I had witnessed the destructive power of faith more than a few times. As a reporter I had seen how evangelists supported a ruthless war in Guatemala, where the ruling general and evangelical minister Rios Montt had set out to eradicate the remnants of Mayan culture in the name of God. I had spent a month with the Hamas in the refugee camps of Gaza, where fathers and mothers would praise their dead sons' suicide missions against Israel as spiritual quests. Long before 911 I had attended a religious conference in Khartoum, where the spiritual leader of the Sudan Hassan al Turabi found common intellectual ground for such diverse people as Cardinal Arinze, Reverend Moon and the future brothers in arms Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There the Catholic Church, dubious cults and Islamist terror declared war on secularism and rational thought
It didn't have to be outright war though. Many a times I saw the paralysis of thinking and intellect in faith. I had listened to evangelical scholar Kent Hovind explain to children how Darwin was wrong, because dinosaurs and man roamed the earth together. I had spent time with the Amish, a stubborn, backwards people romanticized by Luddite sentiment. I had visited the Church of Scientology's Celebrity Center in Hollywood, where a strange and stifling dogma is glamorized by movie and pop stars.
It was during my work on faith in the US that I came across the New Religions Movement studies of David B. Barrett's "World Christian Encyclopedia". Barrett and his fellow researchers George T. Kurian and Todd M. Johnson had come to the conclusion that of all centuries, it was the alleged pinnacle of secular thought the 20th century that had brought on the most new religions in the history of civilization. They had counted 9900 full-fledged religions around the world. The success of new religions, they explained, came with the disintegration of traditional structures like the family, the tribe and the village. In the rootless world of mega cities and in American suburbia alike religious groups function as the very social fabric, society can't provide anymore.
It was hard facts against hard facts. First the visceral experience out in the field first overpowered the raw data of the massive body of scientific research. It still forced me to rethink my hardened stand towards faith. It was hard to let go of the empirical data of experience and accept the hard facts of science. This is a route normally leading from faith to rational thought. No, it hasn't brought me to faith, but I had to acknowledge it's persistence and cultural power. First and foremost it demonstated that the empirical data of journalism are no match for the bigger picture of science.