Why Limit Ourselves? The Future of Religion

Jeffrey J. KripalBy Jeffrey J. Kripal

I am no prophet. I am a historian of religions, which is to say that I think about religions in both very focused, local, specific ways and in very big, general, and comparative terms. There are a few things one can reasonably (which is not to say infallibly) predict about the future of religion from what we know about its past, but we must first define our parameters. I mean, what future? And for whom? That is, how far into the future are we talking here? And about whose religion are we asking?

These are key questions for two reasons. First, because the further we move that horizon out, the less certain we can be about specifics and the more certain we can be about generalities. Second, because the religious views of a highly educated, financially secure population tend to be very different than the religious views of an uneducated, poor, and oppressed population. 

Obviously, so much depends on how well we do with global education (particularly of women), financial stability, human flourishing, and, above all, social justice. For the sake of a very brief conversation, let us assume that we are talking about both a distant and a near future and a well-educated, financially stable, more or less flourishing population.

We can be reasonably certain that, say, 10,000 years out, none of our present religions will exist, not at least in any recognizable form. Historically speaking, it is an indubitable fact that religions are born and religions die. Or morph into new religions. How many active temples to Zeus have you seen lately? But this is a rather simplistic generalization. Still, it's worth keeping in mind. If you have a religion, whatever it is, it's temporary. It's transitional. Basically, you're worshiping Zeus.

Ten years, 100 years out, though? Oddly, that's a much tougher question. I see at least two big issues here: what I will call the comparative practices of the religions, and the question of the soul, which today we might reframe as the nature of mind or consciousness.


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By comparative practices, I mean the ways that the religions balance, or do not balance, a recognition of human sameness and difference. These are abstract terms, so let me explain. Insisting that everyone should be a Christian, a Muslim, or anything else is a denial of difference. Insisting that there is no shared human nature, that we are all Martians (or pagans or heretics or infidels or outcastes) to one another, is a denial of sameness.

At the risk of exaggerating, I would like to suggest that just about every major challenge our global community faces with respect to religion boils down to the question of whether we can make our comparative practices more subtle and sophisticated, whether we can honor both real difference and celebrate real sameness. There are moral implications here, of course, for sameness and difference exist in many more arenas than the abstract heights of religious belief. There are real bodies at stake here too. There is race. There is gender. There is sexual orientation. And, once again, every body is the same. And every body is different. We are, of course, presently struggling over all of these issues, which on some level at least are really the same issue: the issue of human difference and sameness.

Then there is the question of the psyche, which you are free to translate as either "soul" or "mind." That's the catch, isn't it? The question of the soul/mind, it seems to me anyway, is the linchpin upon which hangs the legitimacy and stability of any viable future religious worldview. Is there something special about the human being, or not? Do we survive in some form the demise of our bodies, or not? Or are we highly evolved biological robots, neurological puppets that blip out, like a computer, when the circuits stop working, as contemporary psychology and neuroscience have argued so forcefully and so well?

Buddhism is usually invoked at this point, as if it somehow frees us from the pressing question of the soul, since, or so we are told, Buddhism, like neuroscience, has no room in it for such an old-fashioned thing.

Maybe. Maybe not.

There are certainly many forms of Buddhism that look very much like they are assuming some kind of reincarnating soul, even an ultimate super-consciousness. We can deny this kind of presence a personality or ego and call it the Mind of Clear Light or Buddha-Nature, but that still leaves us with, well, a really big Mind or Buddha-Nature.