World Economic Forum attendees might argue God was up to something in the Swiss resort of Davos this year, depending on the part of the world from which they came.
Discussions at the annual meeting usually focus on the temporal—what the business and political leaders in attendance can do to shape global, regional, and industry agendas. But this year, the focus shifted to the eternal. Questions about God and religion took center stage during the five-day conference that started Jan. 23.
And views differed greatly, depending on attendees' country of origin.
“Religion is more relevant now than ever,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a leader in the Russian Jewish community.
But studies around the world show conflicting trends: While Christianity and Islam show steady growth in developing countries, the number of people who identify with no religion is on the rise in the richer world.
Arizona State University theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss was quick to debate Goldschmidt’s claim, rehashing age-old tensions between religion, science, and reason.
Why obsess about a book written by ancients who “didn’t know about the revolution of the Earth around the sun,” Krauss asked. Why believe in explanations that lack evidence?
Narkis Alon, a youthful Israeli social activist on the same panel, countered that the religious instinct in essence needed no particular proof.
"For me religion is the connection to something higher," she said.
Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, a group representing more than 600 hospitals around the United States, noted people all over the world have a need to believe in a higher power.
An analysis in 2010 of more than 2,000 polls, census, and other data by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 84 percent of the earth’s 6.9 billion people identified with a religion. Christians made up the largest group, with 2.2 billion, followed by Muslims, with 1.6 billion.
The third largest group, with 1.1 billion people—one-in-six of the world’s population—consists of those with no religious affiliation.
The Davos debate reflects an ever-growing gap within and among nations between the deeply devout and those who identify with no faith.
The conflicts appear regularly in news headlines—lawsuits in Italy over displaying crucifixes in public schools, a marriage counselor in the U.K. refusing to counsel a same-sex couple citing his religious beliefs. Both of those cases made it to the European Court of Human Rights.
In the United States, the “nones” show up overwhelmingly for the Democratic party, supporting abortion rights and gay marriage, while religious conservatives stick mostly with the Republican party.
But party lines aren’t the only dividing factors in the U.S. when it comes to religion. Geography also plays a part. A 2012 Gallup poll declared Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas the most religious states, while northern realms in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Alaska showed the least interest in God.
As far as cities go, the research firm Barna Group in 2013 named Knoxville, Tenn., as the most Bible-minded, and found Providence, R.I., and New Bedford, Maine, tied for least Bible-minded.
Meanwhile, religious freedom has become an increasingly important consideration in both national and international policy making.
In a study tracking freedom of religion worldwide over three years, Pew found three-quarters of the world’s population live with tough government restrictions on religious expression.
In Pakistan, Islamist groups have pushed through laws marginalizing Christians and other religious minorities. In Egypt, where the Coptic Christian minority persistently faces discrimination, violence has flared more frequently between Christians and Muslims following the Arab Spring uprisings. Radical Islamists are behind deadly violence in Mali, Nigeria, the Philippines and elsewhere.
At several of the Davos meetings, speakers debated the consequences of the rise of political Islam across the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring. Is Islam inherently antithetical to liberal values? Definitely not, insisted former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Violence and oppression are distortions of Islam, they said.
Like most discussions at Davos, this one yielded an agreement to disagree.
Krauss, the theoretical physicist from Arizona State and a militant secularist, said he was open to tweaking his views.
If the stars realigned in the night sky to spell out the words "I am here," Krauss said he would reconsider belief in God.