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The prayerfulness of small new states
IF PEOPLE in the eastern half of Europe were as devoted to their faith, and as convinced of God’s existence, as they tell pollsters, then one would expect the region to be pervaded, at this time of year, by an atmosphere of contrition and repentance. Roman Catholics, after all, began their Lenten fast on March 6th while for Orthodox Christians March 11th is the first full day of Lent. (In any given year each church makes a complex set of lunar-based calculations to determine the date of Easter, and the seven-week period of self-discipline which precedes it.)?
Certainly there will be many individuals and communities who do feel that ascetic spirit. But it would be an exaggeration to say that an air of sober self-examination will be palpable on every street. People in some former communist and former Ottoman lands seem to overstate their religiosity when asked about their views, just as those who live in the continent’s more secular western half may be a bit shy about admitting any interest in the transcendent.
Consider some findings of Pew, a researcher based in Washington, DC, about how strongly people in 34 European countries believe in a Supreme Being. (The research was actually done between 2015 and 2017 but Pew does an artful job of keeping debate on the subject alive by presenting nuggets from its rich seam of data in ever-shifting combinations.)?
There are 10 countries where more than 85% of people declare belief in God: Georgia (99%) and Armenia (95%) come top, along with Moldova and Romania? (95% each). The nations which used to form communist Yugoslavia score highly (Bosnia 94%, Serbia 87% and Croatia 86%). Greeks (92%) also declare themselves to be firmly theist, as do the people of mainly Orthodox Ukraine and historically Catholic Poland, where the figure in both cases is 86%. At the other extreme, majorities of people in the Netherlands (53%), Belgium (54%) and Sweden (60%) are convinced that there is no God.
What all the countries with high theistic scores have in common is a collective sense that faith, along with culture and nationhood, has survived against the odds. Among the 34 countries under study, Bosnia is an outlier in having a plurality of Muslim citizens, along with substantial Orthodox and Catholic populations; all the others are historically Christian. And in virtually all the avowedly theistic lands, there is a sense (cultivated in political speeches and school textbooks as well as sermons) that the endurance of a national church in the face of communism, Islam and other threats is a kind of miracle that everyone should respect.
To a person influenced by such stirring historical narratives, doubting the existence of God might seem like letting the side down. At any rate, that is one way of reading the poll numbers. But in that case, is it really God that people believe in, or is the collectively worshipped Deity a kind of proxy for the community or nation? Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) influenced generations of social scientists by stressing that religion was above all a group activity, not an individual choice. Noting that among pre-modern peoples, a venerated object or totem could be a proxy both for God and the community, he posed the rhetorical question: “is it not because the ‘god’ and the society are...one?”
That line of thinking might help to explain how some citizens of Europe’s newer nations feel, or profess to feel, about faith, although it doesn’t of course preclude the possibility that a subset of those people might be looking for a much more personal relationship with the transcendent.?
In any case, even in lands where religion and nation are very close, the overlap between faith, community and culture is never total. For monastics and ultra-devout Orthodox Christians, the first three days of Lent are observed by almost total abstinence from food and drink. But in Greece and Cyprus, where today is a public holiday, the beginning of the fast can also be marked by some exuberant local customs, including flour-fights and mock weddings. It is also a time of enjoyable family outings in which kites are flown in the brisk spring breeze and notionally Lenten foods (shell-fish and vegetables) are washed down with plenty of wine and liquor. Some of the celebrants would doubtless say they were finding their own way to God.