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The Future of Religion: Rise or Decline?
by Dr. Todd M. Johnson, Jun. 30, 1995
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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 organized religion.

"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.

L. 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 mankind's problems.

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

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