How to Help Your Religion Win in 2016

Recently I read a blog post by a Christian pastor saying Christianity is the largest and fastest growing religion on earth. He credited evangelism as helping Christianity stay ahead of Islam, its closest "competitor." He then encouraged fellow Christians to have winning attitudes which produce winning results: "If we think we are losers we tend to act like losers and we get loser results. Embrace the belief: the kingdom of God is forcefully advancing!"

Assuming good sources and the best of intentions, I still find the blog post troubling. For one thing, it reflects an all-too-common picture of evangelism as a kind of real-life RISK game in which armies fight to win territories and dominate competitors. (As a side note, it also reminds me of a cool chess set I saw in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul which pitted Byzantine crusaders against Ottoman Turks. The Turkish shopkeeper tried to lure me into a purchase: "Come, let's play... you can be the Christians!")

I think there are better ways to talk about evangelism, but that is a topic for another post. For now, there are also important ways to talk about helping your religion win. Before explaining how, let me back up and consider some data.

Recent reports by the Pew Research Center confirm that the world's major religions are growing and humans are more religious today than just a few decades ago. In fact, while the number of non-religious people is also increasing--especially in richer countries--their slice of the expanding global pie is actually shrinking in terms of percentage. So as the percentage of religious people on earth inches closer to 80%, the once-heralded predictions of global secularism continue to shrink in the rear view mirror.

I guess you could say that religions are winning. The million-dollar question is whether that bodes well or poorly for the world. For critics who believe religion "poisons everything," in Christopher Hitchens memorable words, religious winning can only translate into all of us losing.

But in addition to increasing numbers, religions are also becoming more politically assertive. This is even true in societies characterized by the separation of religion and state, and for traditions known more for personal spirituality than for politics, as with recent forms of "engaged Buddhism." This trend is doubly frightening for the critics. After all, if religions inherently wreak havoc, then bigger more assertive religions can only wreak greater havoc. Unfortunately, such fears are not without precedent. Miroslav Volf offers a profound and cautious-yet-inspiring alternative to overly-pessimistic fears in his new book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (2015). But regardless of different assessments, the facts remain: religions are winning statistically and will increasingly influence our collective future, for better or worse.

The Pew reports also compare the growth of different religions. Many ask how Christianity and Islam--which together comprise more than half of the world's population--compare. Philip Jenkins says such questioners are often "stirred both by hope--that 'our' religion is so evidently the best that it is sweeping the world--but also by the fear that 'they' (usually Muslims) are going to overwhelm us." But what does the data reveal? According to the Pew reports, Islam is outpacing all other major traditions by a long shot and, when projected out, will nearly overtake Christianity as the world's largest religion by 2050.

Of course, projections about religious growth are complex and continuously debated. There are some scholars who predict that the Muslim march will slow down and Christianity will remain in the lead. Jenkins, while showing how the gap between the two is quickly shrinking, still expects Christianity to be larger for some time. But he also helps us grapple with variables such as immigration patterns, fertility rates, ideological and socioeconomic impacts. Who will win? God only knows.

But maybe win/lose metaphors are not helpful. Maybe they merely feed ideas of warlike competition.

Maybe. But I think there are at least two helpful ways to think about religious winning. First, while acknowledging critical differences between religions, the mainstream traditions all understand themselves as competing against enemies such as meaninglessness and injustice. In that sense, religions can be considered allies competing against common enemies that destroy life, even if our understandings of those enemies differ.

But secondly, there is also a sense in which religious people should try to win in interactions with each other. This kind of winning surfaces in both Christian and Muslim scriptures, and in various forms in other traditions. For example, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians in Rome to live at peace with both friends and strangers ("as far as it depends on you"), and to "outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10). In other words, try to beat everyone at the respect game. Similarly, in a Medinan sura that addresses interactions between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the Qur'an says to compete, as if in a race, to "vie with one another in good works" (Q 5:48). In other words, pummel each other with goodness.

For all our differences, the mainstream traditions all advocate various forms of compassion, mercy, love. What if we all tried to win at those? What if we sought to overwhelm the competition, even run up the score, extend kindness to all regardless of whether the favor is returned or not? What if we left all other forms of winning to God?

What a different world this would be if we all followed our own sacred teachings.

Is this wishful thinking? Probably. But we can each start with the person in the mirror. So as a committed Christian in a religiously diverse world, my commitment for 2016 is this: I will do all I can to help my religion win... so that no one loses.

Anyone else game?