Our Times: Secular Age or God’s Century?

Friday, December 9, 2016TOPICS: ResearchFaculty and Staff

Our Times: Secular Age or God’s Century?
begin quoteYes, religion is changing in our time, but not the way or with the implications that many expected.

In a research trip to Thailand in 2012, I stood on a bridge over a small river. It flowed through one of Bangkok’s best-known Hindu monasteries. Below, on the bank of the river, a small cluster of people gathered mournfully around a prone cloth-draped body. The deceased rested on a metal stand raised a few feet from the ground. Soon, a flame was lit. The cremation began.

From time immemorial, thoughtful people have pondered life’s trajectory: One is born, matures, experiences delights and disappointments along the human journey, grows old and eventually dies. Then, the haunting question, “Is this all there is to existence?” 

Religion is the societal institution people have traditionally turned to when confronted with such imponderables. Since the 17th and 18th centuries, with the onslaught of modernity, faith traditions have seemed gradually but assuredly to be losing their position as this grand arbiter. Famed U.S. sociologist of religion Peter Berger predicted that by “the 21st century religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”2  

 Events have not unfolded the way Berger and others expected. Granted, the West has seen the growth of secularism. But that is not necessarily an accurate barometer for the world. This leads to several important insights about religion in our time. 


There has been a seismic change worldwide in religion during the last 40 to 50 years. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study on “The Global Religious Landscape,” religious adherence globally has jumped from 50 percent in 1900 to 64 percent in 2000: “Worldwide, more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group.” Much of this growth, of course, may be attributed to demographic dynamics.

During this growth period, religion has moved from being a private devotion to also being a motivation for public and political action. Recent years have seen religious actors move from homes and houses of worship as private devotion to social expressions in media and public fora.

Modernity’s modes of transport, communication and financial transfer were expected to leave believers and their faith traditions in the dustbin of history. Instead, religious actors and religiously motivated groups have used them as effective tools for self-expression, recruitment and intimidation. The sophisticated devastation of 9/11 bore grim witness to this. 

Religion and religious actors are deeply entwined in the militant movements of our time. Scholars are reluctant to refer to ensuing conflicts as “religious” by nature. Nor do they want to embrace a form of reductionism that brackets out religion, attributing the causes of such violence to economic deprivation, despotic leaders or disgruntled youth. 

It is the work of the sub-discipline of interreligious peacebuilding to bring the enlightening tools of field research, teaching and service to situations where religion is a significant factor in a violent conflict. It will do this best if it strives to become an integral part of the parent field of peacebuilding. And if, in turn, it is welcomed as a significant contributor to the search for peace.

Learnings from my personal field work, students and colleagues are rich and ever deepening. A Nigerian religious sister who works with Boko Haram spoke about the motivational force the Islamic religion can be for them. She told how her faith influenced her own peacebuilding. It was in Rwanda shortly after its genocide that I experienced people of faith in a village gacaca (an indigenous reconciliation process) deal with humanitarian violations in their community. 

With the changing nature of war, the role of religiously motivated women as facilitators of peace is becoming better known. We at the Kroc School learn from examples of this annually as we gather four Women PeaceMakers from all over the world to hear of their work. Unique assets of religious leaders are becoming better understood and intentionally employed. In summary, we are coming to appreciate as never before the role and functioning of religion before, during and after violent conflict.

Yes, religion is changing in our time, but not the way or with the implications that many expected. As a peacebuilder, it is exciting to follow these trends and movements with the hope that they will yield new ways of advancing peace. 


is a professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies. He has a joint appointment as professor of the practice at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where he serves with the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. A sociologist, counselor and theologian by training, Headley is an active Catholic priest and member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

Read this article and discover other articles of Kroc Peace Magazine 2016 on ISSUU

2Quoted in Toft Duffey, Monica, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel  Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics  (New York: W. Norton and Company, 2011) 1.

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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