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DAVOS/ Is Religion Outdated in the Twenty-First Century?

Religion isn’t outdated simply because someone claims we can only know what the natural sciences tell us. Philosophy and theology are the next steps in our search for truth. WILLIAM CARROLL

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The annual meeting in January of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, brought together an elite group of world leaders to consider the “state of the world” and to offer various strategies for improvement.

This year participants could listen to Henry Kissinger, George Soros, or any number of prime ministers, heads of state, and economic and political theorists offer their visions of contemporary society, politics, and economics—and much more, including developments in the neurosciences and technology.

Often taken as oracular pronouncements, perhaps reminiscent of the knowledge and advice dispensed by the Greek gods from Mt. Olympus, the insights offered at this Alpine mountain gathering are eagerly awaited and then dispensed through television, print media, and the internet.

Among the roughly 3,000 participants, a growing number are what the WEF calls “faith leaders.” Some of them are part of its newly established “Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith,” one of about eighty Global Agenda Councils formed to address “the most pressing issues and opportunities of our time and . . . provide new thinking and solutions.

Though it is important to have religious leaders present at any meeting about the “state of the world,” this year there was an open forum titled “Is Religion Outdated in the 21st Century?” Other forums addressed religious issues, such as “The Moral Economy: From the Social Contract to Social Covenant,” “Religion and Politics,” and “Beliefs That Bond,” but the panel on religion’s relevance drew the most attention, at least from many in the press.

Indeed, it was the singular performance of one of the panelists, Lawrence Krauss, the American theoretical physicist and self-identified anti-theist, which made the event quite lively. Krauss is the author of A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (which I reviewed for Public Discourse) and is well-known for his strident attacks on religious belief.

Others on the panel included a Buddhist monk from Thailand, a Catholic monk from Great Britain, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt (head of the Conference of European Rabbis), Sister Carol Keehan (head of the US Catholic Health Association), and a young Israeli woman, whose primary interest was in “spiritual entrepreneurship.” The moderator was the editor of a major newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia.

A premise of the session was that despite (or perhaps because of) their ancient lineage, religions “are the slowest to respond to modern issues such as drugs, homosexuality, and family relationships.” Subsidiary questions in the forum’s announcement were: “Are we becoming a multi-faith society or one where many have no faith at all? How are religious institutions helping to instill tolerance and values in society? How can we reconcile the trends in society's evolution with religious beliefs? How can we foster freedom of speech and at the same time religious freedom?” The forum’s title and framing made clear the organizers’ vision of what was to be discussed.

All but one of the panelists were prepared to discuss religion’s positive role in personal and social life, despite historical and contemporary examples of religion’s being used for bad purposes. Krauss, however, was unapologetic in his opening remarks. Of course religion is outdated, he said. Yes, there are more than four billion people in the world who identify as religious, but very few, at least in the “first world” (Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia), accept their religions’ doctrines as true.