Although science can now explain many of the mysteries of nature, the religions which provided these answers in centuries past are far from becoming obsolete, according to Walter Russell Mead ’76, a visiting fellow in grand strategy and international studies at Yale.
In fact, religious doctrines are playing an increasingly significant role in international conflicts, Mead — who is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy — said at a talk at William L. Harkness Hall yesterday. Imploring 21st-century citizens to understand the reasons for the rise of faith and what this trend means for the world, Mead spoke about the growing importance of religion to a crowd of about 80 students and other community members.
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“One of the things we’re seeing is the “Triumph of Abraham,” Mead said, referring to the global dominance of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. “The Abrahamic world is more ideological, universal, and has given rise to more quarrels over religion than any other faith. And as ideas about ideology become more influential, we see an increase in ideological and religious conflicts.”
The Abrahamic tradition’s influence is most obvious when comparing and contrasting its demographic growth to previous eras, Mead said, the best example of which is the rapid growth of Pentecostalism, which has grown twice as much — from 250 million to half a billion believers — in just one century as it took Islam to grow in 1300 years, Mead said.
Mead said there is no single explanation for the rise of these religions, but argued rather that numerous aspects of modern life contribute to people’s turn to religion.
One factor contributing to religious growth is the emergence out of absolute poverty, he said.
As mass literacy spreads, people tend to turn to religion as a way of identifying themselves as individuals and as part of a larger culture, Mead said. In fact, the Bible or the Quran are often the first books taught to be read in developing countries, Mead said, resulting in an intense awareness of religion among these people.
Globalization provides people with another push to religion, Mead said.
“As foreign people move into different cities, those cities’ identities are challenged in a way they wouldn’t have been 100 years ago,” Mead said. “So people look towards religion for continuity, for a guarantee of identity.”
In America, as opposed to many other nations, churches are deprived of the support of the state, so they essentially must become entrepreneurs, he said. The most powerful American clergy are those who can attract the largest congregation and who can connect with the largest mass.
“The whole world will soon be filled with television preachers,” Mead said.
And increasing fear of terrorism and the technology associated with it has led people around the world, not just Americans, to turn to religion as a way of providing security, he said. And since modern science has helped people to understand the workings of nature, Mead went on, people are now most scared by man’s creations, such as global warming and weapons of mass destruction.
“[Science is] not making us safe from us,” Mead said. “So people look to religion to find a safe, comfortable place in the world.”
When asked about Mead’s take on religion and the world, some students in attendance said Mead had opened their minds to the intersection of religion and foreign policy.
Erin Fackler ’11 said she gained respect for the broad knowledge that politicians and many scholars must acquire before beginning their jobs.
“To go into areas such as economics or political science, knowledge in religion will be necessary,” Fackler said.
“His take on world religion seemed really apt [and] valid,” Tommy Meyerson ’11 said.
The talk was part of the International Security Studies lecture series on ethics and international affairs.