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Atlases, Web shrines and a gathering of new research into age-old spiritual questions

Sunday, June 10, 2001; Page BW13

Everyone who contemplates God is faced with the same insoluble paradox: We are finit beings trying to sort out the nature of an infinite power. Since no one can prove or disprove God's existence, the soluble question centers on why people believe in God and adhere to religion.

Counting the Believers

Whatever your personal answer to this question, the levels of belief in God and adherence to religion are simply staggering. The newly released second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, edited by David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian andTodd M. Johnson (Oxford Univ., two vols., $295) reports that of the Earth's 6.06 billion humans, 5.137 billion of them, or 84 percent, declare themselves believers who belong to some form of organized religion.

Christians dominate at just a shade under 2 billion adherents (with Catholics counting for half of those). Muslims number some 1.1 billion; Hindus, 811 million; Buddhists, 359 million. Ethnoreligionists (animists and others in Asia and Africa primarily) account for most of the remaining 265 million. But as the editors report in this magisterial compendium of statistics on religions that scholars of the subject will refer to for decades to come, such overall numbers tell us little. There are, in fact, 10,000 distinct religions of 10 general varieties (in decreasing size and inclusiveness -- cosmoreligion, macroreligion, megareligion, etc.), each one of which can be further subdivided and classified.

For example, Christians may be found among 33,820 different denominations. The variety of non-Christian religions is also stunning, with their worldwide distribution outstripping Christian religions despite the tireless efforts of evangelists to convert as many souls to Christ as possible. (One irritation I find with this encyclopedia is its Christian bias: Its senior editor, Rev. David B. Barrett, heads the Global Evangelization Movement, making one wonder if all these data are being collected to calibrate how long it will take to reduce this rich diversity to one cosmo-macro-mega Christian religion.) Table 1-2, for example, tracks the number of Christians (69,000) and non-Christians (147,000) by which the world will increase over the next 24 hours. Global Diagram 3 reveals the global convert/defector ratio, adjusted for births and deaths, indicating that the sphere of evangelism continues to expand into non-Christian belief space.

The Shape of Faith

A strikingly visual companion to the encyclopedia is the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, by Edwin Scott Gaustad and Philip L. Barlow (Oxford Univ., $145).This reference work is packed with 260 sumptuous color maps and charts, printed on thick glossy paper to enhance the fine detail and shades of geographical differences among the various religious sects that inhabit the landscape. This new edition of religious historian Gaustad's 1962 classic includes the arrival of religious colonialists to the New World over the past four decades, including Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and especially Muslims, who have enjoyed a fourfold increase in America. Likewise, the Bahai population in America has increased in numbers nearly proportional to the membership drop in many mainstream religions, such as Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians. By contrast, Southern Baptists might better be labeled "All Over America Baptists," as their ranks have swollen well into the northern territories. Likewise, the "Bible Belt" is now wider than a weightlifter's leather girdle.

Most revealing in the atlas are the historical maps and charts that track the changing demographics of American religion. Conservative pundits who proclaim that we need to return to the good old days when America was a Christian nation had better look closely at Figure 4.16, showing that church membership as a percentage of the U.S. population over the past century and a half has increased from 25 percent to 65 percent. If America is going to hell in an immoral handbasket, it is happening while church membership is at an all-time high and a greater percentage of Americans (90-95 percent) proclaim belief in a God than ever before.

Religion of the Healthy-Bodied

Why do so many people believe and belong? One answer is that it is good for us. Studies show that religious people live longer and healthier lives, recover from illness and disease faster, and report higher levels of happiness. While most of these effects are probably due to lifestyle, diet and exercise (e.g., religious people drink and smoke less), there is something about having family, friends and a community that enhances life and longevity. Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier and More Meaningful Lives, by David Snowdon (Bantam, $24.95), explores this thesis through a remarkable survey of 678 nuns ranging in age from 75 to 104. Snowden, once a Catholic altar boy and now a distinguished epidemiologist who directed the study from the University of Kentucky's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, reports his findings in a loving and elegantly engaging style. As the book of Proverbs proclaims, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." It turns out that a powerful predictor of which nuns would live the longest was the positive emotional content contained in their youthful writings, even when the analysis was controlled for age, education and linguistic ability.

The lowest emotional group averaged 86.6 years old at death, the highest emotional group averaged 93.5 years old at death. Snowdon also argues that profound faith, prayer and contemplation "have a positive influence on long-term health and may even speed the healing process," but then oddly concludes that "we do not need a study to affirm their importance to the quality of life." I have no doubt that Snowdon is right about the importance of community and close relationships, but you don't need God or religion for that. All humans benefit from any type of social commitment because we are a social primate species.

Brain Faith

In view of such universal needs, what is the undergirding foundation for the panoply of religious faiths? Michael Horace Barnes, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, argues in Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science (Oxford Univ., $45) that the commonality is to be found in the thinking process itself. Barnes uses Piaget's stage theory of development to argue that cultures, like individuals, develop in stages from easier cognitive skills to harder ones, and that not only religion and faith but science and reason have followed this general pattern. Both religion and science evolved from simple stages to complex ones because complex cognitive thinking first requires simple cognitive technologies such as writing and formal logic, as well as simple social institutions that reinforce those skills as precursors to formal religions and sciences.

Barnes is certainly correct about science and technology; they are cumulative and complex, and depend significantly on what came before. I'm not so sure about religion. Is monotheism really more cognitively challenging than polytheism, itself more complex than animism? Might it not be the opposite? Isn't the world much easier to explain with one God than many -- and aren't many gods, in turn, simpler than the spirit-haunted world of so-called primitive peoples?

Getting Personal

A stronger case for Barnes's cognitive model can be made for religion and especially theology, which has turned the question of God's existence into a quagmire of syllogisms and contorted logic. On one level, it is that very stage of advanced cognitive development that Huston Smith rails against in Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (HarperSan Francisco, $25), a passionate personal manifesto for why society must return to its more fundamental roots of basic spirituality. While not completely disparaging science (his oncologist did save his life, after all), Smith claims that it has trapped us in a reflexive worship of technology, a values-challenged liberal democracy and higher education, a morally sterile legal system and a cowardly media. It is a closed system that excludes old-time religion. To get it back we must exit the tunnel and embrace the sacred: "The sacred world is the truer, more veridical world, in part because it includes the mundane world." Religion matters, he says, because "there is within us -- in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us -- a fundamental disease. It acts like an unquenchable thirst that renders the vast majority of us incapable of ever coming to full peace."

Maybe for thee, but not for me. And that's the problem with Smith's book. It is, by its nature, personal and anecdotal, and so ultimately can tell us nothing more about why God and religion persist for anyone beyond the author and those he copiously quotes in support.

The Believing Animal

What can inform us about these persistent questions? Although it has its limitations, science is the best method ever devised for answering questions about our world and ourselves. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic, $27.50), by Pascal Boyer, is a penetrating scientific analysis of religion. As an anthropologist, he understands that any explanation must take into account the rich diversity of religious practices and beliefs around the world, and as a scientist, he knows that any explanatory model must account for this diversity. Boyer is at his best in describing the countless peculiar religious rituals he and his anthropological brethren have recorded -- and especially in identifying the shortcomings of virtually every explanation for religion ever offered.

As a consequence, however, Boyer himself fails to provide a satisfactory explanation because he knows that religion is not a single entity resulting from a single cause. "There cannot be a magic bullet to explain the existence and common features of religion, as the phenomenon is the result of aggregate relevance -- that is, of successful activation of a whole variety of mental systems." Here the book bogs down in the jargon-laden field of cognitive science, as the author struggles to unite an array of disparate findings but comes up empty-handed. "Religious persons are not different from nonreligious ones in essential cognitive functions," Boyer concludes. Then what is the origin of religious faith and belief? For Boyer they "seem to be simple by-products of the way concepts and inferences are doing their work for religion in much the same way as for other domains." In other words, religion requires no special explanation, an answer many will find unsatisfactory.

Plug It In and It Works

Whatever its origin, what of religion's future? One avenue for the ever-burgeoning religious landscape is cyberspace, the subject of the aptly titled Give Me That Online Religion, by Brenda Brasher (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, $24.95). It is a delightful romp through the new world of cyber-spirituality. Global prayer-chains, e-prayer wheels, cybercast seders and neo-pagan cyber-rituals are all practiced from home, finally making Martin Luther's proclamation of "every man his own priest" a virtual reality. The book's Web-like design and typography make it fun to surf. Even mainstream religions have gone online, offering adherents and potential converts a smorgasbord of doctrines to download (except Scientology, whose lawyers pounced like a Torquemada on an ex-member who was posting the church's religious documents online).

Much of this book will leave you LOL and ROTFL (that's computer-ese for laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing), my favorite example being Brasher's discussion of the more than 800,000 web "shrines" devoted to Lady Diana and other celebrities. "Scanning fan sites, it is easy to believe that the spiritual discipline of imitato Christus has been replaced by imitato Keanu Reeves." For those who do not wish to risk choosing the wrong God to achieve immortality, read about the transhumanists, who believe that some day we will be able to download our minds from our protein brains, which survive only about a century, to silicon-chip brains that can last hundreds of centuries, by which time they will be downloadable into something more permanent still, quite literally ad infinitum. Heady stuff for us finite beings to contemplate.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine ( and the author of "How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science." His latest book is "The Borderlands of Science."

©Copyright 2001, The Washington Post Company

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