Histories of the Future

Histories of the Future May 13, 2016

Has anyone ever collected predictions of the future of religion, whether in a book or a website?

The most famous are those that predict the vast growth or decline of some faith, projections that prove to be hilariously inaccurate – eg Thomas Jefferson’s view from 1822 that Unitarians would become the dominant religion in the new United States:

 I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.

One point that emerges from such predictions is how often the would-be prophets are commenting on their own day, and projecting those hopes and fears into the distant future. If it’s not true of all of them, then many predictions are polemical.

Mark Twain wrote in 1899 that Christian Science might make “the most formidable show that any new religion has made in the world since the birth and spread of Mohammedanism, and that within a century from now it may stand second to Rome only, in numbers and power in Christendom.”

In fairness, Twain also made his own cynical remarks about the perils of prophecy:

In this world we have seen the Roman Catholic power dying… for many centuries. Many a time we have gotten all ready for the funeral and found it postponed again, on account of the weather or something …. Apparently one of the most uncertain things in the world is the funeral of a religion.

Other predictions were much more credible and accurate. Witness Jonathan Edwards’s thought that “many Negroes and Indians will be divines, and excellent books will be published in Africa, Ethiopia and Turkey.”

But there is also a significant tradition of tracking religious trends through imaginative visions of the far future, of a speculative future history. I offer a couple here, but I would be delighted to be alerted to more examples.

Long the most celebrated was Macaulay’s 1840 paean to the long continuity of the Papacy, and the deep underlying strengths of the Catholic church. I have written about this at some length elsewhere, but these are his most-quoted lines:

Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her [the Papacy’s] long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

Macaulay’s words were widely imitated and parodied. He might have provided a distant inspiration for Walter Rauschenbusch, writing in 1908 in The Social Gospel:

Will some Gibbon of Mongol race sit by the shore of the Pacific in the year A.D. 3000 and write on the “Decline and Fall of the Christian Empire”? If so, he will probably describe the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the golden age when outwardly life flourished as never before, but when that decay, which resulted in the gradual collapse of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, was already far advanced. Or will the twentieth century mark for the future historian the real adolescence of humanity, the great emancipation from barbarism and from the paralysis of injustice, and the beginning of a progress in the intellectual, social, and moral life of mankind to which all past history has no parallel ?

I am dredging this from memory, but I recall writer Matthew Fox imagining a near future Pope being wholly converted to New Agey ideas, doing penance for manifold the sins of his church, and going into retreat to practice body prayer. In his impressive book The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, John L. Allen describes the Catholic Church of 2050 under its African Pope, Victor.

A large literature uses science fiction futurology to extrapolate, condemn or satirize trends in religion. A century ago, R. H. Benson wrote a wonderful pair of novels, Lord of the World, and The Dawn of All. One imagines an apocalyptic future in which the Catholic Church is destroyed during the End Times, while the other portrays a visionary Catholic Utopia. Arthur C. Clarke imagined a future where the public, furious at Catholic attitudes to contraception and over-population, burned down the Vatican. There are MANY, many other examples at the nice Wikipedia page entitled List of religious ideas in science fiction.

In my view, the absolute best piece of religious-oriented science fiction ever written is Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, no competition. I also loved Brian Moore’s novel Catholics, which made a wonderful film.

Catholics, I suppose, are more interested in futurology because Protestants often assume that the existing world is destined to end before too long. (That is not intended as a cheap shot).

Don’t get me started on the prophecies of St. Malachy!

Do also note an excellent column by Ed Simon on Predicting the Future of Religion. Especially with its pulp magazine illustration! I note that Mr. Simon works with the wonderfully named Journal of Heresy Studies.

What other examples of speculative futures of religion come to mind?

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