Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. earnest T Bass

    Ain't seen a Free Will Baptist then.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  2. Leave them to their fate.

    Muslims tend to be more religious because Muslim countries and societies tend to be less advanced socially and educationally. Yes, I know the arguement about how the middle east was the haven for education during the middle ages and how there are many Muslim academics. But that was then and this is now and most Muslim academics were educated in the west and few are fundamentalists. The reality is that a weak minded society is prey to organized religion and will follow the commands of a religios leader to their doom or the deteriment of the rest of the world. Now that's not to say that if you are educated you must be an atheist, but rather that educated societies think for themselves and are less likely to be mislead by others. That being said, don't attempt to change the situation. Muslims want to live in what we consider a backward society. They want to live in ignorance. They want to live in a society that limits the rights of others. So let the West leave the Middle East to the Muslim. Let us keep them contained and out of the West. They will have the society they want and we will have a society free of their threat.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Rodriga

      I agree 100% with everything you said. Lets hope this same message is promoted in places like Europe, where Islamist influence is already at large.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      your argument is bogus. muslims in the west are just as pious and just as dedicated. there is no threat of violence here, nor are the muslims uneducated here. so why are they hanging onto their religion?? third, fourth, fifth generation muslims are buying churches and converting them to mosques.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  3. Socrates

    This world will a very peaceful place without any religion. Religion and it Gods don't make any sense at all. It is based on fantasy and their followers also don't make any sense. In the US is a business and their spiritual leaders are people who live in mansions, they believe that Israel is the "chosen" people, such stupidity. Chosen by whom. Not even a clown believe this nonsense. I can go on and on but there is no need to waste time in this nonsense topic. Bye, I need to go to mass.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Julzrael

      Biased against the Jews much? Hmm makes me wonder why you picked them out of the entire US populous to pick on. Could you be Palestinian? 🙂

      December 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  4. Julzrael

    (continued)inquisitors themselves. Insanity can be forced on anyone to swallow, and they will make a show of believing out of fear, during their everyday lives – because they know if they don't, more "religious" members of their own families will have them murdered, tortured, locked away – wouldn't that frighten you?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  5. Ramon F. Herrera

    One word: GUILT.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  6. Julzrael

    johnkeating is completely correct IMHO. In order to not die, there is a lot that will be confessed. Look at any witch trials for good examples of the ridiculous fantasies invented by the

    December 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  7. EasternRomanEmpire

    What Moslems need right now is some good teaching on what it means to be Human (Classical Humanism), an Islamic Renaissance in other words. Otherwise, we will end up talking past each other for ever and ever, amen.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      yeah, some classical humanism followed by some WORLD WARS!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • EasternRomanEmpire

      Was Hilter a Classical Humanist? No. Genghis, read your history before commenting.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • SquareRootOfMinusOne

      EasternRomanEmpire, you are totally right! Christianity had 1) Gospel message, 2) Roman roads and adhesion, and 3) Greek language and humanistic ideas. Humanism is the main thing missing in Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • BatterUp

      So how does one suggest we educate the common Moslem on Classical Humanism? Education is the key but how?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      Islam haas 1) brotherhood 2) just war.

      infact you all would be kissing the ars es of Nazis today was it not for your collective christian leaders stealing the idea of Jihad from Islam and fighting hitler. had they listened to Jesus instead, we would all be living under Nazism today 🙂

      December 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      how can you educate muslims on humanism when you are busy selling them TRILLIONS of dollars in weapon systems?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • EasternRomanEmpire

      Genghis, Constantinople did keep waging a just war against Arianistic and Babylonian Islam until it could hold out no more. Leaving just wars behind, it is very important that Humanism prevail, let reasonable and logical faith prevail, and that we can all live with each other!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • BatterUp

      Genghis, you are not only ignorant of history and but insulting as well! We americans took the concept of Just War from Lincoln, not from some back-water Arian Arabs!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  8. Rainer Braendlein

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9n08SOaArq8&w=420&h=315%5D

    December 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  9. megman00

    Why you ask? One word: SAND.

    Lots and lots of SAND makes you do crazy things.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |

      especially when it gets in your pants.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  10. I laughed at this

    Pictures of Mohammed!
    Post yours here! I want to see pics of that hairy ass pedophile!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm |

      He had a hairy ass ?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • I laughed at this

      Hairy ass Mohammed and his hairy chest and back!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • FrePal

      I laughed at this: You forgot to mention that all your Christian priests are child molesters, so make sure to keep your asse shaved and clean when you go to the church on Sundays.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  11. lind01

    How can american "christians" say that most muslims are terrorists when american christians have a "taliban" group that also hijacked the CHRISTIAN religion; the group is called the Ku Klux Klan. Also, I found out that slaves, who were brought to north america from africa, were also muslims. I'm not saying that afro-americans shouldn't be christians, but IF blacks were muslims before they were brought to america, how did the slavemaster get blacks sucked in christanity? Did they beat it into the slaves? did the slavemaster used the religion for his evil practices on the slaves? Why do blacks pray to a pale Jesus that the slavemasters (who did the slaves wrong)woshipped? Are blacks Really,Really are supposed to practice christanity that the slavemasters taught to their ancestors in 2011/2012?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • I laughed at this

      The slaves brought here centuries ago practiced ATR, African traditional religion,..not Islam. a common name for the supreme being is Mulungu, a word of unknown origin but indicating the almighty and ever-present creator. The thunder is said to be his voice and the lightning his power; he rewards the good and punishes the wicked. From the northern Kalahari through the Congo to Tanzania the name Leza is used, perhaps from a root meaning 'to cherish', since he is the one who watches over people, providing for the needy and besetting the wayward. Leza is said to live in heaven, to which humans pray for rain, but finally he is transcendent and incomprehensible. Another divine name is Nyambe, perhaps from a root indicating power, and used from Botswana to Cameroun. A similar name, Nyame, is used in West Africa alongside other divine names, such as Ngewo the god of the Mende people of Sierra Leone, Amma of the Dogon of Mali, Mawu of the Ewe of Abomey, Olorun of the Yoruba and Chukwu of the Ibo and Soko of the Nupe, all of Nigeria.

      Read more: http://meta-religion.com/World_Religions/Ancient_religions/Africa/traditional_africa.htm#ixzz1faqfM6tB

      December 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • ChiTown

      HaHAHAHAHA! you're stupid

      December 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm |

      have you had any head trauma ?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • CRG

      The blacks brought to the new world were not mostly Muslim. Most practiced various types of animism and traditional beliefs, i.e., Voodoo. I find it difficult to understand how people who enslaved others could called themselves Christians. In Islam, slavery is permissible as long as the enslaved is not Muslim. I also find it difficult to understand how people who call themselves Muslim could condone killing thousands of people. My sense is that organized religion is for the ignorant and those who want to keep them that way. Perhaps in another thousand years folks will start to understand the difference between belief and faith.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Julzrael

      @i laughed at this – Well done. You did your research.
      @lind – got any proof of this? Otherwise it just seems like you're on a rant with no basis in fact. And who cares about a rant? You might as well whistle in the wind.
      And ATR did continue, here in America and continues to this day – in differing forms but here is one – Vodun -http://www.religioustolerance.org/voodoo.htm here's another – http://www.difference betweey lives and the n.net/miscellaneous/religion-miscellaneous/difference-between-santeria-and-voodoo/
      So please. Feel free to rant away and not be taken seriously or provide some basis in fact. And of course some slaves did eventually embrace the Western Christian religion, but just as johnkeating said here previously, out of FEAR for their very lives and the flesh on their backs. Just like oppressive religions of all paths, some of which are alive and well because of their brutal tactics. Truth is, zealotry isn't welcomed by the rest of the world. You can have your religion – but don't force it on one other person.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Julzrael

      http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/religion-miscellaneous/difference-between-santeria-and-voodoo/ is the correct link – darned PC! or cnn....hmm

      December 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  12. Snitch

    Got think the CIA love this stuff!!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9n08SOaArq8&version=3&hl=de_DE%5D

    December 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm |

    Maybe because of Sharia Law of DEATH. Under the THREAT of death people will do anything to keep their family from being killed.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  15. scott

    The Irony is, without the massive influx of capital the west provides in the form of oil revenue, no one would take these uneducated losers seriously.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Amanda

      The real irony is that you think the west *provides* rather than buying oil which indicates how uneducated and ignorant you are.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • scott

      You do realize that statement makes no sense. Just saying.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  16. x-muslim

    Faith or fear?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jonny

      If you were smart you would tell all of your little muslim friends to leave our American shores while there short asses still have a chance. Soon we will be decapitating in this country as well 🙂

      December 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Genghis Khan


      December 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm |

      both. they have faith in the fear of being beheaded.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  17. DrDroid

    Let me see...could it have something to do with the fact that apostates must be put to death?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Amanda

      That's what you think. If you check Buddhists, you would see that they too are quite religious.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Julzrael

      @ amanda – what are you talking about? In no Buddhist writing anywhere is anyone pushing death to apostates. Buddhism is about compassion. All religions have their dogma (in other words, their B.S.). YOU have to actively *think for yourself* and figure out what is dogma and what is useful. The key here is THINK for yourself.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Jonny


    December 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • scott

      too bad you don't have a big one lol

      December 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Jonny

      I can see your obviously disappointed scott, I'm sure you will find your big one someday lol

      December 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      vote republican, they will help you achieve your dreams.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Julzrael

      @jonny please, stop embarrassing yourself. You are just asking for dismissal. If that's the way you want to go, it just tells the story how you get off on fear-mongering like any extremist of any religion. And that is coming from a Patriot.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  19. johnkeating

    There is a saying "might makes right," which is true, but omits the critical qualifiers. With enough torture, you can probably make a person believe anything, do anything, say anything. My guess is, the countries which worship Islam are particularly isolationist and brutal in their dealings with people who do not conform to that particular religion. So naturally, people are great motivated by fear. Religion and torture together are a very old form of mind control that still exists today. Those elements, together with tribal behavior and isolationism, create a powerful environment where something akin to a totalitarian state can be maintained.Not only are people controlled physically but mentally as well. Take for example,the sci fi movie 'Logan's Run' - in this futuristic world, super powerful computers ran people's lives and maintained a sheltered world... until somebody [ilegally] breached the walls of that society and explored what was outside it. Strange. Real enlightenment comes not from strict conformity [and submission] to any existing rules or philosophies or ideologies or religions. Real growth occurs when you explore the unknown and begin to think beyond the established or known boundaries. And sometimes this mean... BREAKING THE LAW. That's the unfortunate truth of the world we live in.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Asad of Syria, the Saudi regime, none of these are known to be very religious, infact, Saddam was the first one to abolish sharia law in the muslim world. so your example of FEAR has no basis. most of the muslim world is ruled by autocratic non-religious rulers supported by western powers, neither of which have any incentive to force islam on their populations by fear.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  20. VA_Jill

    I've heard a whole lot more of that "We alone possess the truth" out of Christians than out of Muslims. Some Christians are downright offensive about it, too. Most Muslims I know just want to be left alone to practice their faith......as do a lot of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. It's the fundies in any religion that make it difficult for the rest of us.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jonny

      And they are more than welcome to worship what they want, IN THERE OWN COUNTRY!!! MUSLIMS LEAVE AMERICA BEFORE YOU ALL DIE!!!! We will not take this invasion any longer!!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Joel Weymouth

      You would get it the other way if you lived in a Muslim country. For example, an American going to work in Saudi Arabia MAY NOT BRING A BIBLE WITH HIM. He also may not even engage in solo religious services (though very difficult to catch by the religious police). Why do they enforce such intolerance? Because they are right and everyone else is an infidel. The only reason you don't hear Muslims in this country saying this is they are only 3% of the population and Christians are 80% +. More Christians, of course you would hear it from Christians more. Unlike the Muslims – we allow Muslims to worship. That is most indicative.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jonny

      Joel your a dumb-ass, why would I EVER WANT TO LIVE IN THEIR CRAPPY BACKWARD COUNTRY! They are the spawn of Satan and will never be fully welcomed in this country because it belongs to JESUS CHRIST! I can't wait to put a Knights Templar Tunic and start slaying the nasty muslims

      December 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.