Future of Religion
Like the Present, Only Longer: The Future of Religion
As for location, Christianity will continue to "go South." The northern world of Europe and America sees a decline of several thousand members per day, while Sub-Saharan African sees a gain of 15,000 to 20,000 per day. There can be revivals in Western Europe, old "Christendom," but the foreseeable assured gains will be in sub-Saharan Africa, revitalized Latin America, and in parts of Asia.
With location changes come significant stylistic changes. By far the fastest-growing sector of Christianity is Pentecostalism, which emerged only a century ago. Pentecostalism stresses experience, the experience of God or of "signs and wonders." Often described as "enthusiastic" or "ecstatic," Pentecostalism sprouts almost spontaneously, often among the poor of the world. Pentecostals care little for doctrine or dogma and tradition; they want the immediate experience. Such an approach to faith is vulnerable to mistreatment, and many prophets of the "signs and wonders" exploit their congregations by offering "health and wealth" results that cannot be delivered. At the same time, Pentecostalism also resurrects some practices that most Christians have left behind.
The future does not look good for those heirs of the Enlightenment and others who predicted that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other such faiths would be converted to "tolerance" and acceptance of the other, as softer-edged teachings would prevail. These were code-named "liberal." Today trends pointing to tomorrow show that hundreds of millions react to the challenges of modernity by becoming more exclusive, intolerant, and "fundamentalist” in closed-minded and aggressive ways. Not all those who look ahead think that these hard-line tendencies will always dominate; they fail to meet too many human needs and reduce the messages of the ancient texts in these traditions.
Everywhere, hierarchies are in trouble. In industrialized nations and emerging societies alike, there is growing mistrust of institutional forms, such as denominations and ecumenical councils. The trend and growth point to ever more local authority.
External factors will continue to play roles begun in the century past. "Globalization" is a signal of the international moves of religions beyond their old boundaries. The "market economies" have helped drive forces in every religion to press for "decision," to promote competition within and among the religions, to offer the goods of religions using "for sale" signs. Doing so forces changes in the message and practices of religions. "Choice" has become the key word on every continent, except where one religion so dominates with the sword that there can be no competition for souls.
General vistas like these obscure many of the basics. Traditional forces, by adapting, will survive. They speak to the souls of people everywhere. They offer constantly changing forms of community in a world of extreme individualism. Foreseeing continuing conflict within and among religions, therefore, is not the whole story. In those respects Mr. Allen was right: on many levels, "the future" will be very much like the present. Still surprises, excitements, and novelties will keep observers of religions busy and, even more, will occupy those responsible for leadership in religion, and will not go unnoticed and unfelt among the billions of people they serve.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. Author of more than fifty books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher. Visit his website at www.illuminos.com.