Category Archives: Posts

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

The Fragile Power of Populists in a Pandemic

These comments were posted on the International Relations -e website on May 2, 2021. 

The American populist president, Donald Trump, came to his downfall largely due to the ineptitude of his administration’s ability to handle, or perhaps more correctly, mishandle the country’s response to the covid pandemic. What angered voters was not just his apparent inability to take the situation seriously, but also his cheerful optimism that consistently belied the facts of the growing crisis.

In the beginning months of the pandemic crisis, Trump assured the American public that the disease was no worse than the common flu, and that it would quickly vanish away. When it didn’t, rather than double down on mitigating factors that might control it, he consistently promised that things were getting better. In September 2020, at an election rally in North Carolina when he stood maskless before a packed and largely mask-free crowd, he proclaimed that “we’re rounding the corner of the pandemic.” Unfortunately for him, the crisis was simply getting worse.

That is a problem with populists. They gain their following by weaving hopeful though often fictitious images of the future, and promoting vaunted characterizations of their ability to handle crises. This was the peril of America’s Trump, and to some extent also of Turkey’s Erdogan, Brazil’s Bolsanaro, the UK’s Boris Johnson, the Philippine’s Duterte, and India’s Modi.

Narendra Modi seems to have followed the same covid play-book of Donald Trump. Early on he downplayed its seriousness. As recently as March 2021, as the recent rise of cases began to spiral precipitously, he was claiming that India would serve as “the world’s pharmacy,” now that the pandemic was, he implied, well under control. Ignoring the disturbing spike in cases, his government allowed the massive kumbh mela gathering in April on the banks of the Ganges river at Haridwar. Modi himself traveled to Bengal to appear maskless before crowds in that state’s election campaigns.

Only when the world’s media began to spotlight the growing covid catastrophe in the nation did Modi return to warn of a covid virus “storm” overtaking the country and vowing to increase production of oxygen tanks and other needed supplies. He also faced a storm of criticism of his inattentiveness to the seriousness of the crisis. Like Trump, his popularity plunged in relationship to his handling of the situation.

Modi is not Trump, however, and the politics of India is not the same as in the United States. Trump’s popularity poll numbers were never higher than his unpopularity ones, while Modi has consistently stayed a well-liked politician. Despite the current critique of Modi’s command of this crisis, the likelihood is that he will politically survive.

Still, the current disillusionment over his persistent optimism is characteristic of how populist leaders around the world are vulnerable. The era of globalization has helped to produce such leaders, and global crises can greatly diminish or even undo them.

In the last thirty years, the rise of globalization has been a challenge to the artifact of the nation-state and to the nationalism that sustains it. In a world of global economics—when everything is made everywhere—and global media and demographic shifts, the legitimacy of the nation-state has been called into question. One way of shoring up the idea of the nation is through a fierce nationalism. These neo-nationalisms are often based on ethnic or religious homogeneity and stoked by the fiery rhetoric of strong politicians.

The illusion of strength is a large part of their success. Like Trump, they never admit a mistake and never concede to failure. They are boundlessly optimistic and self-assured about their abilities to solve any problem, even the most intractable ones. During the 2016 Republican convention that nominated Trump for the presidency, he listed America’s difficulties and confidently proclaimed, “I alone can fix them.”

Though there is no evidence that Trump fixed any of these problems is beside the point. His followers were spirited by the fact that he appeared to have the supreme confidence to solve them. Moreover, his only somewhat muted messages of White supremacy gave them the assurance that he was on their side in the racial and cultural wars in contemporary globalized society, and that he would “make America great again,” in an image that many felt would privilege them.

This is a familiar message of neo-nationalist populist leaders around the world who appeal to an ethnic and religious base in their constituency, including America’s Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan and to some extent India’s Modi. They offer a positive unified image to counter the more complicated one of a multicultural global world, and these visions have a powerful political appeal. Alas they do not stand up so well when crises emerge, often global in scope, that rip the cover off of the cheerful optimism of populist leaders.


Insurrection of the Digital Self

Shortly after the January 6 right-wing insurrection at the United States capitol building spurred on by then President Donald Trump, FBI agents came to the suburban home of Guy Reffitt in Wylie, Texas, and arrested him for being part of the mob. The person who had tipped off the FBI about Reffitt was his own son, 18-year old Jackson Reffitt.

When young Jackson was interviewed on CNN by Chris Cuomo after his father’s arrest, Jackson said he turned in his father because he thought it was the “right thing” to do. The young man explained that he thought that his father had become a danger to himself and others, including his own family, whom he threatened to shoot if they snitched on him. Unknown to his father, Jackson had already informed the FBI that his father had become dangerous. When Jackson was pressed by Chris Cuomo about whether the elder Reffitt had always been a conspiratorial extremist, the son said that he had not, but that he had changed in recent years, specifically the last four years.

What had happened in the previous four years was, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump, who was a fount of extremist and conspiratorial rantings. Jackson confirmed that this was part of what had happened with his father, saying that Trump “had manipulated him.”

But Jackson also mentioned another factor. He said that his father had become “more active on the internet.” He began talking about things that that went far beyond the personal and political rhetoric of Trump. The elder Reffitt said that this country is on “the end of times,” mirroring the apocalyptic language of the QAnon conspiracy movement.

Likely borrowing from the Christian Evangelical ideas of millenarian prophets, the QAnon ideas promoted a view of history that would culminate in President Trump’s second term of office. The anonymous person who calls him or herself Q began posting messages in 2017 claiming that the United States was controlled by an evil cabal of Satanic devil-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles involving liberal politicians and Hollywood celebrities. According to the conspiracy theory Donald Trump knew about this sinister regime and was sent as a messiah to abolish it. The theory concluded that the cabal would end shortly after Trump’s second inauguration in a catastrophic event known as “the storm,” when a military coup would take control and the evildoers would be banished to Guantanamo prison. Then the world would be at peace.

Hence to QAnon followers there was no way that Trump could lose the election—he was ordained to have a second term. Only the evil cabal could have prevented him from taking office and fulfilling his messianic duties. That is why the counting of ballots that would certify Joe Biden’s election had to be stopped. Faithful followers like Guy Reffitt felt called to duty. As he prepared to leave for Washington before that fateful day, his son said that he told his family, “I’m about to do something big.”

Conspiracy theories like those of QAnon and other far right extremist movements are able to spread like wildfire on the internet. They often begin on obscure message boards, such as 4chan, which was replaced by 8chan, which in turn has been rebranded as 8kun. These are the preferred outlets of Q’s messages to his or her followers. But the messages and the ideas contained in them are quickly repeated on more widely accessible formats, such as Facebook and Twitter. Trump has included QAnon related messages hundreds of times on his own Twitter account. By 2020 the numbers of followers of QAnon have been estimated to be in the millions.

As the size of the movement grew and the dangers of its messages became more obvious, social media has moved to limit its use of their platforms. The 4chan and 8chan sites were closed down. Facebook began cracking down on QAnon sites and messages. In July 2020 Twitter began to remove the accounts of 7000 QAnon-related groups and individuals, later expanding that to 150,000 such accounts. By August 2020 Facebook said it had taken down 1500 QAnon-related user groups that had a combined following of four million. In October of that year it banned all QAnon-related groups and material.

The QAnon messages and communication among adherents continue, however, on other platforms, notably on 8kun and Endchan. They have also migrated to the dark web, such as Tor, “the onion router,” which is an alternative to the world wide web that is familiar to most internet users. The onion router has multiple encryption layers that make it difficult for those posting or using the sites to be tracked. Though they limit the wide accessibility of the conspiracy ideas they allow for even more free expression among the true believers, thus strengthening the cult-like nature of the movement.

Could Jackson Reffitt’s father have been a QAnon loyalist? Quite possibility. Or he might have been a fellow traveler, one of many right-wing enthusiasts who accept some of the conspiratorial thinking as true. According to a Pew Foundation poll, some forty percent of registered Republicans think that Democratic politicians are covering up a pedophile ring and that Donald Trump was trying to combat it. Neither of those statements are true, but they are central to the QAnon message.

What this reveals is the power of social media to disseminate false information. But more important, it shows their power not only to spread the ideas, but also to do so in a way that limits alternative, more objective, views of reality. A recent video documentary aired on Netflex, The Social Dilemma, describes the tunnel-like vision that is created purposely by the algorithms of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They reinforce the users’ view of the world by identifying the kind of content they like, and then pushing similar content towards them and blocking alternative perspectives in an attempt to get the users to spend more time on their site. The goal of the social networks is to get more people to spend more time using the network and thus being susceptible to the advertising on it that monetizes their communication services.

While this may make good business sense in that it brings in a staggering flow of profits to Mark Zuckerberg and other owners of sites like Facebook and Twitter, it is not good for society. It enhances the trend towards what I have described elsewhere as the emergence of the digital self.

This digital self is new, in that it is a product of the digital age, especially the recent decade in which social media has become dominant, and is shaped by and responds to their power. The effect is to create three dangerous illusions.

The illusion of connectivity.

One is the illusion of connectivity. All of us who teach in a classroom experience the strange silence at the beginning of classes when students do not talk with one another but stare at their cell phones. They think they are connecting with others, and perhaps they are. But this kind of connectivity can be strangely alienating, a way of preventing the sustained social interactions that build friendship and trust. It can create a false sense connection without the hard work of really knowing others and creating authentic communities. One cartoon by Bizarro succinctly states the problem: a grieving widow looks over the empty audience prior to the funeral and says, “I expected more people—he had 2000 friends on Facebook.”

The illusion of wisdom.

There is also an illusion of knowledge created by the instantaneous availability of information on Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and all the other purveyors of information at our fingertips. Yet it is selective information. After all, we are the ones who decide what words or phrases to put into the Google search engine, and it is Google’s algorithms that determine what responses come up first. Facebook has a way of reading our minds, or at least determining our political, cultural, and consumer tastes, and adjusts the postings to our Facebook wall accordingly. In these ways the information that we get simply confirms and reinforces our own values and opinions. So in a curious way, all of this avalanche of information is filtered in a way that actually makes us less informed. At the same time it discourages us from exploring alternative points of view or honing analytic skills since we are led to believe we already know what there is to know.

The illusion of power.

This leads to the most dangerous of the illusions of the digital sense: a false sense of empowerment. With all these resources of information at one’s fingertips (even though it might be fake information), we have the illusion that we know as much or more than anyone else. This is empowering. It leads to a distrust of expertise and authority, and the rise of an “opinion culture,” where everyone’s opinion is equally valid.

This challenges the whole range of established authority, not just in academia, where we sense this mounting disrespect almost daily, but also in the social and political institutions that lead our societies. An outside politician like Trump has an appeal simply by virtue of not being part of an established political party. The same phenomenon is seen in the cultural sphere, where the rise of new religious movements and demagogic preachers are part of the anti-authoritarian mood of the global age of self-confident self-empowered individuals.

This self-confidence is illusory, since it is not based on any real power or is channeled through democratic process of social and political change. It is rebellion that has no hope of becoming a revolution, and is easily exploited by demagogues who pretend to represent the voices of the populace. The dark side of this illusion of power is anarchy, a devolution of social institutions that are felled by the rise of a deep distrust of authority based solely on one’s own imagined power.

The digital self of the global age, therefore, is lonely but widely connected, limited in understanding but able to access vast resources of knowledge, impotent in an ability to act but empowered with a brazen self-confidence. These illusions of connection, wisdom and power in the global era contribute to the profound dichotomies that have emerged in societies around the world. They lead to an absence of trust in any form of shared truth, and as Jackson Reffitt discovered, they can lead one’s own father to an insurrection.


Why the Capitol Assault was Terrorism

While the horrific scenes of the invasion and occupation of the US Capitol building were played out on television, I happened to be in a radio interview for my new book, God at War. The reporter asked if there were similarities between the Trump-incited rioters and the terrorists I have studied. I quickly responded “yes.”

Here’s why. Though it is true that the reasons for insurrections are different—supporters of the Islamic State are not the same as militant Buddhists in Myanmar, for example. Yet all the violent extra-legal acts of force aimed against public order that I have studied have some common features: symbolic empowerment, performance violence, and cosmic war.

Symbolic empowerment

            When MAGA-hat wearing rioters carrying confederate flags climbed through broken windows of the US Capitol, they were asserting that they rather than elected officials had the right to claim that space. Even more striking were pictures of a bare-chested protestor with a Viking hat sitting in the Speaker’s chair of the House of Representatives and a grinning rioter sitting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, his feet propped on her desk.

It is the same portrayal of power exhibited by Timothy McVeigh in destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City. A similar show of force was made by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in installing himself on the balcony of the most important mosque of the city of Mosul and proclaiming himself to be Caliph of the Islamic State. Similarly, acts of political assassination are frequent devices of terrorists since they not only remove a perceived enemy but also symbolically present themselves as more powerful than the leaders they kill.

These are symbolic demonstrations of power; but they are not real power. Within a couple hours the Capitol rioters were driven out of the Capitol. Before the end of the day of his attack, Timothy McVeigh was apprehended and brought to justice. Assassins are often killed on the spot. Al Baghdadi took longer to overcome, but eventually he and his ISIS were destroyed.

Yet in the moments they dominated the news and occupied public spaces, people without power asserted that they had it. In the case of ISIS, the movement appealed to the Sunni Arabs of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria who felt disenfranchised by the Shi’a dominated governments of Baghdad and Damascus. In the case of Trump’s stormtroopers who invaded the Capitol, many of them were white heterosexual Christians disturbed at the increasing multiculturalism of American society and the attempts to expand governmental power to provide welfare benefits to all. For a variety of reasons they felt alienated and humiliated in a new world order that seem to leave them behind. For a moment, however, sitting in the Speaker’s chair in the US Capitol, they imagined themselves to be in charge.

Performance violence 

The fact that the whole world was watching this assault on the US citadel of democracy was part of the point. The young bare-chested man with the Viking hat must have known that his picture was being taken and soon would be displayed on television and in newspapers and repeated on social media on the internet.

The intention of terrorism is to terrorize. It is those who witness acts of violence and are terrified by them who give definition to the term. Certainly the members of Congress who lay shaking on the floor of the House chambers felt the terror of the moment, as did all of us watching the moments from a distance on television. Without an audience, such intimidating displays of violence would not have any effect.

If the orders to march on the Capitol were given by Donald Trump in the evening and the agitators tramped down the street to occupy the building in the dead of night, it would not have been much of an issue. It is unlikely that television cameras would be there, and the lighting would have been insufficient. Trump and his followers chose the fullness of daytime, during a moment when all Senators and Representatives were meeting on the most fateful moment of the ascension of a new President, the ritual tallying of electoral votes that would proclaim Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as leaders of the new administration.

If terrorism is theater, then timing and staging are significant. And in this case the timing of the electoral vote tally was perfect and the Capitol stage set could not have been better. As soon as the reserve forces of police and the National Guard came to the Capitol with smoke bombs and strength in numbers, the drama was over. The actors—many of whom seemed appropriately costumed for militant theater—meekly left the stage.

It is a frequent characteristic of terrorist acts to choose a time and place of significance. Timothy McVeigh chose a date with various meanings, including the execution date of the leader of a Christian militant group with which McVeigh had some association. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon could not have had a more apt set of locations for an assault meant to show the vulnerability of America’s economic and military power. In a similar way the organizers of the Trump riot chose a date and place that maximized their attempts to portray a symbolic power to the whole nation, and beyond that, to the entire world. Fortunately, however, the symbols fade quickly and what remains is the image of a sad failed coup by what seemed to be a crazed mob.

Cosmic War

From the point of view of the activists engaged in the Capitol assault, however, there was nothing crazy about it. The one person who was killed by a Capitol policeman as she tried to climb on a ledge leading to the Speaker’s Lobby was a woman who had served with distinction in the US Air Force. According to the New York Times, she was wrapped in a Make America Great Again flag and shot as she tried to climb through a window that would have enabled her and other rioters to access the room where the members of the House of Representatives were sequestered.

The 35-year old woman, Ashli Babbitt, had flown to Washington from her home in San Diego at the behest of Donald Trump for his supporters to protest the electoral vote tally. She had served for twelve years, including being a security guard for US Air Force bases, and had risen to the rank of Senior Airman. Her husband, who did not come with her from San Diego, described her as an enthusiastic supporter of the President, but not emotionally unstable.

Like Timothy McVeigh, who had also served in the military—in his case, in the first conflict with Iraq, Desert Storm—Ashli Babbitt may have considered herself to be engaged in another military struggle. They may have seen themselves as warriors in a great mission, certain to be dangerous, likely to be violent, but justified by the nobility of its cause.

It may seem strange that what appear to be ordinary and sensible persons can be drawn into a situation where they commit the most hideous of violent acts. But this is precisely what the image of war allows. Warfare provides an alternative worldview to normal public order in which almost anything is permitted in order to conquer those perceived to be enemies. In warfare enemies are things with which you cannot reason or negotiate; they can only be destroyed.

Most wars are conducted for political purposes that are authorized by a state regime that is accountable to laws and the moral constraints of the people that support it. The great theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, reasoned that these forms of war are diluted versions of the most basic kind of war, absolute war, in which there can be no hostages or peace treaties. These wars are sometimes conducted not for political purposes but because they are perceived as protecting civilization itself, an existential war between good and evil, right and wrong. These are cosmic wars, in that they touch on a transcendent sense of moral and spiritual struggle. They are often therefore imbued with religious significance.

Most of the terrorist acts that I have studied are products of these cosmic wars. When I interviewed one of the jihadi activists associated with al Qaeda who was involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center he told me that he was not a terrorist, but a soldier. Though I didn’t recognize the army of which he was a part or see the battle that he imagined, they were real in his mind. He leaned over and whispered to me, “you don’t see it, Mr. Mark, but there’s a war going on, a battle of good and evil, religion and irreligion—and your government is the enemy.”

In a similar way Ashli Babbitt may have thought that there was a war going on, and that she was called to serve in it. Just as she did in the military, she took orders from her commander, and tried to faithfully execute them. At the Capitol on that fateful day she was able to be active in a real scene of battle in the way that her twelve years of military service as a security guard probably had not allowed her to do. In the struggle for control of the capitol, Ashli Babbitt was a soldier again. Though she broke laws and windows and eventually lost her life in the process, for a time she was a warrior in a great cosmic war.









This interview with Mona Sheikh, co-editor of Religion, Conflict and Global Society, a festschrift honoring me, was posted on the website of the Danish Institute of International Studies on November 13, 2020

Tribute to a pioneer of the academic fields of religious violence and Global Studies: Mark Juergensmeyer turns 80

Mark Juergensmeyer seemed to stumble on to one of the most important research fields today: religious violence. 27 years after publishing a groundbreaking book on religion, secularism and violence, his work, and not least his approach, has influenced many researchers, including DIIS researcher Mona Sheikh. Together with Isak Svensson of Uppsala University she is editing a festschrift celebrating his contributions to academia.

When the book The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State came out in 1993, its topic seemed slightly peripheral to the public debate as that was looking at the time.

After the end of the Cold War, religion didn’t excactly seem like a very important fault line in international politics, and the book’s author, Mark Juergensmeyer, a scholar especially of Gandhi’s thought and Sikh extremism, among other subjects, wasn’t a traditional expert on either the Middle East or terrorism.

These two subjects did gain some attention, when in the same year a group of Islamists tried to blow up the World Trade Center, failing to do so, but in the process still killing seven people and alerting the world to the rise of Islamist terrorism.

The book acquired quite a lot of academic traction, and when seven years later Juergensmeyer published another book on the confrontation between religious extremism and the modern state, Terror in the Mind of God, the book seemed almost prophetic in explaining an event that would come to define the coming years.

All major religions have potential for violence

A few months later, two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and turned Juergensmeyer’s subject into the topic that overshadowed practically everything else on the planet.

“His ambition was to show that all major religions of the world has the potential for violence, that they are upheld by mythological imaginations, and that they are very much alike in that sense,” explains Mona Sheikh, head of the Global Security and World Views unit at DIIS.

“And then 9/11 happened, and he had a chapter on al-Qaeda. At the time not many people knew anything about al-Qaeda, and not much had been published. For that book he had actually interviewed one of the perpetrators behind the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993,” she adds.

”Already back then he wrote about the conflict lines in a new Cold War. Now it was religious nationalism versus secular nationalism. In a way, it became quite prophetic compared to populist currents that arose in many countries, and the way religion increasingly became a visible force in politics,” continues Sheikh, a former Ph D student of Juergensmeyer’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and today the leader of the ERC-funded project on Transnational Jihad and Containment and one of the instigators of a Festschrift celebrating Juergensmeyer’s 80th birthday today, to be published at the beginning of 2021.

About Mark Juergensmeyer:

Juergensmeyer is distinguished professor of sociology and global studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the founding director of global studies and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. He is a pioneer in the global studies field, focusing on global religion, religious violence, conflict resolution and South Asian religion and politics. He has published more than three hundred articles and twenty books, including the revised and expanded fourth edition of the award-winning Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2017)

“Right after the Cold War, there was this widespread notion that a secular model of society could also solve the problems of Muslim countries. There was great opposition to that mindset in parts of the Muslim world. Movements such as the Taliban – which have been a large part of my research – were strongly opposed to that notion, and other Islamist movements as well. In his writings, Mark challenged this standard thinking, that secularism was the victorious idea. He was also critical of the universalist way of thinking about  secularism.”

Large influence

9/11 would have terrorism and security-experts jumping out of practically every cupboard to explain the new threat to Western civilisation, focusing in a narrow way on security, networks or and the interpretation of religious doctrines.

Although an inspiration to many, and with an obligatory presence on the curriculum of the field of religious violence, Juergensmeyer would take a different path. This consisted in not focusing narrowly on Islam when analysing religiously motivated violence, but looking, for instance, at the Christian sectarians of Waco in much the same way and drawing on many different fields of research when researching instigators of religious violence.

“His perspective has always been comparative, showing that there are some of the same mechanisms that apply in different forms of religious violence. There is, of course, something particular in each tradition that we must understand, but often there are some similar mechanisms that mobilize people. In a way he represents a very unique blend of focusing on texts and myths as theologians often do, but at the same time insisting on meeting and talking to the people that his research centers on, as anthropologists often do. And then he invented the concept of ‘cosmic war’. This is the concept of a struggle between good and evil, and how earthly conflicts are often elevated to this ‘sacred drama’, as he calls it. Most world religions have a concept of good and evil, and many of the world’s conflicts are seen through that prism, including by the secular parties that might be involved. He talks about the religious mobilization of violence, but has also made significant contributions to peace and conflict research,” she explains and continues:

I had heard so much from him about the importance of being in the field and talking to those you are actually studying and trying to explain. There is also a tendency in some scholarship to look first and foremost at the doctrines of these religions and conclude solely from them, without taking into account that it is people who read these texts and interpret them

Mona Sheikh

“His contribution is in explaining why most of the world’s religions have also spawned militant movements. What he is looking at are these mythological tales in the religious traditions. Not because he explains it causally – that because there are those notions, then they are violent per se – but he explains that there is a potential for violence in the religious imageries”.

Not just one explanation

– I guess it must also mean something having a different background from many other modern researchers of religious violence; having studying Gandhi, Sikhism etc. before arriving in the world of jihadist terrorism?

“”Yes, he also trained as a theologian and a political scientist, and worked as professor in the sociology of religion. He has always worked in a very multidisciplinary way, which defines  his approach, but his method is basically very anthropological, exactly because he has been out interviewing many of these religious and militant leaders”.

– What does the multidisciplinary approach mean when working in these fields?

“It means that you do not find the explanation in one place, but that it is a combination. We humans are not just characterized or driven by one meta-identity; we are many things at once – we are political beings, we are also religious beings, we are family people, and one has to take this into account. There is a tendency in terrorism research to look for a singular explanation‚” she explains.

If one concludes that these people are not just out of reach, then it opens up a space for dialogue, reconciliation, compromises – to speak to each other. Much of the counterterrorism discourse after 9/11 has insisted that you cannot talk to these people

Mona Sheikh

“Political scientists are looking for political explanations for why people act the way they do; with religious scholars it is, of course, about faith, and anthropologists have gone out and tried to understand people’s life worlds. He has always combined these methods and factors. He also analyzes religious texts – what kinds of conceptions and imagery they facilitate. Complemented by many, many hours of interviews with militant actors, which have given him a high degree of credibility. I have personally been very inspired by this and have taken that approach with me in my work interviewing the Taliban, because I had heard so much from him about the importance of being in the field and talking to those you are actually studying and trying to explain. There is also a tendency in some scholarship to look first and foremost at the doctrines of these religions and conclude solely from them, without taking into account that it is people who read these texts and interpret them, and that these interpretations can change over time according to context‚” Sheikh explains.

Creating a new field of research

Juergensmeyer is also a partner in the Explaining Transnational Jihad project at DIIS, is involved in a large project at Uppsala University and is Honorary Professor  at Roskilde University Centre. At the latter, his work in establishing a whole new discipline of research, Global Studies, has led to the creation of a department specialising in the effects of globalisation from a multidisciplinary and transnational perspective, seeking to understand the dynamics from many different cultural standpoints.

About the Festschrift:

The book “Religion, Conflict and Global Society – A Festschrift celebrating Mark Juergensmeyer” (Edited by Mona Kanwal Sheikh and Isak Svensson) will be published in 2021 with contribution from scholars from different disciplines: Giles Gunn, Gurinder Singh Mann, Helmut Anheier, Isak Svensson, Manoranjan Mohanty, Margo Kitts, Mia Bloom, Michael K Jerryson,  Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Monica Toft, Reza Azlan, Rich Appelbaum, and Ron E. Hassner.

Mona Sheikh talks affectionately about an icon who, both personally and professionally, has clearly meant quite a lot to her – and she also readily admits to being influenced a lot by his approach.

“We have looked a lot at his way of working. After all, our approach is also very much about understanding jihadism from an insider perspective; what kind of world view is being projected? What are the kinds of religious beliefs characterizing transnational jihadism that make them stand out against previous generations’ jihadism or Islamism? What I have tried to develop in collaboration with Mark is a method of understanding the link between the sociological and the theological,” she says.

“When I was in the United States, we started working on what we called a sociotheological approach to the study of religious violence, which combines a focus on people’s world views with a focus on their social vocation. One must understand how people interpret the religious notions in the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves.”

The idea of good and evil

– In the Introduction to ’Terror in the Mind of God’, he mentions feeling a certain kinship with these strongly religious militants in their social activism and desire to create change through religion – without, of course, endorsing the violence. Does that differentiate him from other researchers, that he doesn’t necessarily start out from a point of condemnation?

“That is an important point and reflects his method of emphatetic immersion into the worldviews of those he his studying. Both within and beyond academia, there is often a demonization of these movements, especially when it comes to militant movements that draw on religious imaginaries to justify acts of violence. His point is that these people can also be driven by the idea of the good and the righteous – they also  want a just society, but people disagree about what the just society is. The Taliban are characterized by the ambition to create order and justice – but they connect it with a vision of the divine, while in our part of the world we often connect justice and law and order and equality before the law with secularism. It is an important point that these people are not necessarily evil per se. If you open yourself up to a more nuanced portrayal, it also means that you can talk to these people. And that’s where his research is heading these days, more towards peace research and conflict resolution,” she adds.

Terrorism research is still very focused on individual explanatory models, where one follows the individual’s radicalization and network, which people they have been influenced by, a microsociological approach in one sense or another, very focused on individual processes

Mona Sheikh

“If one concludes that these people are not just out of reach, then it opens up a space for dialogue, reconciliation, compromises – to speak to each other. Much of the counterterrorism discourse after 9/11 has insisted that you cannot talk to these people, they are driven by evil and hatred towards the West. That narrative is altered if you put a face on these people and tell their story in terms of their own premises and thus provide access to their world view”.

– A more holistic approach to religious violence, and also putting Christian fundamentalists in the same box as jihadists, I guess, would also be a tad provocative to many people?

“Yes, and it only became that way after 2001. Until then, terrorist research was not about jihadism and Islam in the same way at all. There was a more equitable distribution, and much of the research was about secular militant ideological movements or Christian evangelists in the United States. But Mark has also been in the field for so long that he can demonstrate that there is no natural connection between any one single denomination and its violent expression, but that it occurs in many different variants”.

– Is there more room for that way of understanding terror and jihadist movements today than there was ten or fifteen years ago?

“Probably among parts of academia there is a countertrend that wants to challenge simple causality models, or the essentialism in the study of religion. But it requires more multidisciplinary work. Terrorism research is still very focused on individual explanatory models, where one follows the individual’s radicalization and network, which people they have been influenced by, a microsociological approach in one sense or another, very focused on individual processes. What Mark also contributes is to lift the gaze a little from that and look at some ideational structures and how they relate to the feeling of being misrepresented in the world. And that this  is also a universal mechanism,” she replies.

“In a way, it is becoming more common, because we are also seeing a globalization in academic fields. We do not think as sectarians as we did before 9/11 in the field of terrorism. Disciplinary borders do not mean that much anymore. And I think to a large extent that this development is part of Mark’s legacy over the years.”


Podcast on God, Religion and Social Change


Just out, a conversation with me on God, religion and social change in India and around the world in a time of pandemic, on a Delhi-based podcast.

The interviewer is Dev Pathak of South Asia University, Delhi, and the topics range from religious responses to the pandemic to the politicization of religion in India and the United States, and then to the future of religion in a global world. It was an interesting conversation.

Podcast on lower caste movements in Punjab


This podcast interviews me about my research on lower caste movements in the Punjab, including my interviews with the founder of the Ad Dharm movement, Mangoo Ram. It tells how I got involved in this research, and how I found Mangoo Ram almost by accident, and discovered to my surprise that this village leader of Untouchables had once lived in Fresno! For the full story, listen to the podcast at this site:

Here’s the introduction to the podcast:

Ad Dharm & Ravidassia with Professor Mark Juergensmeyer

 Welcome to the tenth history podcast by SikhArchive, today we are joined by Mark Juergensmeyer, who is a professor of global studies, sociology and also religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He has a plethora of literature relating to the study of South Asian religion and politics and has published more than 200 articles and 20 books, one of which being discussed today is called, Religious Rebels in the Punjab, which is about the Ad Dharam movement in the early 20th century which subsequently led to the formation of the Ravidassia community.

His scholarly work related to the Ad Dharam movement and Ravidassia religious formation is phenomenal and certainly unique since his field work includes being in contact with many of the key members including Mangu Ram. Thus, I could think of no better person to have a conversation with about the religious reform movement with respect to the scheduled castes which ran parallel to the Singh Sabha Lehar and Arya Samaj.

And it is important note here that the terms “Dalit”, “untouchables”, “Scheduled castes” or “scheduled tribes” – throughout this discussion are all terms of reference and none of which the diaspora relate to in caste discussions.

“Dalit” is the Preferred and politically correct term used in the subcontinent and academic writing on or talking about caste. “scheduled castes” is also widely used.  “Harijans” (children of god) was a term Gandhi coined for “Dalits” but Dr Ambedkar and “Dalits” largley rejected.

Covid vs Cultural Nationalism

The recent pictures in American media of angry and largely white male protestors, many with Trump’s MAGA hats, could have been taken several months ago. The target, however, is vastly different.

Just a couple of months ago the perceived global assault on American nationalism was economic—entangling trade alliances that were touted as taking away American jobs—or forms of cultural globalization aimed at undermining the American way of life.

The perception that there was a global cultural assault on nationalism was easy to imagine since the evidence of it was closely at hand. After all, waves of new immigrants from non-European countries entered the United States in recent decades, some illegally. They were easy to marginalize since they were different from white Euro-Americans, not only ethnically but in some cases by their religion. Worst of all were those who were Muslim.

But the new pictures of virtually the same angry white males with MAGA hats do not show them protesting against Muslims or Mexicans. They are protesting against a new global threat, virtually invisible ones, tiny virus cells. Covid-19 is the new global enemy, imagined to be aided by those scientists, health professionals and public leaders who appear to conspire with the virus to vex the ordinary lives of angry white males with MAGA hats. It is now covid-19 that is thought to be undermining the American way of life.

Covid-19 is a neologism created by shortening the phrase coronavirus disease 2019. Like SARS and the other previous coronaviruses it is an airborne respiratory virus that is highly contagious. Because it was likely first transmitted to humans from live animals in Wuhan, China, it has been possible to link the disease with foreign and sinister global forces out to undermine the American way of life. The conspiracy theories regarding its origins and spread are ubiquitous.

To a paranoid segment of the right-wing community in the US, these conspiracies were linked to globalization. The virus was the attempt of China, or the UN, or Bill Gates, or 5G technology—or some other sinister force—to scare Americans and deprive them of their liberty. Rather than blaming the government for its ineptitude in allowing the virus to spread rapidly, making the US by far the most infected nation on the planet, the blame was placed on fictional foes.

Perhaps the most frightening of the imagined falsehoods has been the notion that the disease is not real, but a hoax perpetrated by clever liberals to sedate the populace. Hence those who held to this fiction could cavalierly ignore any of the recommended restrictions, crowding together in public and thereby endangering everyone else. Doctors treating some covid-19 patients have had to contend with their arguments that they could not possibly have the disease since it was a hoax, and it didn’t actually exist.

These fears and the anger over having been constricted by restrictive pandemic regulations have brought hordes of gun-toting angry white men and women out on the streets in protest. Before American cities erupted in demonstrations against police brutality, led largely by young Blacks and progressive whites, these white MAGA hat-wearing protestors had the media’s attention. They will likely return in force, especially if new restrictions are adopted when the predictable second wave of virus infection occurs.

For the moment it seems that the global pandemic and its restrictions will continue to be at the center of American right-wing populist rage for some time to come. Rather than cultural nationalism this anger expresses a nationalism that is equally anti-global and defensive, a covid nationalism. The culture wars, and the animosity against immigrants, refugees, and Muslims has taken a back seat. The question is whether this covid nationalism is a turning point, whether it a brief deflection of attention, or whether it will be merged with cultural nationalism.

The question is not easy to answer since it largely depends on the future of the pandemic. The optimistic scenario is that the worst is over, that the rate of infections nationally will continue to decline, the economy will slowly reemerge and a vaccine will be found to be effective by the end of the year. In this scenario, the current fears may subside in the reemergence of normalization. And the old forms of cultural nationalism and its disdain against immigrants, minorities and Muslims may again surface. Or perhaps by then they will have been forgotten.

But the optimistic scenario is not the likely one. The possibility is real that there will be waves of new infections and with them new restrictions for at least a year or more to come. The greatly anticipated vaccine may be years off, and perhaps not discovered for decades. There is still no vaccine for AIDS, for example, though it has become a managed disease. Perhaps the same could be the case with covid-19. We could learn to live with it, though many of the restrictions would continue to be in place.

This means that resentment against the restrictions will continue. The conspiracy theories are likely to proliferate, and the sense that the luxurious American way of life is being corroded by sinister global forces may expand. Covid nationalism could be a major element of the continuing right-wing populism of the future.

But that does not mean that cultural nationalism will be forgotten. One can easily imagine conspiracy theories emerging—as indeed some already have—that blame immigrants, Muslims, liberals, foreign interference and global forces for the pandemic and its restrictive assault on familiar daily life. Thus the two forms of populism could forge an unhappy alliance.

At present covid nationalism—a populist protest against an imagined global intrusion of pandemic restrictions—is largely an American phenomenon. But like the virus itself, it could easily spread across borders, and become a feature of angry segments of the populace in Europe and other parts of the globe. There, too, it could merge with the existing anti-immigrant cultural nationalism of those regions. The global emergence of a covid-cultural nationalism could be the perfect storm of the future.