Writing about the future of religion has always been a hazardous business.
Those brave enough to venture into this realm are drawn inexorably to two
visions of the religious future of mankind -- from fanciful predictions of
religious utopia (such as Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, a
long-term future scenario of utopia as the result of mankind's obedience to
Christian principles) on the one side, to predictions of inexorable decline and
collapse (such as Lorie and Murray-Clark, History of the Future: a
Chronology, which predicts the collapse of organized religion beginning in
2006 -- the Age of Aquarius) on the other. Perhaps this is due to the strong
opinions of the authors -- either as devout religionists or as those opposed to
"Religion -- it's hard to kill" sums up the feeling
of many futurists (What Futurists Believe, Coates and Jarratt, 1989). In
this book, the two authors demonstrate that most futurists do not take religion
seriously or are interested in only its aberrations or extremes (e.g.,
fanaticism, fundamentalism). Stark and Bainbridge begin their book The Future
of Religion with the following observation: "The most illustrious figures in
sociology, anthropology, and psychology have unanimously expressed confidence
that their children, or surely their grandchildren, would live to see the dawn
of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion
would be outgrown" (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, p. 1). The fourth major trend in
social scientist Burnham Beckwith's The Next 500 Years is "the decline of
religion and superstition." Beckwith includes this in a list of thirty one major
trends he believes will shape the next few centuries. Sociologist Brian M.
Stableford and weapons physicist David Langford also see religion on the
decline. In their masterful The Third Millennium: a History of the World, AD
2000-3000, by the middle of the twenty-first century, the last great
"religion," Marxism, is on the decline (Stableford and Langford, 1985, p. 24).
The world's old faiths have all but disappeared.
Equally prolific are the
writers expounding a future where religion is central to the destiny of mankind.
This ranges from pseudo-humanistic utopias (still based on religion) to
Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist eschatological visions to New Age "cosmic
consciousness" sans organized religion. It should be noted that the bestselling
futurist work in the 1970s was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth
(Lindsey and Carlson, 1976) with 25 million copies in print and still selling
strong in the 1990s. The most widely read futurist work of any kind in history
is The Revelation of John (c. A.D. 90), which has been translated into
over 1,000 languages. It is also important to note a new attitude among Muslims
about their future. "At the beginning of the 20th century, Islam -- colonized,
defeated, slagnant--could easily have been written off from history and the
future. At the dawn of the 21st century, Islam--resurgent, confident,
'militant,' 'fundamentalist,' very much alive -- is poised to become a global
force" (Sardar, 1991, p. 223).
Futurist H. Gerjouy in "The Most
Significant Events of the Next Thousand Years" (Gerjouy 1992, p. 6) counters
pessimistic views of the future by stating that "there will be a radiation and
proliferation of religions, and new important religions will spring up that will
attract many adherents."
Hiley H. Ward set out a scenario of religion in
the twenty-second century in his 1975 work Religion 2102 A.D. Ward
suggests that "Christianity is likely to be around for a long time to come in
some form." He then surveys the current literature on futurism, drawing out its
implications for religion in: the future with such interesting applications as
telepathic sermons, God as supermachine, and pluralistic Christianity.
E. Browne, writing in the International Review of Missions in 1949,
ventured his opinion under the title "The Religion of the World in AD 3000."
Browne predicts the extinction of not only polytheism (including Hinduism) but
also of all major religions except Christianity. He goes on to say that the only
competitor to Christianity will be materialism, which is essentially a belief
that man does not need God or ethics.
Perhaps the Christian theologian to
write most seriously on the future is the German Catholics Hans Kung. His major
treatise Theology for the Third Millennium deals with a paradigm shift
that represents a narrowing of the perceived chasm between the various Christian
traditions (particularly Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism).
Christianity in the future need not be polarized, as differences in theology are
often artificially accentuated by the political and structural context. The new
paradigm is an ecumenical one, but without sacrificing distinctions of faith and
tradition. He extends this to include solidarity with all of the world's
religious traditions -- always searching for a common ground in solving
In conclusion, the reader of literature on the future
of religion is confronted with a dizzying range of opinions. Writing from a wide range of disciplines and personal perspectives, scholars, economists, environmentalists, and science fiction writers paint a future for religion ranging from its extinction to its central role for human survival. Perhaps futurist Warren Wagar put it best: "As futurists, we are really out of our depth in trying to chart the far future of religion" 1991:140).
BECKWITH, BURNHAM. The Next 500 Years. New York: Harper&Row, 1967.
BELLAMY, EDWARD. Looking Backward 2000-1887. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1887.
BROWNE, L. E. "The Religion of the World in AD 3000." International Review of Missions 38/104 (1949): 463-468.
COATES JOSEPH F., and JARRATT, JENNIFER. What Futurists Believe. Mt. Airy, MD: Lomond, 1989.
GERJOUY, HERBERT G. "The Most Significant Events of the Next Thousand Years." Futures Research Quarterly 8/3 (Fall 1992): 5-21.
KUNG, HANS. Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
LINDSEY, HAL, and CARLSON, C. C. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976.
LORIE, PETER, and MURRAY-CLARK, SIDD. History of the Future: a Chronology. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
SARDAR, ZIAUDDIN, ed. Special issue. "Islam and the Future." Futures 23/3 (April 1991): 223-332.
STABLEFORD, BRIAN M., and LANGFORD, DAVID. The Third Millennium: A History of the World: AD 2000-3000. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.
STARK, RODNEY, and BAINBRIDGE, WILLIAM SIMS. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
WAGAR, W. WARREN. The Next Three Futures: Paradigms of Things to Come. New York: Praeger, 1991.
WARD, HILEY H. Religion 2101 A.D. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.
Copyright 1995 by Todd Johnson. This article first appeared in The Encyclopedia of the Future, edited by Graham T.T. Molitor, Macmillan, 1995