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April 14, 1998

Will The Force Be With You? Religion and Spirituality in the Next Century

by Konrad M. Kressley

This is the ninth and final installment in a series of articles about the future. In a way, we will be coming full circle. The first article described some religious perspectives on what lies ahead; we now consider the future of religion in the next millennium. Contrary to what earlier generations of futurists had predicted, religion and spirituality will gain new importance in the next century. If you're interested in the subject, you've probably noticed two parallel trends: one pointing to the past, another headed into uncharted theological terrain. Let's begin by exploring the links between social and belief systems.

Traditional and Information Age Societies

Readers of previous installments will recall that Information Age technologies are molding the mainstream cultures in America and other industrialized societies. This "post-industrial" world is characterized by sophisticated communications, high levels of education, affluence and a touch of arrogance. Yet, despite what you see on TV, not everyone is part of this culture. To begin with, there is the Third World, where roughly three quarters of the globe's population ekes out a meager existence under primitive conditions. If you look closely, you'll also find significant numbers of people in our own country who don't carry lap-tops, cell phones, or other with-it accouterments. Like it or not, they constitute a sizable and persistent underclass at the margin of society. Whether living in a center-city ghetto of Newark or rural slums of West Virginia, these folks remind us that the Information Age is not a harbinger of universal prosperity and well being. A number of economists contend that the industrial age, despite its shortcomings, offered far more opportunity for advancement. Let's just say that the class division of the future will be determined by who is "wired" and who is not.

It should be no surprise that these two segments of society will exhibit different values and attitudes. Despite its unfortunate title, Benjamin Barber's 1995 book JIHAD vs. McWORLD captures the notion of these contending world views. McWorld, essentially, is a globally- oriented corporate culture with a sense of mastery and control. Its optimism and growing affluence are fed by an ever-expanding scientific and technological base. All problems, in other words, have technical solutions. Think of Bill Gates. The Jihad segment, on the other hand, represents those who've been left out and are bewildered and frustrated by the control that the "wired" people are exercising over them. Yes, many people in the Third World truly resent us, the geeks who are lecturing them on the virtues of modern life, while keeping them in neo-colonial servitude. Whether true or not, some of the same attitudes are shared by people in our country who find themselves stalled out on the on- ramp of the Information Super Highway. Sure, those smart alecks from New York tell you to upgrade your skills, but not everyone can master Turbo Pascal or C++ programming languages. Besides, those high-paying jobs are rarely close to home; most can be found on the other side of the country where you'll be competing with young techies from Asia.

Eventually, frustration turns to righteous indignation and a nostalgia for the way things used to be, or at least a simpler world. Yes, there's a genuine back-lash against the Information Age from marginalized people both here and abroad. Basically, they want a world that is livable and can be understood by ordinary folks with modest means. This is where the concept of Jihad (Islamic Holy War) comes in. While McWorld dominates the globe's economic power and communication resources, the rest of the world's population is growing much faster, demanding that their needs be addressed. While lacking in economic power and resources, these people are convinced that tradition and morality are on their side, no matter what's being cooked up in the laboratories of Silicon Valley or board rooms of New York City. If Bill Gates is the symbol of the Information Society, Ayatollah Khomeini is surely a fitting representative of the latter group. Or, how about Mother Theresa, another worthy critic of modern civilization?

Faith, Tradition and Nostalgia

Now perhaps we can understand the enormous growth of traditional religions among the world's have-nots. Think of it as a revolt against Western hegemony, modernism and the Information Age. Christianity is now the worlds largest religion, with around 1 billion adherents. Islam is close behind and may surpass Christianity early in the 21st century. In the case of both religions, growth is taking place mainly in the Third World and the more backward regions of industrialized countries. Moreover, the greatest gains are being achieved by the more traditional, fundamental denominations. Why? First, the evangelicals have made it their mission to bring the world's people into their flock; secondly, their simple and direct message makes sense to downtrodden and dispossessed people everywhere. As revealed by sacred scriptures, God is both eternal and unchanging. That's why it's so important to return to the original or fundamental source of revelation. The early generation of believers probably had it right; since then, modern influences have corrupted the faith and need to be expunged. Furthermore, God is a stern task-master, best pictured as an elderly man on a throne who simultaneously directs and judges the affairs of lesser beings. Even though their lives on earth are fraught with suffering, believers share the certainty of a glorious after-life.

This doctrine makes sense to impoverished and marginalized people around the globe. Political authorities, such as those in China, are helpless to prevent its spread. As a matter of fact, "underground" religions have a particularly strong record since the days of the Roman empire. The next century will witness the continued growth of these traditional, fundamentalist faiths both here and abroad. Unfortunately, problems will also arise. The doctrinal infallibility of all fundamentalist creeds produces intolerance toward other beliefs. You're either with me or against me when it comes to harvesting souls. In a pluralistic world of many competing faiths, this will continue to generate human conflict at various levels. Look for more violence in India, the Balkans, the Middle East or wherever Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism collide. Secondly, by emphasizing archaic beliefs and life styles, believers will deprive themselves of access to various benefits of modern science and technology. For example, fundamentalists have difficulty squaring contemporary scientific findings with literal readings of various sacred texts. When a conflict arises, the true believer has no choice but to reject science as the work of the devil. Continued ignorance and poverty are the long-term consequences.

Making God User-Friendly

Meanwhile, the prosperous, technologically advanced segments of the world's population are headed in a different theological direction. It isn't that the Information Age culture rejects God, it simply takes a more pragmatic perspective on divine phenomena. First, any dogma or literal belief of ancient scriptures is not taken seriously. Human experience and knowledge, according to this view, are in a state of constant flux and subject to periodic reinterpretation. Mainstream theologians already read texts such as Genesis or Revelations in symbolic or allegorical terms. This resolves the Science-Religion debate as well. Religion is a quest for meaning and purpose of existence, not a compendium of scientific and historical information. Space does not permit us to explore Information Age images of God. Suffice it to say that scientific reports of nature's intricacies or the infinite cosmos are absolutely humbling. They stagger the human imagination, suggesting realities beyond our intellectual capacities.

Humanism, relativism and pragmatism become the operant principles of religious practice. Meanwhile, dogmas of the past are giving way to comfortable traditions. Religious events become blended into secular life. Easter is a time to decorate eggs and purchase new clothes, Christmas a credit-card extravaganza. The Bar Mitzvah is remembered for the party; the religious importance figures less and less prominently. Note also how the word "Christmas" is slowly disappearing from the December celebration. People are wishing each other "Season's Greetings" and exchanging "Holiday Gifts." Considering America's growing ethnic and religious diversity, the corporate community's conscious effort to remove religious meanings is indeed very practical.

Step inside the churches and you'll see evidence of the same evolving trends. The mainline denominational churches will continue to lose ground to less demanding non-sectarian congregations. Located in the suburbs, these new mega-churches don't slice or dice dogma, they affirm the middle-American life style and offer practical advice on negotiating life's path. Those with a Charismatic or Pentecostal bent can also receive a bracing emotional jolt on Sunday morning. Service is the name of the game. In most towns, people "shop around" before joining the congregation with the most endearing preacher, superior child care, recreation and social contact opportunities. God? Well, he's in there somewhere. I suspect that the man from Galilee, who ejected the money changers from the temple, would frown to hear the gospel of wealth preached from so many pulpits. In short, mainstream religious institutions are heading into the direction of social service providers with a divine panache.

New paths to Enlightenment

Every age, it seems, spawns new beliefs, and the Third Millennium will be no exception. You should remember that today's mainstream religions, including Christianity and Islam, were born as persecuted cults on the fringe of mainstream belief systems in their day. As a matter of fact, persecution of heterodoxy persists in developing countries and wherever fundamentalist faiths dominate. Our society, with its relative freedom, has some theological surprises in the future.

Have you heard of New Age religions? Flower children or wise sages? It's an interesting, eclectic blend of ancient mysticism and modern insights with a distinct Asian flavor. While there is no uniform doctrine, many New Agers believe that biological evolution also has a spiritual counterpart, meaning that humans have the capacity to evolve from mean-spirited brutes to God-like creatures in due time. By following the teachings of a guru, hopefully with an Asian background like Deepak Chopra, folks can become cosmic beings with untold spiritual powers. The Beatles did it years ago. New Agers also reject the doctrine of original sin, but do believe in reincarnation and communication with spirits of the deceased. On the fringe, people seek enlightenment and mystic states of consciousness with crystals, peyote, or fasting to mention a few. Various Buddhist beliefs figure quite prominently, and a number of futurists expect that faith to gain more followers here. Did you know that such Hollywood stars as Richard Gere and Steven Segal have converted to Buddhism? If you prefer a scientific "spin" on future religion, check out the Institute of Noetic Science in Sausalito, California.

While New Agers draw substantially on the past, other evolving beliefs are rooted in 20th century technology. Take Scientology. Now that show-biz celebrities such as Tom Hanks and John Travolta have signed on, people are taking another look. Hooked to an E-meter (lie-detector), believers submit to interrogations designed to reveal and eliminate negative thoughts. Critics call it a money-grubbing and manipulative cult, yet the cathartic effects must be beneficial. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, relied on 1940s technology. Who knows what impact emerging technologies, like Virtual Reality, will have on the future of Scientology.

Sometimes historical events evoke religious observances. Vad Yashem, a complex of Holocaust memorials on the outskirts of Jerusalem, has all the signs of becoming a focus of worship for Jews in the future. While visiting there, I sensed the profound importance this place would assume in the future spiritual history of the Jews. The Holocaust experience is only half a century old, but the collective experience could well enter the Judaic theology on a par with the Exodus, destruction of the Temple, and other defining moments. As centuries pass, a complex web of myth, symbolism and allegory will lend deeper meaning to stark historical events.

Let's not forget folk religions. Visitors to contemporary China witness a burgeoning commercial society. The government officially discourages religion, but if you wander through the back streets of Guang Shou or other large cities, you will note little red lights emanating from family shrines in family dwellings. Even more interesting is the brisk sale and frequent display of Chairman Mao amulets in various shapes and sizes. You see them discreetly displayed in modest homes or affixed to motor vehicle dashboards like St. Christopher medals in Catholic countries. Why? An anthropologist explained that while Mao is now demonized by the upper classes, the little people of China, who are missing out on the economic boom, still see him as their friend and rescuer. As time progresses, and historical events become faint, Mao may well assume deity status.

Finally, there's a trend to blend and modify existing religions. Consider Santeria, which combines African tribal rituals with Christianity in the Caribbean. Or think of the many "prophets" who have come along to reinterpret a traditional faith. In our country, the Mormon church is reaching mainstream status. Others, like the Baha'is or Reverend Moon's Unification Church, are likely to receive acceptance and legitimacy over time as well.

January 1, 2000. Judgment Day?

No discussion about the future of religion would be complete without some mention of the Millennium. All lodgings in Jerusalem have already been booked by fundamentalist Christians who will be there to witness the return of Christ at the stroke of midnight. Meanwhile, preachers are calling on their flocks to repent for the end time is at hand. Opinion surveys reveal that a significant number of people in our country expect the world to end during their lifetime, and 2000 seems to be a good round number for the actual event. Wait a minute! Where in the scriptures are such dates revealed? If you really like round numbers, remember that January 1, 2000 will mark the beginning of the 2000th year, not the completion of the second millennium. Finally, there is some debate among theologians and historians about precise dates. It appears that the actual date for Christ's birth is difficult to fix and may have been lost in the mist of antiquity. It probably didn't happen in December. Worse yet is the fact that the calendar was changed several times during both the Roman and medieval era. A number of reputable scholars who have tried to unravel the chronology concluded that the 2000th anniversary of Jesus' birth probably occurred sometime in 1997. The bottom line? Go out and have fun December 31, 1999. If you're a Christian, never mind how many years have passed, but use the day to reflect on Christ's teachings.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL