Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Future of Religion (1980)

For the October, 1980 issue of The Futurist Ted Peters, associate professor of systematic theology at the Pacific Lutheran Seminary (Berkeley, CA), wrote a piece titled, "The Future of Religion in a Post-Industrial Society." An excerpt appears below.
Western society is so pre-occupied with the consumption of goods and services that even religion may become just another commodity, like the packaged tour to an exotic island. If so, the world may lose a possible solution to its great crises.

What is to become of religion as our society moves further and further into the post-industrial period? Certain trends are fairly easy to identify. For example, an extension of Islamic influence due primarily to the sudden expansion of wealth in Muslim hands. But I would like to bypass trends of this type and focus on something else, namely, the potential interaction between religion and the current understanding of the human self which has developed during the now passing industrial period.

My thesis is that as our civilization becomes increasingly post-industrial, our preoccupation with consuming goods and services will most likely commoditize religion. There is now a strong trend - which I believe will continue - toward treating the moral and spiritual dimensions of life as commodities to be acquired and disposed of according to tastes and whims of shoppers in the religious marketplace.

Excessive consumption, however, whether it be consumption of material goods or spiritual values, is the root of the crisis we call the "world problematique." In addition, as long as the consumer mentality prevails, we will be condemned to a prostitution of the essential religious vision, a vision of the transcendent unity of all things which requires a sacrifice of the human ego. It is just such a vision, however, that holds the greatest promise for resolving the world problematique.

See also:
Headlines of the Near Future (1972)
Future Shock (1972)


Cory Gross said...

That sounds like a very interesting piece, and by a fellow Lutheran no less. I'll have to dig up a copy somewhere! Thanks for posting!

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!

. said...

The author couldn't have foreseen the fairly rapid decline in religiosity amongst the next two generations.


Of course I am crying no tears over this, as the following two articles explain why this will ultimately improve conditions for most people.



Looking at the progression in scandinavian countries like Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway towards total irreligiosity (as high as 85% irreligious in Sweden) and even in asian and european nations (44% in Britain, 65% in Japan) it's fair to extrapolate towards a future where religion has NOT totally vanished, but has become a matter of heritage, culture and tradition enjoyed in a historical context rather than something people literally believe in.

Anonymous said...

Seeing how architects purposely design mega-churches to look like shopping malls, I think the author of this article was on to something.

Mark Plus said...

Bob wrote,

>The author couldn't have foreseen the fairly rapid decline in religiosity amongst the next two generations.

Those 18th century philosophical radicals who predicted that religion would decline due to the spread of education and democracy may have held up better as futurists than we expected. The rapid growth of nonbelief in religion in recent decades throws into doubt claims that humans have "god genes" and the like. Some demographers even argue from the rapid drop of birthrates in many Islamic countries (including Iran) that religion has begun to lose influence in those societies as well.

. said...

mark plus: I still expect it to go in ebbs and flows, but with a gradual downward trend. Sort of how we've become gradually more progressive despite the political pendulum swinging to the left and right every few decades.

The birth rate is declining because families are using birth control out of economic necessity. That's one of the first steps: birth control, liberation of women, improved education, democracy and so on. The decline of religiosity as a symptom (rather than a cause) of suffering is the inevitable byproduct, as when the standard of living and education are good enough, we no longer need the relief of religion.

However as the communist nations prove, you can't force it. You have to improve conditions through free secular democratic capitalism, and religion will fade by itself.

Anonymous said...

I wish I were as optimistic as previous commenters. Religion (and particularly Christianity) is increasingly rapidly in Russia and China, despite decades of it not being in the public sphere (i.e., people not being assaulted by crosses and candidates talking about god every time they turn around, to the point where it's subliminally part of one's psyche regardless of rational views). Fundamentalist and evangelical religions are actually on the increase in the U.K. and mainland Europe too. Were I around 1000 years from now, I would not be a bit surprised to see religion having a role every bit as large as it has today.

. said...

Wutzke: The Russia example is oft-cited as, in regional pockets, religion is indeed experiencing a revival.

But did you read my link? The Edge article? Russia is accounted for in that, and the worldwide trend is still a downward one, with examples such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and so on proving that religion can fade away without anything replacing it. In fact those societies in which religion has vanished by itself are the healthiest and happiest nations on the planet.

Anonymous said...


I prefer to think of religion as the cause of the World's great crises.

Anonymous said...

I don't see religion as the cause of the worlds crisis in and of itself. It's the inability to see various universal aspects of religion, including its general thoughts on morality and at its best, to push the human mind to understand some things simply are unanswerable. Nobody is hurt by loving one's neighbor, or learning to deal with the inherent suffering of the human condition. I'd say more so it's the organizations of religions,including the various churches, temples, etc., their various traditions, rites, and general instilled belief that each particular sect is the "one true religion" that makes it so dangerous in the hands of its believers. The human mind seems predisposed to believe in terms of black and white, "us" and "them".

These same things are found in many other systems of belief, including the more radical forms of atheism, politics, issues of race or sex, the class systems, and nationality. People have difficulty understanding that other people are very similar to themselves, and that a liar might be honest at times; people who love you can still hurt you.

People are very good at defying logical yes/no behavior, yet not very good at realizing it.

On the other hand, I agree that education, equality, and general improvement of the lifestyles of the general population does lead to a more secular lifestyle, as people do not rely on an unseen agent to relieve them of their problems. However this does not mean that religion has no place or will disappear. It just means that less people in genera will believe and a larger percentage of its adherents will believe for different reasons.
Also, religion is something that people do pay money for, whether it be to donate large sums of money to their churches, (TV evangelists anyone?), or simply buying the trappings of a particular religion as a fashionable statement, (the current fad of Buddhism and various forms of New Age belief systems).

The author of this really wasn't far off.

Anonymous said...

For example, an extension of Islamic influence due primarily to the sudden expansion of wealth in Muslim hands.

Ironic that we instead have a growth of Islamic fundamentalism due to a lack of shared wealth in Muslim lands (among other factors).

Anonymous said...

The illustration from 1980 looks both "forward" and back at the same time; the drawing style and cheerful irreverence are highly reminsicent of 1960s underground comics, haring back to what was probably a naive anticipation of religion's permanent decline after technological commodification (supposedly inevitably) vitiates it. In the current era of megachurches, simulated experience, and pietistic posturing, both religion and its commodification seem part of the same cultural ebb and flow. I think the cartoonist was on to something.

Anonymous said...

America and the Middle East will be the last two great pockets of strong religious fervor left on Earth in the future.

And they will not go out quietly.

Another religion that may form if AI creates Artilects is Cosmism, the support of superior intelligences that will take over everything. Those who oppose them will be Terrans (Terranists?). A third group, the Cyborgs, will want to merge with the Artilects.

Google Hugo de Garis to learn more about how our future may transform far beyond what most people imagine.

It sure won't be Star Trek, honey.