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Atheism Rising, But God Is Not Dead Yet: 10 Ways Religion Is Changing Around the World

Religion is alive and well in the 21st century -- but it also looks very different now.

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4. Atheism Ascendant -- and Not Just in the Cities

We're also seeing a resurgence of atheism. Much to the surprise of both the very religious and the entirely irreligious, non-theism consistently shows up as the second or third most popular philosophical worldview across most of the US. According to a 2008 survey by the City University of New York , atheism is cited as the number one orientation (by proportion of adherents) in Washington and Idaho, and it's number two or three in almost all the other states.

Nationwide, atheists rank #3 overall, just behind the Catholics and the Baptists -- and the numbers are even higher among Americans under 30.

But what's really weird about this is that it's not just a phenomenon of the liberal coasts. Non-religious people make up a higher percentage of the populations of Idaho, Montana and Nevada than of California, Massachusetts or New York. It turns out that rural does not equate to religious after all -- a trend that has some interesting political implications in the decades ahead.

5. Environmental Ethics Go Mainstream

The global inter-religious dialogue on the theology of environmentalism has been going on for about 20 years now, which is long enough that it's soaked through an entire generation of young clergy, and is now being absorbed into their congregations.

The idea that the living earth and its vast matrix of interlocking systems are inherently sacred was a heretical idea just 25 years ago. But when Pat Robertson goes on TV and tells his flock that climate change is serious and real and Jesus wants them to fix it (though he's very recently recanted), you know there's some real change afoot in the way even some conservative Christians are assessing their relationship to the planet. As we look ahead to solving some of our big problems, it's good to note that (with a handful of very noisy exceptions on the right-wing Christian Nationalist side) most of the world's most prominent religions have taken up the task of teaching people what's required, and priming them to act.

6. The Marketplace of Spiritual Ideas Is Going Global

It's a small world, and it keeps getting smaller. We've got twice as many people as we did 50 years ago. But we've also got far more access to all those people, through trade and the Internet and social networks, than we could have even imagined a decade ago. And that interconnectivity stands to change our religions along with everything else.

The Internet has opened up a virtual global souk of religious ideas. Last year, I went online and downloaded the PDF of an 80-year-old book that was the only account in English of life among the traditional Yezidi tribes of Kurdistan. They're almost extinct now, since their remote homeland has been a war zone for the past 30 years. But if you're interested in their unique folkways -- or in Apache girls' coming-of-age rites, or what goes on in Mormon temples, or reading comparable translations of the Kama Sutra -- well, there's a vast feast of amazing material just a quick Google search away.

This is already resulting in massive religious cross-pollination -- a trend that could move us toward a sort of syncretic, celebratory sharing of traditions that could be very healthy for everyone. But, on the downside, it's getting easier for fundamentalists to find each other, too. Some scholars of Islam report that apocalyptic stories of the Hidden Imam, long suppressed by ayatollahs and mullahs, are taking on new themes that were clearly borrowed from Christian fundamentalist end-times tales. (Startling, yes -- and also proof that not all change is for the better.)

 
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