Religion by definition is deeply personal, and as such makes a troublesome topic for AP educators. Standardizing education on religion has the same pitfalls of cultural bias and cultural imperialism as the comparative study of culture in general, and combined with controversy over the areligious and fundamentalists creates a very precarious subject to try to teach. Then, it is only natural that Bulliet treads very lightly when it comes to the subject of modern faith, focusing only on the definite and politically correct while shying away from any real statements about modern religions or religious trends.

First, it is easiest to talk about what Builliet does say. He mentions the increasing role religion plays in modern politics for a paragraph or two, and then jumps into Islamic fundamentalism (956). Bulliet is an American writer, writing an American textbook, so the topic of modern religion is simply too raw for him to take a responsible, analytical approach. And for him, with his Western perspective, the most pressing issue in terms of religion is the rise of fundamentalist Islam. 9/11 was the defining moment for American foreign policy this past decade, so of course he dedicates paragraphs to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin-Laden (957). But it really is a question of the absolute importance of such developments. In the grand scheme of things, was the sinking of the Lusitania really that important, or was it the greater trend of a European Arms race and a power struggle after the Second Industrial Revolution that holds greater importance? It is then very fitting that Bulliet does not mention the influence of oil on US-Middle East relations, completely forgetting the catalyst for US intervention in the Iran-Iraq war and the First Gulf War. Clearly, Bulliet does not believe in the narrow view of modern world religions he writes about, no tenured professor at Columbia University carries so simple views. However, in writing the textbook, he takes a complex three dimensional space and flattens it into a one dimensional line, cutting out everything interesting and educational about modern religion in the process.

What Bulliet fails to mention is the elephant in the room, western religion. The western world has already gone through Industrialization, the Enlightenment, and all the other –isms that have so greatly affected world culture. Therefore, it is easy to see why the western world is the trend setter in cultural terms. When increased education and job opportunities for women led to decreased birthrates, it was the western world affected first. The same can be extrapolated to apply to religious trends, with the connection between economic development and a decrease in religious beliefs apparent in Europe and other industrialized nations such as Japan. However, the question of faith is, to reiterate, very convoluted, and the statistical evidence reflects that. There are outlier countries, for example the United States and Israel, who have at the same time very high living standards and per capita GDP, while simultaneously maintaining a relatively high degree of religious faith, proving that faith is not purely dependent on static values like income and education.

And the question of faith becomes even more interesting on the micro level of individual movements, as opposed to the macro level of polls and statistics. There is an obvious relation between development and religion that Bulliet does not even mention, let alone begin to explain. A true historian not only verifies trends, but offers reasoning behind them, something the College Board avoids due to fears of political correctness. In the AP guidelines, the development of New Age religions is noted, but not accounted for, so the question of their importance remains. To begin, it must be established that all religions, no matter the time period or culture, share a common core. Religions provide answers to questions that people cannot normally account for, specifically questions of the unknown and death. Many also include a creation myth and other mystic attributes, but in the venn-diagram of all religions from Scientology to Buddhism, it is the question of existence that lies in the middle. So then it becomes a question, how does education and development inversely affect religious belief? Speculation includes the simple mutual exclusivity of science and religion, but in this case science is an ambiguous term. In theory, the study of physics or biology should not interfere with a religious belief system. For example, the theory of evolution disproves creation myths, but it does not directly nullify the idea of an afterlife. Modern planetary theory, too, interferes with some religious cosmology, but should not affect questions about the unknown. But what modern scholarly studies have achieved is the depersonalization of the human condition — in understanding everything as a machine or complex system we lose the ability to romanticize about our own nature. For example, the western religious analogy for the human condition is the mind, body, and soul; a plausible explanation that leaves room for doubt and spirituality. However, the modern scientific analogy is the body, the central nervous system, the brainstem, the hypothalamus, the neocortex, etc. Modern scientific study has reduced the human condition into a machine, and deductively reducing us to meat-robots. If then, the analogy for understanding ourselves is a robot or computer, the room for religion has been completely removed, as the question of ontology has been answered with our existence has been revealed to be nothing special.

Then how is it that the College Board’s “New Age Religions” are explained? As a classification, they are a direct reaction to the scientific advances in the post-modern era. On both sides of the spectrum, new religions like Rastafarianism have completely rejected the post-modern view of the world, while Pan-Eastern philosophers like Alan Watts have embraced modern epistemology to create some heterotelic purpose in life. For Rastafarians, the West and its sterile philosophy is the figurative Babylon that must be eschewed at all times to avoid its infectious ontology. For Alan Watts, the opposite is true; he accepts modern scientific studies and creates his ontology through the careful examination of consciousness. But arguably, the trend in new religions is to more personal, less institutionalized religions. Although a certain amount of new religious movements like Rastafarianism and Hare Krishna are based on the institutional blueprint, a growing number of religious movements like Deism and pan-eastern philosophies seek answers through individual study. There is no global school of western reimagining of eastern philosophy, but there is a body of works from the likes of Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others that explores the idea. While church attendance may be decreasing, that does not mean people haves stopped pondering their existence and no longer need religion. Instead, the trend may be to a more privatized idea of religion, with different philosophies and cosmologies distributed through the population. And to a certain extent, that is religion in its most natural state; the personal beliefs of others do not directly affect one’s beliefs, so the centralized model of spirituality does not arguably fit.

Religion is still very much alive and well. Although it may be changing in nature, no one has yet solved the questions of ontology and religion therefore persists. Old religious institutions like the Catholic Church and Consolidated Judaism may be on the comparative decline, but new religious movements like Deism and psycho-therapeutic Buddhism are on the rise. Fundamentalism and other kick-back movements are also notable, but their arguable duration facing powerful demographic trends is debatable. However, the topic remains a hot issue due to its sentimental value and history with cultural imperialism, so it is clear why AP and Bulliet avoid the topic altogether.


Works Cited
Bulliet, Richard W. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.Nhá̂t, Hạnh. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy & Liberation : The Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and Other Basic Buddhist Teachings. New York: Broadway, 1999. Print.PBS. Dir. David Grubin. Perf. Blair Brown and Richard Gere. The Buddha. PBS, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 06 May 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/>.Watts, Alan. In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915-1965. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007. Print.YouTube. Dir. Alan Watts. Perf. Alan Watts. Alan Watts on Nothing. YouTube, 05 May 2008. Web. 06 May 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLrMVous0Ac>.