Why you should care
Old religions are waging new battles to stay relevant. This OZY original series tracks how they’re adapting to survive and grow.
It’s easy to conclude that some of the world’s oldest religions are in terminal decline. Church attendance figures in the U.S. have been dropping for several years now. A Gallup Poll in April found that the percentage of Americans who attend a church, synagogue or mosque has come down from more than 70 percent in the 1970s to 50 percent in 2018. The fraction of the country’s population with no religious affiliation has climbed rapidly, from 8 percent at the turn of the century, to 19 percent today.
But there’s a reason ancient faiths have survived wars and conquests, forced conversions and mass persecution over centuries: they resist when they need to, and adapt when they have to. OZY’s latest original series, Only the Faithful, takes you on a journey to the new regions where old religions are now expanding; the novel ways in which they’re changing to stay relevant; and the fresh battles they’re waging to survive and thrive.
Nigerian security agencies are increasingly raiding synagogues and arresting Jewish leaders, at a time it is waging a new secessionist movement that has drawn support from the community. The IPOB, a group described by Nigeria as terrorists, is leading the new movement for a separate nation of Biafra — the neglected region that was briefly an independent country in the 1960s. Its aims are political, not religious. But the IPOB’s leader is Jewish. Most Nigerian Jews belong to the Igbo ethnic community that is dominant in the region, which is also where Judaism is spreading in Nigeria: The number of synagogues has doubled in the past five years.
The Islamic State terror group is on the run, its dreams of establishing a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in tatters. But another Islamic faith, which also believes in a caliphate, is rapidly growing — and it couldn’t be more different from the extremist ISIS. The Ahmadiyya sect, one of the youngest strains of Islam, is expanding faster than Shia and Sunni communities that have dominated the religion for centuries. The sect follows a model of international proselytism more common with Christian missionaries, focusing on charitable work. It condemns extremist views and subordinates itself to local governments. That’s helping it expand across new territories such as West Africa. Is it the future of Islam?
It was in India that the Buddha gained enlightenment and gave birth to Buddhism. Yet for several centuries after its heyday in India, the religion gained little traction in the country, even as it spread across East and Southeast Asia, with Hinduism, Islam and Christianity dominating Indian society. Most of the 8 million Buddhists in India are kin of lower-caste Hindus who converted as recently as the 1950s in Maharashtra, India’s second-largest state. Now, a new wave of Buddhism is returning to the land of the faith’s birth, reviving a religion in a new form borrowed from Japan.
Since the Civil War ended in 1949, the only true religion in China has been the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party. Temples and shrines abound in cities and the countryside, but many Chinese see these — and the practice of worshipping at them — more as part of Chinese culture than anything overly religious. Yet only 52.6 percent of Chinese classify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ when it comes to religious identity. And religions such as Christianity are growing in popularity at record levels. That’s sparking the worst crackdown in a generation.
Wearing her black habit, Sister Vassa Larin looks every bit the traditional Russian Orthodox nun. But the polyglot with a Ph.D. and more than 50 academic publications to her name is anything but traditional. And if you want to find her, your best bet isn’t the abbey — it’s YouTube. At a time church congregations in several nations are dwindling, the 48-year-old is building her own set of faithful followers on YouTube, where she runs a regular show called Coffee With Sister Vassa. She has quickly built a dedicated audience: Her channel is followed by more than 10,000 people, and each of her show episodes has several thousand views.