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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Four


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 23, 2015)

Eastern Influences

Once Roman Universalism (i.e. Catholicism) was established, very little meaningful dialogue occurred between Christian and non-Christian philosophers or religionists other than during missionary attempts. As the Church became all powerful it successfully silenced all opposing voices, at least for a time. One thing that makes our current time unique to the American religious experience is the degree of non-Christian participation (CE 3).

It can be argued that the reemergence of Islam as the largest world religion (when Catholicism and Protestantism are viewed as separate religions as the Vatican does), the growing popularity of Eastern concepts (if not the religions themselves), and the clearly fading influence and embrace of Christianity, is now setting the agenda of a new and very different religious awakening.

During the Third Great Awakening, as will be discussed below, Eastern traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, entered the dialogue as religious novelties. It was not until the 1960's and 70's however that they began exercising any real influence in the American experience. Concepts such as karma, transmigration (reincarnation), ahimsa (non-violence), yoga (both its original spiritual meaning of yoking to the gods as well as its popular physical excercies form), meditation, ying and yang, and the like are all basic Eastern ideas that are broadly incorporated into Western culture and religion (note 2) .

These influences are having profound impacts on Western material and spiritual conceptions of reality and perspectives about the nature of God. A significant number of American Jews today are even being referred to Bu-Jews (i.e. Buddhist oriented Jews). Many non-Orthodox synagogues even offer yoga classes today!

The secular sciences are also moving toward the embrace of more eastern approaches as we see from Chaos and String theory (which are quite similar to Samhkya and certain Buddhist concepts).

Most Christians and Jews have never really studied the Bible to determine its teachings. Fewer still have explored Talmud, the Chassidic writings and so on. Most know very little about the rich religious traditions they have inherited from the past that established the Western nations. This is fundamentally altering the American religious experience.

The times are changing. The designations of East and West are far more fluid now than they have ever been (MiD 199). Throughout recorded history explorers and other travelers circumambulated the globe in search of the exotic. They occasionally discovered regions with little or no outside contact with the West, however these isolated communities were already hard to find by the 1800's (S 13,14). The world is a much smaller place than it was in in 1776!

Sikhism (AKA the Sant Mat) is a good example of a once 'alien' religion that is now making a place for itself in the West. The bearded, turban wear Sikhs with their long swords were once considered exotic. Today we seldom notice them. They have become part of the American tapestry.

Judaism is no longer the second largest religion in the U.S. About half of the world's Jews died in the Shoah (i.e. the European Holocaust). Many of the survivors came to the United States after the war. Today about half of the world's Jews have returned to Israel, including many from the United States. About 5.3 million Jews (which is about 2.2% of the U.S. population) now live in the United States. The US is second only to Israel in the number of Jewish citizens (many hold dual Israeli-US citizenships).

Islam is now is the second largest religion in the U.S. 2.11% of the U.S. population self identify as Muslim. This number is growing quickly. The figure above for Jews includes both the religious and non-religious while these figures refer to all Muslims, most of whom are religious (most U.S. Jews are not religious). Religious Muslims therefore outnumber religious Jews by an uncertain but considerable margin.

For most modern Secular Americans Judaism and Islam are simply two of the many "alternative religions." While many feel that none of the religions have any objective validity or worth, Judaism and Christianity are more and more commonly being viewed as negative social elements and as barriers to peace. Once again, the nations are turning against the Jews and anti-Semitism is rising at an alarming rate in the United States as in the rest of the world. Chairman Mao's statement that "religion is the opiate of the people" is becoming a widespread perspective among many Americans, especially the young adults.

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