Future of Religion

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Future of Religion

In the 1960s, many groups of intellectuals and social scientists attempted to foresee what the year 2000 would be like, and in retrospect many of their publications seem surprisingly insightful. Now that we have reached the milestone they envisioned, we can use their methods to discern the shape of things to come in religion. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences organized a Commission on the Year 2000 to debate the alternative futures that might result from current decisions. In the very first sentence of the commission's report, Toward the Year 2000 (1968), Daniel Bell quoted St. Augustine as saying that time was "a threefold present: the present as we experience it, the past as a present memory, and the future as a present expectation." In The Year 2000 (1967) Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener offered a methodology for looking into the future, not in terms of religious prophecy or mindless extrapolation from present conditions, but by developing alternative scenarios with varying degrees of subjective probability.

The "surprise-free projection" is simultaneously the most precise but also the least interesting scenario. The null hypothesis must be that the future will be like the present. But we know that at present, certain religious denominations are growing while others are shrinking, so a surprise-free projection must extrapolate these rates of change into the future as well. The best projection is not merely a mechanical calculation from current rates, but also an application of the best available theories to understand qualitative changes. For example, the work of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark on the history of American denominationalism from 1776 to 1990 can provide insight into the dynamic equilibrium that has prevailed for many decades and that can be expected to continue indefinitely.

Scenario I: The Surprise-Free Projection

Throughout the twenty-first century, the landscape of religion in the United States changes only in small details. Highly liberal denominations such as the Unitarian-Universalists and the United Church of Christ will continue to lose membership, and some of these secularized organizations will merge. At the same time, moderate denominations become more liberal, conservative denominations become moderate, and new sects break off from all of them to replenish the supply of conservative denominations. Secularization and a low birthrate diminish the number of practicing Jews, but immigration from Islamic societies maintains a significant minority of non-Christian monotheists. Because the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is securely embedded in the culture, successful new religious movements all belong to this lineage. The overall church membership rate stays constant, and religion remains influential in many spheres of life, including politics and personal morality.

Scenario II: Secularization

Higher education and an increasing reliance on advanced information technology in all kinds of work erode the plausibility of supernatural beliefs. Nonreligious institutions in society continue to take over functions formerly performed by churches. Discoveries in biology, astronomy, and sociology render traditional religious beliefs ever more anachronistic. Technical innovations such as human cloning and artificial intelligence shake religion to its very foundations. Intense religion persists only in social and cultural backwaters, and the surviving mainstream denominations promulgate an extremely vague faith that has few implications for daily life. As long as peace, prosperity, and scientific progress prevail, traditional religion gradually sinks toward extinction, although its death may take centuries to complete.

Scenario III: A Rift Between America and Europe

Samuel Huntington, a participant in the old Commission on the Year 2000, has recently argued that the cultural and historical divisions of the globe are too well established to be dissolved easily by worldwide modernization. In particular, he speculates that the division in Eurasia between Eastern Orthodox cultures and Western Catholic-Protestant cultures will persist for many centuries, but North America and Western Europe will be a unified culture, perhaps including a developed Latin America. Yet one could just as well argue that secularization in Europe and revival in America will cause the transatlantic ties to snap. Western Europe will become a pessimistic, atheistic culture with a static welfare state and a rigid bureaucracy. In contrast, the Americas will be a chaotic but creative society in which hundreds of Christian movements tumble over each other and where the Roman Catholic Church is simply the largest of the Christian denominations. Despite great similarities in technology and consumer fads, Europe and the Americas will have increasing difficulty understanding each other, and only tensions with the remainder of the world will prevent the irritations between them from escalating into overt conflict.

Scenario IV: Paganization

Throughout most of human history, organized religious power has been very local in nature, and large societies have contained many competing religious movements. For the better part of two thousand years, however, Christendom has been attracted by the idea that there should be a single church, with Jesus Christ himself for its leader, and at times an alliance with the state has given an effective religious monopoly to one sacred organization or another. Despite the efforts of the ecumenical movement, this dream has always been precarious in America, where traditions of religious freedom are strong. Secularization may erode the religious mainstream in coming decades until it ceases to exist, and religious urges will find their expression elsewhere. From L. Frank Baum's popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 through Episode I of George Lucas's Star Wars series in 1999, popular culture has increasingly legitimated non-Christian notions of the supernatural. As the twenty-first century progresses, for many people religion will become a homespun creation of local messiahs promulgating a diverse possible array of beliefs and practices.

Scenario V: The Rise of a New World Faith

In the nineteenth century, the United States produced at least four distinctive new religions: Christian Science, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, and Jehovah's Witnesses. It is hard to discern what major new religions were created in the twentieth century, although Scientology in 2000 is comparable in membership to some of those four in 1900. If religion is defined broadly, then psychoanalysis in all its variants is a vast new tradition that has not yet exhausted its potential. Scientology exemplifies religion housed in a single strong organization, which has long been the Christian ideal, whereas psychoanalysis exemplifies religion dispersed among a tangle of local guru-transmission lineages, as in Hinduism. If scientology and psychoanalysis are accurate omens, the new American religion of the twenty-first century may owe no debts to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

The mills of the gods grind exceeding slow, and barring major world catastrophe, we should not expect rapid transformation of American religion. Thus, probabilities favor the surprise-free scenario, although elements of the others may gradually intrude as the decades pass. In Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937), Pitirim A. Sorokin outlined a cyclical theory of cultural change that asserted that great civilizations arise in ideational form (stressing faith in spiritual reality), then gradually evolve into sensate form (stressing skeptical emphasis on material reality). He asserted that Western civilization had entered the late sensate phase, which could soon lead to catastrophic collapse, followed by a possible dark age in which a new faith would launch a fresh ideational civilization. Social scientists pay no attention to Sorokin's ideas today, yet should Western civilization imitate its ancient predecessors and fall, then by definition the surprise-free scenario would become useless and we would have to expect the rise of a new world faith. Just as the seeds of Christianity were sown three centuries before its conquest of the Roman Empire, so the long-term future of American religion may belong to tiny cults even now being born in obscurity.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Civil Religion; Ecumenical Movement; Freedomof Religion; Megachurch; Millennialism; Popular Religion; Postdenominational Church; Premillennialism; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Sociologyof Religion; Space Flight.


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Bainbridge, William Sims. The Sociology of ReligiousMovements. 1997.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and theRemaking of World Order. 1996.

Martin, David. A General Theory of Secularization. 1978.

Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. The Churching ofAmerica 1776 –1990. 1992.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion. 1985.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II. 1988.

William Sims Bainbridge