Does Faith Have a Future?
Increasing secularisation, especially in the West, has led to a widespread view that faith has no future, or perhaps just a limited future. This view may be misguided.
Religion as we know it may be under threat in at least some parts of the world, but what lies at the heart of religion – the sacred or divine – I think is not. This is an apparent contradiction which this article attempts to untangle.
Not one problem but two
Sadly, in our time we have had to re-learn the truth that faith movements are liable to corruption of one kind or another. This is quite simply the consequence of being made up of human beings - people who either construct imperfect rules or wilfully, when those rules are good, pervert them. Given the multiple instances of corruption, all the abuses of power, one might say it is a miracle that what underlies these movements, their core of faith and belief, survives such misadventures.
It is part of the inevitable flow of things, the yin and yang of life, that individuals collectivise into organisations which then fragment. So it is that we can expect faith movements to fragment, even if they don’t actually disappear altogether or perhaps metamorphose into something rather different. Should we be worried about this? No, I don’t think so, for these are merely outward forms. Our concern should rather be with preserving the inner things that they represent, if of course those things are worthy of preservation.
In saying this I am distinguishing between two separate though obviously related problems, both of which are bound up in the loose catch-all phrase “the future of faith.” There is the future of religious institutions, including religious doctrine, and there is – though it seems odd to say so - the future of the sacred or divine itself. Can we foresee a time when not only churches will be dead but also the words “sacred” and “divine” and their place in human hearts will be dead?
In this article I propose to speak about the second problem first, outlining why I think we will always have something we hold as sacred or divine in our lives. The reasons for this lie partly in the ideation surrounding this “something” and partly also in human need. I will then look at the problem of religion as a human institution. What alternative futures might it have, and in the event of a move to more secularisation what impacts might there be on our culture?
The enduring character of the sacred or divine
If the whole world were to renounce religion, would that also mean the end of all gods? No, not necessarily, for (without getting into a big epistemological and ontological debate) I suggest that things can exist independently of human thought. Once everyone said the world was flat, yet it remained resolutely round. All sorts of things exist without being recognised or celebrated. Some people may categorically deny the existence of God or other deities, but their denials have no more substance than the claims to the contrary. By definition, no human has incontrovertible knowledge of the superhuman. So theoretically at least, it is possible for the sacred or divine to outlast religion.
In a separate blog entitled “The Sacred or Divine” I have outlined the grand ideation around the world that attempts to account for the wonder of our universe and its boundless creativity. Simultaneously this ideation, spanning all the major faith traditions and more, addresses the dimension of personal experience, for religion is something that goes beyond belief to something that is actually lived. The sacred or divine, if it exists, cannot be defined satisfactorily in human terms; the best we can do is attempt certain interpretations. Inevitably these interpretations are loaded with cultural or personal assumptions which are fragmentary, and yet – and this is remarkable – there is a huge common ground. The meeting ground for the different iterations of human faith is like a vast market place where some themes constantly recur. C. David Lundberg in his Unifying Truths of the World’s Religions (New Fairfield, CT: Heavenlight Press, 2010) identifies six attributes of divinity on which he claims seven of the major religions agree: that it is essentially one, all-knowing and wise, all-powerful, the creator, everywhere, and eternal. These, of course, are just the beginning of a conversation.
The diversity yet at the same time harmony of thinking around this topic is a huge strength, for it increases our collective understanding, provided of course we remain open and flexible in our outlook. Thus it is that we are able to retain an enduring core in our belief system while at the same time making the space to continually reinvent, modernising as needs be.
The human need for faith
While concepts of the sacred or divine have an enduring quality, equally there is an enduring element in the human psyche which, so to speak, balances the equation. We are speaking here about human need.
At the most basic level we have a need to trust in things, to have faith in them as “real” and delivering what they purport to deliver. Everyone has faith of one kind or another, even if it is only a faith that people will still turn up at work today, that other “normal” things will still happen, and that the world will keep turning for a little bit more. We have questionable evidence that these things are going to happen, and yet we continue to believe that they will. One might say that faith is a thing that moves in circles. There is a core of everyday things that we more or less all believe and have faith in, beginning with life and continuity and ongoing creativity, but beyond this there are points where faith becomes attenuated and finally just too stretched to continue. This is obviously a matter of personal choice.
The extent to which people believe in the unprovable suggests there is a need for them to do so. Do people have a need for religious faith; conversely, is there a need for denial or doubt? The limited research that I have seen suggests that this is not clear, but that in any case it’s likely that the drivers of both impulses will be a mixture of biology and conditioning – nurture as well as nature. I think the question is largely unanswerable, if only because the object of faith – the sacred or divine – is so impossible to define. At the same time, this gives us a perhaps a clue in our search for an answer, for it could well be that we do indeed have a need for a complex of things – security, ideals, relationship, inspiration and so on – that the sacred or divine in all its vast compass is able to provide par excellence. But this is pure speculation on my part.
Intermission: issues of perspective
Before proceeding to discuss the possible alternative futures of religion, I think it useful to pause and attend to some issues of perspective.
Firstly, it seems to me unproductive to worry too much about whether or not people have religious faith, provided of course they keep their behaviours within socially acceptable limits. Arguments from zealots of any kind – religious, rationalist, atheist – tend to be tiresome. We are all different and under the dispensation of civilised society entitled to be different. Willing acceptance of difference is indeed the glory of civilised society.
Secondly, a lot of energy is spent arguing on the relationship between ethics and religion. This in my view is wasted energy. Plainly it is true that there are people without religion who are ethical, and sadly the reverse is true as well: religious people can be highly unethical. However, whether historically ethics could exist without religion is a fruitless debate, for the simple fact is that they occupy the same stage and continually interact.
Thirdly, there is the issue of religion becoming institutionalised. Regrettably, institutions being human are bound to have regrettable characteristics, not least of which is the abuse of power. But as a matter of practicality these same institutions are useful, in religion as in any other field. By virtue of their numbers they can achieve all sorts of things that individuals never can. Even Jesus needed a small coterie of disciples to achieve what he did in ancient Palestine, and Gautama Buddha and Muhammad had their followers too. We need smallness – silence - in order to “centre down”, but equally we need and can’t realistically avoid the institutionalisation of our business.
Alternative futures for religion
At the beginning of this article I identified the future of religion as a separate problem from that of faith in the sacred or divine. Three obvious futures are that (1) religion continues in highly controlled forms, (2) it is democratised, or (3) it fades away into secularism.
1. Controlled forms of religion are of two basic types. In the West we are most familiar with internal controls, where a hierarchy of priests determines official doctrine, practices of worship, roles and relationships, and so on. Elsewhere, however, the state may exercise controls. Communist regimes are notorious for the restrictions they have placed on worship.
2. Democratisation is the reverse: a process whereby religious knowledge and authority come to be shared with a wide cohort of people, if not the whole body of the movement. Non-priests for example can become interpreters and teachers of the faith, and people who once were followers can have a greater say and even become leaders in their own right.
3. Secularisation is the process whereby religious beliefs and practices lose their importance in society, to the point where even ideas such as “spirit”, which can be a watered down version of the sacred or divine, lose potency and ripple away. Parts of New Age, together with militant atheism and simple “having other uses for one’s time” all sit on the broad spectrum of secularisation.
This may be an overly simplistic analysis and there is room for a lot of debate on where one category ends and another begins. However, this categorisation is at least a starting point for further discussion. Which of the three identified futures appears most likely to eventuate?
Controlled forms of religion
Numbers alone may make this a survivor, though we would probably prefer otherwise. Authoritarian, repressive or oppressive regimes of one kind or another are ever-present in human history. The critical issue with controlled religion is whether it does actual harm, and if so how much and to whom. Downright cruelty and abuse are of course intolerable, but beyond this the arguments become a bit tricky. Control which shuts people out from a free and full experience of life is something to be condemned, and some of us also deplore the general bad name which controlled movements give religion as a whole. As well, control goes hand in hand with fundamentalism, which uncompromisingly, often uncivilly, seeks to stifle dissent. This sits ill in a world where freedom is acknowledged to be one of the paramount virtues.
At the same time, in truth and generosity of spirit we cannot deny there are people who find security and thus comfort in fixity and control. There are many right around the world who seem to accept if not embrace certainty on Earth, seeing it as an image of the security they find in Heaven. I don’t see too much sign of this sort of stance withering away.
While we might have complaints about the “the church” or comparable institutions, the fact is that democratisation has already advanced a long way into religion. Religions around the world have found it necessary to accommodate a range of sub-entities of thought and practice. Some of these sub-entities might still seem stuck in a time warp, but even ones which are slow to change are modernising inch by inch.
The process of democratisation is not one that can be imposed: it has to come from within. This requires leadership at all levels together with a willingness by those with power to let go. Sometimes charismatic individuals working from within but to one side, as it were, can work wonders, Martin Luther and Swami Vivekananda being cases in point. In our own time, the current Dalai Lama is another. The difficulties of democratisation in religion should not be underestimated, for not only does power have to be renegotiated but also traditional forms of association such as the congregation of believers under the guidance of priests and scholars. Ultimately too there may have to be a rethinking of the very origins of faith when leadership has an authority thought to come from no less than the divine itself.
Democratisation also has different forms, which may move more or less in parallel. The recognition of women as priests has been to some extent a trailblazer, followed by the granting of rights to gays and lesbians. Even more democratic, of course, is the scrapping of priesthood altogether. In our time we have seen that these movements can be mutually reinforcing, giving momentum to the relaxing of controls as a whole.
In my view, democratisation is one of the most advanced outcomes of creative growth, and if religion is democratised, we could be looking at the absolute triumph of faith. At the very least, experience tells us that, while democratisation may be flawed, it ensures survival. Hinduism, arguably one of the most democratic religions, is an example. Here, according to the website http://www.reonline.org.uk:
Authority is not achieved through book learning or intellectual acumen, but only through first-hand experience (Swanubhuti) of God. This distinctive feature of Hinduism allows teaching space to evolve. The message of spirituality can be revived and refreshed in all ages through contemporary personalities.
Indeed Hinduism is so extraordinarily flexible and accommodating that it sometimes seems to shade into secularism, yet it remains vibrantly alive as a religion, the world’s oldest and third largest with extensive following outside its home country.
There is a common supposition that the advance of modernity will eventually push religion into terminal decline. Exactly which aspects of modernity will do this is not clear: science, education, increasing wealth and leisure opportunities have all been suggested. There is evidence even from Muslim societies that secular values are gaining hold.
If secularisation comes to dominate, presumably religion will be preserved to some degree but for most people it will be just a set of cultural artefacts, if not mere relics. What might survive? Religion as we know it has many aspects. At the pointy end there are beliefs, mysticism, ritual, authority, structures and so on, but this diffuses through the wider community into forms of service, public advocacy, arts and a host of religion-inspired customs, values and norms. All these fall under the general rubric of culture. The roots of religion are thus not only deep but wide-spreading.
Exactly how religion as a part of culture might be phased out is hard to imagine. Who would be trusted to make the decisions as to what elements might survive and in what form? Governments undoubtedly would have a role but who would trust their judgement? Equally importantly, who in our market-driven world would bear the costs? In a very broad sense, societies in future will have to develop some new mechanisms, some new systems for assessing the value of existing and past cultures – religious or otherwise - and managing them accordingly. How this will be organised I cannot begin to imagine, except to say that, just as the need for more comfortable lives led to technology and factories, the need to create wealth led to business and corporations, and the need to care for people led to social security and social services, so the need to address more meaningfully the cultural aspect of humankind will probably lead in time to some other (largely secular) organisation.
Within this world I can conceive of smaller faith-based entities continuing to offer security to those who want it, just as package tours and cruises fill a market need in today’s tourism. But outside this I can also conceive of religious ritual including quasi church services being performed in museums as examples of performance art. Temples and some of their artefacts would be kept either as extensions to the museum concept or as working centres for other purposes such as weddings, day care or even night clubbing. Religious literature, music and art would be valued for their technical qualities but hardly at all for their reach beyond the everyday into the realm of the spirit. And religious heroes would fade from the collective memory – not maybe the most obvious heroes like Jesus and Muhammad, but others like Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.
I struggle to imagine how individual behaviours might be affected by the loss of religion and what the repercussions might be throughout society. I struggle too to imagine what gaps might occur in politics, community service or other fields of endeavour where religion today still carries weight. It is rather glib to assume, as some critics of religion do, that a new reason-based worldview and ethic would rise from the ashes like a phoenix and carry us all forward without massive dislocation and angst.
An open question
Frankly, I find this kind of world hard to imagine. And indeed, despite the signposts pointing in this direction, it is by no means certain that secularisation will in fact take over. Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland is currently (2018) leading a five-year research project with funding from the Australian Research Council, investigating “whether the pattern of scientific advance and corresponding religious decline observed in many Western countries represents the model that all societies are destined to follow.” The project documentation states:
Secularization theory has long provided the standard narrative for our understanding of modernization. The theory proposes, in essence, that as societies transition into modernity, they become more scientific and less religious. Recent global events have challenged this paradigm, and with it long-standing assumptions about the inevitability and universality of religious decline and scientific advance.
Indeed, more than twenty years ago the eminent sociologist Peter L. Berger, once a leading prophet of the triumph of secularism, admitted (“Secularism in retreat”, The National Interest, 46, Winter 1996, p. 3) that:
… the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false: The world today, with some exceptions …, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature written by historians and social scientists over the course of the 1950s and '60s, loosely labeled as "secularization theory", was essentially mistaken.
Certainly it seems that religion or spirituality continues to flourish in all sorts of places around the world, despite the Scylla and Charybdis threats of secularisation (loss of belief) and fundamentalism (belief beyond reason). The Wikipedia article on irreligion tells us that, according to the Pew Research Center's 2012 global study of 230 countries and territories, 16% of the world's population is not affiliated with a religion, while 84% are affiliated. By 2060, according to their projections, the number of unaffiliated will increase by over 35 million, but the percentage will decrease to 13% because the total population will grow faster. Not only this, but many of the nonreligious actually have some religious beliefs. For example, “belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of Chinese unaffiliated adults, 30% of French unaffiliated adults and 68% of unaffiliated U.S. adults.”
Multiple factors appear to be at work, going well beyond modernity (science, education and the like) to demographics and the deep cultural divides whereby people from some countries find religion much easier to embrace than others. Then too there is history’s pendulum or the yin-yang effect in which action is followed by reaction. How can we in 2018, still in the juvenescence of time, know what may lie ahead? If there is one thing that spirituality teaches us, it is the need to be humble, to accept that in all sorts of things we simply don’t know.
The conclusion I would draw from all this is that religion overall, despite inconsistencies around the globe, is remarkably resilient. Some might think and hope it is going away, but that seems to be unlikely. What is unclear is the character it will assume as time goes on. Will it continue as lived faith, as worldview applicable to all sorts of practical problems, or just as a somewhat hollow set of traditions? Again I refer to sociologist Peter Berger who in The Cresset, vol. 57 no. 3, 2014, p. 16, says:
Modernity does not necessarily produce secularity. It necessarily produces pluralism, by which I mean the coexistence in the same society of different worldviews and value systems.
In respect of our own country Gary D. Bouma draws a similar conclusion in his excellent article “How Religion Rises – and Falls – in Modern Australia”, The Conversation, 14 April 2017 (https://theconversation.com/how-religion-rises-and-falls-in-modern-australia-74367). In other words we are headed for a future much like what we already experience, where more or less anything is possible, and religion and irreligion flourish alike.
As I have attempted to show, the reasons for this are complex, but above all, I would argue, it is the human needs which religion addresses – security, togetherness, inspiration and the like – that guarantee faith will not disappear. What almost certainly will disappear or change beyond recognition is some of the particulars of faith. This is clearly true of Christianity, but in a world where things increasingly interconnect it is bound to happen with other faiths as well. What will be will be. Some people may be disappointed, but in the long run what matters is that we all commit to our personal form of goodness and strive to defend and promote that goodness as hard as we can.
Religious organisations in many cases are under threat of becoming increasingly marginalised and, to many people, irrelevant. However, this does not necessarily spell the end for religious faith. The human needs which religion addresses – security, togetherness, inspiration and the like – guarantee faith will not disappear, even though certain particulars of organised religion almost certainly will.
Three obvious futures for religion are that it will continue in highly controlled forms, become more democratised, or simply fade away into secularism. All three tendencies are evident today. We cannot therefore assume, as many have, that we are heading into a time when secularism rules the world. Rather, what we are seeing today for all sorts of reasons is that there is more and more pluralism, giving effect to an increasingly diverse and colourful array of stances on spiritual and faith issues.
What matters as we work through the time of change is that we all commit to our personal form of goodness and strive to defend and promote that goodness as hard as we can.