World Religion Day: where to from here for modern religion?

17 JANUARY 2020

World Religion Day: where to from here for modern religion?

Charles Sturt University theology experts reflect on challenges facing modern day religious denominations and organisations.

Sunday 19 January 2020 will mark World Religion Day, an observance initiated in 1950 by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháʼís of the United States.

It is held on the third Sunday in January each year and has come to be celebrated internationally.

A key tenet of the day is that people are encouraged to engage with and listen to those of a different faith than their own.

In recognition of World Religion Day, Charles Sturt experts reflect on the particular challenges facing religious denominations and orders.

Dr Bernard DohertyDr Bernard Doherty (pictured), Course Director at Charles Sturt’s School of Theology:

“Worldwide, both mainstream and minority religions continue to face a number of internal and external challenges.

Internally, religions face the challenge of extremism and a continued growth in militant and chauvinistic forms of religiosity which are in many ways inimical to social harmony. These more belligerent voices often drown out more reflective and moderate voices in the public sphere.

Externally, religions face the challenge of negotiating their place in increasingly pluralist and secular societies. While historically major world faiths like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism have enjoyed certain privileges in regions where they have been demographically dominant, globalisation and large population shifts brought about by migration and displacement have seen this situation change dramatically.

While this has challenged traditional monopolies and sometimes led to inter-religious conflict, it has also had more beneficial outcomes including an increased cultural diversity. This has forced religions to engage in inter-faith and multi-faith initiatives and to work together in the interests of the common good.

Additional external challenges facing religion today include:

  • Institutional decline and the demographic growth of those identifying as having no religion and spiritual-but-not-religious. This is particularly a challenge for religions in the West.
  • Religious persecution both by dominant faith traditions and anti-religious states. This remains a very real issue in places like Russia, China, and Iran.
  • Religious discrimination. In less authoritarian countries, lower-level religious discrimination are evidenced – with a disturbing rise in many Western countries of Islamophobia and a resurgence of Anti-Semitism.”

Right Reverend Professor Stephen PickardRight Reverend Professor Stephen Pickard (pictured), Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and Professor in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt:

“The religions of the world are growing at a rapid rate, especially across regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In the secular West, formal adherence to major religions including Christianity is in decline, though the wellsprings of spiritual yearning appear to persist and re-emerge in a variety of forms, both ancient and modern.

The word ‘religion’ originally meant ‘life under monastic vows’ and highlights the sense of obligation, bond and reverence. The word probably comes from Latin religare, meaning ‘to bind’. At its root then religion is that which binds people, planet and the divine together.

This gives a clue to some of the critical issues - identified in the questions below - facing the religions of the world in the 21st century.

  • How might a religion’s traditions help the people of the world to reconnect with each other, the planet as their home, and the One who gives life and breath to creation and its unfolding reality?
  • How might the religions of the world be a power for peace and the flourishing of societies in our disturbed and often violent times?
  • How might those of religious faith work together with all people of goodwill to seek a higher wisdom for the common good?

The way in which people of faith engage with the above questions will be the litmus test of the attractiveness, integrity and public value of religious life for society.”

Dr Zuleyha KeskinDr Zuleyha Keskin (pictured), Course Director and Senior Lecturer in Charles Sturt’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation:

“With 85 per cent of the world’s population claiming to belong to a religion, its impact on society, both positive and negative, cannot be denied.

Religion brings peace and solace to the lives of many; it offers a purpose to life, it gives meaning to life events and often provides solace during times of hardships.

However, religions also face significant challenges in today’s world, namely:

  • The need to ensure they are kept relevant to the needs and demands of society; their teachings and practices need to be relatable to the people of the 21st century. This may require younger leadership in religious institutions who understand the teachings of the religions while also understanding the needs of today’s youth.
  • The requirement to address global contemporary issues such as climate change, animal rights and poverty. Religions generally have a positive and constructive stance on these matters, however these positive stances can be drowned out by the negative views of a few who claim to speak in the name of religion. More public discourse is needed about how religions seek to tackle contemporary issues related to social justice.
  • The challenge of being associated with causing wars. In such times, where borders and distance have drastically disappeared, greater efforts are needed to build bridges with people of other faiths no faith to demonstrate that religions are a means to peaceful societies rather than being the cause of wars.”
Media Note:

 To arrange interviews, contact Rebecca Tomkins at Charles Sturt Media on 02 6365 7111 or

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