ALTERNATIVE WORLDS

Every five years, the US intelligence community issues a projection of what the world will look like in the near future. The most recent offering is Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, which you can download full text, and it amply repays your reading. (I should here declare an interest, in that I have in the past played a consultant role in these projects, although not in the present document). I won’t bother here to summarize all the points about international relations, economic developments, resource conflicts and so on, crucial though they are. Rather, I will just draw attention to specifically religious themes.

The point that really strikes me about the 2030 projection, in contrast to earlier efforts, is that the coverage of religion is significantly smaller in volume, and less ambitious in terms of integrating the role of multiple faiths. (Mark Movsesian has also discussed this point over at First Things).

Predictably, the authors discuss the changing role of Islam as a force driving terrorism, and they see this as a continuing issue. In an imaginary document from a future Marxist analysis, they foresee little change from present realities: “In the Middle East and parts of Africa, unfortunately from a Marxist point of view, the terrorists and insurgents are still falling back on religion or ethnicity. The Saudi authorities are reeling from increased homegrown terrorists attacking the wealthy, citing their irreligious behavior. Every day in Saudi Arabia or one of the Gulf countries, another luxury mall is bombed by self-styled jihadists. Nigeria is virtually split with the Christian communities under siege in the North.”

In other words, the same, only more so – not really much of an Alternative World at all, in fact! The only real speculation in these matters is that “Taking a global perspective, future terrorists could come from many different religions, including Christianity and Hinduism.”

The Report’s most substantial account of religious change by 2030 is this (pp.12-14): “The role assigned to religion by the state and society probably will be at the center of these ideological debates within and across societies. Religion— especially Islam—has strengthened as a key force in global politics owing to global increases in democratization and political freedoms that have allowed religious voices to be heard as well as advanced communications technologies and the failure of governments to deliver services that religious groups can provide. The ability of religious organizations to define norms for governance in religious terms and to mobilize followers on economic and social justice issues during a period of global economic upheaval is likely to raise the prominence of religious ideas and beliefs in global politics. In this new era, religious ideas, actors, and institutions are likely to be increasingly influential among elites and publics globally. Urbanization— once expected to encourage secularization—is contributing instead, in some settings, to increased expressions of religious identity. Immigrants to cities— mostly Muslims in Europe and Russia, for example— are coalescing along religious lines. Urbanization is driving demands for social services provided by religious organizations—an opening that Islamic and Christian activists have been effective in using to bolster religious cohesion and leverage.”

This is all reasonably familiar. Where I think the report should have done more – pushed the boundaries a bit – is in imagining the religious dimensions of some of the social and demographic changes that they do note. These megatrends are potentially very significant:

“Individual empowerment will accelerate owing to poverty reduction, growth of the global middle class, greater educational attainment, widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies, and health-care advances. … The demographic arc of instability will narrow. Economic growth might decline in “aging” countries. Sixty percent of the world’s population will live in urbanized areas; migration will increase.”

You could in fact write a very substantial book imagining the religious consequences of these developments, and not just for Christianity and Islam.

Please, then, take this as a strong recommendation to read Alternative Worlds. But you should exercise your own imagination in extrapolating the consequences of what the authors depict.

 

 


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