On The Future of Religion: Four Major Predictions

What is the future of religion? What can we say with any degree of confidence? Fortunately, this is a question that prominent sociologist of religion Christian Smith has spent much time reflecting on. In particular, Smith predicts four possible future prospects for religion. His is an attempt to answer some pressing questions such as,

“What will be the fate of religion in the future? Will the resurgence of religions that we witnessed in the last quarter of the twentieth century continue? Will secular culture ultimately overcome religion with skepticism, rationalism, and naturalistic science? Or will religions survive but mutate dramatically under the pressures of technological change, globalization, and cultural evolution?” (1)

These are fascinating questions of which many of us ourselves have thought, but Smith recommends that we exercise caution when predicting the future. Much evidence now exists suggesting that past attempts to predict religion’s future have been spectacularly mistaken. No-one can therefore claim to be absolutely certain about the future of religion, but as Smith maintains, this is not to reject the notion that “the long history of humanity suggests some principles I think we can confidently rely on.” What follows are four fairly conservative expectations for the future of religion.

Firstly, one can expect that many people will continue to want to practice religion in their lives (2). For some, the demand for religion will be a “low-intensity” religiousness whereas for others it will be more demanding. Human beings will continue to face challenges in life that they feel they cannot independently overcome. This will lead many to place their hope in superhuman powers for assistance, as strongly suggested by our analysis of 13 prayer studies. One can expect humans to continue to desire access to superhuman powers for blessings and deliverance. Additionally, people will continue to seek various “secondary products” of religion such as “identity, community, meaning, expression, aesthetics, ecstasy, control, and legitimacy of various kinds” (3). But what of non-religious and even anti-religious sentiments that exist? In response, Smith maintains that religion is “natural to the human condition” but this will not mean there won’t be anti-religious people around: “Of course not everybody is religious; indeed, some are positively anti-religious. And there will certainly always be causal forces at work in human social life that counteract religious tendencies” (4). But the purely secular existence is not the human default in that “particular causal forces are necessary to produce and explain it. For such reasons, I think we can be confident that some—and in some contexts, many—humans will practice religion into the foreseeable future” (5). Indeed there are large amounts of evidence supporting this view. According to a large study by Pew Research, all the major world religions (with the exception of Buddhism) continue to grow globally while atheists and agnostics will make up a declining share of the world’s total population (although its numbers are increasing in countries such as the United States and France) (6).

The second major prediction Smith makes is that humans will continue to generate new religions (7). It is a fact that across the world people are constantly inventing variations of existing religious traditions and this includes new religions too. Much empirical evidence from the last two centuries proves that new religious movements continue to emerge and proliferate. Many die out but more continue to exist and attract new followers. One ought to remember that humanity’s religiosity is far from limited to the major “world religions” we are most familiar with. INFORM, a U.K. organization that studies and catalogues new and alternative religious movements, has 5077 groups on file (8) and one scholar put the total number of these groups at 836 in North America alone (9). Smith explains that “People across history have recurrently generated new religious ideas, movements, experiences, and practices.” Scholars do not expect the majority of new religions to become dominant world religions. It is, however, possible that some of them might; in fact, the major world religions today themselves emerged as small, fringe cults and sects before reaching their current form. Further, we can expect that within major religions new sects and alternative movements will continue to emerge; for example, much academic interest is in Christian Pentecostalism that has stormed across Africa and continues to attract devotees.

Thirdly, we can expect that all living religions will be internally, qualitatively transformed over time (10). Although some religions claim to be unchanging, the fact is that all religions undergo change similarly to how human societies and cultures do. Some change slowly, others rapidly. According to Smith, “Nothing humanly social, including religion, is static. Whether or not the possible truths that religions represent are eternal, the human, social, institutional expressions of those religions are temporal and changeable” (11). Change occurs for any one of several reasons: it could be because of external environmental transformations to which religions must adapt or perish. It is sometimes a result of internal dissent and pressure within the body itself.

Fourth, we can be confident that in the future some religions will grow in size, strength, and significance, while others will decline (12). Not all religions adapt well and some will not always appeal to people, especially as societies and cultures change. One might point to Protestantism in the United States and Anglicanism in the U.K that have shown significant levels of decline. Other religions will grow in strength such as Pentecostalism and charismatic evangelicalism. In some contexts secularization, considered here to denote a decrease in religious affiliation, is a powerful dynamic, but many scholars are generally doubtful about making any strong claims about secularization, especially when such claims have been exaggerated and challenged by evidence.

References

  1. Smith, Christian. 2017. “What Is Religion’s Future?” In Religion Book: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters. p. 234.
  2. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 235
  3. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 235
  4. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 235
  5. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 235
  6. Pew. 2015. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Available.
  7. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 241.
  8. INFORM. 2019. Annual Report: April 2018–March 2019. p. 5-6.
  9. Melton, John Gordon. 1993. “Another Look at New Religions.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 52:97-112. p. 101.
  10. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 236
  11. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 236
  12. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 236

Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s