For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
-- Psalm 90:4
Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, had a way with faith persuasion. "Be baptized or be killed," he told the Saxons, whom he conquered around 800.
Conversion style aside, the Frankish ruler established a precedent that helped create Western Europe as we know it today. One after another, kings and warlords, including wild-haired Viking marauders from the North, looked upon Charlemagne's Christian reign as "a model of settled kingship, a government they could imitate," said Thomas Head, professor of history at Hunter College in New York.
Around the turn of the millennium, so many kings had copied Charlemagne's style that virtually every kingdom in the West was at least nominally Christian or soon would be, Head said. Latin became the common language not only of religion, but of government and science as well. Christianity became a "glue for society" that brought stability to the region.
Similarly, Islam provided a common language--Arabic--among the nations it took over in the centuries after its founding in 630. The influence of Islam ranged from Spain to North Africa to the eastern rim of the Mediterranean, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike sharing trade routes and advancements in science, philosophy and art.
So it was that religion played a major role in sweeping political and cultural changes 1,000 years ago, many of which resonate today. But what was happening on the personal, individual level? What caused people a millennium ago to follow a particular belief--other than fear for their lives?
Chester Gillis, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, believes he has the answer. People now, as then, "sense the need for an absolute or transcendent or divine presence in their lives. The vast majority of the world has that innate sense for the divine, a search for the ontological grounding of their own person."
Gillis said that "every culture historically" has shown evidence of this search for transcendent meaning. "It has taken different expressions, been fractured into various religions and denominations. But it is still foundational."
This constant is important to recognize today because some people contend that religious belief is declining, which simply isn't so, he said. It's true that particular groups, such as some mainline Protestant denominations, are experiencing drops in membership or attendance. But members who fall away often find a new religious community, whether it's a more vibrant, Pentecostal megachurch or some private New Age spirituality.
Even when they stop identifying with organized religion, many people still consider themselves to be spiritual, with a belief in a higher being, Gillis said. "They would never say they are atheist or not religious."
That spiritual constant also is at work globally, where the movement of people from country to country has created an unprecedented mix of religious faith and "true world religions," he said. It's not just the case in such well-established cosmopolitan centers as Washington and Paris, but in many other cities as well.
Earlier this month, Gillis attended the third World's Parliament of Religion, in Cape Town, South Africa. Thousands of people from numerous faiths gathered to hear Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and other leaders ask for peace and reconciliation in 2000 and beyond.
But what impressed Gillis the most was the religious makeup of Cape Town itself, a city that offers its residents more than 20 faith options, from indigenous African religions to Zoroastrianism to Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism. Such diversity is "something you think of immediately" with London or New York, but not Cape Town, he said.
In the United States, which is home to dozens of religions and hundreds of denominations, religious diversity has become "far more commonplace than the framers of the Constitution ever imagined," said Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University and director of the school's Pluralism Project, which tracks the country's growing religious diversity.
"We're still predominantly Christian, no doubt about it," she said. But because of an "interfaith explosion" in the last decade, "America for the first time in our history is really, really challenged to make good on our promise of freedom of religion."
Eck cited an incident in which a Sikh man, stopped for a traffic violation, was stripped of the Kirpan, or ceremonial sword, his religion requires him to carry. And Hindus, recently targeted for conversion by Southern Baptists, as Jews and Muslims also have been, "felt deeply insulted not because [the Baptists] might want to convert them, but because they held mistaken views of who they are."
Eck and Gillis agree that followers of America's "traditional" religions--Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism--need to open new paths of understanding to different cultures and faiths. No longer are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains living "on the other side of the world, but across the street."
Eck believes accepting the beliefs of others "deepens faith" without endangering it. And increased understanding doesn't mean "leaving your religion at the door or shedding it, but affirming a commitment to live together."
On the other hand, the country's--and world's--increasing religious diversity might require adjustments in traditional ways of thinking and worshiping.
"My sense is that [America's] faiths have never been static and will continue to change and breathe the air of the new times, or die," Eck said.
Gillis agreed, adding that religions encountering new faiths often make adjustments not in belief, but in music, worship and other forms of expression. "Even religious claims are subject to a changing expression about the absolute."
A breakdown of the world's believers and non-believers today.
ADHERENTS WORLD TOTAL
Chinese folk religionists 397,162,000
Roman Catholics 1,026,501,000
Other Christians 373,832,000
Ethnic religionists 248,565,000
Other religionists 1,001,000
Others (including nonpractitioners) 28.2%
Total Population 5,929,839,000
SOURCE: 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year
About 300 million people lived in the 11th century, when vast groups of people converted to Christianity and Islam while others practiced the older religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Confucianism. Some notable dates:
960: The Sung Dynasty is founded in China, bringing more than 300 years of prosperity and dominance in technology, commerce and industry. A revival of Confucianism provides a moral base.
1000: Icelanders convert to Christianity, after similar conversions of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Following Charlemagne's model, newly Christianized Hungary consecrates a king.
1009: Muslims destroy the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, an act many Christians mistakenly attribute to Jews, fueling anti-Jewish sentiments that increase in coming generations.
1033: The anniversary of Jesus's death inspires new pietistic movements that lead to the founding of mendicant orders and encourage Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
1054: Bishops of the Eastern and Western churches excommunicate one another over the issue of papal authority, a schism that will be completed in 1204, when Rome's Crusaders sack Constantinople.
1066: William of Normandy conquers England, defeating King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. The conquest is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, a 231-foot-long embroidery made about a decade later.
1098: Rome begins the first of several mostly ill-fated crusades to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims.
CAPTION: Buddhism, founded about 2,500 years ago in India, remains a major religion in Asia but has found a niche among Westerners who adapt its ancient customs to modern life.
CAPTION: Christianity, with nearly 2 billion adherents, is the world's largest religion, with increased missionary efforts today in Africa, Latin America and the former Soviet Union.
CAPTION: Most followers of this 3,500-year-old religion live in India, but many have formed communities and built temples in other countries, relying on other Hindus rather than proselytizing.
CAPTION: Judaism is a central player in world politics and religion despite its relatively small size. Officially, the religion is in its 5760th year, but biblical chronology shows the world is entering 6000.
CAPTION: Islam, like Christianity, aggressively seeks converts and is one of the world's fastest-growing religions. The Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in 630, tracing its lineage to Abraham.