Category Archives: Essays and Web Posts

How QAnon Might End

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

[This essay, based on my new book, When God Stops Fighting, was originally posted on the Religion Dispatches website.] 

QAnon will not last forever. Sooner or later conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.

I make this prediction based on a study of the demise of recent violent religious-related movements around the world, including ISIS, which is the subject of my forthcoming book, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press). Often, I have found, they erode from within. They can vanish as quickly as they emerged.

The QAnon conspiracy and the extremist movements related to it are like summer storms. They boil up from the hot air with fierce intensity. Just as quickly, they can disappear, with only lingering gusts and gales to remind us of the turmoil that they have left behind.

Summer storms, however, are based on real meteorological phenomena. Conspiracy theories and the movements that promote them are even more fragile constructs, since they are based entirely on fiction. QAnon in an imagined reality that can deconstruct, though not necessarily easily.

By “being based on fiction” I mean not only the “big lie” that QAnon promotes, that the recent presidential election was stolen and that Donald Trump is still the president. Associated with this big lie is a quite remarkable imaginary world of alternative reality that proposes that there is a hidden cabal of manipulators in the government, the media, and in the motion picture industry. These Satan-worshippers are part of the “deep state” that runs the country for its own evil purposes. Among those evils are child trafficking and the molestation of innocent children. Donald Trump is a secret savior figure who during his second term of office will ride through the cataclysmic events of what QAnon calls “the storm,” and bring the evil-doers to justice.

Though not all of the rioters in the January 6 capital insurrection subscribed to all of the details of the QAnon conspiracy, most agreed with the main features: that there is an evil liberal plot to control the country and that Trump has been anointed to save the righteous from this liberal fate.

How such conspiracies emerge is an interesting subject of study and conjecture. In an online article, “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon,” Reed Berkowitz claims that the creation of the QAnon conspiracy is similar to the way computer games are designed. The process is something he calls “guided apophenia.” This refers to the ability of the human mind to take disconnected bits of information and attempt to put them into a related whole, even if the construct is illusory. This process can be “guided” by manipulators trying to create a computer game or a strident political ideology. Hence QAnon gives “drops” of information as clues to try to figure out, and those who do so feel that they are making discoveries due to their own powerful rational abilities. It provides the cognitive satisfaction of a treasure hunt or working on a crossword puzzle.

The problem with this process is that it gives the followers the illusion that they are finding out these patterns by themselves. Hence they must be true. The fact that they are then shared by a wider community buttresses this gnostic sense of being privy to a secret source of knowledge.

It is, in a sense, like religion. In their authoritative book on QAnon, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko cite those who regard it as a kind of religion. This observation is affirmed by a Christian pastor, Mark Sayer, in an interview published in Christianity Today, “Why Someone You Love Might Join QAnon.” The ideas of QAnon are also merged with other forms of religion, particularly premillennial Evangelical Protestant Christianity. Anyone who believes that the Rapture will come and sweep righteous Christians into heaven before the cataclysmic events of the Book of Revelation and the coming of Christ will recognize a familiar theme in the QAnon prophecy of the “storm,” and the return of Donald Trump to save society.

All this means that this is a deeply entrenched alternative reality and not just a casual conspiracy. So when I said that it can vanish as quickly as a summer storm, I don’t mean to predict that it will.

Nonetheless, from what I have learned from studying how other violent religious movements have ended, including those like ISIS that are as deeply entrenched in their followers minds, I suggest that there are several things that could hasten the unravelling of the theories and the collapse of the movements. If ISIS can dissipate, so can QAnon.

Internal Dissention

I talked with a militant fighter for the Islamic State, whom I will call Muhammad, in a prison in Northern Iraq who told me that the defeat of Mosul was not the deciding moment in the demise of ISIS.

“It was dead before it was destroyed,” Muhammad told me, saying that infighting and bad leadership had corrupted the movement. To illustrate the point, Muhammad pulled up his shirt to show me the scar from where he had been stabbed in an encounter with a fellow ISIS militant. Increasingly, it had seemed to him that they were fighting as much among themselves as they were against their perceived enemies.

He was also frustrated with the movement’s leadership. Though Muhammad clung to the idea of a Caliph as a righteous ruler worth fighting for, he seemed uncertain about whether al-Baghdadi was a sufficiently strong leader to deserve that title. Faith in a movement can erode when its leader is seen as less than legitimate.

A similar loss of faith may be occurring in the QAnon community. The bona fides of Donald Trump seems increasingly to be in question in right-wing extremist circles. His encouragement of followers to be vaccinated against COVID at a recent rally was greeted with boos. Some have criticized his fund-raising and openly suspect that it is not really for legal defense purposes as described.

If greater dissention emerges within the ranks over what elements of QAnon to believe, and if Trump himself is seen as fallible, the conspiracy might begin to unravel. An HBO documentary implied that the figure of QAnon was not some deep state official, but Ron Watkins, the long-time administrator of the 8kun message board on which QAnon’s sayings were posted. Whether this revelation will cause disillusionment in the ranks is yet to be seen.

Resolute Reality

The final ending of the Khalistani uprising of militant Sikhs in India’s Punjab in the 1990s came with from a barrage of military and police repression. Although many of the former militants in the movement told me that the movement had already self-destructed from within, they admitted that the presence of the police had a chilling effect on the movement’s control of the countryside. When the police or military respond too strongly they can send the signal that the image of warfare that many militants project is legitimate, and they respond in kind with more violence. But if there are no boundaries set on what is acceptable behavior, then unbridled bloodshed is possible.

In the case of the Khalistan movement, as with many others that I have studied, the activists have to be reminded of social reality: that there are limits on what they can do in a civil society without repercussions. You can’t kill with impunity. Nor can you be involved in an insurrection against the state without the state taking action against you.

This is what many of the QAnon participants in the January 6 uprising on the U.S. capital are now discovering.  As of mid-November 2021 there were 650 cases being brought to the courts. Some have already resulted in sentences of multiple years in prison. The “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, who famously ranted from the podium in the US Capital Senate chambers, is facing charges that may sentence him to 51 months in prison.

These court cases are chilling reminders that armed insurrection against the capital is not tolerated in proper society. The QAnon expectations about permissible public behavior have to be revised. For some in the movement these legal cases are the wakeup call that indicate that the movement has gone too far, and their behavior–if not their beliefs–will not be tolerated.

Face-saving Options

When the Philippine authorities were negotiating in earnest with the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao, they determined that simply requiring the fighters to lay down their arms was not sufficient. Many of the militants had been guerilla soldiers since they were teenage boys, and now some ten or twenty years later, fighting was the only skill that they knew how to do. For that reason, re-training camps were set up to provide vocational skills such as carpentry, mechanics, and other marketable forms of labor. The authorities wanted to provide the militants not only with reasons to reject what they had been doing but to look forward to a new future by finding alternative ways of rejoining society.

In the case of QAnon, most of those who subscribe to those beliefs do not need new jobs; they already have them. But they do need a face-saving way of re-entering society after stridently identifying themselves with a conspiratorial ideology that many of their former friends and neighbors regard at best as bizarre and at worst demented and quite possibly dangerous. Studies of true believers of any form of extremist religion or ideology show that once one has adopted that position it is very difficult to leave it without losing face.

This is where the religious aspects of the QAnon movement might become useful. Since for many, as Bloom and Moskalenko have stated, QAnon is a religion, and for many more it is closely intertwined with their religious affiliation to Evangelical Protestantism, the two could be combined. It could be fairly easy to maintain at least some of elements of the QAnon worldview and merge them with religious apocalypticism, thereby de-politicizing the ideology. It might not be difficult to persuade former QAnon advocates that the alternative world of evil that they imagine is a spiritual rather than a political one. They might return to the notion that the savior who will rescue them is the Christ that they have proclaimed for years, rather than Donald Trump.

Another option would be the one chosen by many former followers of ISIS. They are no longer warriors. They grudgingly accept the legitimacy of the secular state in Iraq and Syria, but they secretly long for the Caliphate that they once tried to create through militancy. They repress their desires for a religious state, and usually refrain from talking about it in public. But among their old comrades they can still discuss the glory days and share their longing for the Caliphate to rise again.

This may be the fate of the QAnon of the future. Old radicals may convene at each other’s homes and share stories of the great insurrection on January 6, 2021. They may share visions of the future “storm” and the cleansing of pedophiles and satanic powers from government, and the eventual return of Donald Trump. And then they will go back to work the next day as if nothing had happened. And no one will be the wiser.

QAnon will not last forever. Sooner or later conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.



How Religious Violence Ends

An excerpt from the preface of my forthcoming book, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press, 2022).

“The war is over,” the former ISIS fighter told me. When I talked with him he was incarcerated in a prison in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He had been convicted of being a jihadi warrior with the Islamic State, but now he expressed disillusionment with the movement and its leadership.

I had asked him whether the ISIS struggle was still attractive to some people. He looked at me in disbelief, and then said quietly, “the war is over.” Without admitting that he ever was fully in it, he was acknowledging that this battle was now a thing of the past. What he did not admit, however, was that the apocalyptic imagery of conflict at the end times and the rise of a Caliphate was no longer valid. The battle was over, but for some the ideas remained. It was a sentiment that he shared with many of the old ISIS fighters, as I was to discover in other conversations. Yet for now, he sadly acknowledged, the war was over.

It is not an easy thing to slip out of war. Perhaps it is more difficult than slipping into it, considering all of the personal, social, and spiritual aspects of a commitment to a struggle that have to be abandoned. Yet war ends. Violent movements, even those informed by religious visions of great warfare, terminate, or are transformed into more peaceful elements within the broader society.

In this book I want to try to understand how this happens. My motive is to complete my own understanding of the rise of movements of religious nationalism and religion-related violence around the world, a project in which I have been engaged for decades. The natural conclusion of these studies is to understand how such movements end. As it turns out, it is also a timely one.

As I prepared this book for publication, the news media fixated on the assault on the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, provoked by then-president Donald Trump. Though not overtly religious, the White supremacists who were among the most ardent members of that insurrection privileged Christian culture. The conspiratorial mythology of the QAnon movement to which many of the participants adhered borrowed heavily from the imagery and end-times rhetoric of millenarian evangelical Protestant Christianity. Many of the participants regarded their involvement as part of a godly crusade—the kind of cosmic war that is in the minds of similar religious activists of various faiths around the world who see worldly confrontations as expressions of a metaphysical struggle between good and evil, right and wrong.

It is of timely importance then, to understand not only how such movements arise—the mood of alienation and marginalization that has propelled people to imagine themselves in a great righteous war—but also how they might end. As the case studies in this book will indicate, the way that governmental authorities respond to these movements can make all the difference. It can exacerbate the situation or alleviate it. But such movements do end.

To understand how this happens, I’ve tried to get inside the minds and mindsets of individuals involved in specific cases. I have chosen case studies where violent movements have largely come to a close. In deciding which cases to focus on I considered a range of possibilities. I could have chosen the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, though I have already analyzed how this conflict ended. Or I could have examined the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, though that movement, even in a diminished state, continues its savage warfare in the region. The list goes on, though many imagined wars are still continuing and it is too early to examine how they might end.

Out of the range of possibilities I have chosen three case studies. One of them is the Islamic State, based in Iraq and Syria, which reigned over large sections of both countries from 2015 to 2017 and was territorially defeated by 2018. This is a movement that I have studied since its inception, through multiple visits to the region, and is an example of attempts to crush such uprisings through military destruction.

The second case is the Moro Movement for a Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines, a Muslim separatist movement that persisted from 1969 to 2019, when a peace agreement was finally ratified by a plebiscite in the region. This was a new movement for me to study, but I chose it in part because it showed the possibilities of the transition from violence to nonviolence through skillful negotiation—much like the Northern Ireland case.

The third case I have chosen is the Khalistan movement for Sikh separatism in the north Indian state of Punjab. The Sikh movement was involved in a deadly conflict with the Indian government throughout the 1980s and finally came to an end in 1993 for a variety of reasons, including an all-out assault by the Indian police. This is a movement that I know well, since I lived for a time in the region, and it was the rise of religious nationalism in the 1980s in the Punjab that first sparked my interest in studying the relationship between religion and nationalism in strident new movements of opposition. It also interested me because it was an example, like ISIS, of militant suppression, but also of the collapse of popular support for the uprising. Hence these three cases provided me with a range of ways in which violent movements end.

I realize that in choosing two Muslim cases out of the three I may be giving a false impression that Islam is more prone to violence and movements of religious nationalism than other religious traditions. This is not the case. For a more balanced view of the rise of religious violence that occurs in all religious traditions one may consult my earlier books, Global Rebellion: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. For this book, I have chosen these two cases because they provide an interesting comparison with each other and the Khalistan case about how such movements end.

I say that each of these movements came to an end, though in each case aspects of the struggle linger on. Occasional acts of violence associated with them continue. Moreover, like the former ISIS soldier I met, the sense of militancy, the vision of great war, that animated each of them has endured among some supporters. Among many others, however, the idea of war was over long before the hostilities ended. That loss of faith in the war effort may have been a major factor in the ending of each of these movements.

How much of a factor was it? This is what I wanted to find out by looking more closely at each of these cases. I have traveled to these three regions on several occasions and talked with a variety of former supporters and others knowledgeable about the situation. By looking at different cases I hoped to find elements that were common to all three, as well as those that were not. I hoped to develop the range of patterns regarding how visions of warfare come to an end. I also wanted to understand what factors propelled the movements towards abandoning the idea of war, factors that were both internal to the movements and that came from outside, including the actions of government authorities who were trying to control or crush the movements. Which of these actions were helpful in bringing an end to the hostilities and which were counter-productive?

In this book I want to bring the reader with me into the worlds imagined by supporters of each of these three movements. We will try to understand how sensible people could be drawn into a state of remarkable war, and how in time they lost faith in that vision and found ways to extricate themselves from the movements that had fostered it. It will be a remarkable journey to three quite different locales, but in each case the end will be the promise of enduring peace.


Further information on the book may be found at the UC Press website:



Michael Was Not Ordinary

This was given as the eulogy at the memorial for Michael Jerryson at Youngstown State University on September 15, 2021

Michael Jerryson was not very successful….at being ordinary. He tried, but he was just not very good at it.

For example, he joined the Peace Corps after college. What could be more ordinary than that? He was stationed in Mongolia. There he just wanted to be an ordinary Peace Corps worker, out in the field helping with agriculture development projects and helping villagers improve their public health.

He did all that, which is the ordinary thing to do. But Michael’s mind kept working. He saw that Mongolian society was beginning to change, and the role of the Buddhist sangha, the monks, was taking on increased social and political power.

So in between his other Peace Corps tasks he studied the Buddhist sangha in Mongolia, and ended up publishing it as a book. That is not an ordinary thing to do in the Peace Corps.

He came to graduate school at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He just wanted to be an ordinary graduate student. But he kept winning scholarships and receiving awards for being the best teaching assistant. One of the undergraduate students in his classes told me that he was first attracted to Michael because he seemed such an ordinary guy, someone you could easily relate to. And he was. “But then,” the student added, “he changed my life. He opened my eyes in ways no teacher had done before.”

Michael was not an ordinary graduate student. He challenged his professors. I was one of them who soon realized that this guy was not just an ordinary student. He was a colleague. And we ended up co-editing three book projects together. That is not ordinary.

Michael’s research work was not ordinary either. Oh, he chose an ordinary subject—the role of peace making by Buddhist monks. What could be more ordinary than that? Everyone knows that Buddhism is nonviolent, the religion of peace.

So Michael went to Thailand to study the Buddhist monks and their role in peacemaking. He knew there was conflict at the southern border between Buddhist and Muslim groups, and Michael immediately went there to see what the monks were doing to bring about peace. That would be what you ordinarily expect.

But that’s not what Michael found. He discovered that the monks were not trying to bring peace but some had guns under their robes and they were joining the fight. So Michael changed his topic, and began to explore how even Buddhists could at times justify violence.

This is not the ordinary way of looking at Buddhism. But it showed that Buddhist people are in fact people, and like everyone else in the world they use their religion for good and at times to support conflict. Michael meant no disrespect towards Buddhism, a tradition that he greatly admired, but intellectual honesty led him to probe more deeply into the dark side of the tradition. It was not the ordinary approach; but it has made Michael internationally famous in the fields of Buddhist studies and of religion and violence. As I recently wrote about him, “after Michael Jerryson no one will look at Buddhism the same way.” This is not an ordinary scholarly impact on a field of studies.

Now whether Michael was an ordinary husband and father is not for me to say. But you can see the evidence before you—Fawn and Siena and Parker, this is not your ordinary family. Each is special, and has become so, I believe, in part because Michael has encouraged them to not just be ordinary.

The same can be said, I suspect, regarding his interaction with students and colleagues at YSU. You will hear from many of them in a moment. And what they will tell you, I think, is that Michael was not an ordinary professor and colleague.

He was not your ordinary obedient faculty member. Even before he received tenure he began pointing out to the administration the institutional injustices of the university. He fought for more equitable treatment of faculty and students, just as he has fought for equal justice in issues of gender, race, and sexuality. He has never been willing to accept the ordinary when human rights have been imperiled.

Michael, as my undergraduate student said, seemed like such an ordinary guy, so warm and friendly, full of humor and good common sense. So ordinary. And yet when you got to know him you discovered how much more than ordinary he could be.

Michael was able to transform institutions, just he has transformed his subjects and those around him at every stage of life he has lived. He had a Midas touch for social and personal transformation. What a guy.

So we remember Michael Jerryson. In all that he taught, in all that he studied, and in all the lives he touched, he made the ordinary extraordinary.


How 9/11 Launched a War

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11 (Photo by Anthony Correia/Getty Images)

This essay was published on September 11, 2021 in the Los Angeles Review of Books in a special issue on the impact of 9/11 twenty years later. 

Before the second tower fell, I was already on national television trying to give a credible answer regarding whom the perpetrators might be and why they did it. I had just published a book on religious terrorism based on interviews with activists around the world, so I was on the rolodex of television producers when the towers were attacked.

“If they were Muslim, it was just a small group,” I explained. “You can’t blame the entire Muslim world.”

“That’s an interesting opinion,” the Fox News host said, quickly cutting off my microphone. This was not the analysis he wanted to hear.

At the time, it seemed no one wanted to hear that. Though President George W. Bush also admonished the country not to blame all Muslims, clearly he and his neocon cohort had a larger agenda in mind, one that targeted the Muslim world. Responding to 9/11 was not just the obligation to round up the perpetrators — it was a chance to reset US policy in the Middle East.

This became clear on September 12, 2001, which in some ways was an even more fateful day than 9/11. Bush announced on television that this attack was not just a terrorist incident, it was “war.” Soon the banner of the War on Terror, a.k.a. the Global War on Terror — GWOT, was the persistent slogan creeping along the bottom of television screens.

Arguably GWOT was the fourth world war, following the Cold War that was preceded by World Wars I and II. It dominated US foreign policy for all of the Bush administration years and to some extent long afterward, and it resulted in the US invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. As of this writing, some two decades later, President Joe Biden is still trying to extricate the last of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turmoil created by those invasions will not soon subside.

But why did the 9/11 attack indicate that we were at war? This is a question that I raised to a group of students in my classes shortly after the attack. They were uniformly convinced that it was an act of war.

What if the towers had fallen down at night when no one was there, I asked? They seemed puzzled, but agreed that that would not have been sufficient for war. What if the perpetrators were simply a small band of extremists, a suggestion that many of them knew was in fact the case. Still, they said, there must have been a larger force behind them. I pointed out that jihadi extremists had targeted America for some 10 years and the American public did not see itself at war.

“But September 11 was different,” the students argued, “because it worked.”

“Besides,” one of the women in the class said, breaking the silence, “it was such a crazy thing, those towers falling. It had to be war.”

Her comment was striking, since it was irrational, and yet totally convincing. 9/11 was war, she was saying, because it was the only thing that made sense of such a senseless situation.

For some years since then, I have been thinking about her response. It was echoed in a similar way by Sunni Arabs in Iraq who supported ISIS, and it was the sentiment of Sikh separatists in India and angry Buddhists in Myanmar. The many activist movements that I have studied in the last 30 years have had a common theme of believing that they were engaged in great wars.

Last year my thinking about this came to fruition in a book, God at War, where I concluded that in each case the idea of war started the same way. It was a response to an existential fear that the world had gone awry, and some evil force must be behind it.

This is a justifiable fear in many cases — it is clear who the enemy is. But in some cases the enemy is mystery, and one has a vague, inchoate sense of being under attack by an amorphous unseen force. This was the case in 9/11. The students in my class knew viscerally that it was war, though they couldn’t quite identify who did it or why we were the target. But they knew that Muslims were somehow involved.

The idea of war has consequences, and in the case of the Global War on Terror, the Muslim connection turned out to be troublesome on several levels. For one thing, it has led to a rash of Islamophobia in the United States that has still not subsided. For another, it has fueled the justifications for the invasion and occupation of two Muslim nations.

In both instances, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were ostensibly about things other than religion. The assault on Afghanistan was supposed to enable the US military to capture the al-Qaeda headquarters and rid the world of terrorism, though neither of those things happened. And the war in Iraq was sold to the American people as the means to find and destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Those were not found either.

Still, to buttress the case for invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had been conspiring together. It was an unlikely possibility, considering that the Iraq ruler was a secular socialist with no previous ties to religiosity. But in the minds of many Americans the invasion of Iraq, like Afghanistan, was a response to the Muslim attack on 9/11.

One of the first dramatic moments of the US occupation of Iraq came when a statue of Saddam was toppled in Fardous Square in Baghdad. As the ropes were tied on the statue to bring it down a young marine climbed to the top to put an American flag over Saddam’s face, rather like an execution hood.

His marine superiors immediately had him take it down since this was supposed to be an Iraq people’s moment, not an American celebration. But when asked by a Reuters reporter why he did it, the marine explained that this was not just any flag, it was an American flag that flew over the Pentagon the day that it was attacked by the jihadi activists on 9/11.

When the marine was told that Saddam did not have any connection to bin Laden or the 9/11 jihadis, the marine was persistent. “I know,” he said, “but in my heart I felt we were getting even for 9/11.”

Some 20 years later there are still those Americans who feel that we should be “getting even” with the Muslim world. It was only a small radical fringe that perpetrated 9/11, but once the notion of war invaded our minds it required an enemy of grand proportions. It is a devious myth, one that has not easily been dispelled.


Will the Taliban Remain Moderate?

This essay was posted August 24 in Religion Dispatches

Some ten days after the fall of Kabul it’s still not clear how the Taliban will rule. There are several reports of reprisal killings and brutal enforcement of their strict interpretation of Islamic law. But there are also statements of support for women’s rights, protection from reprisals, and overtures of the Taliban leadership to former Afghan leaders like Hamid Karzai to create a coalition government. More significantly, for over a week the Taliban stood aside while 50,000 foreigners and their Afghan supporters were airlifted from the Kabul airport.

The question is whether the Taliban has changed. Will it be the same hard line Islamic state that it tried to create the last time it was in power, twenty years ago? Many are, quite justifiably, skeptical of what Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr called a “charm offensive” in an article noting that while there will be no “discrimination” against women they will be living within the “framework” of Islam, which of course has numerous interpretations.

But even if the Taliban doesn’t want to change it might have to. For one thing, Afghanistan isn’t the same place as it was twenty years ago when ruling it was more of a pushover. Now it’ll have to adapt to some degree to its new freedom-loving urban constituency. Throughout Afghanistan people have cell phones and access to the internet. It’ll be difficult to have the same kind of social control two decades later.

Another factor is the way the Taliban came to power in recent months. In February 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo represented President Donald Trump in meetings with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Trump essentially surrendered to the Taliban in exchange for assurances that the US would withdraw peaceably. The US. then drew down its military presence to a tiny fraction of what it had been before, and with no assurances given to the Afghan government (which wasn’t even a party to the negotiations), the US agreed to withdraw all of its troops by mid-2021.

This was an enormously generous gift to the Taliban. They knew that Biden’s hands would be tied to the Trump decision—if he didn’t pull out the last US troops in mid-2021 as promised, the Taliban would militarily attack the paltry 2500 remaining troops and, assuming that the Afghan military wasn’t capable of resisting the Taliban (as was clearly demonstrated in the final weeks before the fall of Kabul) Biden’s only choice would be to ramp up the US military presence to a fighting force of 100,000 or so to protect the remaining 2500. There was very little stomach among the American people for yet more war in Afghanistan, an opinion shared by Biden himself. So he bit the bullet and withdrew the last remaining troops, and the world has witnessed the consequence.

For the Taliban, however, the Trump deal was a godsend. Not only did it hand them the country without needing to fight the US, but also it gave them time to make deals with regional warlords, tribal leaders, and Afghan military commanders to allow them safe harbor (and in some cases plum positions) if they agreed to change sides at the appropriate moment.

That moment came in August, when the new American President, Joe Biden, announced the withdrawal of the last troops. Methodically, region by region, the resistance fell within days like a house of cards, virtually without firing a shot. At the end, the Taliban simply marched into Kabul and took over.

This patient pattern of negotiation and coalition-building, however, has changed the Taliban. Although the movement continues to give voice to the extremist Islamic ideology for which it is justly infamous, it has also tempered its talk, in part to mollify its coalition partners. It remains to be seen if their support will be dropped as soon as the Taliban has secured its hold on the political apparatus of the country, but assuming they continue to need this support their extreme position will be at least partially checked.

One reason why it would be in the Taliban’s interest to maintain good relations with its internal coalition and with international connections such as Russia and Pakistan is that it remembers what happened twenty years ago. At that time an intensive US military assault was able to destroy the Taliban’s control as quickly as the American-supported Afghan government collapsed in 2021. In both cases the critical issue was a withdrawal of support from tribal warlords and regional leaders in what had been tacit support. The Taliban is mindful that this could happen again.

An indication that the Taliban leaders are taking a more prudent course is its approach to the US evacuations at the Kabul airport. They appear to have been in no mood to confront the might of the US military, especially since they’d been assured that it was going to leave. Instead, the Taliban leaders adopted a position of patience. They proclaimed that there would be no reprisals and free access to the airport. With some truly unfortunate exceptions, this promise was largely met.

Compare this to the last time the US lost a war and had to suddenly retreat during the fall of Saigon. During that memorable scramble in 1975, US diplomats had to evacuate the embassy via helicopters that landed on the roof as the North Vietnamese army tanks literally broke down the Embassy gates. The airport was out of commission since the North Vietnamese military had attacked it, and in fact the last American soldiers to lose their lives in the war were defending the airport. After that last helicopter flight not a single person was evacuated by the US military. The “boat people” who fled Vietnam did so on their own.

By contrast the Taliban has been remarkably patient. The airport hasn’t been bombarded, and tens of thousands of Afghan people have been able to board US military cargo planes. Though some Taliban soldiers have made the exit difficult, others have helped to control the crowds and check their documents to make certain that the papers of those trying to leave were in order. Understandably, however, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who would like to leave the country simply to have a better life abroad were not able to do so.

For many of them, especially those who have come to enjoy the secular lifestyle that’s developed in Afghanistan’s cities in the past twenty years, the question is whether the Taliban will rule like another Islamic State (ISIS). In this regard it is interesting to note that there is in fact an indigenous movement in Afghanistan that calls itself ISIS-Khorasan (Khorasan is the 6th century designation for a region that stretched from Eastern Iran through Afghanistan to Central Asia). But this ISIS-K is led by renegade former Taliban militants, and is a rival of the Taliban, so they will likely try to co-opt or destroy it.

So the Taliban will not become ISIS, but it could rule like ISIS, as it did twenty years ago, or it could change along the lines that it has professed it would, and which its coalition and urban centers might welcome. Whether one thinks that that’s possible depends in part on whether one thinks a religious regime of this sort is capable of internal change without the necessity for an invasion from outside.

The diversity of political positions within the Islamic Republic of Iran give some indication that even a rather rigid religious regime is indeed capable of flexibility and perhaps significant change on its own. Muslim militants in other parts of the world have disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini and rejected many of his positions. Post-revolution leaders in Iran, including Mohammad Khatami, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani have been considerably more moderate than the extremists. Saudi Arabia is another hardline autocratic country that seems to tolerate a certain degree of dissention and liberal lifestyles—at least in private.

The leaders of the Taliban claim that now that they’re in charge they want a new leadership style, one that will create a stable respectable government, albeit one with strong Muslim religious limitations. We’ll see if this promise is fulfilled. But if Afghanistan does turn out to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia, then there’s another question: whether the US can live with it, and if so, whether it accepts that its twenty years of attempts to transform Afghanistan have at least in part succeeded.

That may be the enduring legacy of the long US occupation: a more moderate Taliban. Whether this was worth the trillions of dollars spent and lives lost in maintaining the occupation all these years will be debated for some time to come. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether this moderate stance will last.

Was Afghanistan Necessary?

Picture: Taliban entering Kabul August 15, 2021

This essay was posted in English and Polish translation on the website of the Warsaw news magazine Najwazniejsze. 

In contrast to Iraq, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan beginning in October 2001 is often regarded as the good war. Iraq was the bad war, the unnecessary war in many people’s estimation.

But the sudden though inevitable collapse of the Afghan government and the resurgent Taliban control has raised new questions about why the U.S. military went into the country in the first place, and what in twenty years was accomplished. Was Afghanistan also an unnecessary war?

In the days after the tumultuous events of September 11, 2001, there seemed to be no question is the minds of most sensitive people around the world that the perpetrators of this hideous act needed to be caught and brought to justice. When it became clear that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had played a role in housing Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the global jihadi movement who had their base of operation in the country, it seemed obvious to many that the regime itself had to be confronted.

Though no one had ever accused the Afghan leaders of being directly involved in the planning and conduct of the terrorist act, they were presumed to be guilty of willingly harboring terrorists. Moreover, the Taliban was a harsh extremist regime with very little international support. Only three countries in the world had extended it official recognition before 9/11 – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan – and after the attacks even these few ties were severed. Thus, it seemed, no one was willing to come to Afghanistan’s defense as the U.S. military prepared to invade the country.

Yet the invasion of Afghanistan has raised some interesting questions. Was the invasion necessary, and did the U.S. expect that their presence would enable Afghanis to adopt a different kind of regime?

The Taliban was one of several contending Islamic parties in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet-backed regime that had ruled the country since the Saur Revolution brought a socialist form of government to power in 1978. After a long and debilitating struggle between the Soviet-backed Afghan socialist regime and the Islamic resistance forces – the mujahadin (“fighters”) – the Soviet Union withdrew its support in 1989. The regime of Mohammad Najibullah was soon toppled.

Fighters who had come to join the mujahadin from throughout the Islamic world returned to their own countries and to expatriate communities in Europe and the United States, having been trained in guerrilla warfare and fired with rebellious zeal. Some of these became the terrorists of the new jihadi struggle against the secular governments backed by Europe and the United States, and changed the course of international relations in the post-Cold War world. These mujahadin-hardened fighters included the Saudi militant Osama bin Laden whose organization, al Qaeda (“the base”) was formed during the Afghan-Soviet war.

In the vacuum of power in Afghanistan, a new militant group was taking shape. It was based on former mujahadin militia, but with a more hard-core and strident religious ideological framework. It was called the Taliban, and it quickly emerged as a significant new force.

Taliban literally means “student,” and refers to the origins of the movement: young men who had attended madrassas, or Muslim schools, in the Pashtun-dominated areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan and of the Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces of Pakistan. The leader of the movement, Mullah Mohammed Omar, came from a village near Kandahar, attended a religious school – a madrassa – and served as a mullah. He was missing one eye, which he lost in the resistance struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He is said to have never flown on a plane and was uneasy around foreigners.

Though the Taliban was best known outside of Afghanistan for its religious conservatism, the main differences between it and the other religiously conservative groups in the country, such as the Northern Alliance headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, were ethnic. Massoud and most of his followers were Tajik, and Mullah Omar and his Taliban cadres were Pashtun (Pathan). Mullah Omar was also distinguished by his effective military strength, rumored to have been aided by elements of the Pakistan intelligence agency.

By 1995 Taliban forces were able to capture the capital, Kabul. In 1997 Omar renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In August 1998 almost all of the last outposts of opposition in northern Afghanistan crumbled to his control, though the forces of the Northern Alliance led by Massoud fought on. Massoud’s armies were at the forefront of the US-based military conquest of the Taliban in 2001, though Massoud himself had been killed, most likely by Osama bin Laden’s cadres, days before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is notable that in the August 2021 blitzkrieg that solidified the Taliban’s renewed power, they quickly captured the northern region, thereby diffusing the possibility of a Tajik-based opposition to the Pashtun Taliban militia.

Shortly after the Taliban had gained control of the country in 1996, bin Laden, along with his Egyptian colleague, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and some two hundred of their band of jihadi warriors returned to their old base in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had been abruptly asked to leave his headquarters in Sudan, and thought that the Taliban would provide a more hospitable field of operations. His hopes were fulfilled, and Afghanistan turned out to be a friendly platform for bin Laden and Zawahiri to launch a campaign of global jihadi warfare.

Bin Laden soon ingratiated himself with the leader, Mullah Omar, showering him with gifts and more – some say that he arranged the marriage of one of his daughters to the Taliban leader. Bin Laden and al Zawahiri provided training for their cadres in the old Tora Bora headquarters left-over from the Afghan-Soviet war. They were able to communicate with their operatives and supporters over the world by utilizing new communication devices such as radio telephones and the internet. One of bin Laden’s first acts in 1996 was to release a statement, “A Declaration of Jihad Against the American Occupation of the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries.” The land of the two holy places referred to Saudi Arabia, where both Mecca and Medina are located, and the presence of American military bases amounted to an occupation, in bin Laden’s frame of reference.

Two years later, in 1998, bin Laden and Zawahiri, along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and other militants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt, proclaimed a World Islamic Front against the “Crusaders and Zionists” – the United States, Europe, and Israel. Though the mujahidin struggle in the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s was arguably one of the first chapters in global jihad, the 1998 proclamation helped to launch an expanded international campaign of violence. The declaration was issued as a fatwa—a religious edict. It implored Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military,” as “an individual duty” in any country “in which it is possible to do it,” in order to liberate the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, to free the land of the holy places – Saudi Arabia – from foreign forces, and to remove the American military from all Islamic lands, “defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.” Hence this fatwa gave an ideological justification for an international network to respond to what it described as a global scheme of America and the West to control and denigrate Islamic society.

Within a few months of the proclamation, in August 1998, the al Qaeda network from its base in Afghanistan was able to carry out a spectacular pair of bombings almost simultaneously on U.S. embassies in two African countries, Kenya and Tanzania. Over 200 were killed and many more injured, many of them Africans speared by falling glass from high-rise buildings adjacent to the shattered embassies. Within days, U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed that bin Laden and the “Islamic Army Organization” were responsible for the bombings. He ordered a military raid on an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, seeking but failing to kill bin Laden and his inner circle. In October 2000, Bin Laden’s network was associated with a brazen attack on the American navy vessel, the U.S.S. Cole, by a suicide squad of jihadi activists as the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer was docked in the Aden harbor in Yemen.

The attacks on 9/11, however, created a whole new level of engagement and reprisal. Almost immediately, members of the jihadi movement in general and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in particular were the prime suspects. Mohammad Attah, who was on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center towers, was quickly identified as one of the leaders of the operation. Papers in his luggage, which did not make it on the transfer from his earlier flight from Portland Maine to Logan Airport in Boston, identified all nineteen of the hijackers. Most were from Saudi Arabia. Attah, however, was an Egyptian who had lived in Germany. He is said to have come under the influence of radical Islam in Europe and to have met Osama bin Laden in 1999. He then received his mission to participate in what was called by jihadi leaders as the “Planes Project.”

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush accused the Taliban of harboring al Qaeda terrorists. He delivered a non-negotiable ultimatum demanding that the Taliban government do five things: hand over Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to the United States for prosecution; release all foreign nationals, including Americans, “unjustly imprisoned” in Afghanistan; destroy bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in the country; allow US inspectors into Afghanistan to make sure that the camps were destroyed; and “protect all journalists, diplomats, and aid workers” in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the ultimatum included two items (the release of political prisoners and protection of journalists) that were not directly related to al Qaeda. But it is unlikely that the Taliban would have accepted the demands even if they were limited to what were regarded as terrorist operations. The Afghan government rejected Bush’s demands, saying that they would hold a trial for bin Laden if the US offered any evidence of his complicity in the attacks. At the same time, the Grand Islamic Council of Afghanistan – a convocation of the leading clerics in the country – met in response to the Taliban’s request for their advice on how the Afghan government should respond. The Taliban’s Mullah Omar was likely uncertain what to do in this situation, in part because he was almost completely ignorant of affairs outside his own country and did not understand what the collapse of some building far away had to do with him. Hence he sought his clerical convocation for guidance.

Perhaps to the Taliban leadership’s surprise, the convocation suggested that Osama bin Laden and his foreign militants immediately leave the country. News reports indicated that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, was considering the recommendation and would likely have accepted it if he had an indication from Washington that this would be sufficient to keep the US from invading his country. The response from the White House was immediate and negative, however, saying that it would not be sufficient to allow bin Laden to leave Afghanistan only to slip into hiding in another country.

The Taliban government then offered another solution. It would remove bin Laden from Afghanistan under guard in order for him to stand trial in a neutral, third party country (not specified) if the United States would provide evidence that Osama bin Laden was indeed implicated in the attacks. Although this proposal seems reasonable, by the time the Taliban leadership suggested it the matter was moot, since the United States military had already attacked the country and were attempting to destroy bin Laden’s likely hideouts and forcibly remove the Taliban from office.

The combined efforts of American military air strikes and the revived forces of the Northern Alliance caused the Taliban regime to crumble at the end of 2001. The Taliban central regime fell quickly, in part because tribal war lords in Afghan’s regional outposts withdrew their support from what they perceived to be a losing situation—which is largely what happened in the August 2021 collapse of the American-supported Afghan regime. When the Taliban fled from Kabul on November 12, 2001, even members of the Taliban’s own ethnic community, Pushtun, celebrated as if the country had been liberated from an evil oppressive rule, though clearly no government since then has been able to gained the stable confidence of the Afghan people.

The Bush regime clearly had been determined to topple the Taliban regime regardless of whether or not they banished bin Laden from the country or released him into the hands of a third-party nation for a trial. It regarded the Taliban not only as an accomplice of Osama bin Laden but also as a kind of terrorist movement in its own right.

No matter that evidence was never given at the time for bin Laden’s complicity in the 9/11 attack. In fact it might have been difficult for the US to produce such documentation without revealing its intelligence sources. Besides, the official 9/11 Commission Report identified another jihadi militant, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, based in Pakistan, as the chief architect behind 9/11, not bin Laden. Nonetheless, at the time the dominant position within US leadership circles was that the Taliban was implicated in the 9/11 attack. The most important link in the minds of many who regarded the Afghan invasion as justified was a conceptual one: the notion that the Taliban and al Qaeda were essentially the same kind of thing.

Many have assumed that a radical Islamic regime like the Taliban was terrorist by its very nature. Therefore, whether or not there was an al Qaeda link, toppling such a radical religious regime was morally warranted. It is an interesting moral assumption and a problematic one.

There is no question that Afghanistan was ruled by an unsavory band of leaders. What frightened people about the Taliban was not only its reliance on brutal exercises of violence as a way of controlling its citizenry but also the restrictions on civil liberties that gave the government the appearance of enslaving its populace. Even if the darkest assessments of the Taliban’s harsh rule were true, however, the question remains as to whether these would be sufficient reasons for an external invasion to liberate the country. Part of the answer to that question is the degree to which one thinks a religious regime of this sort is capable of internal change without the necessity for an invasion from outside.

The diversity of political positions within the Islamic Republic of Iran gives some indication that even a rather rigid religious regime is indeed capable of flexibility and perhaps significant change on its own. Muslim militants in other parts of the world – including Sheik Ahmed Yassin in Palestine and Qazi Turadqhonqodz in Tajikistan – have disagreed with Ayotollah Khomeini and rejected many of his positions. Other post-revolution leaders in Iran, including Mohammad Khatami, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani have been considerably more moderate than the extremists. Saudi Arabia is another hard-line autocratic country that seems to tolerate a certain degree of dissention and liberal lifestyles, at least in private.

The leaders of the Taliban claim that now that they are in charge they want to create a stable respectable government, albeit one with strong Muslim religious limitations. We will see if this promise is fulfilled. But if Afghanistan does turn out to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia or one of the Gulf State Emirates, the question is whether the US can live with it. And if so, whether it accepts that its twenty years of attempts to transform Afghanistan have at least in part succeeded.





Letter to an Anti-Vaxxer

[The following letter was actually sent to someone I know who refuses to be vaccinated thinking it’s not sufficiently safe.]

Dear friend-

Yes, I found your admission that you are hesitating taking any of the available COVID-19 vaccines to be troubling. There are several reasons for this.

One is that I work in the field of higher education where we respect expertise. All of us in universities are experts in something, but none of us are experts in everything. So we rely on the knowledge of those who have devoted their intellectual resources to an area in which we seek information.

Yet we know that not all experts in the same field agree. That’s the nature of the scientific community, it thrives on discussion and counter-evidence. For that reason we seldom trust the outliers in the field who may take a contrary stand to the great majority of their colleagues. We rely on the preponderance of the evidence if it points in one direction, and we trust in the overwhelming consensus of experts in a field. This is abundantly the case in the reliability of the current COVID vaccines available.

But there are two other reasons that I have. These are more personal.

One is my connection with India. I lived there for a time and am in almost daily contact with friends there. In recent months India has gone through a tsunami of COVID cases related to the new Delta variant. It is more transmissible and lethal than other forms, and it has a tendency to strike younger victims, not just the elderly that has been the case with early forms of the disease.

In recent weeks I have heard of the tragic deaths of several people that I have known, healthy colleagues in the fullness of life, who were struck down with an evil disease that aims for the lungs, leaving the victims almost literally choking to death.

In all of these cases, they had tried in advance to get access to a vaccine to protect them. Alas, there is a severe shortage and long waiting lines. And for many, including these colleagues, the chance for a vaccine has come too late.

I feel helpless hearing this dark news about people I knew and admired. To know that they died for the lack of a vaccine is troubling. Even more disturbing is to know that otherwise sensible Americans are taking a cavalier attitude towards taking the vaccine. I feel that if they don’t want it, for God’s sake send their vaccines to India where people are literally dying to receive them.

The other reason is even more personal. It is literally close to home.

You see I’m married to a woman who had a viral disease in her childhood—polio—and is still suffering from the effects. It was called infantile paralysis because it frequently struck young people, cruelly, leaving them crippled or gasping for breath. In my wife’s case, for a lifetime she has had limited mobility and frequent pains. What a blessing it was when vaccines were developed to combat this horrible and crippling disease!

But that didn’t happen immediately. I’m old enough to remember that when the first polio vaccines came out there were deniers and those who hesitated. But ultimately they were won over, and now polio has been virtually eradicated from the face of the earth.

Without the overwhelming acceptance of the vaccine, polio would not have been defeated. If a large percentage of the population goes unvaccinated everyone suffers, since the virus remains in society, and has the opportunity to mutate into even more virulent strands.

So vaccination is not just for personal protection. It a matter of social responsibility.

Of course you are free to make your own decisions, that’s the wonderful thing about being in a free society. But decisions have consequences. Not only for yourself, but for others, as well.



Rumsfeld’s Legacy in Iraq

 The only time I met Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush,  was in a meeting in Washington where he briefly appeared. He was cocksure and jovial as always.
   It was one of Rumsfeld’s signature features that he never apologized for anything. And quite likely he never regretted anything he did, including the most devastating.
  The invasion and occupation of Iraq was one of those devastations. Perhaps worse than the invasion was the haphazard and irresponsible occupation.
  This was one of Rumsfeld’s baby. Apparently he and his staff had virtually no preparation for what would happen after the fall of Saddam. I think the assumption was that it was a secular government that could run on its own.
  In fact the country collapsed from chaos to anarchy to vicious ethnic rivalry. The emergence of ISIS was a product of this.
  The US policies in Iraq, largely crafted by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, helped to create this chaos. I know this because Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was teaching with me at UCSB at the time, was called back by the State Department to go to Baghdad to be the first person to be in charge of the reconstruction efforts. This was a week or so before the invasion.
  She told me she asked for her staff and the plans for running the country after Saddam, She was told she’d have to create both. They didn’t have any.
  Also Ambassador Bodine didn’t last, since Rumsfeld wanted a more compliant sycophant in charge, and that’s how Paul Bremer got the job instead of Barbara. She knew Arabic and was developing a plan for reviving the army and the administrative structure and getting support of neighboring Arab countries. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney didn’t want any of that.
   So as a result, Rumsfeld’s policies helped to create the sectarian politics that has plagued Iraq ever since and led to the rise of ISIS, which fed on Sunni resentment at being made second-class citizens by the Shi’a majority government.
   So if you ask whether Iraq is better off now after Saddam, it depends on what ethnic group you’re in:
   Kurds- love it. They hated Saddam and the feeling was mutual. He tried to literally kill them off. Now Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq is thriving. When you fly into the airport at Erbil, as I have frequently in recent years, working a book on how terrorist movements end that features conversations with old ISIS warriors, you see a big sign saying “welcome to Kurdistan” (no mention of Iraq).
   Shi-a – mixed feelings. Shi’a political leaders are pleased since they are now in charge of the country and are able to have an unbridled alliance with Iran (which was the big winner in the rise of Shi’a power). Shi’a militia have also grown enormously in part in opposition to US occupation (Muqtada el Sadr’s militia especially).
   Sunni – big losers. When I went to Baghdad some months after the invasion and met with Sunni religious leaders they all blamed the US for what they saw as a Shi’a takeover that was making them second-class citizens. And they were right. Access to jobs, military appointments, government support were all difficult under Shi’a regimes. This resentment led to the tacit support of ISIS when it rolled into the Sunni regions of western Iraq, essentially creating a united Sunnistan with the adjacent Sunni regions of eastern Syria, for a time empowering Sunnis in both countries.
   In my recent visits to refugee camps and prisons in northern Iraq, however, I have found the post-ISIS Sunnis to be deeply depressed. Their cities have been destroyed, their ISIS protectors no longer in power, and no change in their second-class status in either Syria or Iraq. The situation is ripe for the return of ISIS or the rise of another form of protest movement.
   All this is Rumsfeld’s legacy. And he departed as always, cocksure and jovial to the end.
   (My forthcoming book referenced in this post, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Terrorism Ends, will be published later this year by the University of California Press).

Is Religion Dead?

This is an abstract of the essay posted in the online journal, Global Perspectives at

[The full text follows this abstract]

The rise of strident movements of religious nationalism seems to signal a resurgence of religion. But such movements can also be read as the last gasp of religiosity as it succumbs to the inevitability of secular globalization.

Which is correct? Has religion revived, or is it in its death throes?

Part of the issue is statistical: adherence to religion seems to be on the rise in some parts of the world (Islam in Africa, for instance), though on the decline in others (Christianity in Europe and increasingly in the United States) and under attack in China.

But part of the issue is definitional: what is meant by religious
adherence—social identity or metaphysical belief? Scholarly attempts to define religion are various, though an interesting new definition is provided by the late sociologist Robert Bellah, who described religion as “alternative reality.” With that definition, one
can posit that religiosity is a fundamental part of the creative imagination, a constituent of culture as certain as art or music.

The question then becomes not whether religion will survive, but in what way it will survive. The popular religious choice of millennials,
“none,” may be consistent with the multicultural religiosity of the old Protestant liberals, a tradition now in decline. Liberal Protestants have not disappeared but have transformed into the bearers of a global morality and spiritual sensibility.

Hence we may be witnessing the emergence of new forms of spirituality and ethical community that resonate with the alternative reality of traditional religious experience but that have no name and no organization.

But these may become the global religion of the future.


Is Religion Dead?

Full text of the article published in Global Perspectives 2:1

Despite the dark predictions of religion’s future by such scholars as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietsche, religion at the beginning of the 21st century seems strangely alive. I say “strangely” since the forms of religiosity that come to public notice are indeed strange. The right-wing Christian militia in the United States and the terrorism of the Islamic State are only two examples of the extreme forms of religious nationalism and violent cults that have vaulted into public attention.

There is more to religion’s revival than that, of course. In areas of Latin America where evangelical Protestantism is flourishing and in the vast swaths of Africa where Islam is on the rise, the devout are neither weird nor vicious and their religion seems to be an amicable part of their personal and social lives.

Elsewhere, especially in the urban centers of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, religion is clearly on the decline. The once proud cathedrals of spirituality with their marvelous stained glass windows and ornate stone filigree are increasingly monuments to a religious past, relics of another age. What few faithful still attend can be seen as emitting the last gasps of religiosity before the phenomenon succumbs to the inevitability of secular globalization.

Which is it, has religion revived or is it in its death throes?


Dead or alive?

One way of answering the question of whether religion is reviving or dying is to look at the statistics. The statistical picture, however, is not consistent. Adherence to religion seems to be on the rise in some parts of the world (Islam in Africa, for instance), though on the decline in others (Christianity in Europe and increasingly in the US) and under attack in China.

Of the 7.3 billion people in the world the largest percentage, roughly 33%, are Christian. From 2010 to 2015 that percentage stayed the same even though the numbers of Christians rose slightly, especially in Africa and South America, while they declined elsewhere, though on balance they kept pace with the general rise of the population worldwide.

The numbers of Muslims are exploding. Islam is currently the second largest religion in the world, with some 24.1 percent of the world’s population. That percentage has continued to rise as the absolute number of Muslims expands both through large families (Muslims have the highest birth rate of any religious group in the world) and through conversion, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Pew research reports indicate that by 2035 the numbers of children born to Muslims will outnumber those born to Christians, and Islam is by far the fastest growing religious community in the world (Pew Research Center 2017).

Though in general Christianity continues to have the same 33% of the population it has had for some years, that percentage is not distributed equally. It has risen in Africa and South America. But Europe is one area of the world where Christianity is in decline. From 2010 to 2015, the numbers of Christians in Europe dropped by 5.6 million people (Hackett and McClendon 2017). One reason is that the numbers of deaths of older Christians outpaced the births of Christian parents; another reason is due to the changing demographics in Europe with the rise of new immigrant groups, especially from Muslim countries.

In the United States, the numbers of Christians is also in a decline. The erosion of Christian affiliation continues at what the Pew Research Center describes as “a rapid pace” (Pew Research Center 2019). According to the Pew study, in 2019 only 65% of Americans described themselves as Christian, down 12 percentage points in scarcely ten years. Part of this decline is due to the negative birthrate of American Christians compared to their death rates; part of is due to the rise of new immigrants with non-Christian faiths; and part is because of the abandonment of any religious affiliation by the rising number of young people who declare their religious faith as “none.”

Though European and American Christianity is declining in numbers it is not doing so evenly across all the Christian denominational affiliations. Internally within Europe and the U.S., there are dramatic shifts. At one time the mainstream Protestant denominations (such as Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalean, Presbyterian, Congregational, and the like) rivaled the Roman Catholic church in numbers, especially in the United States. But from 1972 to 2017, the numbers of mainstream Protestants in the US dropped precipitously from 28% to almost 10 percent (Stetzer 2017). The average age of the surviving mainstream Protestant members is 52, indicating that the denominations are quite literally dying out. The decline of mainstream Protestants has been in part due to the strength of Evangelical Protestantism, some 26% of the population, a number that has held fairly solidly even though the total number of Christian adherents have declined.


The decline of a liberal Protestant

What happened to the mainstream liberal Protestants? In the discipline of anthropology, scholars sometimes focus on one example of a general trend, and use the life story of that case study to illumine larger aspects of social change. In this spirit, I have searched for a good example of the decline of liberal Protestantism in the global era, and sought one person whose story might shed light on the larger transformation of the faith. After some effort, I have finally found a perfect case: me.

So bear with me for a moment while I tell you my story. I am doing so not to impress you with my own religiosity. Quite the opposite, since it is a story of the fall from religion, at least a certain kind of religion. And from my observation of fellow former liberal mainstream Protestants, I think my own pattern is not uncommon.

I am a child of the “silent generation,” growing up as a mainstream Methodist in the Eisenhower years. In the small farming community of Southern Illinois where I was raised, everyone went to church on Sunday morning, it seemed. My family was very pious and fiercely loyal to our congregation, where the message was a mix of mild social concerns and inspirational homilies. I was equally active in the Boy Scouts and the Methodist Youth Fellowship, and they seemed to me to be quite similar. Both urged us youths to do good and help others.

I served as a boy preacher when I was in High School, pastoring two small rural congregations. When I went to the University of Illinois I majored in philosophy, thinking it a good preparation for seminary. To the dismay of the local Methodist clergy in central Illinois, the seminary I chose was Union Theological Seminary in New York City, touted as the most liberal of liberal theological institutions, and the academic home of America’s best known theologian of the era, the staunch progressive Reinhold Niebuhr.

It was in fact Niebuhr with whom I wanted to study. In college increasingly my attention had turned to the aspects of religion that were related to ethics, especially social and political ethics. Niebuhr was the leading figure in this field. Featured on the cover of Time magazine as the “prophet to politicians,” he was known to have made a major influence on the thinking of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

Niebuhr was a theologian, but as he himself described it, a religious thinker “with one hand on the Bible and the other on the New York Times.” Taking theologian Karl Barth’s insistence on the original sinfulness of all humanity, Niebuhr tried to explain how social ethics was possible given the inherent greediness of humans, an exploitative attitude especially evident when they joined in collectivities such as business corporations. In Niebuhr’s view corporations were definitely not “persons, my friend,” as Mitt Romney once said, since they lacked the capacity for agape, sacrificial love. They were incapable of forgiveness or mercy or even fundamental justice, since they were extensions of people’s acquisitive nature.

He suggested that two things could provide “countervailing power” over the dominance of corporations. One was government regulations—which gave philosophical legitimacy to the expanded role of government during FDR’s administration. The other was the countervailing power of collective action—among workers this meant the legitimation of labor unions, which during Niebuhr’s day were becoming a major force in American economic and political life. Niebuhr also suggested as early as 1932 that collective protest could be an effective means of bringing racial justice in the United States (Niebuhr 1932). It was this reading of Niebuhr that made a striking impact on another young seminarian, Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote about Niebuhr and corresponded with him.

Niebuhr was a lifelong socialist. He once supported communism as many left-wing thinkers in the United States did, but like them he became disillusioned with Stalin and became fiercely anticommunist, at least regarding the Soviet variation of the ideology. He remained supportive of socialist causes, however, and helped to found the Liberal Party in New York as the progressive alternative to mainstream democrats.

I studied with Niebuhr all three years that I was at Union Seminary, and wrote two long papers for him. One was on the way automation was changing the nature of work, creating even greater alienation than before. The other paper was on “Sin in the Civil Rights Movement,” based on my own observation of being involved in movements for racial justice at the time, and seeing how some leaders could use the platforms for personal power and petty infighting. Niebuhr liked both papers, and I still prize his comments, “you have surveyed the whole field,” and “perceptive analysis.” My autographed copy of his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, where he scrawled, “with great respects,” is among my cherished possessions (Niebuhr 1939).

With Niebuhr’s blessing I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle of the day, working for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, and helping to organize a Seminarians Movement for Civil Rights. I also helped to produce a radio program on social ethics for WOR radio station in New York City exploring a range of contemporary issues. Increasingly we progressive Christians were becoming concerned about the expanding war in Vietnam.

The summer after I graduated from seminary I became ordained in the United Methodist Church, an event that thrilled my mother, though it was unclear what that would mean for my future. At the time my main concern was on how to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. I took the opportunity of accepting a two-year study and service project abroad, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, as a way of applying my newly minted ministerial deferment.

I had never been outside the United States at that point in my life, and when the program suggested that there was a slot available in India, teaching political ethics at Punjab University, it seemed an interesting opportunity. Because India and Pakistan were at war at the time, and the place to which I was assigned, the Punjab, was at the heart of the fighting, I delayed my arrival in India for three months. Initially I was based on Hong Kong, teaching English, but I took the opportunity of going to nearby Vietnam to see firsthand what the war was about. In Saigon I produced a series of radio programs for my old New York City station, WOR, on the Buddhist and student rejection of both sides in the war, and their own movements for peace.

When I finally arrived in India it was a revelation to be immersed in another culture, one so different in some ways and yet so humanly similar in others. I loved the vibrant religiosity of Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and Muslim mosques. My Midwestern American morality and spirituality seemed to adapt easily to these new milieu. I also found a form of progressive Hinduism with which I could identify. I joined a Gandhian ashram in the state of Bihar and became involved in famine relief. It was a form of social service for me, but also a direct education on the social ethics of Gandhi and his understanding of Hinduism.

After India I still needed to find a way to keep from being drafted into the military, so I sought a new student deferral as a graduate student in political science. I chose Berkeley as a place where I could study political ethics, religion, and South Asia studies in the same place, and from which I could launch my academic career. It was also attractive because it was, well… Berkeley. And this was in the mid-60s, shortly after the “summer of love.”

It was also a center of political activism, and for a time my studies took second place to helping to organize protests against the Vietnam War. I continued to have connections with progressive activists in the campus ministry programs and at the adjacent Graduate Theological Union. But church attendance increasingly fell by the wayside. I married a fellow graduate student, one whose family was Chinese Buddhist, though she had little interest in religion of any kind. So for years church was not a factor in my life.

I can’t say that I ever turned away from church religion. It just did not seem very important to me. And besides, the kind of moral urgency and resolute spirituality of my progressive Protestant past could be expressed in myriad forms of social activism and cultural appreciation. I had not changed; but increasingly the organization of religion seemed unimportant. Later in life I have started attending church again, perhaps out of nostalgia, perhaps out of appreciation for the insights that it provided me when I was young. But I can understand why many of my peers have fallen away from the church and not looked back.

Recently I returned to Union Seminary for the fiftieth reunion of my old class. I was a bit shocked how old everyone else had become (though I noticed some looking strangely at me as well). But I was also surprised at how few of my fellow classmates had maintained connections with organized religion. Only a handful had become clergy, and many of them who did had left after a while to take up positions in social work or as organizers with service organizations. Like me, none appeared to be hostile to the church. It was just not a necessary part of our lives.

We were also somewhat uncomfortable to be called “Christians.” We certainly were, in that we came from a Christian background, studied theology, and for a time were closely involved with the liturgical roles of ministry. But we bristled with a term that has been largely coopted by Evangelical Protestants. These strident right-wing Christian enthusiasts with their demands that one be “born again” and “saved” did not represent the sort of socially concerned religion of our pasts. We were not that kind of Christian.


Religion as alternative reality

The reluctance of my generation of progressive Protestants to be called “Christians” brings up a more basic issue—what the words associated with religion signify. Our hesitation in being labeled Christian, and perhaps also the disinterest that many of us have had in the organized Church, was in part to make clear that we were not Christian in the same way that the Evangelicals were Christian. Our religion was something different.

Not all religion is the same. In the multicultural era of globalization, religion has often been used as a badge of identity politics. It has been used by extremist Muslims to demarcate what they regard as the true definition of the faith, and with it a clear distinction between those who are legitimately Muslim and those who are not. It creates a religious in-group. Exactly the same phenomenon is at work among right-wing Evangelical Christians who want to assert the social and political primacy for their kind of people—an identity that is partly defined by race and ethnicity, and partly by religious affiliation.

We old progressive Protestants, however, do not want to build walls; we want to tear them down. We feel quite comfortable in the multicultural societies of the globalized world. We see in the better features of other faiths—Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, among others—a resonance with our own religiosity. It is easy for us to embrace the idea of the commonality of all people in a global civil society. This means that we are uncomfortable with being labelled with one religious identity, especially one that has been coopted by a xenophobic right-wing segment of society.

Are we still religious? That depends on what you mean.

Scholarly attempts to define religion are various, though an interesting new definition is provided by the late sociologist, Robert Bellah, in his magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah, 2011). It is a huge book, as impressive in its scope as it is rich in detail and insight. In it he takes the long view, beginning 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang and the creation of stars and planets, including our own, and then the emergence of living cells in the primal ooze, and the beginning of animate life forms. He ends the book at the Axial Age, the rise of new modes of conceptual activity in the 6th century BCE, a period when intellectualism was sprouting around the world, from Greek thought to philosophical developments at the end of India’s Vedic period.

It is in this grand historical narrative that he addresses the idea of what religion is, and relates it to the development of living species, an idea that I explore in a recent book (Juergensmeyer 2020). Early life forms, Bellah suggests, are focused on material things, survival and procreation. But later in the evolutionary process more evolved life forms have the leisure of spare time. Freed from the necessities of existence they can do whatever they want. And what they often do is unstructured and arbitrarily structured activity, doing things for no apparent purpose. They are like school children finally released from their boring classrooms for a few precious moments for recess. What they do during recess time is to run around and have fun and explore the world. It is something that we call “play.”

Following the lead of the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, Bellah affirms that play is the beginning of all forms of culture, including religion (Huizinga 1944). It is the ability for humans to be creative, to roam and discover. Initially it is primarily an activity. This is true of religion as well. The early forms of religiosity—such as the rituals described in Leviticus and the rites detailed in the Vedas of ancient India—are focused on activity, on what priests do to interact with God or the gods. It is only later, in the Axial Age of the 6th century BCE that religion becomes more introspective and cerebral, and this is when we can describe religion as a product not just of creative activity but of creative thought: the religious imagination

Though it is currently popular in the scholarly community to question whether religion is a thing, something that has agency on its own, Bellah demurs somewhat. In his understanding religion is something, or rather some perception. It is an imagined world of being, “a general order of existence,” as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes it. Bellah goes further in labelling it “religious reality,” one of various multiple realities that “calls the world of daily life into question” (Bellah 2011, 5). Here Bellah is relying on a whole school of sociology associated with the Austrian philosopher, Alfred Schütz, regarding the notion that reality is socially constructed (Schütz 1967), and before him the American philosopher, William James, who thought about cultural forms as constructions of the social imagination (James 1902). According to this point of view, made popular by the book, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, what we perceive as everyday reality is a social construction of what things are and what they mean (Berger and Luckmann 1966). A wooden table, to most humans, is a place to put books and plates of food, but to a termite it is an edible feast. It all depends on your point of view. What Bellah adds to this conversation—aided by the thinking of the pioneering French sociologist, Émile Durkheim—is the insistence that religious perceptions are one of these constructions of reality (Durkheim 1912). The table might be, for instance, an altar in a religious reality. These religious realities are among the various multiple realities that most people navigate among every day. These multiple realities are often overlapping views, and sometimes contesting ones, but they can present levels of meaning and reality that are quite different from one another even though they relate to the same thing, just as we and termites see tables differently though the table remains the same.

Thinking about this–thinking about religion as alternative reality—provides a way of accepting religiosity as a part of human creativity that may come in myriad forms, and adopt many names. With that definition one can posit that religiosity is a fundamental part of the creative imagination, a constituent of culture as certain as art or music. The question then becomes not whether religion will survive, but in what way will it survive?


The religion of the “nones”

This question brings us back to the dilemma that we old liberal Protestants have when confronted with a request to describe our religion. We hesitate being called Christian, in the way that Evangelical Protestants have possessed that term. But we are certainly not atheists, or even agnostics. We are like the “nones.”

Though a couple generations older, we are similar to the young Millennials of today who register their religious preference as “none.” They do not regard themselves as atheists or agnostics, but they do not see any need for religious organizations or affiliations. They describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.”

In the Pew Research Center’s 2019 survey that indicated that affiliation to Christianity had dropped 12 percentage points to 65% of the population over the previous ten years, it indicated that the percentage of those describing their religion as “none” or “nothing in particular” rose from 12 percent to 16 percent. The numbers are even more dramatic when one factors in age. Among the Millennials born between 1981 and 1996, only 49% regard themselves as Christian, 9% adherents of other faiths, and forty percent unaffiliated, so so-called “nones” (Pew Research Center, 2019). Among those in this generation, the “nones” are the largest single religious category—more than Catholics, Mainstream Protestant, Evangelical Protestants or Jews. And their numbers are growing.

In this regard we may be witnessing the emergence of a new form of global spirituality and moral community that resonates with the alternative reality of traditional religious experience, but which has no name and no organization. This no-name religion is increasingly, however, a major form of religiosity, especially in multicultural societies.

In a five year Luce Foundation-supported project on the role of religion in global civil society that I directed, one of our tasks was to look at where religion was going, how it was becoming transformed in global society. We saw both tendencies that I have described in this paper. On the one hand adherents of religion have become more defensive and stridently protective about their identities. On the other hand there are the multiculturally religious, old liberal Protestants like myself and the young new “nones” who affirm spirituality but do not give it a name or suggest that it needs a formal organization.

It is this latter form of spirituality that intrigued us. Would it be possible if two new developments on the planet, global civil society and global religion, could be linked? The latter could be the cultural expression of the former.

To probe this idea we turned again to Robert Bellah, who had been a colleague of mine in the religious studies program at Berkeley years earlier and was intrigued by our project. Bellah had just finished his magisterial book, Religion in Human Evolution, and was thinking about how religion had continued to change since the period at the end of that book, the Axial Age in 6th century BCE. In particular, Bellah was interested in the way that religion has become linked with individualism in the years since the European Enlightenment. But he was also interested in how religion might be transformed in the global age, in the context of a global community.

We invited Bellah to Santa Barbara to discuss the possibilities of a global civil religion. Typical of Bellah, he had prepared a paper that laid out his ideas. Though never published, I have summarized much of the paper in a chapter of my co-authored book that reports on the Luce project, God in the Tumult of the Global Square (Juergensmeyer, Griego and Soboslai, 2015). The full paper is onlined in our project’s digital archive (Bellah 2012). What we wanted to know was whether the idea of “civil religion” that Bellah advanced in a widely-discussed essay in 1967 could characterize not only national civil societies but also global civil society (Bellah 1967).

To respond to this, Bellah first explained how global civil society was possible. In Bellah’s paper he traced the development of the idea of civil society from its inception in 18th century Europe, when it was a part of the complex of ideas related to Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. “Civil society” in the Enlightenment context described what Bellah calls “the public sphere, a realm of thought, argument, and association independent of the state, but leading to the formation of what came to be called public opinion.”

It is this notion of citizenship that is explored more recently by Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989). The concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression are essential to the sense of citizenship in the public sphere, and they were enshrined in all of the leading Enlightenment documents, including those of the American Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. The idea of universal human rights also became a part of the shared values of the civil society of the public sphere.

The Enlightenment thinkers had particular national communities in mind when they discussed this notion of civil society, but it can be more generally applied. Civil society is not necessarily the province only of national societies. Increasingly in recent years the notion of civil society has gone global, and the phrase, global civil society, has gained acceptance by scholars and social activists around the world. One of the reasons for this is the presumed universality of human rights. Another has been the pervasive growth of international NGOs, especially in the last twenty years. Yet another has been the rise of transnational social movements around such issues as economic equality, women’s rights, equality of sexual orientation, and environmental protection. At the same time the advent of instantaneous mass communication through cell phones and the Internet has brought individuals together in an unparalleled way on a global plane. In the 21st century, there is a global economy, global legal norms, global communications, and global festivals such as the Olympics and the World Cup. During the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 people around the world were learning to connect together digitally through zoom and other online platforms.

All of these developments have led towards networks of interaction not just among national elites but also among ordinary citizens—a global civil society. Increasingly nation-state borders do not restrict whom or what we may contact, nor do they define our sense of community. At the same time, economic interaction on a global scale is creating another kind of global community, one that is very much focused on the transnational elites that control and profit from these flows of capital. This elite form of global economic activity is not conducive to global civil society, from Bellah’s point of view. The question is whether the decentralized form of global citizenry can grow despite the attempts of a global elite to control it.

This is where Habermas’ speculation about transnational governance comes into play. The emergence of a global civil society is a challenge to nationalist power and to global elite power, and requires its own forms of power creation in response. Mass movements and international NGOs provide one kind of counterweight. Global public opinion as voiced over the Internet is by far the most democratic of new communications media. And other challenges to national and elite power come from newly developed transnational agencies in dealing with problems of the environment, global communications, and the world-wide diasporas of peoples and cultures. Some of these agencies are supported by the UN, others have been formed on their own with support from interstate or transnational social movements. Habermas is buoyed by these developments, and about regional entities such as the European Union, which he regards as the first step to moving beyond narrow nationalism.

Bellah, however, is less sanguine about the efficacy of these developments in creating a sense of global citizenship on their own, and returns to the idea of building a moral consensus that can provide the basis for transnational institutions of accountability. Though he appreciates Habermas’ attempts to think about a sense of citizenship beyond narrow nationalism, Bellah thinks that Habermas’ notion of an “abstract constitutional patriotism” is an insufficient base for creating a global civil society. For that you need moral commitment. And this is where religion comes in.

Bellah admits that the passions of religious commitment do not always run towards a spirit of open tolerance and interfaith harmony. Quite the opposite is often the case. As the rise of strident nationalist religious movements around the world has demonstrated, religious fervor, as Bellah puts it, has “often been used for evil as well as good purposes.” Still, Bellah believes that the potency of religious passions can be harnessed for good—by which he means a more inclusive sense of religiosity.

Moreover, global society needs this kind of religious zeal. “Only such powerful motivation could make human rights genuinely practical” on a global scale, Bellah insists. And he goes on to point out that every religious tradition contains within it the reverence for life and the appreciation for human dignity that is at the basis of universal human rights—not only Christianity, but also Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese religion. The Analects of Confucius, Bellah reminds us, states that “all within the four seas are brothers.” Buddhism regards all human life (and for that matter all animate life) as having within it the Buddha nature. Thus religious traditions are sources for a world-wide appreciation of the universality of the principles underlying human rights. So are the instincts of a new generation of global citizens whose sense of spirituality and morality know no traditionally national or culturally limited bounds.

Hence the sensibilities of the old liberal Protestants like myself and the young Millennial nones coalesce. We share a common sense of the underlying values of morality and spirituality in all religious traditions and in the vitality of a global human society that is not signified by any one religious community or name. We admire the multicultural acceptance of a global heart to humanity that makes global civil society possible. Liberal Protestants have not disappeared; we have been transformed into the citizens of a global era and the bearers of its global morality and spiritual sensibility.

We are not alone. Ours is essentially Gandhi’s religion. His understanding of Hinduism was informed by Islam, Christianity and many other faiths; it was a religiosity for all people. Some of the world’s leading religious spokespersons, including Gandhi, Bishop Tutu, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and the Aga Khan IV, speak not just to their own religious communities but touch the spiritual pulse of the wider world. They are the saints of the global age.

In thinking about this emerging global religious community, I am reminded of the many good-hearted religious activists I have known over the years. These are people who are tirelessly working for the good of all humanity. Though inspired by their own religious backgrounds, they welcome people of all faiths and no faiths to join in their efforts at creating more just and inclusive societies. I think of Sulak Sivaraksa, the Buddhist civil rights activist in Thailand, and another Buddhist leader, A.K. Ariyaratne, whose Sarvodaya movement for village uplift I visited in Sri Lanka. I think of the Gandhians I knew in India, especially my mentor, Jayaprakash Narayan, the leader of India’s Sarvodaya movement and a tireless champion for social justice. I think of the women and men who have been part of the Jewish-Muslim peace movements in Israel and Palestine whom I have met, and who have worked together not just for cooperation between their religious communities but for a more just an inclusive society as a whole.

I also think of others, of Sister Maria Antonia Aranda in Mexico ministering to Central American migrants trapped at the U.S. border, Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and the Jewish-Christian philosopher and activist, Simone Weil. I think of Bishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador and Gustavo Gutiérrez in Peru and the many nuns and priests and other Catholic activists associated with liberation theology who merged the analysis of Karl Marx with the peaceful message of Jesus. And I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and my own teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Protestant Christianity was never an exclusive teaching, but a message of harmony for the world.

These are good people who have been speaking to the best of their religious traditions for decades. And at the same time they continue to speak to us all. They usually work side by side with those from other faiths, and for the “nones” who confess no particular religious affiliation, but affirm a moral and spiritual connection with all of humanity. Their spirituality, their moral courage, spans religious divides and responds to the best in everyone. Thus they are keeping religion alive, but not only for their own traditions. They may also be harbingers of the global religion of the future.










Bellah, Robert. 1967.” Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96:1, Winter 1967), pp. 1-21. Reprinted in The Robert Bellah Reader, Robert N. Bellah and Steven M. Tipton, eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. pp. 225-245.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762. The Social Contract (1762), especially book 4, chapter 8.


Bellah, Robert. 2012. “Is Global Civil Society Possible?” Unpublished paper presented at the University of California, Santa Barbara on February 2, 2012. The paper is summarized in chap 4 of Mark The full text of the paper is available on line at:  For the video of his presentation of the paper please see: (3 parts)


Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, of Harvard University Press, 2011.


Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality, New York: Penguin Random House.


Durkheim, Émile. 1912. Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995 [1912]).


Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Hackett, Conrad and David McClendon. 2017. “Christiants Remain World’s Largest Religious Group, but They are Declining in Europe.” FactTank, Pew Research Center.


Huizinga, Johan. 1944. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge, 1949; first published in German in Switzerland in 1944.


James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Penguin Classics, 1985 (first published in 1902).


Juergensmeyer, Mark, Dinah Griego, and John Soboslai. 2015. God in the Tumult of the Global Square: Religion in Global Civil Society, New York: Oxford University Press.


Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2020. God at War: A Mediation on Religion and Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press.


Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1932. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Simon Schuster.


Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1939. The Nature and Destiny of Man. New York: Simon Schuster.


Pew Research Center. 2015. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”


Pew Research Center. 2017. “The Changing Global Religious Landscape.”


Pew Research Center. 2019. “In U.S., the Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace.”


Schütz, Alfred. 1967. Phenomenology of the Social World (George Walsh, translator), Evanston: Northwestern University Press.


Stetzer, Ed. 2017. “If It Doesn’t Stem Its Decline, Mainline Protestantism Has Just 23 Easters Left. Washington Post, April 28, 2017.




This book contains essays on my contribution to several academic fields, written by my colleagues, for which I am grateful and honored. You can download the book on the website of the Danish Institute for International Studies.

From the announcement of the book:

On the occasion of Mark Juergensmeyer’s retirement Mona Kanwal Sheikh (DIIS) and Isak Svensson (Uppsala University) have compiled an edited volume highlighting central debates and concepts within the fields of religious violence, conflict studies and global studies.

Twenty-two leading scholars from around the world, and with a range of different disciplinary backgrounds, provide broadly accessible overviews of scholarly debates and institutional processes where Juergensmeyer has contributed major insights and made an important impact.

The book is not only a celebration of Mark Juergensmeyer’s lifetime achievements, but also a warranted tool for students and scholars, who want an insight into major conceptual debates on topics such as secularism, cosmic warfare, worldviews, and the globalization of global studies.


  • Manfred Steger: theories of globalization
  • Saskia Sassen: global societies
  • Changgang Guo, The globalization of global studies
  • Dominic  Sachsenmaier: global history
  • Hagen Schulz-Forberg: transnational studies
  • Matthias Middel, Leipzig:  global studies consortium
  • Julie Ingersoll, Univ of North Florida — radical religion
  • Ronki Ram, Punjab University: Dalit social movements
  • Kathleen Moore, UC- Santa Barbara: Global religion
  • Inger Furseth: sociology of religion
  • Michael K Jerryson – Religious Violence, Comparative religion
  • Mia Bloom – Terrorism research
  • Margo Kitts – Religious studies, religious nationalism
  • Monica Toft: International Relations and religion
  • Manoranjan Mohanty – Gandhian peace, peace studies
  • Helmut Anheier – Sociology, Civil society
  • Ron E. Hassner – Religious conflicts
  • Rich Appelbaum – Global studies, globalization
  • Gurinder Singh Mann – Sikh Studies, South Asia
  • Isak Svensson – Conflict resolution
  • Mona Kanwal Sheikh –Worldview analysis
  • Reza Aslan: Cosmic War
  • Giles Gunn: Secularism