What’s the Future of Religion? Or, what’s our future in it?

At ReadTheSpirit this autumn, the most frequently asked question is: What’s coming next? Or sometimes it’s phrased this way: What does the future look like? During our 40-day, 9,000-mile journey around America, I heard this basic question everywhere I stopped to talk with people. The moment I got back to our Home Office in Michigan, I addressed a conference of journalists at the University of Michigan on the future of innovation in news media. I’m meeting with a team from the Alban Institute next week, talking about … that’s right, the future. And, because ReadTheSpirit works cooperatively with the www.Patheos.com website, I agreed to wrap up their series on … Come on, you know: The Future!

The answer to this “future” question depends on the audience. Some people are asking this question mainly because they’re afraid—and you’re not alone if you’re anxious (9 in 10 of us are concerned about the future the new survey by the University of Michigan’s Dr. Wayne Baker shows us). Some are asking this question because they’re creatively planning to play a role in that future. Some see the future as a positive destination in the faith that our Creator is still creating.

This week, we’re going to devote Monday and Tuesday to looking ahead. Then, on Wednesday, our weekly in-depth interview returns with what we hope will be a startling look at the treasures from our heritage. That’s right, we’ll whirl around 180 degrees.

The Double-Helix of Religion: A Spinning Future


Predicting the future of religion is much like predicting the future of ecology. Environmental cycles will continue to turn as long as the Earth is spinning in the solar system, so “ecology” itself is in no danger. The vital ecological question is: Will the human species survive in future cycles of life? The same thing is true about faith, which inevitably will continue and some argue can survive even without humanity. The real question is: Will our current religious traditions survive in some recognizable form?

As these thoughts are published, I am returning home from a 40-day, 9,000-mile trip around the United States, talking with Americans about the future of our country and the values that might unite us in this time of record anxiety. A newly released national survey by Dr. Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research reports that more than 90 percent of Americans say they love the idea of this nation we call “America,” but a record 99 percent of Americans say they are concerned about their financial security. Pride in our country is a longstanding American value, but the latter number represents a startling spike in anxiety, Baker concludes.

In dozens of articles I reported coast to coast for readthespirit.com and The Detroit Free Press, I found ample evidence of that fear. It’s not simply a wave of panic. Americans have a great deal to fear very close to home: loss of jobs, houses, and health care are among the leading crises shared by millions. But, wherever I roamed, I also found vibrant, creative, resourceful faith fueling the survival of individuals, families, and entire communities.

In the deep woods of northern Minnesota, I spent a day with a traditional Ojibwe craftsman, musician, and healer whose family preserves their traditional language and culture. They don’t accept a dollar in public funds and they’re able to thrive virtually off the grid of utilities on which the rest of us depend.

Along the far eastern edge of New Orleans, I visited with Vietnamese-American Catholics who have survived the tragic war in their homeland, hate crimes in their adopted U.S., Hurricane Katrina — and now? At the moment, they are prayerfully expecting to survive the oil oozing across the Gulf of Mexico and a collapse in the wholesale price of shrimp, which is a matter of life and death in this shrimp-fishing community.

On a mountaintop in North Carolina, I found a former rock star who now is recording traditional hymns and releasing them to inspire other Americans.

In a downtown Atlanta skyscraper, I interviewed an Orthodox Jew who lives faithfully following traditions handed down through the millennia, even as he edits a cutting-edge online news service helping subscribers spot exciting innovations in eco-technology.

What’s the future of religion? First and foremost, it’s obvious that this timeless resource is alive and well in every corner of the U.S. But the sharp-edged truth in all of these stories we published is that the powerful force of this faith is generated by individuals, families, and small communities agreeing on their own ways to preserve and draw upon their traditions. The once-potent idea that religion must be accepted as an authoritative revelation of the Divine has been replaced by religion as a quest for spiritual solace and moral strength to make it through each stressful day.

That’s not necessarily a change in the shape of religion. Throughout human history, religion has been a double-helix, constantly turning. The DNA of religion contains two strands: authoritative revelation to be accepted and spiritual quest to be pursued. All of the world’s great religions depend on both strands. The genius of Islam lies in the twinning of submission and pilgrimage. In Christianity, there is both humble acceptance and the search for vocation. Buddhism teaches both acceptance of ancient wisdom and personal mindfulness of each breath and step. Down through history, that double-helix of religion keeps turning, showing one strand more forcefully than another in different times and places.

Now, at the end of the third millennium’s first decade, the unsettling pace of global transformation is causing billions to scramble. All sources of authority seem to be flattening. The power to search, to quest, to map our spiritual paths now lies in our individual palms.

While most Americans may assume this first decade of the new millennium is “the 9/11 decade,” the truth is that historians are likely to record this as a global “handheld decade.” We have not yet reached the ten-year anniversary of iTunes. The iPod didn’t debut until October 2001. BlackBerry’s true smartphone didn’t come along until 2002. The iPad was released just months ago and already is in millions of Americans’ hands. And, in undeveloped nations around the world, powerful cell phone networks, charged by motorcycles and gas-powered generators, are expanding faster than clean water systems. Tweets, posts, and cell-phone videos are the markers of global transformation from palm to palm.

As Americans, we haven’t even established proper language to describe the changes taking place on our spiritual cutting edge. The most exciting religious group in the U.S. at the moment is comprised of more than 40 million men and women who refuse to name a religious affiliation when pollsters ask that standard survey-screening question. These people aren’t rejecting religion out of hand. They simply feel no social pressure to provide an official label when asked about their spiritual lives. We have no name for this burgeoning segment of our population so, at the moment, we refer to them simply by the word they give in response to pollsters. In terms of public religious affiliation, they’re the “Nones.”

Hinduism seems to be a tiny minority in the U.S., but Target stores coast to coast sell yoga clothes and gear to huge numbers of Americans. Is this true Hindu practice or not? That debate is far from resolved. Alcoholics Anonymous, a huge movement once thought to be outside the sphere of religion, now is regarded by many scholars as a pioneer in launching grassroots, independently organized spiritual communities. But is AA a denomination? Debates also continue over whether members of the rapidly growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Christian. Mormons and some mainline Christians say they are; others argue passionately that they shouldn’t be labeled “Christian.”

In this era of transformation, we don’t have a vocabulary to chart the change.

And what about “alternative beliefs” in concepts such as astrology, contact with the dead, and extra-terrestrial visitations? If the entire population of these “alternative” believers formed a denomination, their numbers would rival the U.S. population of Catholics, based on estimates of these beliefs by the Gallup Poll.

After hundreds of interviews in 9,000 miles, one thing is clear: Americans pray. Americans read the Bible and other scriptures. Every day, Americans continue to ask the three timeless religious questions, usually voiced as: Why should I climb out of bed in the morning? How will I make it through another stressful day? And, at the end of the day, what did I accomplish that truly mattered? These are echoes of the ancient religious questions: Why are we here? How shall we live? And, what are the enduring consequences of good and evil?

The future of religion? No question, it’s a timeless lifeline for millions in America and billions around the world. But, will our recognizable denominations survive? That depends on our ability to connect the timeless treasures of our traditions with the dire daily needs of today.

We want this “national conversation” to continue

As Americans, we have no choice: Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in recent weeks. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of these stories—and, this week, what you see on the horizon line!

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