A modern look at religion and spirituality yields a mix of potentialities. On the one hand, there’s testimony and evidence that religion and spirituality can benefit people. After all, there’s an obvious social and political benefit in adhering to the beliefs of the majority. And there are also indications that both psychological and physical health are stronger among the faithful. On the other hand, spiritual faith has been a source for conflict and authoritarian control. Disputes, terrorism, and war are rarely rooted solely in religious disagreement, but such conflict surely fans the flames of such conflagrations. And faith is also a tool used by those in power to retain their control. As we look to the future, we see that traditional spirituality may bring us both good and harm. But will it persist?
From Friedrich Nietzsche to H. L. Mencken to Christopher Hitchens, many who were convinced of religion’s negative impact falsely predicted its demise. Those whose worldviews are solidly built with a frame of logic upon the firm foundation of knowledge often forget that they are in the minority. Just because faith requires adherence to unproven and unprovable assertions does not mean that such ideas will be abandoned now, or even over time. Much more likely is that the human need for resolution, the tendency to hold on to what’s desired, and simple inertia will maintain spiritual faith indefinitely.
While religion and spirituality may persist, it will certainly not be as it is today in the future — not 10 years from now, and not into the more distant decades. History has shown the evolution of religion from tribal animisms and other polytheistic faiths to monotheistic ones. A few religions, including some modern schools of Buddhism, New Age worldviews, and religious philosophies, are even in the realm of “post-theological.”
One steady change we’ve seen is the lessening impact of traditional religion on richer societies. Where once religion held equal sway over political, social, and spiritual domains, we’ve seen that authority recede. Political authority is rarely granted today in the same way it was under Holy Roman emperors and the divine right of kings. Social control in the West is far less stringent than it once was, with the churches losing their hold on rules surrounding courting, marriage, and the family. Even mainline churches are seeing their domain shrinking as discoveries provide testable explanations for movements of the stars, the origins of species, and the birth of the universe. For some, these sorts of answers remove the need to rely on spirituality.
As we move into the future, one can predict where traditional spirituality will continue to lose its authority. The churches will eventually surrender their losing battles on gay marriage, on a woman’s right to choose (abortion rights), and on the maintenance of stereotyped gender roles. But it will also lose in struggles that are just beginning.
The prejudice seen commonly among the faithful today — that goodness can only come through godliness — will be less and less accepted. As more and more of the 10%–15% of the population who are atheists and agnostics come out of their closets to their friends, family, and neighbors, it will be difficult to hold to the claim that so many lack the ability to lead productive moral lives. As that breaks down, religion and spirituality will begin to lose its connection to goodness in general. No longer will it be a social liability to voice secular principles and rationalist grounding.
In a world like this, being part of secular humanist communities will be an accepted alternative to traditionally religious ones, and even preferred over increasingly irrelevant fundamentalist faiths. And fundamentalists will no longer get the support they need to impose religion in the military, the democratic process, and the public schools. When the time comes to mark marriages, funerals, and the like, evocative and inspiring humanist ceremonies will become the norm for these life events, because they address the needs of an increasingly diverse culture.
The scientific method, with its basis in observation, analysis, and experimentation, will be seen as the driving force for determining valid choices for public policy. People will understand that science is a way to seek answers, not something to “believe” in, and polls will show vast majorities accepting human evolution over creationism, supporting comprehensive sex education, and understanding how human intervention impacts our environment.
As politicians campaign for public office, the days when it was political suicide to be a humanist or an atheist will be long gone. Like Jack Kennedy’s efforts to show his political actions to be separate from the Holy See, future political leaders will go even further, trying to position their belief systems in humanistic terms, with the religious candidates pointing out that, while they believe in a higher power, they base their decisions on the here and now.
That may not all come to pass by 2020, but progress should be clearly visible. Though Christianity and other religious paths will remain, the writing will be on the wall for the end of Christian social and political dominance in the United States.
With all these changes occurring, what will the new spirituality look like? Perhaps the word spirituality will slip from usage, since it’s derived from something so debatable, but the idea of shared values and a unified vision for the future will remain.
Humanists will encourage empathy, along with the compassion and sense of inherent equal worth that flows from it, in a way that honors human knowledge about ourselves and our universe. This means applying the scientific method to our pursuit of happiness, a pursuit we recognize as not just a solitary one, but one for us to strive for as a society. When we look at the world in this way, we discover that self-improvement, doing for others, and working to improve society are the keys to deep-seated happiness.
Those ideals are consistent with many traditional morals, like integrity, fidelity, and an independent work ethic. In 2020, most people will no longer regard religious ideas as outside the realm of analysis and critique. Respect for the various gods will diminish, but respect for parents, teachers, and others who’ve accumulated knowledge should increase. Holding to sacred days and geographies will become less prevalent, but an appreciation for diverse expertise will be cultivated. The finality of death will be a challenge for many to grapple with, but fear of the unknown will be replaced with greater curiosity and an acceptance of uncertainty.
So looking to the future, 10 years from now and further down the road, we see a changing landscape for spirituality. Religious faith, with its positives and negatives, will persist. While mainstream faiths remain part of U.S. culture, traditional, and fundamentalist religious ideas will recede. As they lose their reach, rational, universal answers will come to the center stage.
About the Author
Roy Speckhardt is executive director of the American Humanist Association, where he actively promotes the humanist perspective on political issues. He serves as a board member of the Humanist Institute and the United Coalition of Reason and as an advisory board member of the Secular Student Alliance. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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