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Past Discussion Questions > Does distance make faith fundamental?

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message 1: by Reza (new)

Reza Aslan (reza-aslan) | 16 comments Mod
In our continued discussion of Eliza Griswold's "The Tenth Parallel," let's explore the geographic nature of the conflicts along the 10th parallel north. These fundamentalist groups are far from the "traditional" centers of the religions involved. The conflict in the Sudan is removed from the Vatican and Mecca. While there are conflicts going on near these centers of faith, it seems the most radical of movements happen on the outer reaches of a religion's reach. Does distance from the center of a religious culture fuel extremism?

message 2: by Tom (new)

Tom Worth | 3 comments Distance may fuel extremism, or it may merely allow it. The center would necessarily be the stronghold of orthodoxy for the faith, so any deviation from that orthodoxy would likely not be tolerated. Nor would the views of other faiths be expressed as strongly in the shadow of a faith's stronghold; or, if they are, as is the case in Jerusalem, conflict would ensue.
Outlying areas, however, would be more free to push the boundaries of interpretation of a faith. The boundaries may be pushed in a more lax direction, or in a more rigid, extremist one. In a neutral zone that is not the center of any faith, multiple faiths are more likely to bump up against each other, with tolerant versions being forced into fight or flight by intolerant strains.

message 3: by leigh (new)

leigh (leighcayce) | 7 comments I don't know that it fuels extremism- perhaps it provides for a variety of interpretations without the pressure of conformity felt when closer to those "traditional" centers. Primarily I'm thinking of the Liberation Theology we find especially in South American nations. Through activism I've met and worked with a number of people who consider themselves to be part of that particular version of Catholicism. I don't know that I would classify them as extremists, but; they appear to have significant differences from the Catholicism practiced by and adhered to by mainstream Catholics who are more strictly following the lead of the Vatican. Then there are the Latter Day Saints/ Mormons who have Salt Lake City, Utah generally accepted as their central home. The variations in those who in some way identify with the teachings of Mormonism/ derive from the Smith and Young, etc. appear to have more dense populations in the area closer to Utah no matter the sect to which they belong.

Is there a place considered to be central to Protestant religious denominations? I live in what is considered to be the Bible Belt where Baptists make up anywhere from 40 to 50 percent or more of the religious population (those identifying as religious being in the majority as well). We have a large amount of non denominational churches in the Bible Belt- these tend to be evangelical in nature and as far as I can tell, related most closely to the Baptist Church.

I think that in our increasingly globalized world it is difficult to maintain a central place for religious groups. Perhaps the older, longer established faiths have been able to hold on to those traditional religious homes.

message 4: by Megan (last edited Sep 27, 2010 10:56AM) (new)

Megan | 5 comments I think tom and leigh raise valid points- geography does allow for any belief, ideology, etc to go against the orthodox grain (natural dissemination when any idea travels long distances), and, increased interpretation does not necessarily lead to increased extremism.

I'm reluctant to think it's solely about proximity, however. Sudan is closer to both the Vatican and Mecca than the US, which, though it has its outliers, is consistently moderate when compared to its counterparts in less developed countries.

I think the socio-political and economic circumstances of a group of people, rather than their proximity to a center of orthodoxy, has more to do with religious extremism- in the violent sense. No matter the location, well-fed people with safety, freedom to worship, and political involvement are less likely to need a rallying point around which to decry injustice.

As a corollary, I'd like to think there's also such a thing as "extremely happy!"- but I don't see anyone from ANY belief system running around with cupcakes and puppies as a result of their beliefs...

message 5: by Mary (new)

Mary I also live in the Bible Belt of the US, and I would definitely call it a concentrated region of Protestant religious belief and practice, at least in the United States. However, its different denominations seem to have different central places. The Presbyterian Church has much of its leadership in Louisville, Kentucky, and the United Methodist Church has much of its leadership in Nashville, TN. (Full disclosure, I am a United Methodist who lives in Kentucky.) And there certainly are tons of nondenominational evangelical churches here. I guess those would be considered Protestant churches. In the case of the Bible Belt, I think strict adherence to church teaching may have some relationship to proximity to the "centers of power," but I generally think Protestant movements are kind of diffuse by nature. To oversimplify and make a lame joke, two Protestants have two different interpretations of the Bible, they go their own ways and form their own denominations.

If I understand correctly, Canterbury, England, would be the religious home, or perhaps "capital" of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I think the Archbishop of Canterbury is considered the leader of Anglicans worldwide, and the Anglican Church would be Protestant. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) But in light of this discussion, how do we explain the growth of secularism and evangelical atheism in Canterbury's backyard?

My attempt to answer that question goes back to Megan's point about socio-political and economic circumstances. A Christian friend of mine who studied in the largely secular Netherlands came away with the impression that because the Dutch have a good material standard of living, they feel they don't need God. I think I could safely say that about my British friends. One reason religious belief and practice has been so strong in the American South, or Bible Belt, is that it has traditionally been a poor, agrarian region. People rely on God to get them through hard times and struggle. This may be especially significant when we remember that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s grew out of African American churches--Dr. Martin Luther King was a pastor. Plus I think many Afghan and Pakistani parents end up sending their kids to radical madrassas because it's the only way to feed and educate their kids.

So in short--I am undecided about what factor proximity to religious centers plays in moderating or radicalizing religious views, but I definitely think material circumstances affect piety, even if they don't necessarily make people more extremist.

message 6: by leigh (new)

leigh (leighcayce) | 7 comments I think- and this is coming from someone from a United Methodist family, who didn't attend church regularly, went to a Presbyterian women's college where God was not referred to as "He" and took philosophy instead of religion- technically Methodists are not protestant in that they are rather a product of the English Reformation (Henry VIII and all of that) not the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther, 95 Theses) but generally people lump the UMC with other protestant denominations. I may be completely misguided in my understanding of this.

Either way- I think you make a great point regarding socio-economic circumstances heavily influencing the intensity of a region's religious devotion. Historically access to education and in particular higher levels of education have been tied to those who are more financially sound which may also be a factor in those who adhere more so to a less extremist variation. Would the more urban areas be considered less religious than rural/ agrarian places?

I wonder if places where religion and politics are more closely tied (officially or unofficially) would have a significant difference in levels of religious influence/ intensity.

message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary Hi Leigh, you are absolutely correct that Methodism arose from the English Reformation, and not Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation on the Continent. Methodism began in the late 18th century as a reform movement in the Church of England. However, I think you raise a good question about what exactly Protestant means, because I do find it difficult to explain and understand. Does anyone else have any thoughts or opinions on that?

As for whether urban areas are less religious than rural areas, I can only speak from experience in the USA. I have lived in urban areas here, including New York, and it's my impression that urbanites are less religious that people in suburban and rural areas. I've noticed a BIG difference in levels of religious practice since moving back home to Kentucky. But I don't know if that is the case elsewhere.

Thanks also for your kind words about my comments regarding socio-economic conditions and religious practice. I also think you make a great point about education. Are people with limited education more likely to read religious texts literally because they haven't been trained in critical thinking, or how to read figurative language? I would think so, but I wonder what others think.

I also wonder if places where religion and politics are more closely related do see higher levels of religious engagement. I'm specifically curious about Italy, since the Vatican has come up in this conversation. I lived in France for a year and visited Italy for ten days. I came away with the impression that religion was more important in Italian daily life than it is in French daily life, but I really don't have much evidence to support this view.

It also seems that Saudi Arabia considers itself a protector of the Islamic faith since the Muslim holy sites are in that country. Does this explain why Saudi interpretations of Islam seem so extremely conservative (to my liberal American Christian eyes, anyway), and why Saudi money supports fundamentalist madrassas in Central Asia? I don't know myself, but I'm asking the question.

message 8: by leigh (new)

leigh (leighcayce) | 7 comments I think one of the issues with those who have not been afforded the opportunity to obtain an education would be literacy- people underestimate the number of people who read at very low levels in the U.S. - in my civil rights/ social work I encounter far too many people who are challenged when writing their name. I can only imagine that elsewhere in the world it is equally and at times more prevalent a problem. That would leave the less literate people dependent upon word of mouth and interpretations of others- not their own understanding of texts. I don't mean to equate the two/ diminish significance of religion, however; it seems that an analogy might be made regarding folklore/ mythologies and religion. Overtime part of the stories are lost, are changed and because of the oral traditions behind these areas the original message becomes somewhat lost and more acceptably varied- maybe?

With that thought it may be that not only regional perspectives come into play (with Christianity at least we can see how in the U.S. the different groups moved in order to establish their own sects- the colonial times and with the Mormon church, etc. forming enclaves of a less generalized version of their faith) including the influences of indigenous people, but; distance also may be a factor in maintaining the difference between the birth of a religious group and the less traditional version.

As someone from the U.S. and particularly the Bible Belt I feel rather uneducated about certain aspects of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other. Do those religions practice anything similar to evangelism- like movements to convert others to their religion? I wonder how that factors into religious fervor.

message 9: by Megan (last edited Sep 28, 2010 10:04AM) (new)

Megan | 5 comments Afghanistan has a 23% literacy rate, Pakistan's is 50%, and both are breeding grounds for extremism. I think this is based on their socio-political and economic circumstances AND the fact that both countries feel under siege by foreign enemies. If we exclude their circumstances and consider only the fact that both countries feel under siege by foreign enemies, we have the Jihadists who are neither uneducated nor deprived. They are doctors, lawyers, students, etc.

I think the urban/rural question has less to do with lack of God and more to do with things to do. In remote areas, local, private institutions (namely, a religious house) might provide more community programs, whereas in a city the municipality provides funding for the same needs. That's not to say that people in the city aren't ALSO religious- they just don't rely on their religious institutions for the necessities, as an Afghan parent might rely on madrassas.

As regards New York City and the city/rural issue, I have not seen any connection between geography and religious involvement- please correct me if you've read something on this. It's an absolute fallacy to say New Yorkers are less religious than people in rural areas. 83% of New Yorkers identify as being religious, more than the 75% statewide, and more than the 83% of Louisianians who, according to the Pew Research Center, comprise the 4th most religious state in the country. There are 6,000 churches in New York City, over 1,000 Synagogues, over 100 formal Mosques, to say nothing of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and other denominational temples in the city. (see:

"No God But God" has a great summation of how the Wahhabi sect came to dominate, and in fact, really create, Saudi Arabia- you should check it out. However, Wahhabism is an interpretation of Islam, having been created in the 18th Century, and Saudi Arabia holds Mecca. So I think the relationship between a religious center and divergence of forming principles is not necessarily related to geography.

message 10: by Tom (new)

Tom Worth | 3 comments Mary makes a great point about lower socio-economic status being, perhaps, more of a determinant for the development of religious extremism. That does go hand in hand with geography though, as the main religious centers enjoy, relatively speaking, higher economic and educational development than other areas. They naturally attract educated individuals, along with wealth.
Obviously, a city does not need to be a religious center in order to be educated and prosperous, but places like Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Baghdad, Canterbury, or German university towns where the Reformation took hold are areas whose populations enjoy(ed) higher levels of education and prosperity.

message 11: by Mary (new)

Mary Megan, thanks for the stats about religious practice by region in the US. I was afraid my impression about religious practices in urban centers was incorrect, so thanks for helping me out with that! And I agree that in rural areas, religious houses provide programs and services that other institutions (including municipalities themselves) can provide in more densely populated areas.

It's been a while since I've read "No god but God," so I had forgotten just how crucial Wahhabism was in the creation of modern Saudi Arabia. Thanks for the reminder.

I also think Leigh makes a great point about low levels of literacy. I think I have read in "No god but God" and various newsmagazines that often children in madrassas aren't learning the meaning of the Quran in their native languages. They are learning to recite the Arabic words, but not necessarily to read the words in Arabic, or what they mean. If this is the case, then such students might have to rely on the interpretation of their teachers because they can't engage with the text on their own terms.

message 12: by leigh (new)

leigh (leighcayce) | 7 comments Thanks for the stats, Megan! It's interesting to see that NY has about 100 mosques- one stat I read about here in Atlanta is that we've got about 35. Apparently we also have at least 15 Hindu temples here. Is the Atlanta metro area about a 3rd the size of NY? That would make that mosque number comparison about right. I think it would be interesting to look at the practices of those who consider themselves religious (do they attend services and how often, what "extra curricular" church/ synagogue/ mosque/ temple activities are they involved with and that sort of thing). Basically- when someone identifies as religious, what does it mean to them? Does it mean that they go to church twice a week, that they observe and celebrate the traditional holidays, that they pray regularly, that they fast or that they have X religious beliefs and go to services once or twice a year? Sometimes people who identify as religious appear to be almost passively so- as though they've got to check off a box and "Non Practicing" is left off the list. As I've said, coming from the Bible Belt I think you might see a difference in the number of people who identify (often strongly) with a particular religious group and the number of those people who are educated about that religious group and who actually attend services at least once a week. I think it might be interesting to see what those numbers show.

Maybe one thing about urban areas is that even when enclaves exist there is to some extent interaction with those of other faiths so that some sort of stigma (albeit small at times) exists for those who are viewed as zealots and extremists because of a distaste for mixing socially or even engaging in commerce with those of other faiths. Maybe in urban areas there is more diversity- more chance to know someone of a different faith and break through the alienation- which could dilute any kind of extremist concentration. Or at least provide alternative perspectives for those willing to accept them.

Another interesting point, Mary, is the idea that many are reciting words in prayer and study that are in a language different from their own. I'm kind of fanatic about Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis books (and the movie is awesome but of course shortens and cuts out parts for time constraints) and she's not quite 10 at the time of the revolution so she's aware of how things were for her and also how things are and how they continue to evolve in her daily life. She touches on the Arabic prayers that were foreign to ears accustomed to Farsi, to wearing a hijab, being separated from male school mates, etc. I like the idea of being able to get an inside perspective of someone figuring her way out in the world why also having to navigate the changes in her country.

This rural thing keeps coming to mind- in the South where I've spent all of my life (save study abroad in Spain) story telling is HUGE! Passing down stories, oral histories, songs recounting events and all of that is historically key to our weird little culture. I can't help wondering if similar practices exist in historically rural/ agrarian parts of the world.

message 13: by Megan (new)

Megan | 5 comments Leigh's comment on storytelling goes hand in hand the issue of extremism given the vulnerability to subjectivity. When stories are endowed with power, particularly during conflict, subjectivity is made dogma. In his book "War" Sebastian Junger refers to this as "the human terrain" of a conflict.

The type of storytelling that incites religious extremism may be related to the geography of a place in relation to a "headquarters" of faith for the same reasons Tom mentioned in an earlier post- the stories might be less likely to differ when under the watch of religious leaders- geography plays a role.

However, in the age of twitter, the incongruities of 2 people telling the same story miles apart now has more to do with perspective than time and distance. The wide, instantaneous dissemination of information leaves traditional positions of power with less influence over the narrative, which is why I think extremism has less to do with geography than individual circumstances.

That said, it wasn't always this way- and many stories developed in the past as the result of proximity to a source, so although I think circumstances play a larger role, those circumstances have roots geography.

message 14: by leigh (new)

leigh (leighcayce) | 7 comments So maybe in our age of Globalization (with the internet, twitter, etc) the geographic regions are less influential, but; could there be a new geography? A geography based not solely on map coordinates but additionally those communities developed over the internet being the "new geography" for those who have access which would tie into the ideas of story telling for those who do not have access...or for those who have access only to these new internet search engines which block ideas that are considered dangerous to a certain group's values. What do y'all think about that?

Something akin to Hardt and Negri's ideas in "Multitude" is what I'm thinking.

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