In This Issue
- Mainline struggle with gender issues, while moderating?
- A case for the return to natural law to turn back the forces of secularization
- On/File: September 2000
- Findings & Footnotes: September 2000
- Survey shows new Russian Christian diversity
- Women face new restrictions in changing missions field
- Current Research: September 2000
- Canadian Christian right gains visibility under day
- Sex education finds place in the pews
- Single parents find new place in Churches’ ministries
- Catholic gay movement at margins of church
- Book survey shows high interest in one’s own and others’ spiritualities
- Futurists still in the past when it comes to religion?
Over the past three months, three major mainline Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church, held their scheduled national conventions, and, as in previous years, issues of sexuality and gender drew the most controversy and publicity.
But there were also signs, particularly in the United Methodist Church, that these church bodies are taking a more moderate even conservative course. In July, the Presbyterians, meeting in Louisville, Ky., voted 265-251 to ban same sex union ceremonies; now each of the l73 Presbyterians across the nation must vote on a pending constitutional amendment which would establish that ban, or it will not take effect, according to Christianity Today (Aug. 7). Early skirmishes developed also over what is seen as a major battle coming in the PC’s 2001 convention, the proposal to ordain active homosexuals.
At July’s Episcopal national meeting in Denver, actions that left the matter of same sex unions open caused a new round of dissention, with conservatives making plans to override the authority of local bishops. Also fueling the conservative discontent is the attempt of the church to deal strictly with dioceses that have not fully admitted women to candidacy, priesthood, or the positions of priestly service. Three such dioceses have been notified that they have not followed established EC practices in this matter, according to the Christian Century (Aug. 2-9).
At the May meeting of the United Methodist Church, delegates voted to prohibit same sex unions and gay ordinations. The delegates also reaffirmed a resolution stating homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching,” reports the Christian Century (Aug. 2-9). However, in regional meetings following the Cleveland gathering, United Methodists in Casper, Wyoming (representing 12 western states) and several congregations in New England stated they would not support the decisions made in Cleveland.
Much of the coverage of the United Methodist (UM) meeting tended to view the event as a turning point for the denomination. First Things magazine (August/September) notes talk of a “conservative ascendancy in the denomination. Aside from the opposition to gay rights, signs of the new conservatism included a stronger position against partial birth abortion, and a “firming up” of the church’s creedal statement affirming Christ as “savior of the world and Lord of all.”
Also, 30 percent of voting delegates voted to dismantle the liberal Board of Church and Society. The Witness (Summer), the newspaper of the evangelical Biblical Witness Fellowship in the United Church of Christ, adds that “in more subtle actions a number of evangelicals were appointed to critical positions of [UM] leadership and delegate representation was revised to increase representation from more conservative areas of the church.”
Meanwhile , is the new computer technology reshaping the level of participation in national denominational gatherings? Writing in the Wall Street Journal (July 28), Mark Kellner notes that there is an “explosion of Web-based coverage of church business. Presbyterian church members were able to log on to the Internet to follow convention proceedings, while delegates, in turn, could turn to banks of computers to receive e-mail messages on the spot.
At the Toronto international conference of the Seventh Day Adventists in August, news of a vote concerning a resolution on divorce and remarriage flashed around the globe within minutes of a vote. The same instant headlines in 81 different online news releases “telescoped the time between the event and analysis into mere seconds” at the United Methodist conference.
Kellner writes that the simple act of putting meetings online opens up debates on denominational teachings and practices to a wider audience. “It will also allow dissidents and supporters of various measures to organize quickly, like factions in a political party,” challenging “church elites.” Writer Doug Groothuis writes that the downside to this instant access may be seen in how organizations and leaders are overly influenced by “immediate reactions of people online” where deliberation and contemplation are lost.
“Moreover, in the cyberspace realm, there is always the strong possibility of deception — especially when the stakes are high.”
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188; Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605; First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010; The Witness, Box 102, Candia, NH 03034-0102)
— This report was written with Erling Jorstad
One of the most influential movements of ideas in recent American religious life has been the return to accepting the
primacy of natural law as the single most important force to stop the secularization of society.
Prof. Wilfred M.McClay of the University of Tennessee presents (in the Wilson Quarterly, Summer, 2000) a highly sophisticated case, building on the critique of secularization described in RW (May, 2000). He asks how it can be that the industrial world’s “principal bastion of religious faith and practice” can at the same time demonstate convicing evidence it is also the world’s most secualrized society. The author offers original evidence that the major trend is that secularism, not religion, that is on the decline. He suggests that citizens are realizing that religious faith is in fact an indispensable force to uphold human dignity and moral order in a world dominated by political bureaucracy, moral inoffensiveness, and individualistic pursuit of hedonistic gratification.
As evidence, the author points to events in the l990s such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the faith-based involvement of church related groups in societal welfare reform, the growing popularity of vouchers for secondary education, as well as maintaining the traditional religious practices of prayer in Congress, God’s name on the national currency, and the tax exempt status of religious institutions. McClay insists that secularism today has “no energizing vision” no “revolutionary elan”. It can flourish only when the excesses of the religious right and left demand a reconsideration of existing policies of keeping religion alive in the public square. Secularism is losing its appeal to those who strongly upheld the policy of keeping the public square free from any kind of religious discourse.
Citizens are becoming increasingly aware that unless public leadership acknowledges that each person has “an inviolabale dignity simply because he or she is created by God”, that worldly secularization will continue to do its destruction. The evidence today, McClay insists, shows that such a course has been reversed, that today’s citizenry is understanding the importance of “the givenness and rightness of an orderly nature” which cannot be overcome by “the human will.”
This article as well as that cited above, points to the resurgence within the academic and public policy world of the need to reject the older secularization thesis that society would inevitably give in to the forces of secularism. Rather, new evidence is marshaled pointing to the need and the viability of restoring familiar teachings in religious natural law.
— By Erling Jorstad
In an age where people are increasingly identifying themselves as “spiritual” but not “church people,” it is unusual to find a group of people who identify themselves as “church people” but are decidedly not spiritual.
When four former altar boys in Dallas, Texas formed the North Texas Church of Freethought, they may have hit on an idea that will be popular for atheists around the world. The philosophy of atheism is not new, but the idea of having a “church of non-believers” is, and it’s spreading courtesy of the Internet. Founded by Dr. Tim Gorski in 1995, the North Texas Church of Freethought features most of the attractions of church life – fellowship, services complete with music and readings, youth ministry, Sunday school for the kids — all without embracing a belief in a god.
One of the churches goals is to try to establish critical thinking skills and moral thinking. The North Texas Church of Freethought appears to be the start of a budding movement. Starting with 40 members in 1995, they have grown to 150 today and are thinking about constructing their own church building. The success of their idea inspired the fledgling Houston Church of Freethought, whose services are currently drawing 15 to 18 people each Sunday.
Leaders of the prototype church in Dallas have received inquiries from around the world and their web site traffic averages about 200 hits per day. The technology of the World Wide Web is what has made this “church for unbelievers” possible.
(Dallas Morning News, July 13)
— By Cody Clark
01: The July-August issue of Prism carries a special forum on the state of evangelical feminism.
The overall mood is somber, as the respondents note that while evangelical feminists seemed on the verge of “winning the day” in the early 1980s, today this is a strong movement to reassert anti-feminist views in the evangelical community, particularly on marriage roles and women’s leadership in the church.
At the same time, the contributors note the growing influence of “evangelical egalitarianism” in some quarters, such as the Christian Reformed Church and other Christian organizations, including the pioneer megachurch Willow Creek Community Church.
For more information on this issue, write: Prism, Evangelicals for Social Action, 10 East Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood, PA 19096-3495; www.esa-online.org.
02: The well-known phenomenon of baby boomer spiritual seekers disenchanted with religious institutions particularly hits home in the Jewish community.
The rates of disaffiliation and non-involvement in congregational life are high among Jews, a point made clear in the new book Finding A Spiritual Home (Jossey-Bass, $25) by Sidney Schwarz. The author, a rabbi, looks at how Jewish baby boomers are remaking synagogue life to a far greater extent than found in most Christian institutions. Through interviews with Jewish baby boomers, Schwarz finds that the modern model of synagogues, which he calls “synagogue-centers” is ineffective, as it stresses a “top-down” style of leadership and little emphasis on spirituality.
He lays out a new paradigm of the “synagogue- community,” which includes intimate and spiritually enthusiastic worship, lay leadership, and small group interaction (making them in some ways similar to “new paradigm” evangelical churches, even if they are far more liberal on social issues). Schwarz provides interesting case studies of individuals and synagogues demonstrating the new approach from within all the Jewish denominational branches — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
But he concludes that these congregations are still a minority facing resistance from mainstream congregations and other Jewiish organizations wary of outreach to baby boomer drop outs.
03: In their new book Acts of Faith (University of California Press, $18.95), Rodney Stark and Roger Finke explain and defend their influential theory of religious growth and change often known as “rational choice” or the new paradigm.
The theory holds that religious organizations compete and grow by demanding costs or commitment and providing benefits (such as strong sense of community and identity) to members. Stark and Finke have been accused of reducing spiritual concerns to economic behavior, but they argue that their critics and other scholars don’t take religion seriously by reducing the motivations and behavior of believers to irrational forces.
Although the book is more theoretical than their earlier work, the Churching of America, it is fleshed out with historical and contemporary examples on such topics as the decline and growth of Catholic orders, the importance of social networks in religious growth, and the negative effect of state-sponsored churches on the religious marketplace, particularly in Europe. On the last topic, the authors present new findings suggesting that monopolies alone don’t explain Europe, as the continent shows a higher rate of growth of new religions than the U.S..
The last chapter is likely to be of interest to RW readers as the authors seek to show how, contrary to secularization theorists, low tension or liberal religious bodies may reverse their direction and become more “sect-like” as they raise the costs of belonging and move to a higher tension relationship with society. Stark and Finke hold that this is occurring in groups as different as the United Methodist Church and Reform Judaism.
They also find that growth taking place in such mainline bodies as the United Methodists and Presbyterian Church (USA) is mainly due to congregations tied to the high tension renewal groups active in these denominations.
Religion in Russia is reviving, but the pattern of resurgence is uneven, particularly for the Russian Orthodox Church.
These is one of the conclusions of an exhaustive survey of religion in Russia in the current issue of the journal Religion, State and Society (March). The most noticeable trend throughout the issue is the checkered condition of Russian Orthodoxy In the Russian heartland, Siberia, as well as major cities such as Moscow, Orthodoxy is increasingly bound up with nationalism, which usually spells serious problems in outreach. Researcher Felix Corley looks at four Russian heartland provinces and finds a common pattern of an authoritarian bishop gaining power and seeking to control and increase church finances while closing parishes and new programs of outreach.
At the same time, these church officials tend to work with politicians in restricting most other faiths from operating in their regions and, in turn, draw public funds for themselves. The situation is markedly different in northern Russia, where innovation seems to be accepted. Orthodox priests and bishops support outreach — such as an Orthodox scouting program — and intellectual and social programs involving the laity.
There is cooperation between Orthodox and other Christians. Unlike other regions, the dioceses do not receive subsidies from the government, and, in turn, there is little pressure or restrictions on non-Orthodox religions. Sirgei Filatov and Roman Lunkin conclude that the more decentralized and democratic culture of the Russian north has encouraged a more open attitude among the Orthodox.
Another article by Filatov with Lyudmila Vorontsova finds that attempts by the Vatican to encourage only “ethnic Catholics” (the Polish, for instance) to attend parishes in Russia in the hopes of improving relations with the Orthodox are backfiring. In fact, most of the Latin rite Catholic churches are full of young intellectual Russians who value the culture and freedom of Western civilization they find in these churches. While the Orthodox hierarchy oppose such a Catholic presence and expansion, the differences between the two communions are downplayed by most laity.
The Protestant situation in Russia has changed the most in recent years, according to Filatov. The older associations of Baptists and Pentecostals have given way to new fast-growing bodies influenced by Western missionaries, such as New Generation and the Vineyard. These groups have been in the forefront of creating new social ministries and even political initiatives. The same growth is evident in Lutheranism, particularly its more conservative strains. But there is also a new niche for the more liberal Lutherans and U.S.-based United Methodists (UM).
Methodist churches based on informality (where participants “discuss the Bible, drink tea together and sing hymns they have composed”) and moderate-to-liberal social views have spread throughout Russia. Members say they value the “spirit of freedom” in the UM, as seen in its liberal positions on homosexuality (the only Russian church body to take a liberal position on the issue) and women’s ordination.
(Religion, State and Society, Keston Institute, 4 Park Town, Oxford OX2 6SH, UK)
The restrictions against women in preaching and leading congregations has had strong impact on the mission field, although there are signs that women are gaining new roles in some evangelical mission agencies, reports Christianity Today (Aug. 7).
Traditionally, women have been prominent in missionary work, particularly in social service and practical ministries. But the changing face of missionary work that stresses “proclamation” ministries (preaching and teaching) over practical missions has in effect limited women to marginal roles. This is especially the situation in missionary work of the Southern Baptist Convention and other churches that restrict women from teaching and preaching.
“Women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who are moving up the ladder, are having difficulty securing responsible positions in missions agencies,” notes Paula Harris of the evangelical missions convention Urbana 2000. However, women are finding a place in the short term mission organizations that are expanding, as well as in parachurch agencies that “can sidestep denominational policies that sometimes complicate possibilities for women.”
01: A sense of spirituality is almost universal among children, but subsequent feelings of embarrassment over such matters may be the main reason why people appear to lose their faith as they grow older, according to a recent British study.
David Hay discusses his recent research on children’s’ spirituality with Science & Spirit magazine (July-August), noting that he was particularly struck by the way that children are less constricted by social taboos in their talk of spirituality. Hay found that even among children raised in religious homes there was a “reticence and disappointment with the religious institution.”
The children studied — who were ages six and ten from the English cities of Birmingham and Nottingham — tended to have a limited religious vocabulary and used language from fairy tales, science fiction (such as “May the force be with you”) or just ordinary life to express their relationship with God or something larger than themselves.
One of the overarching themes of these children’s’ conversations about spirituality is an “intense awareness of relatedness–either to God, to other people, to the environment and indeed to the self.” Hays says that the apparent secularization in “European rationalist” society may be because expressing spirituality and its relation to the world becomes more difficult as children grow up. He adds that “…although most people know they have a spirituality, they are extremely shy of expressing it because of their embarrassment with religion.
I’m sure this is happening in children as they grow older. One of the most disquieting things we found in the research project was that the power of the religious taboo was already present by the age of ten. Even the children who spoke freely of their religious experience admitted that they would make fun of any other child who talked about such things in public.
(Science & Spirit, P.O. Box 1145, Concord, NH 03302-1145)
02: American Korean ethnic churches are showing “widespread membership instability,” including a tendency of members to “church hop,” even while they register high levels of Christian commitment, according to recent research.
Shin Kim of the University of Chicago presented a paper at the Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings in Washington, D.C. in August which found “strong commitment and little loyalty” among many Korean immigrants. She notes that general Korean church attendance is high — 78 percent report attending services every week — with members highly involved.
Kim analyzed surveys of ethnic Presbyterians (Presbyterian churches have the highest Korean membership) and found that almost half of the Koreans respondents have been members of their congregations for six years or less, and close to one-third for less than three years, even though close to half of Koreans have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Nearly 40 percent of Koreans indicate that they are “not sure” or “it is unlikely” that they will stay with their current congregation. There was a much lower response rate to that question among Hispanics and African-American Presbyterians.
Such transient attitudes may be due to the fact that Korean members, more than blacks and Hispanics, cited problems with the pastor as a key factor in leaving. The pastor-congregant relationship is very important in Korean churches, and it’s not unusual for members (including lay leaders) to quit when the pastor moves on to another church.
In fact, the high rate of participation and giving by Koreans to their congregations may make dissatisfaction and church hopping more likely, as members feel they deserve benefits for their efforts and seek alternatives when they don’t find them. The large supply of clergy in Korean churches also tends to create more alternatives and ease the movement away from a particular congregation. Kim finds that the movement is away from small struggling churches toward larger congregations with a variety of ministries and services.
03: Religious belonging has a greater effect on problem gambling than religious belief, according to a study in the Review of Religious Research (June).
John Hoffmann of Brigham Young University analyzes surveys on gambling and social behavior and finds mixed results for the religious factor on problem gambling. Although personal faith and participation in a religious community make one less likely to engage in gambling as a whole, the results were different when it comes to gambling addiction. Individual faith in God had no discernible effect on gambling problems, while attendance at religious services have a notable effect on such behavior.
Hoffmann speculates that attendance at services has been found to attenuate other mental health problems (such as depression), since it encourages social integration to help people cope with such problems, while “personal religious importance is not influential without further social reinforcement.”
(Review for Religious Research, 3520 Wilshire Dr., Holiday, FL 34691-1239)
04: Small congregations may be better at cultivating lay ministry than larger churches, according to a recent survey of churches in 32 countries.
The August issue of the evangelical digest Current Thoughts & Trends cites a survey of 1,000 churches around the world by Christian Schwarz of the German-based Institute of Church Development. The survey found that smaller churches are “generally healthier” than larger churches with respect to the percentage of individuals in the congregation who use their spiritual gifts to help the church grow.
Thirty one percent in churches with an attendance of under 100 say they use their spiritual gifts compared to 17 percent in churches over 1,000. Small congregations were also found to excel at building loving relationships, empowering leadership, creating more functional structures, forming “holistic” small groups and encouraging “need-oriented evangelism.” The only area where large churches excelled was in offering inspiring worship services.
05: Governments in French-speaking nations as well as Germany have enacted the most stringent restrictions and penalties against new religious movements and other minority faiths in Europe, according to sociologist James Richardson.
At the Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings in Washington, Richardson noted that the governments of Belgium and France have issued increasingly critical reports on new religious movements that are now finding their way into restrictive legislation [See the article in the October `98 RW on these reports and European governments’ changing attitudes toward minority religions]. Official harassment includes frequent tax auditing that target minority faiths, which can mean anything from Scientologists to large evangelical groups.
Public lists of these “suspect” groups (and their contributors) are now being issued that can lead to job discrimination and a lack of access to public buildings and denial of building permits. Members of these groups have been denied banking and child custody privileges. Richardson adds that the government reports have so far found few concrete cases of financial abuse by these groups, but these reports tend to shift the focus and claim that they are nevertheless guilty of “mental manipulation” and brainwashing. He adds that the French-speaking governments’ hostility to NRMs may be traced to the Solar Temple suicide-murders that shook this region several years ago.
06: Pentecostals and charismatics comprise 27 percent of all Christians, according to researcher David Barrett.
Those believing in and practicing such spiritual gifts as healing and speaking in tongues continue to be the fastest-growing segment of Christianity. Religion Today.com (Aug. 14) reports that approximately 900,000 people worldwide considered themselves Pentecostal or charismatic in 1900, but that figure reached 523.7 million in 2000, according to Barrett, author of a new edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia.
The largest concentrations are in Latin America (141 million), Asia (134 million), and Africa (126 million).
In Canada’s first round of elections, a significant pro-family, Christian-based movement has come into prominence, according to the magazine Religion in the News (Summer).
In an early July runoff to decide who will lead the Canadian Alliance party for the elections next year, Stockwell Day, a “sometimes Pentecostal lay preacher,” beat out more moderate opponents. The Canadian Alliance is a new party that seeks to draw in both fiscal and social conservatives, but the recent election results reveal the new political weight of the latter camp.
A former Christian school administrator, Day was the only candidate to advocate that all religious schools be funded (Ontario is the only province with no such provision), and has charged the news media with anti-evangelical bias. Although the media was unprepared for the emergence of Day and his once quiet constituency, it is estimated that 30 percent of the voting population hold Day’s views.
Writer Dennis Hoover notes that recent research suggests that Canadian evangelicals tend to be conservative on moral issues and increasingly likely to be politically mobilized, but are not right-wing on economics or immigration.
(Religion in the News, Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford, CT 06106; www.trincoll.edu/depts/carpal/)
“Faith-based sex education is popping up at churches and synagogues across the nation as spiritual leaders recognize the need to expand their moral guidance to young people,” reports the Salt Lake Tribune (Aug. 26).
Reporter Kim Kozlowski writes that from “liberal Unitarian to conservative Christians to African-American faiths,” religious leaders acknowledge that parents and schools might not devote attention to important aspects of sexuality — from teen pregnancy to abstinence and AIDS. As might be expected, the different denominations have developed very different sex education programs and curricula.
One of the most comprehensive is the Unitarian-Universalist’s course that covers anything from sexual and gender identity to abortion and how to use birth control. Black churches have increasingly supported sex education programs due to the high rate of teen pregnancy in the African American community. One example is the Black Church Initiative, started by Rev. Carlton Veazey, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The initiative piloted a program last year in 75 churches in 15 cities, dealing with such topics as sexual responsibility and the influence of the church in decision-making.
Single parents, once considered a sign of failure in family-oriented churches, are now the prime targets for new ministries, reports the News Observer (N.C.) newspaper (Aug. 23).
Reporter Yonat Shimron writes that “With divorce rates as high among the faithful as the rest of society, and with government championing church initiatives to help mothers on welfare find work, many religious leaders are recasting single parents in a new light. No longer symbols of disgrace and disintegrating family values, single mothers and their children are now seen as today’s version of the widows and orphans of biblical days.”
Traditionally, churches may have helped out single parents in tight situations, or often lumped them together with singles groups, but today the emphasis is on ministries offering consistent support, such as financial planning programs and emotional support groups for single mothers.
The support groups are important since many leave the church because they feel ignored; one leader of a single parents’ ministry says that only five percent of them go to church regularly.
Dignity, the movement of Catholic homosexuals, is struggling with internal problems while also playing a more marginal role in the American church, according to Commonweal magazine (July 14).
In an in-depth report on the group, Shawn Zeller reports that “Dignity has struggled to bring in a new generation of gay Catholics. Its congregations are graying, and becoming more male-dominated. Lesbians, upset with the church for what they see as sexist as well as heterosexist policies, have abandoned the group in droves and joined more lesbian-friendly denominations or ceased to worship altogether.”
Dignity has sought to challenge and also dialogue with the Catholic Church on gay rights issues in the church, particularly on the acceptance of practicing homosexuals, but that task has grown more difficult as both parties’ positions have hardened. Most dioceses have prohibited parishes from hosting Dignity events.
Dignity, both the national office and in its 75 chapters in the U.S., has increasingly broadened its agenda, assailing the church’s failure to ordain women and approve the use of birth control. Criticisms of Catholic teachings on abortion, and priestly celibacy and support of liturgical innovations in the Mass (omitting the Nicene Creed in some cases) to avoid supposedly sexist rhetoric have become common in Dignity chapters, although the national organization does not take a position on such concerns.
The services at many Dignity chapters have a strong therapeutic dimension with a de-emphasis on sin. Zeller adds that Dignity’s increasing ties with other dissident Catholic organizations (such as Call to Action) as well as with secular gay activist groups (taking part in gay marriage initiatives in Vermont and other states) “further lessens the chance of reconciliation with the church, according to skeptics.” That may be one reason why many dioceses are seeking to win over Dignity members, setting up their own gay and lesbian outreach programs.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10027-9832)
In Publishers Weekly’s Fall/Winter survey of Religion books (July 31), writer Lynn Garrett finds the interest in spirituality, devotions, and prayer continuing unabated.
Their interconnectedness in subject matter points to the trend of :an increased openness to learning across faiths” along with a new interest in being “rooted in beliefs and practices that have stood the test of time.” For the Fall season, PW finds striking new interest in three fields: Buddhism, especially the “substantial texts”; books focusing on the importance of the role of religion in society, both in the past and currently, with well known authors such as Huston Smith, Rodney Clapp, Martin E. Marty, and Fr. Avery Dulles drawing wide attention on these issues.
Finally, the less distinct but popular field of “spirituality trainers” is drawing interest. These include, PW points out, not therapists or counselors but “professionals” guiding individual seekers on their journeys. Well known authors here include Norvene Vest and Jeannette Bakke.
— By Erling Jorstad
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