A Revival Will Come If We Promote Religious Pluralism – OpEd


The first two decades of the 21st century saw a major rise in the number of people in the USA who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” which now stands at 26% of the total American population, up an amazing nine points from 17% in 2009. 

While Catholicism still remains the largest faith of U.S.an increasing number of Hispanic adults identify as religiously unaffiliated, a Pew Research Center survey of 3,029 U.S. Latino adults in August 2022 found. Former Catholics cited the clergy sexual abuse scandal, a lack of LGBTQ inclusivity, opposition to legal abortion, and the rule that women can’t be priests as reasons for leaving the Catholic church. Pew found the share of Latinos identifying as Catholic dropped from 67% in 2010 to 43% in 2022. 

And a survey conducted by the Episcopal Church, released on March 9, 2022 illustrates the stark differences between how Christians and non-Christians view Christianity in America. The researchers narrowed in on the disconnect between how Christians perceive themselves; and how non-Christians or people with no religious affiliation see Christians.

Strong majorities of evangelical Protestants (71%), mainline Protestants (59%), other Protestants (65%) and other Christians (61%) said they viewed Christians overall as compassionate, although only 46% of Catholics agreed with the Protestant denominations’ self-views. 

However, only 15% of those who belong to other religions said the same, and the number was even lower among people who claim no religious affiliation (12%).

When respondents were asked if Christians were hypocritical: Most religiously unaffiliated Americans said yes (55%), whereas 20% or less of all Christian groups agreed. Evangelicals in particular were the least likely (12%) to describe Christians as hypocritical. 

A third of the members of non-Christian religions thought Christians were self-righteous; but only 10% of Evangelicals agreed with that description of Christians.

In 2022, some 22% of all U.S. voters claimed no religious affiliation, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. The secular population is a diverse group, Pew reported in 2021. Two-thirds identify as “nothing in particular”, a group that is alienated from politics as well as religion. And 3 million Southern Baptists have left the denomination in the past 15 years, more than 1 million of them in 2022 alone.

A Gallup poll taken during May 1-24, 2023 found that the percentage of Americans who believe in hell and the devil has edged downward by three to five percentage points since 2016. Still most Americans believe in hell 59% and in the devil 58%. Nearly three in 10 Americans do not believe in hell or the devil. Very few Jews believe in hell or the devil, and they are mostly Ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

Many of those who have left Christianity because they reject the idea of a devil will look for  more optimistic religions, and I believe that the next two decades will see a major religious revival.

The U.S.A. and the U.K. have experienced two recent major recessions, one during the 2008 financial crisis and the second in the first year of the pandemic. Both recessions hit younger people the hardest. The 2020 recession shut down much of North America and the U.K. ‘s hospitality sector, which has a high proportion of younger workers—overall, one in seven people under the age of 25 found themselves out of work. 

During the recession in 2008–09, the situation for younger workers was even worse. Many had to move back into their parents homes. The U.K. unemployment rate was over twice as high for the under-25s.

Many young people learned for the first time that they can’t have it, or do it, all by themselves. They need family help, community support and they will need religious roots more than they had expected. For many young people, religion means embracing guns that kill, stopping females  from having control over their bodies, and restricting people from loving who they want to love.

By and large, young Americans don’t want to be part of that. They join religious communities that provide safety, support and acceptance. Young people are open to religion and spirituality in some form. Beneath the far-right Christian extremists, there is a religious movement that supports progressive, inclusive policies, and it’s growing stronger. For example, thousands of Catholic nuns wrote a letter calling for “the full inclusion of transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive individuals.” Many religious groups are fighting against gun violence.

The first sign of this revival is the National Catholic Educational Association announcement that nationwide US enrollment in Catholic schools increased by 62,000 to about 1.68 million students, marking the first increase in two decades and the largest jump it has recorded in at least five decades.

A second sign from the UK is the Liberal Jewish movement experiencing a surge in conversions to Judaism with community leaders saying the pandemic has made people reflect more on faith. Some of the new applicants are motivated by traditional reasons, such as a Jewish marriage partner. But many have little previous Jewish connections. Liberal Judaism reports that 139 people registered to go through its conversion process in 2021. The number is double the 2019 total of 70 and a significant rise on the 93 registering in 2020. About half had some Jewish ancestry, half none at all. 

The same doubling is found in Los Angeles where Benjamin Wright, the Associate Director of the Introduction to Judaism Program told me that the annual number of conversions in the 10-years pre-pandemic averaged 300; and rose to  650 for this past year (July 2022-June 2023).In my 59 years as a Reform Rabbi I have helped hundreds of non-religious people to become Jewish through conversion to Reform Judaism. Among them were many ex-Evangelicals and Protestant fundamentalists who rejected the following six beliefs and replaced them with Judaism.

1 They heard fundamentalists claim that there is only one way (our way) to attain Heaven or Nirvana. Judaism teaches that many paths can lead ethical people to God’s peace.

2 They heard fundamentalists claim that the afterlife is more important than life in this world of suffering, sorrow and sin. Judaism teaches that one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the whole afterlife.  

3 They heard fundamentalists claim that sacred scriptures must be read and believed. Judaism teaches that sacred scriptures must be studied and understood.

4 They heard fundamentalists claim that sacred scripture must be taken literally. Judaism teaches that every verse of scripture has 70 different interpretations. 

5 They heard fundamentalists claim that questioning undermines true faith. Judaism teaches that the youngest child should ask at least four questions.

6 They heard fundamentalists claim that religious truth must be universal and absolute. Judaism teaches that our covenant is unique to us. Others have their truths. 

Amos, a farmer-turned-prophet, preached during a time of surging national optimism: “Look, the days are coming…when I will send a famine through the land; not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  People will stagger from sea to sea and roam from north to east seeking the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Of teens and young adults who say they are affiliated with an organized religion, 52% say they have little or no trust in organized religion according to the “State of Religion and Young People” study which surveyed more than 10,000 Americans ages 13 to 25 about their involvement in, and feelings about, religion.

The study also found that 60% of teens and young adults who are not involved with an organized religion described themselves as at least slightly spiritual; 19% said they attend religious gatherings at least once a month, and 12% of unaffiliated young people have become more religious in the last 5 years. 

This last group will lead the next religious revival starting post Codid-19 but only if the leaders of today’s religions will be open to the desire of young people for religions that are not homophobic; and advocate religious diversity by respecting other religions because they do not claim an exclusive ‘we have the only truth’ or ‘our religion is the only one approved by God’ theology. 
According to a 2008 Pew survey, one in five Christians in America believe that non-Christian faiths cannot lead one to salvation. That number soared to 60 percent for white evangelical Protestants who attend church once a week.

This is especially important for America’s Islamic leaders because the Qur’an is a strong proponent of Religious Diversity: “Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.” (Quran 2:62)

A survey of over 35,000 Americans in 2008 found that most Americans agree with the statement: many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those affiliated with some  religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. 

This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including 82% of Jews, 79% of Catholics, 57% of evangelical Protestants and 56% of Muslims. (From the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008, Pew Research Center.)

Thus, in 21st century United States, most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected the ‘only one truth’ religious mind set and believe in the Qur’an’s pluralism teachings: “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had wanted, He could have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to do virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah (for judgement), so He will let you know [about] that in which you differed.” [5:48]

It is very important to understand that ‘religious pluralism is the will of God’ is different from religious, moral or cultural relativism. Relativism teaches that all values and standards are subjective, and therefore there is no higher spiritual authority available for setting ethical standards or making moral judgments. Thus, issues of justice, truth or human rights are, like beauty, just in the eye of the beholder. 

Most people, especially those who believe that One God created all of us, refuse to believe that ethics and human rights are simply only a matter of taste. Religious pluralism as the will of God is the opposite of cultural psychological or philosophical relativism. 

The fundamental idea supporting religious pluralism is that religious people need to embrace humility in all areas of religion. All religions have always taught a traditional anti self-centered personal egoism type of humility. 

Religious pluralism also opposes a religious, philosophical, and self righteous intellectual egoism that promotes a tendency to turn our legitimate love for our own prophet and Divine revelation into universal truths that we fully understand and know how to apply. 

Religious pluralism teaches that finite humans, even the most intelligent and pious of them, can not fully understand everything the way the infinite One does. 

This is true, for every human being, even for God’s messengers themselves. When prophet Moses, “who God spoke to face to face, like a person speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11) asks to see God face, he is told, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live.” (33:20)  

Similarly, in the Qur’an prophet Jesus admits to God, “You know everything that is within myself, whereas I do not know what is within Yourself”. (7:116) 

When Prophet Jesus was asked in private by his disciples, “What will be the sign for your coming (back) and the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns his disciples about upheavals and false Messiahs that will come. Then Jesus concludes: “But about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the son: only the Father”. (24:36) 

A similar statement was made by Prophet Muhammad when asked, “Tell me about the Hour”. He said: “The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner.” (Muslim book 1 Hadith 1&4)  God taught the general principle of epistemological humility through his Prophet who taught his followers “I am no novelty among the messengers. I do not know what will be done to me, or to you.” (Qur’an 46:9) In truth, the only universal truth should be the humility to admit: “Only God knows.” 

Or as Allah’s Apostle said, “Don’t give me superiority over Moses, for people will fall unconscious on the Day of Resurrection. I will be the first to regain consciousness, and behold! Moses will be there holding the side of Allah’s Throne. I will not know whether Moses was among those people who became unconscious and regained consciousness before me, or was among those exempted by Allah from falling unconscious.” (Bukari Volume 8, Book 76, #524)

As God declares through Prophet Zechariah: “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.” (8:16-17)

And as Prophet Micah makes it clear, what God wants is not one religious belief or ritual but your whole heart and commitment. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) And as Prophet Isaiah states: “Learn to do right; seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow.”  (Isaiah 1:17)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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