Religion of the Future

Religion of the Future

All societies have had religions. During the axial age, many societies evolved beyond their roots, and their first level religions went through a metamorphosis into higher level religious understandings. These new religious developments retained many features of the originals, but sublimated the original myths into higher level metaphors that were more appropriate to the new requirements of civilization. It is precisely these second level metaphors that we are now tempted to completely abandon. However, these axial age spiritual myths are not untruths with which we deluded ourselves; rather, they are best-effort theories to explain the world as we find it, similar to the best effort theories we use in science. When we find a better theory, we change our paradigm, but we still recognize the utility of the previous theory and paradigm, in its day, and the need for better theories and paradigms for the future.

To quote Thomas Nagel from his book "The Last Word" as he discusses scientific beliefs and theories:

"This means that most of our beliefs at any time must in some degree be regarded as provisional, since they may be replaced when a different balance of reasons is generated by new experience or theoretical ingenuity. It also means that an eternal set of rules of scientific method cannot be laid down in advance. But it does not mean that it cannot be true that a certain theory is the most reasonable to accept given the evidence available at a particular time, and it does not mean that the theory cannot be objectively true, however provisionally we may hold it. Truth is not the same as certainty, or universal acceptance."

So, coming back to the axial age, when the first order world-explaining theories of societies began to fail, they sublimated them into much better second order theories, or world explaining myths, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. What works for science, works also for the realms of philosophy, religion, and the humanities.

Now, it is true that modern science is explaining more and more of the external world to us, and we certainly don't need religion to explain those things which science explains so well. We also don't need religious dogma, fundamentalism, fanaticism, intolerance, and exclusionary tactics. But we do need something to hold society together, which requires something more than materialism, technology, and economics; it requires a raison d'ętre, a spiritual glue to give civilization enough cohesion and meaning to make human life tolerable, meaningful, and fulfilling.

While that meaning and purpose for an individual might be supplied by esoteric spirituality, for society as a whole and for civilization, something more is required. The meaning of civilization must be rooted in historicity. This historicity represents the story of meaning, the meaning of the story of human existence. The best theory to explain this meaning is rooted in the history of human progress found in the world’s great religious traditions.

Religious truth is relative, theories are improved, new paradigms adopted. But we do have a choice, and we should choose to adopt those theories and paradigms which best fit the facts, best promote the common welfare, and offer the best vision of the future. Indeed, we need a common vision, common goals, and a community of meaning.

And our choices in these matters can be guided by reason, just as our scientific theories are. Karl Popper, the eminent theoretician of scientific method, has posited that in order to be a good scientific theory, a theory must be falsifiable. What this often means in a practical sense is that a scientific theory must be able to predict certain experimental outcomes which, if not forthcoming, would serve to falsify the theory itself. In religious terms, we can strive for an equivalent falsifiability of process. Where it is impossible to perform actual experiments on the entire history and future of the human race and the universe, we can instead observe the results which various processes have in human affairs. One religious theory is not as good as the next; we do have a choice to make, and an important one. We should make a sound choice based on reason, evidence, and observation.

Religion represents society’s long term memory and blue prints for the future. Some long term memories are so important, have been so painfully won and at such a price, that they must never be forgotten. Most of all, we must have a common Vision of the future, a vision which recognizes our need for more than just material comfort and which represents the best possible aspirations of humanity. Most of our lives are spent on short-term affairs, duties, goals and pursuits. Religion serves that noble function of supplying a long-term guidance and direction, a momentum from generation to generation. As such, it is indispensable.