There was a good deal said about religion in the presentations of Future Focus 2000, the World Future Society’s annual conference held in Houston, Texas, this past July, but not much of it was very supportive of religion.
It seems as if the members of the WFS are beginning to realize that religious belief is not something humanity will eventually “get over” in its evolution toward something better. But if they recognize religion as a viable institution of the future, it is only grudgingly.
There were a few presentations by “religious futurists” who work with existing religious institutions and help them adapt to change. Jay Gary and Tim King presented a talk on non-catastrophic eschatology. They introduced what they called transmillennialism, an eschatology that is compatible with the idealistic visions of even the most secular of futurists. Their presentation pointed out opportunities for cooperation between Christians and non-Christian futurists. If Christians are dedicated to transforming the world instead of waiting for it to end, then they have many points in common with other types of forward-thinking people.
This would have been a good message for the WFS members to hear, but, along with every other presentation by a “religious futurist” at this year’s conference, it was scheduled on the 24th floor of the hotel, virtually guaranteeing low attendance. With the straightforward religious presenters languishing in obscurity on the 24th floor, “visionary” futurists and conventional futurists held sway on the main floor. The “visionary” futurists, who, for the most part, look past current religious institutions toward something “better,” are a more or less permanent fixture at these WFS gatherings.
This year was no different. Dotting the schedule were presentations on various aspects of consciousness and spirituality given by visionary futurists such as Barbara Marx Hubbard and Donald Beck. There was even a presentation called “A Case for a New Religion,” presented by a retired engineer from Dallas, Texas, who proposed his design for a “universal, nature-inspired religion suitable for the new millennium.” The unspoken assumption, of course, was that the ones we currently have are not suitable.
The complementary voice to the “visionaries” came from the more conventional futurists, who tended to regard the world’s religions as reactive institutions that will be dominated by stronger and more progressive forces in the global environment. Ian Pearson, British Telecommunications Labs’ chief futurologist, pictured religion as being driven into radical change by technological forces, while Edith Wiener, president of Wiener, Edrich, Brown, Inc., spoke of religion as being molded by economic and political forces.
The best of the conventional futurists’ presentations, like the ones by Wiener and Pearson, offered valuable insights into the factors affecting changes in religion today but betrayed a lack of confidence in the ability of religious institutions to keep up. Some of the more useful forecasts and insights include:
01: The Internet is enabling the proliferation of marginal religions and cults.
Connecting via the World Wide Web is making it easier to form affinity groups of people who would otherwise be isolated in their geographical communities as deviants. For example, solely because of the Internet, as Wiener pointed out, there are three different organizations that worship frogs. This effect will continue to erode the concepts of “mainstream values” and “deviance” as religious pluralism increases. As the information society increasingly enables a “do-it-yourself” approach religion, believers are bypassing clergy and accessing theological texts and interpreting them for themselves
02: Biotechnology and quantum physics are emerging change drivers for theology.
They challenge, in practical, scientific terms, our long-held concepts of the nature of humanity and reality. This effect also works in reverse. Scientists’ work in these areas are forcing them to come to grips with ethical and spiritual issues they previously dismissed as unscientific. In fact, the brightest spot of the conference was an optimistic panel exploration of the dialogue between science and religion. WFS members as a rule tend to love science and technology, so, if the members of the World Future Society ever break down and accept religion as a viable institution of the future, it may likely be because the scientists led them to it.
Until then, they still cling to modernistic attitudes in which they hold religion at arm’s length. In this postmodern era, that means most of these futurists are definitely behind the times.
— By Cody Clark, a Houston-based writer on religion and futures studies. His web site on religious futures, Signs and Wonders, is at www.wnrf.org/news