Future Trends in American Religion
By David Brown, 2001
We are pleased to offer this thoughtful article on the future and religion by guest writer Dave Brown. This topic is one of the most frequently asked about when we give presentations around the country, no matter the type of audience.
What does the future hold for American religion?
The United States has been and remains one of the most religious nations in the world. A large percent of our population participates in organized religious practice while others engage in private spirituality. The role of religion plays in our nations life is evident as we read current news stories regarding fetal cell research and the current administrations desire to use and fund faith based organizations to meet social needs.
What are some of the trends and issues in religion that will impact public and private life? It is clear to this writer that change in the religious life of this nation will impact public life, personal morality and social climate. Thinking in the future tense about the implications of changes in religious will enable public and private sector leaders to respond with creativity and vision. What changes are taking place? What are the future trends in American religion? I will suggest six in this discussion. There are others. I invite you to reflect on what these changes might mean for your organization, our common life and your spiritual identity.
- Growing Religious Diversity.The next 50 years will see a continuation of the growing diversity within the religious community. Fifty years ago America’s religious landscape was dominated by Protestant Churches, Catholic Cathedrals and Jewish Synagogues. Things have changed! As Diane Eck suggests in her new book, A New Religious America, America in the year 2000 had become the world’s most religiously diverse nation. This diversification can be traced back to 1965 when Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration act. New religious expression accompanied the new wave of immigrants. This growing religious diversity will continue to impact communities, corporations and culture. Moslems, Buddhists, Sikh’s and other religious traditions that were once considered “World” Religions in college courses are now “American” religions. Currently there are more Moslems in America than there are American Jews or Episcopalians or Presbyterians. In 2001 the Post office, which traditionally issues a Hanukah and Christmas stamp, will issue a stamp celebrating the end of the Moslem observance of Ramadan. Religious diversity will grow. The implications of this diversity are far reaching. I will name two examples:
- How will business respond to the religious needs of a diverse work force? Some of the new American religions have dietary restrictions; others require time for prayer daily, while others need to wear particular clothing.
- What are the implications for public schools, universities and community agencies? How will education respond to the new religions in their community and the diverse practices and religious needs of students? For example, Sikh boys are required to wear a ritual knife as part of their coming of age ritual. How will that be accommodated in light of no weapons policies in public schools? These questions only scratch the surface. It is a New World and the implications for education, the work place and community are significant.
- The Challenge of Fundamentalism and Religious Conservatives. One response to the new diversity within the American religious landscape is the growth of more conservative religious expressions and fundamentalism within some faith communities.Writers such as Karen Armstrong and Martin Marty indicate that historically one response to increased religious diversity within a culture is to embrace a conservative or fundamentalist approach to religion. Simply put: The threat of losing a clear religious identity in a multi-religious nation leads to embracing and defending clear fundamental truths as a way of maintaining one’s religious identity. This response will impact our nation in the next decade.
Some Americans believe this nation to be a Christian nation. The growing religious diversity within this nation will challenge those who once felt secure with the notion that Christianity is the only way and the single religious tradition that should have the central role in shaping our culture and public life. This is not the place to argue if we were ever truly a Christian nation. The growth of conservative and fundamentalist movements is an important trend. Strategies will need to be developed proactively to respond to potential tension and even violence as people with clear fundamental beliefs’ react to the unwelcome religious diversity. Strategic leadership will need to understand the worldview behind these beliefs and help defuse the potential or destructive tension within neighborhood, schools and the work place.
- The interest in Spirituality and its relationship to Religion. At a recent lecture at the University of Washington, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago indicated that fifty years ago the word Spirituality did not appear in the reader’s guide to periodical literature. By 2000 there were multiple entries. Americans are interested in spirituality. One visit to a good bookstore or Amazon.com will confirm this interest. I believe that interest in spirituality will continue to grow as people try to make sense out of the life they lead. What do I mean by spirituality? The best short hand definition is this: Spirituality is the web that holds one’s life together and connects it to something larger. Our spirituality gives our life coherence and meaning. It is both the way we understand who we are in relationship to the world and others and the practices we engage that allow us to feel connected, part of something beyond us, a sense of inner coherence. Spirituality is important. People seek meaning. This does not mean they are rejecting religion for spirituality. A recent survey indicated that 57% of Americans say they are both religious and spiritual. The relationship between spirituality and religion is a topic for another article. What is clear is that there is and will continue to be a hunger for a sense of connection to something larger. As ideas about God and religion change, the human need for coherence and purpose most likely will not change. Increased spiritual seeking and curiosity will mark the next thirty years. Some of this might be fueled by the retirement of the baby boom generation. One might ponder what the implications of a growing retired population with good health, curious hearts and open minds might mean for those who can help address issues related to spirituality.
Some corporations are already addressing the need of their employees to feel connected and have some inner coherence. This need will continue.
Other companies see the need for spirituality, community and coherence and have created ways to address that. Starbucks growth is due in part to their assessment that people need a third place, a place besides work and home to make connections and develop a web of relationships. They marketed the Starbucks experience as a way to meet that need and they have been successful.
- American religious denominations are in the midst of a period of period of conflict and potential realignment.American Mainline Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, Episcopal, Methodists, Lutherans are engaged in fierce internal struggles over the relationship of their faith to non-Christian religions and their understanding of issues related to human sexuality. These conflicts involve some very different worldviews living in the same organizational structure held together by property, government and history. These conflicts are escalating and will, I believe, lead inevitably to division and the reconfiguration of Protestant denominations. New denominations will be created based on common concerns and worldview, not history and governance. These conflicts and potential realignments might provide the opportunity for old religious institutions in a new format to provide leadership as we face future challenges. It is also possible that the internal dynamics of old-line religious institutions will continue to limit their ability to impact the larger community, leaving a leadership vacuum in the once dominant American Protestant community.
- Increased biotech research will bring intense ethical questions that will impact the religious lives of Americans and the institutions that help shape those religious lives. We already see the conversation around stem cell research involving questions of justice, morality and our understanding of what it is to be human. What are the moral and ethical implications as we develop a greater capacity to manipulate the genetic code and alter human life scientifically? Are there moral principals to guide us? Where does our understanding of God or of transcendence come into the conversation? These are significant questions and an emerging area of concern. Will existing religious institutions that reflect the new religious diversity in America be equipped to help shape the answers to these questions or will new ethical/philosophical think tanks or communities need to emerge? Some suggest we are on the edge of controlling own species’ evolution. Who will direct that process? Who will play God? A meeting sponsored by the Global Academy Forum and the Link Foundation at the initiative of John Naisbitt (Megatrends) brought together scientist, philosophers and religious leaders from the United States and China to discuss these concerns. They agreed on three principals:
- No one country or institution can be trusted to guide genetic knowledge for “enhancing” the human future.
- Compassion for gross suffering compels further investigation into gene therapy for dread disease and
- Germ-line manipulation for “improving” humanity is risky business that we are not close to understanding how to undertake wisely.
The ethical questions involved in scientific advance will impact American educational and religious institutions. They will also impact millions of lives as people struggle with what it means to have the power of evolution in human hands. This leads to the final future trend.
- Scientific advancement and space exploration will continue to raise the question: What does it mean to be Human? What does it mean to be a human being? For most of our history part of that answer was related to being part of a larger mystery or a sacred story. The Judeo-Christian heritage speaks of human beings being made in the image of God. What does the ability of humans to manufacture other humans in laboratories do to that understanding? The Spielberg film, AI raises this question pointedly. Will we develop the capacity to program machines that love and seek meaning? If so what of God, human dignity and mystery? These are esoteric questions. Yet they are questions that will impact the work force, school populations and residents of the local senior citizens center. Religion is about meaning and identity. American religious institutions will be challenged by the advances of science in ways that we can only begin to imagine. How will they respond and how will civic and corporate leaders respond? How will morality be maintained in communities and companies as the meaning of human life is challenged with greater intensity by scientific advance? Where is God if we can create people in our own image?
Wise leaders in the public and private sector will spend some time thinking about these six trends and how they might impact their sphere of influence. The future does not have to be something that happens to us. We can choose some of what happens and all of how we anticipate and respond to events and trends. Thinking in a future tense around the role of religion in America can assist us in creating and maintaining a just, tolerant and hopeful world and nation. A good leader will plan and vision the future with an awareness of religious trends and the quest for meaning. The quest for meaning and the changing religious landscape will impact corporations, communities and individuals.
As I look at the future I do so as someone who believes there is a large mystery around us. I believe that essential to being human is the capacity to feel awe and wonder at our achievements and those things beyond human control. Essential to being human is the question, Who Am I? Why am I here? Where Do I Fit? The increasingly diverse religious traditions of this nation have provided and will continue to provide part of the answer to these questions. As I identify these trends that will shape who we become as a people and individuals I realize that something new, unseen and unexpected can break in to human reality.
In the mean time I think we do well to be in awe of the changes around us. In the words of the Hebrew prophet speaking for his God: “Behold I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” Thinking in the future tense about religion means keeping ones eyes open to perceive these new things and imagine what it might mean for all the dimensions of our life.