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The future of religion in the Third Millennium

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I am not a prophet, nor do I claim to read the signs of the times with apocalyptic precision. Nevertheless, I will offer a few suggestions about the prospects for religion in the next millennium. But first to the past, which is a key to the future. Although religion's overall cultural authority has declined in Western nations in this century, religion has refused to go away. Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche pronounced the "death of God" under the acids of modernity. His predictions of a war-torn and tumultuous twentieth century were dead on. But instead of God's funeral, sociologists now attest to the resurgence of religion worldwide at both personal and political levels in the last several decades. (God has a habit of outliving his undertakers.) Early in this century, Freud called religion an "illusion" that he hoped would succumb to a secular account of humanity--his, preferably. Freud still exercises some vestigial influence on psychotherapy and culture, but the "illusion" is more healthy than Freudianism.

Seventy years of the atheistic Soviet system could not snuff out religion. Instead it produced a Solzhenitsyn, who found God in the Gulag and lived to tell the world the truth. China could not dissolve religion into the Marxist-Maoist state. Instead the underground church, though persecuted, is exploding.

What of Darwin's legacy? Many claim that Darwin forever rid the universe of divine design and purpose. Nature can explain nature without any supernatural assistance. The idea of a Creator--however personally engaging--no longer has a place in science. But a growing number of thinkers are finding signs of decay in the Darwinian fortress, and predict a further crumbling of the edifice in the decades to come. The intelligent design movement, led by scientists and philosophers (not preachers or evangelists) may well bring this about. If so, creation-oriented religions will gain more intellectual credibility.

Common to all religions are social practices, institutions, and world views that lay claim to objective truths concerning the sacred, which is viewed as somehow transcendent. Religions prescribe how people ought to be oriented toward the sacred, personally and socially. While religion per se may be squared against a purely secular account of life (with no windows to the sacred), the world's religions make differing and irreconcilable truth-claims, and will continue to do so in the third millennium. As the plurality of religious options continues to expand in the next century, many will yield to the temptation to create their own religions by mixing and matching elements from several religions according to their own preferences, however logically inconsistent the result may be. When religion is deemed more of a personal, individualized lifestyle than an adherence to sacred tradition, it becomes something of a spiritual commodity, a consumer item. A woman named Sheila, who was interviewed by sociologist Robert Bellah, referred to her religion as "Sheilaism"--her own customized, low-impact faith. I expect that this trend toward "designer religion"--already well under way--will continue into the next century, resulting in some odd (and sometimes dangerous) amalgamations.

Traditional religions will continue to be challenged by neopaganism and various New Age spiritualities, which reject an authoritative Scripture and a personal, moral, and transcendent Creator. These pantheistic worldviews claim ecological wholeness, personal empowerment (by tapping into the divine within), and freedom from restrictive dogma. As alternatives to both secularism and doctrinally oriented religion, they are attractive to those who recoil from theological authority yet remain attracted to "spirituality." However, their rather ad hoc quality--a recent issue of Ms magazine told women to create their own religious rituals--and general lack of intellectual substance works against their staying power as long-term guides to life, death, and beyond. Nevertheless, look for neopagans to seek recognition as US military chaplains and in other quasi-governmental positions that once were reserved for those within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Depending on the outcome of Y2K, we may see religion continue to go on-line in novel ways. Some are already heralding the emergence of "cyber-congregations" where religious practices move from face-to-face to screen-to-screen. Some postmoderns who have become accustomed to "cocooning" in their high-tech, entertainment-driven homes may prefer to "attend" religious services on-line. A writer recently claimed that all the activities now done in places of worship will be practiced on-line. (One wonders about communion, baptism, kissing the Torah, and so on.) Those more enthralled by cyberspace than by the presence of other less-than-perfect pilgrims will find such opportunities enticing, but, I think, ultimately unrewarding. The immediacy of embodied life cannot be digitally dismissed so readily, no matter how "cool" the cyber-technologies may become. Places of corporate worship will not vanish, cyber-hype notwithstanding.

Not all who worship do so in freedom. We in the West are often spoiled by our religious freedom, while millions worldwide suffer persecution for their faith. As religiously repressive regimes such as China experiment with more open trade and travel, the contagion of religious freedom might take hold there as well (even against their wishes). Something like this happened in Russia; it could happen elsewhere in the next century. If so, revolutionary social forces would be unleashed.

The best scenario is one in which religious people around the globe understand the claims of their own religions, learn how their thinking agrees with and differs from other religions (and irreligious perspectives), and engage in respectful dialog on things that matter most. Western democracies have the history and legal framework for such a forum, but freedom of religion and speech often devolves into uncivil name-calling and propaganda when individual expression is deemed more important than truth and rationality. Unless these nations learn the hard lessons of civility, they will fail to inspire emulation abroad. The trends, at least in America, don't bode well.

Finally, I forecast that everyone reading this article will either die or face the End during the next millennium (or before). Then, one's religious convictions (or lack thereof) will stand the ultimate test. It's not too late or too early to study for finals.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and is the author of seven books, most recently, The Soul in Cyberspace.

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