility is about more than births, Jenkins also looks at changes in sexual morality and greater longevity as being of particular challenge to all religions [the book was in press during the Coronavirus outbreak and pandemic, not accounting for how the greater presence of mortality and suffering may reawaken religious concerns.]

Jenkins acknowledges that fertility dynamics are changing fast and some societies remain a mystery as far as the connections between fertility and faith. China, for instance, shows very low fertility rates due to family size restrictions (though there is a lack of solid data on the country) while there are signs of an upsurge of religion. Jenkins is less of determinist in his forecasts of religious change and decline due to demographic changes than some proponents of inevitable secularization. He allows how even European cities already show signs of religious vitality due to immigrants and their higher fertility rates, and then provocatively ventures how developments such as climate change may have similar consequences. But Jenkins does conclude that the demographic revolution will redrawing the religious map. Most of these changes were mapped in his earlier works showing the rising importance of the “global South” in Christianity (and now other religions). But other projected trends include the growth of individualistic (such as those centered on pilgrimage) rather than communal religious movements, more attention to ministry among the elderly, and greater “cross-pollination” between different religions that are now in closer proximity to each other due to immigration.

 Drawing conclusions about the situation of monastic life on the basis of the number of vocations or the number of members fails to bring the complete picture for understanding the role played by monasteries in a given context, writes Marcin Jewdokimow (Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw) in his book A Monastery in a Sociological Perspective: Seeking for a New Approach. Originally published in Polish in 2018, the book is now available in English in a revised version (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UKSW, 2020; price: Złoty 18). After offering a useful overview of the history of monasticism in the Roman Catholic Church, with a subsection about the history of religious orders in Poland (each chapter offers a focus on Poland beside the overall assessment), the author examines the changes in religious life since the 1970s in quantitative terms. Although not all continents or all countries are affected in the same way, the tendency is clear, especially since the number of Catholics has continued growing in absolute numbers. The number of religious priests was 148,804 in 1970 and down to 134,142 in 2015, religious brothers from 79,408 to 54,229, and women religious from 1,004,2004 to 670,330. Regarding women religious, the contrasted evolution across continents over the period has been striking: 109 percent growth in Africa, 55 percent declines in Europe and 66 percent declines in North America.

“In regions other than Europe and North and South America, female religious life has been developing,” writes Jewdokimow. The author discusses the various hypotheses for explaining the decline and sees it as a multidimensional process. Moreover, one should keep in mind that new forms of consecrated life have also developed since the mid-1960s. Jewdokimow stresses that the sociology of religious orders should examine those new forms. Chapter 3 deals with sociological studies of religious orders, paying special attention to Max Weber (and to debates around his approach) and to Michel Foucault, before coming to more recent sociological contributions, thus offering a useful overview of sociological literature and interpretations of monasticism, since Jewdokimow is familiar with an impressive range of research work across the world. The author suggests supplementing the order-centric approach of religious life with a relational approach, i.e. the relations of the monastery with the social environment, thus allowing to understand the significance of the religious order within a given environment. This significance can operate beyond declining numbers. It “can also manifest in an increased interest in religious orders, which is detached from the religious dimension or loosely associated with it, as in the case of monastic products as well as ‘meditative holidays’.”

The final chapter applies this approach by presenting the author’s research on Cistercian monasteries in Poland in relation to tourism, economy, and collective memory. Monasteries and post-monastic buildings do not only perform religious functions, but also partake of a range of non-religious relations: economic, touristic, and cultural, a fact that is recognized by monks themselves, even if it presents challenges as the boundaries of the monastery become permeable for the outside world. The book allows its readers to gain insights in the ways into which monasteries are adjusting to contemporary environments as well as their relations with society. Despite declining numbers, the social vitality of monastic institutions should not be underestimated.

 Sociologist Weishan Huang’s forthcoming book, Global Religious Networks from East Asia – Chinese Religious Movement Organizations and Transnational Civil Societies (Amsterdam University Press, 85 e) is a fascinating comparative study of Chinese-style globalization of Christianity, Buddhism, and other new religious movements. Huang conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in China and Chinese diaspora communities of the charitable Buddhist movement Tzu Chi, the quasi-Buddhist group Falun Gong, the evangelical Christian Herald Crusade and the Local Church movement, and “reform” Buddhist temple expansion.  The book, said to be the first single-authored study of these diverse religious expressions in Chinese religions, also relates globalized faiths to new patterns of migration and social movements. Huang identifies a transnational religious “cosmopolitanism” taking shape among members and leaders of these groups that enables these religions to grow in the West while ricocheting back to China to find new followings (often through their technological sophistication) and even wield considerable social impact in areas such as environmentalism, social welfare and entrepreneurship. In fact, Huang, finds that all of these groups (which she calls “global denominations”) first established their global presence in the U.S. before moving to China.

Huang notes that a process of “Sinicization” is taking place in most of these religious communities (except Fulan Gong, which is still labeled an “evil cult” by the government), often steered by the Chinese Communist Party. But she also finds that their beliefs, practices, and transnational identity can serve as sources of resistance and autonomy in an increasingly constricted society. This tenson between these groups and the Chinese government is provocatively spelled out in her case study of Tzu Chi, where business people have clandestinely set up meditation centers in their workplaces when the government cracked down on house meetings, while also being politically valued for the movement’s environmental activism. Huang also provides interesting accounts of how a renewed temple building and restoration campaign that started in China is extending to other countries, often funded by overseas immigrant entrepreneurs, under the aegis of Chinese nationalism. While nationalism and Sinicization have become the new watchwords on China-West relations during the COVID crisis and the Trump era, Huang’s skillful study suggests how transnationalism and globalization will continue to shape Chinese religious communities.