Predicting the Future of Religion: A Thought Experiment

Image courtesy flickr user Heidi via Creative Commons

This week’s news from Pew on the decline of institutional Christianity, with its trove of data on the “unaffiliated” and the decline of the mainstream, has stolen the stage from last month’s release of Pew’s report on the Future of World Religions—a study that concluded that while atheists, agnostics and the unchurched are on the rise in the U.S. their numbers are projected to decline globally. But while Pew’s prediction that Islam will overtake Christianity made headlines, the authors of the study were quick to remind us that their findings are not the direct results of polling but projections.

It would seem hard enough to project something as simple as population growth, but what of the mercurial nature of religious faith itself? It might well be impossible to predict the “turn of the soul” for one individual, let alone that of an entire community.

As a type of thought experiment let’s imagine a hypothetical “Court Demographer” working under the Tudor King Henry VIII in 1515. What sort of conclusions might he draw from an overview of the European situation at the time?

He might have concluded that despite constant Ottoman pressure on her eastern border the Roman Catholic faith was secure in its dominance. Indeed with the arrival of Spanish colonialism throughout the Americas it seemed as if Catholicism as the Christian hegemon would spread into recently discovered worlds. A conventionally pious and conservative Catholic who would indeed be named a “Defender of the Faith” in 1521 by Pope Leo X occupied the English throne.

The Court Demographer might have predicted that Catholicism would spread by force into the Americas and by missionary activity into Asia.

He might have seen the possibility of the humanist intellectual vanguard with figures like Erasmus and Thomas More reforming the Church from the inside. In their calls for suppression of corruption and simony the Demographer may have seen a tidied up or simplified Catholicism reigning in Rome, especially under the influence of reform-minded clergy like the Spanish cardinal Gasparo Contarini and other representatives of the spirituali movement. And based on the near successes of the Council of Florence in 1454 he may have hoped for the reconciliation of the various Orthodox churches to the See of Rome.

But what would the Court Demographer been unable to imagine in 1515? That an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther would nail 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg and launch a wave of reform.

Certainly Luther’s grievances were well-known, especially in northern Europe. But the Court Demographer might have thought that Erasmus and his fellow Humanists could handle it. And Luther’s theology wasn’t original (as he himself would, in fact had to, acknowledge). Any Court Demographer worth his hypothetical salt would have been aware of the presence of pesky Lollards, often prominent within London’s lucrative wool trade, who even more than a century after their emergence preached a gospel of salvation through faith and scriptural inerrancy.

And the Court Demographer would be aware of the dangers of schism and heresy, whether that be of the fourteenth-century Papal Babylonian Captivity or the radicalism of non-Catholic groups like the Cathars and Bogomils (extinct by 1515) or the Waldensians (who were not). And while preachers every bit as fiery as Luther had preached against the Church from the middle ages to the Court Demographer’s current day, what had figures like Joachim of Fiora or Savonarola come to?

So it would seem unlikely that this prognosticator could see Luther and the five centuries which resulted.

We have to ask: what new Luthers might be out there? What multiple “turns of the soul” could occur in the collective body-politic to spur revolutions in religion?


Back to the Future


Thanks to Pulp-O-Mizer for…er..finding…this book cover in a dusty archive.

In the manner of our dear imaginary Court Demographer, let’s imagine what it might be like to look back, a hundred years from now, on religious change in the 21st century.

A 22nd century historian might find herself describing how the United States, long known as an unusually pious nation (Chesterton’s country with the “soul of a church”) saw a large percentage of its citizens become increasingly secular. Indeed this is born out by the Pew study itself. Close to a fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated—albeit an incredibly diverse group that contains agnostics, atheists, people who identify as spiritual if not religious, and the generally non-denominational among others. Already the unaffiliated occupy the second largest “religious” group in the United States.

Despite significant differences among members (who are after all defined by not belonging to a group) will they coalesce into a group that needs to be politically courted?

Politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties shy away (or openly denounce) atheist Americans, will atheist, agnostic and other secular voters demand respect in the same way other marginalized religious groups have in the past? Is it possible that our future historian might need to comment on the election of America’s first atheist President? With no admitted atheist members of Congress in 2015 it seems impossible to conceive of an atheist executive in the next hundred years—but it could happen.

At the same time the diversity of secular Americans shouldn’t be deemphasized. As an incredibly multifaceted group its members run the gamut from a socialistic left to a libertarian right. Indeed those who have coalesced around the more militant “New” Atheists often embrace a range of right-wing enthusiasms from Randian economics to anti-feminism even while the traditionally irreligious are normally seen as more liberal.

And might new “faith-like” communities emerge from the debris of doubt and skepticism? Already there have been formal incorporations of committed atheists and agnostics into “churches” with “ministers” preaching a gospel of scientism, skepticism, and present-world centered ethics.

For anyone who has read Sagan’s inspiring Pale Blue Dot it is hard not to admit that if feelings of awe at our place in the universe aren’t “religious” they are at least numinous and transcendent. As science continues the Copernican revolution of unseating humanity from its primacy, secular or atheistic “churches” may play a role in cultivating a sense of awe in the face of human insignificance.

What other religious changes might the United States see?

This week’s Pew results seem to suggest that despite a secular upswing evangelicals and Pentecostals will hold strong or increase their numbers. Our historian looking back on the twenty-first century may indeed lament the collapse of mainstream Protestantism in the United States, which at one time undergirded so much of American identity. She may lament that the country now seems split between an irreligious half and an evangelical one.

What about the Roman Catholic Church in the United States? In many ways the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. will be dependent on its future elsewhere in the world. Will there be a large, welcoming, liberal Church following the example of Pope Francis and possibly even more reformist coming popes? Will there be a Church that attends to the beliefs of most American Catholics or will the church become ever more conservative?

What moments might we miss that seem obvious to our future historian? Will she write about some unpredicted future Great Awakening of evangelical fervor in American society? Need this Great Awakening be reactionary, or could it be progressive?

Or maybe as national political prestige and a sense of American exceptionality withers people will replace our civil religion for Mormonism, with Americans embracing the church’s American-centered cosmology and stable sense of family values. It’s the largest religious tradition actually birthed in America and remains one of our fastest growing religions—could it be possible that the twenty first century sees Mormonism becoming America’s dominant religion?

And what about Europe? The Pew study indicates that traditional Christianity is dying out in Europe even as Islam increases. Will Europe react with its own evangelical revival? Might the burned-over country of the nineteenth-century Adirondacks and Alleghenies be replaced with that of the twenty-first century Black Forest?

Or will Europeans embrace that really old time religion of paganism, trading in Christ for Thor? Perhaps our future historian will write her dissertation on how the twenty-first century saw mass revivals of the worship of Apollo in Greece, Diana in Italy, and Odin in Scandinavia? And what portents may neo-Paganism herald, what rough beast slouches toward London, Paris, and Rome to be born? Will it be a Neo-Paganism embracing the democratic egalitarianism of classical polytheism, or will it be a racist, xenophobic, and chauvinist appropriation of traditional symbols and rites?

Will it be a neo-Paganism of the ‘60s Left or of Alain de Benoist and his New Right?

Of course the biggest question about religion in Europe is the future of the Roman Catholic Church, whose increasingly diverse membership— in the “Global South” of South America, Africa and Asia— promises to radically alter its face.

After the College of Cardinals elected the first non-European Pope in more than a century (albeit one of Italian descent) it seems unthinkable that the next Pope won’t come from Asia, Africa, or South America. A Pope from the United States seems unlikely, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has myopically acted as a virtual rung of the Republican Party. Whatever the American bishops have in common with the wider church, GOP policies on economics or militarism are foreign to church teaching whether the pope is Francis or Benedict XVI. As a result, despite theological conservatism within the College of Cardinals, American bishops are viewed with suspicion within the Curia.

Expect the next Pope to be from Manila or Yaoundé and not from Boston or Chicago.

Whether this will herald a more progressive church or a reactionary one is a matter of debate. Right now Pope Francis is attempting to extend his influence beyond the end of his papacy as much as possible by selecting the cardinals who will elect the next pope.

As it stands now there are a few things that may happen upon Pope Francis’ passing: the Church will either get more liberal or it will not, and the Church will either get more ecumenical or it will not. Signs show that the incredibly popular Pope Francis has reinvigorated lapsed Catholics around the world, and especially in the United States (where he will make his first visit this fall).

Lapsed Catholics are themselves a sizable percentage of America’s religious makeup, and by refocusing attention away from divisive culture war issues and towards questions of social justice (which are actually addressed directly by the gospels) Pope Francis has earned a reprieve for a Church still reeling from the horrors of sex abuse allegations and other scandals.

Can we hope for a Vatican III to suggest more radical changes than last year’s Synod on the Family? Or will cardinals, threatened by the spectacle of this social media-savvy progressive-leaning Pope, double down and elect an archconservative?And there is the possibility that even if more liberal popes are to follow that the conservative wings within Catholicism will threaten schism.

Already Catholic bishops enraptured by an Opus Dei worldview have suggested a break with Rome. It’s possible that the twenty-first century could see something that seems more like a fourteenth-century spectacle—a post-modern Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy with dueling popes and anti-popes and a new Avignon in Bogota or Sao Paulo.

In contrast to schism there is also the possibility of ecumenical reconciliation. The past millennium has seen numerous approaches for a reunification between the Latin Catholic West and the Greek Orthodox East. With the coming millennial anniversary of their split in 2054 will the spiritual descendants of Rome and Constantinople achieve a waited-for reconciliation?

Is it possible that our future historian will note a diminished interest in obscure theological differences between the Catholic and Orthodox? In the case of reconciliation how will the Orthodox find papal authority palatable? And what will the next half-century see in Russia, where Moscow has attempted to culturally usurp Constantinople as the metonymous symbol of Orthodoxy? And what of other ecumenical treaties? Will the Church of England reenter the Catholic fold? Various Lutheran denominations?

And what of the rest of the world (acknowledging that what will be presented in a woefully inadequate account of the remaining globe)? Burgeoning Russian nationalism has already seen the beginnings of a unification of church and state with Vladimir Putin commandeering theological language as he continues to consolidate authority in Moscow. Will the twenty-first century see the rise of a Russia emboldened by a mixture of Slavic nationalism and Orthodox mysticism? Does this signal the origins of a modern theocratic state with draconian social laws (such as Russia’s current homophobic statutes) at home and a belligerent foreign policy outside of its borders?

The Pew Study indicates that the number of Jews in the world will remain constant even as the religion’s adherents grow older. What will Israel look like in the twenty-first century? With Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on holding to a hardline definition of Jewish identity in relation to the state will we see an increasingly religious Israeli state moving away from the secular origins of Zionism? Is the worst-case scenario the emergence of a religious state that mimics what one imagines a Jewish version of Iran would look like? Or will our future historian note the emergence of a now unknown statesman in the tradition of Yitzhak Rabin who is able to move Israel back to the center?

And with increased anti-Semitism in Europe, which has often gone painfully unnoticed by the popular press, will Israel (or the United States) see an influx of Jewish immigrants, altering the situation in Israel in completely unseen ways?

Africa will not only see an increase in adherents to Christianity and Islam, it will also (as the Pew study indicates) see an increase in “indigenous” beliefs. The growing power of radical Islam in the form of groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria much as with the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could possibly signal the beginnings of a terrifying new chapter in religious oppression. Will our future historian write about bloody religious crusades between Muslims and Christians in the new Global South? Or will small but growing secular movements in Africa and Asia prevent this?

What will our historian say about the growth of “indigenous” religion? From Max Muller to Mircea Eliade western scholars have often patronizingly collapsed the distinctions between African, Indian, Asian, and Pacific “indigenous beliefs.” How will westerners react when finally forced to confront these religious systems on their own terms? Stephen Prothero has pointed out that the traditional African religion of Yoruba is one of the world’s largest faiths and in his brilliant new book One Nation under Gods Peter Manseau has shown how the crucial role African religion played in the development of American religious syncretism. How will increased interaction with these religions enrich our global sense of faith?

And what of Asia? Will our future historian chart the ways that Hindu nationalism in India embraced an increasingly fundamentalist version of the faith? Will the Dalai Lama choose not to reincarnate? In China itself there is the possibility (as mentioned earlier) of China becoming the largest Christian nation on Earth.

Finally, what are the totally unforeseen movements, religions, events, and scriptures that will emerge in the next hundred years? What syncretism will our historian note? What religions totally impossible for us to imagine will she write about? What will quickly emerge from some forgotten place to overtake the world?

These possibilities are only possibilities until the wave function collapses—until then our tea leaves and tarot cards are only that, no matter how technologically sophisticated. The demographer’s job is by necessity a humble one. Just as surely as we can reflect on things that our imaginary Tudor could have never anticipated, our future historian understands things that we’d never have been able to predict.

In prognosticating the future of religion it’s helpful to keep in mind that great philosopher-who-strived-towards-Christianity Soren Kierkegaard who wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”


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  •' Jim Reed says:

    You ask a lot of questions, and I think they are valuable and worth looking into, even if it seems like an awful lot of work. First, there is the statement,

    She may lament that the country now seems split between an irreligious half and an evangelical one.

    This is a very interesting possibility, and one that deserves more thinking. That irreligious half would be the evolution of progressive Christianity into secular humanism. It is the rational half of the country, and increasingly the moral half. As the gap grows, the two opposites become increasingly more the opposite of each other, and that is what both sides want, and becomes their guide. The more the evangelical half locks into their version of old testament morality, the more the irreligious will lock into a progressive vision of morality. When one side is for scientific rationality, and ways to save the environment, and offer progressive help to the population, the others on the other side of the unbridgable gap have to oppose all these things. They have to lock in to a demand for recognition of holy Biblical righteousness of their way of looking at things, and find political ways to win battles. Same as the forces of religion have always done.

    This becomes an unstable situation, and the resolution will be a force that almost makes all the other future religion questions around the globe of no importance.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    A quibble:
    I’m not sure the New Atheists “embrace a range of right-wing enthusiasms from Randian economics to anti-feminism” – at least I don’t think the word embrace is correct. Unless we somehow think that Sam Harris or Hitchens somehow had the authority to speak for New Atheists as whole group – which is one of the very reasons atheists left religion in the first place.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The Mormon question seems easy to answer. I don’t think they can gain much here. They just have too many crazy beliefs, and after our evangelical disaster we will be looking for something more rational. I know they also are moving in a more rational direction, but it just seems like too little too late. They do best here when in their own state. They might do better somewhere less developed like Africa, but it seems the competition will be heating up there. It is a major growth continent for Catholics, and those religions like evangelicals that are keyed on hate of certain minorities seem to get 10 times more traction there.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The Pope has a lot of influence but much of it might turn out to be illusion. Instead of the pope and the church influencing the future of religion, it seems more likely the future of religion will be influencing church and pope.

    Whatever Russia tries to do on the church front, nobody in the world has any interest in religion from Russia. Even any Russian interest is subject to change at a moment’s notice. The last true Russian saints will probably turn out to be the Beatles.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    What about Europe, or European paganism, or neo-paganism? Hard to say. After they figure how to do their 21st century political union, maybe they can consider doing something in the religion field.

    I am not sure what the future of Judaism will be, but hopefully it will be centered in American liberal Judaism. They have the advantage here of not being the majority religion, and by not being evangelical they have shown they would be capable of handling something greater, like guiding the nation of Israel.

    Indigenous religions will have their day when Christianity and Islam fade away. They might not be able to add much, but at least they also don’t seem to do any harm. That is probably what they learned through their tens of thousands of years of development.

    My guess is the Dalai Lama probably will choose not to reincarnate. He has to figure out how to change religion into science. I am glad that is his job because I don’t think any of the rest of us would be smart enough to do it.

    The ultimate function of religion will be to see there is no actual wave function to collapse. The illusions are all illusion, and religion can’t do any better than figuring that out.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    And now for something completely different.

    This is a world of technology, computers, internet, and beyond. Since religion is only human, it will have to be composed of the same stuff we are. But what does it mean to be human? That is now changing. We are at the very beginning of the age where humans merge with electronics. We are also beginning the age of genetic manipulation of other non-human life forms, and the age of us manipulating our own biology can’t be far behind. We have gone thorugh a few centuries of establishing all humans are the same and questions like race are unimportant. Whatever we do next will turn that upside down because it will be clear as we alter our biology, and our internal electronics, we will turn into many different things. Beyond that, our travel into space will split us into different evolutionary paths, and the new environments will drive normal evolution much faster than it could ever go on earth. Who knows what will happen when the accelerated space based evolution is enhanced by our electronic and bioengineered changes? Instead of our combined human species, we will be a spread of too many species to count separated by unbridgable space and time. This will require a new religion unlike anything ever seen on earth, and beyond that, it will also require an uncountable number of new religions spread across the universe.

    This is getting a little ahead of things since we are trying to look back from 100 years from now. This will not be reality at that time, but people at that time will know for certain it is coming, and they won’t be looking back at religion. They will be looking forward.

  •' Rmj says:

    That reference to Kierkegaard at the end is kinda funny, since Kierkegaard was an ordained Lutheran pastor.

    Not exactly a “philosopher-who-strived-towards-Christianity,” in other words. He almost retired to a country pastorate in Denmark. Changed circumstances in Copenhagen, and an early death, prevented him.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Like pastors who are complex thinkers, and complicated human beings.

    As for the rest of the article, it’s pretty ironic to start of declaring the future is unforeseeable, and then to set about trying very hard and through a lot of words, to foresee it.

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  •' Jim Reed says:

    It is a good way to learn. It avoids the problem of not thinking about the future because you don’t want to think about the possibilities. That leaves you stuck in the past, and that can lead to religiousness.

  •' Rmj says:

    You missed the point of the Kierkegaard quote, didn’t you? The author of the piece got that much right.

  •' Prox says:

    I’m certainly not a psychic so I can’t make a solid argument against any of these predictions, but as rationality slowly takes hold of human culture, I don’t see modern forms of older religions becoming a big thing. quite the opposite, I’m looking forward to the day when Jesus is the basis for a superhero in a non-satirical context, much like ancient beefcake Thor fights alongside our current Iron Man.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The article was not about getting things right as much as just starting the discussion, and the discussion provides opportunity to learn and educate. If you are stuck on understanding backwards, you might miss where we might be able to go.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    If you want to do Jesus comics, don’t wait too long. He might not have that long of a shelf life in a new age where he has to compete with English versions of current Japanese superheros .

  •' Tom says:

    As I’ve been reading,Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I really like his idea that humans were able to create common myths that do not exist except for in our minds so that large groups could cooperate. We see this with religion, money, political systems and everything that we place our trust. It makes sense then that societies are based on common ideas. We’ve seen the rise of Christianity first as a state religion of Rome and eventually as the unifying myth of Western Civilization. Yet, I see no use for it in the future as humanity has dispelled the god myth in many areas through scientific discoveries, especially in the past century alone. We understand epileptic seizures are not the result of someone being demon-possesed, nor do we test if women are witches by tossing them in a body of water. And it is a much better world.

    Religion is declining because people are gaining access to much better information since the Bible was translated into English and people can read it for themselves. Although, I do believe that we as a people have seen an increase in intelligence, what is known as the Flynn effect. People are outright rejecting religion based upon the ridiculous stories contained within their texts. However, the longing for a purpose and unconditional love will still drive people to ignore rational thought.

  •' Russ Dewey says:

    The Pew projections were silly. Scientists in the field of complex systems spend chapter 1 or the first day of class discussing how you cannot use straight line, linear predictions with complex systems. An example of complex systems is the dynamic play of forces shaping religions today.

  •' Jace Paul says:

    A joke that, I think, better summarizes the rebuttal I’d written in my mind:

    A physicist goes into an ice cream parlor every week. He always orders
    an ice cream sundae and offers one to the empty stool next to him. One
    day the owner of the shop asks the physicist, “Why do you do that?” The
    physicist replies, “Well, quantum mechanics teaches us that there is a
    chance that the matter above this stool will spontaneously
    transform into a beautiful woman who will accept my offer of an ice
    cream and fall in love with me.” The owner says, “We have
    beautiful women come in here all the time. Why don’t you offer one of
    them an ice cream and maybe she’ll fall in love with you.” And the
    physicist replies, “Yeah, right! What are the odds of THAT happening?”

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Is that supposed to be an obscure reference to the second coming?

  •' Whiskyjack says:

    Good point. Most of the atheists I know reject adherence to any kind of dogma, or particular reverence for any writer. The idea of organizing atheism into some kind of church is, I think, mostly a fantasy of writers who think that all atheists secretly believe in some kind of transcendent agency. In contrast, almost all of the atheists I know are died-in-the-wool metaphysical naturalists who dismiss transcendent agencies without too much consideration: no evidence entails no belief.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Ultimately Christianity won’t be judged by where it came from. It will be judged by what it has become. Christianity might not have all that much more time to become something new, so it will pretty much be judged by what we see today.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That may be true, but it is fun to look at the current pointers and draw the line and see where it might lead. One thing you can be sure of when you look at those pointers, things are not going to stay the way they are today.

  •' Silva says:

    “democratic egalitarianism of classical polytheism” – are you crazy? The one that “came closest” had equality between fighting men, atop women and a large number of slaves.

  •' CitizenWhy says:

    Throughout the world, many of the religious and the not religious, will embrace an identity not based on nationalism or church but on justice. The non-state Jews developed this identity, the striving for justice. For many Jews today this has been replaced by, or exists alongside, a strong Israeli nationalism. But could the justice identity of the Jews become the real ecumenical/atheists/religious identity of 100 years from now?

    As for the Catholic church, could many breakaway Catholic groups be accepted into the Focolare movement within the Catholic church, with its ability to make Christian love and family strength every day practices? It is already working with Muslims on social justice. But could it welcome back breakaway Catholics, including groups with women priests, and other religious grous without any need to convert them? Could it be a successful institution “building the new within the shell of the old?”

    Could the United states break in two, with the South religiously zealous and the rest determined to make pluralism work to the benefit of all while also rebuilding infrastructure and preparing for the effects of global warming? Will many of the southern poor be forced by economic necessity to emigrate out of the south? And how will the pluralist remaining United States integrate these immigrants whose values may clash with its own? Will the economy of Texas collapse due to the lack of federal investment and dollars? Will the south force out its scientists? Will global warming make an independent south a hellish place? Will the south produce Christian terrorists who constantly mount raids into the north? Will teh south become the main exporter of drugs and be ruled by drug gangs?

    Or will things putter on willy -illy basically the same as today?

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