This will be an age of great upheavals when it comes to religion. Old ways are on their way out and new ways are on their way in. Traditions that do not stand the test of time will topple like dominos and those traditions worthy of keeping or reviving will become the new norm in a broad number of faiths.
It’s already happening. The West is in crisis and many people no longer feel that traditional religion has been a positive role in their lives and many have given atheism serious consideration. However, rather than seeing a broad trend of disaffected people remaining atheistic, I think we’ll see a wide array of responses.
Of course, many religions are simply changing to keep with the times. Pope Francis made big news recently with his endorsement of things like the life sciences and compassion toward the LGBT community, things that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago; but it’s also refreshing to someone who isn’t obsessed with the apocalyptic idea that society is going insane due to a lack of traditional values. There are those of us who believe that society is going insane because our old ways have brought us to a place where we can no longer use them to find our way and we must find new ways forward now. Increasingly, that attitude has confronted religions that have had their relevance challenged the most, and many of them are finally understanding that they have to grow or the day will come when they will no longer be a voice that anyone will listen to, like the priests of the Roman gods were by the 2nd century.
The religions that change the least seem to have the most defections. I’m one of at least two or three people I know who was raised Southern Evangelical, became a progressive Christian, then an atheist, then a Pagan before moving on to various different systems we were comfortable with. That exact trajectory. This is very much a millennial phenomenon.
Part of the reason for all that bouncing from one religion to another has to do with our culture of information addiction. Mine is the generation that spends hours reading Wikipedia, or culture-savvy sites like Snopes or TV Tropes. Once we get going on a religious trajectory, we find that unlike any generation before us, we have a massive library of nearly every sacred text in existence right at our fingertips. I cannot emphasize what a drastic change that is; it makes the introduction of the Gutenburg Bible in the 15th century or the advent of the first English translations of Eastern religious texts in the 19th and 20th centuries seem like child’s play when you think about the scale and scope of what the DIY adept can learn, and it’s all free.
Provided the powers that be don’t shut down sites like the the Internet Sacred Text Archive, over the years more people who feel the need to cross-examine their beliefs will begin to adapt many ideas and find expressions of religion and spirituality that suit them.
Furthermore, some of us have learned that the beauty of freedom of religion is that once we’re out of our parents’ homes, we can observe whatever religious practices we want and we’re free to stop following those practices if they don’t work for us. This is a very wonderful and liberating thing when you realize you really do have some expectation, in the West at least, of your explorations being respected and protected from interference by dominant groups. The right to unpopular opinions has been my generation’s greatest tool for exploring ideas that work even if it is abused by some people.
Many people in my generation use the term “spiritual” to differentiate themselves from established religions, but the term is vague and poorly defined. It can encompass many things and I think over time, a vocabulary will emerge to identify the traits of these myriad new strains of thought rather than simply describing them in the broadly non-commital term “spiritual.”
Religion is not dying. It is surviving and adapting to a crisis of culture where we suddenly find ourselves near the end of the modern era asking ourselves, “what comes next?”
In part 2, I’ll discuss what the character of the new religious spirit is and what the religion of the next era will aspire to.