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Opinion: 'Religion is facing a crisis in the West - but here's why it's thriving in Asia'

Barry Dunning lives in Indonesia and has seen how much of a role religion plays in people’s lives in Asia.

Barry Dunning

RELIGION OF ALL faiths is thriving in the fastest growing parts of the world, at the very same time it faces an existential crisis in the West.

It’s not exactly breaking news that to state that organised religion, especially Catholicism, is facing its biggest crisis in Ireland since the Penal Laws. Sexual and institutional abuse scandals continue to rock the church.

Attendances are plummeting, there aren’t enough people entering the priesthood  to replace the ageing clerics and masses are being reduced across the country. There has been a revolution in societal attitudes and laws – on the Eighth Amendment, marriage equality and more – and the church has found itself out of step with the majority of Irish voters in each case. Even the recent visit of the Pope descended into an undignified spat about how many people actually turned up for the Papal mass.

Trends from Europe, North America and Australia tell the same story. Decades of shocking outrages – in country, after country, after country - have shattered the faith of many who grew up with organised religion. The socially conservative and dogmatic doctrines of organised religion are seen as having little relevance to modern society, particularly amongst the young.

Young adults

A recent study of religious affiliation among young Europeans puts this decline in stark view. The study finds the proportion of young adults with no religious affiliation as high as 91% in the Czech Republic and 75% in Sweden.

In the UK, just 2% of young adults identify as followers of the Church of England, while seven out of 10 under-24s say they have no religion.

But while things looks grim for religion in the West, anyone thinking that we are evolving towards a post-religious world hasn’t been paying attention to Asia. Home to 60% of the world’s population, religion of all stripes is not just surviving but thriving. And in many countries, it is the younger generations who are driving the increase in devotion.

In Indonesia, religion is an integral part of life; like nothing I have experienced since preparing for my confirmation in rural Kildare. Many of my workmates will find a quiet corner of our small office to pray at least once a day, something I never experienced once in Ireland or Australia. Friday prayers see the mosques overflow onto the surrounding streets.

It is not just Islam that’s thriving in Indonesia however – Christianity is vibrant, trendy and growing. Across Indonesia there are over 26 million Christians and Catholics, more than four times the population of Ireland, north and south. The last time I went to church in Jakarta, the place was so full I had to sit in an overflow room with another 200 people who joined in the service in the next building via video linkup. American-style megachurches, mainly evangelical, are also springing up across the country.

The central role of religion in Asia extends far beyond Indonesia. From an almost standing start at the beginning of the 20th century, close to 30% of South Koreans now identify as Christian or Catholic. Huge evangelical churches are commonplace – including the Yoido Full Gospel Church where nearly 200,000 people attend services every week – although so too are the scandals involving church leaders.

The situation in China

In atheist, communist, China, some estimates put the number of Christians (including Catholics) above 100 million, with China on track to have the largest number of Christians in the world by 2030.

Pope Francis, fresh from his visit to Ireland, has penned a deal with the Chinese Government  that will allow Catholics to practice in the open, in exchange for allowing the Chinese government a degree of control over the appointment of bishops.

I could go on and speak about central role of faith to Malays or Burmese, or the simmering religious tensions in India – as a conservative, less tolerant version of Hinduism linked strongly to nationalism has taken hold – but you get the point. In almost every country in Asia, religious faith is vibrant, growing and plays a central role in society.

There is no one single reason for this. Some have speculated that with the rise of modern, consumerist society, where many have left their villages for work in the cities, religion is filling a spiritual or familial vacuum.

Another notable point is that religions in Asia are very tech savvy, adapting to technology and using it as a way to deepen followers’ connections. Indeed many young people are combining their embrace of technology and modernity with their faith, as shown in a recent report that young Southeast Asian Muslim women are more cosmopolitan, global and more religiously observant compared with the older generations.

Additionally, religion in Asia has not (yet) been tainted with public scandal to the same degree as in the West. Finally, Asian societies remain more conservative and family-oriented than the West; for now social teachings and the central role of religion are more readily accepted.

Whatever the contributing factors for the rise of religion in Asia, while Ireland and the West may be entering a post-religious society, other parts of the world are pulling in the opposite direction. Those busy writing a eulogy for organised religion may be waiting for a long time before they can deliver it.

Barry Dunning is a writer currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia, working with a local NGO. 

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