The Future of Spirituality

What will spirituality look like in 100 years? What will it look like when technology is fully woven into the fabric of our world and our biology, when our scientific understanding of the world and of ourselves will have progressed far beyond what we can imagine? What will the temples of such a world look like? Or its prayers?

Perhaps organized religion will be a thing of the past. That’s not entirely implausible according to the secularization thesis, which holds that as countries develop, they tend to become less religious. This is because greater development brings greater security in one’s survival and greater security in one’s survival tends to lessen the desire to appeal to a divine power for protection. There are of course exceptions to this trend, but that it is a trend is supported by both qualitative and quantitative evidence from around the world. Despite some issues with the quantitative analyses, the data do support the general conjecture that as more of the world develops, fewer people will identify as religious.

But “spirituality” more broadly understood has shown quite a bit of resilience in the face of economic development and popular attitudes toward religion. I find it interesting that a rapidly growing percentage of the world population no longer identifies as religious, but that very few people identify as outright atheists (except for in France, the Czech Republic, Japan, and China, where a significant portion of the population identify as atheists). In fact, the most rapidly growing “religious” demographic in the United States are the “nones” – those who don’t identify as religious, agnostic, or atheist, and instead are simply unaffiliated.

Due perhaps to both the largely humanistic values of Confucianism and the officially atheistic attitude of its Communist leadership, China is by far the most atheist country in the world.
Due perhaps to both the largely humanistic values of Confucianism and the officially atheistic attitude of its Communist leadership, China is by far the most atheist country in the world.

Now this is very interesting on a number of levels. Firstly I’m not entirely sure what this trend means. Are people just becoming agnostic? Or are they adopting vaguer beliefs like the existence of “some kind of energy” or that “there just has to be something out there?” Or are they cherry picking religious rituals that bring community or ritual into their lives? Or maybe they’re secular, but are adopting certain “spiritual” practices like meditation?

Whatever the case, the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” seems like it’s going to stay around for a while. So that makes me think – what will “spiritual but not religious” look like in the future?

I think that vague beliefs like “there is some kind of energy out there” won’t persist for very long. Without the strong social pressures of organized religion, future generations won’t see much reason to buy into such inexplicit spiritual notions. This is just conjecture, but it seems that the need to espouse vague spiritual beliefs without rationally defending those beliefs (“there just has to be something out there”) stems from discomfort with a complete break from one’s religious upbringing. It’s easier to say that you’re agnostic about your particular religion but still believe in “something” than it is to say that you’re thoroughly secular. As overt religiosity wanes, so too – I think – will the idea that you need to believe in something.

That said, I cannot deny that there is a role for religious and spiritual practice in human life. Such practice brings not only a sense of security regarding our place in a universe we don’t understand and that seems indifferent to us, but also brings a much-needed sense of community and reverence. And for many, the tenets and rules of their religion serve as a moral compass. As things stand, secular life doesn’t do a great job of fulfilling these very human needs.

But that’s not because secular life inherently lacks answers, community, the capacity to inspire awe, or guiding principles for living ethically. You can live a fulfilling secular life.

Though secular methods of understanding our place in the universe – namely science and philosophy – don’t have all the answers that religions allege to offer, these methods certainly have taught us a lot. Instead of providing security with all-too-easy answers to everything, science and philosophy provide security in their promise that we can come to know the truth through careful reasoning, experimentation, and the transmission of the results of reasoning and experimentation from one generation to the next.

And secular life can be awe-inspiring. To gaze up at the night sky and to know that we are tiny specks on a piece of cosmic dust floating in a universe larger than we can understand, itself just one universe in a far bigger multi-verse, is no less profound than anything religion has to offer. It is not only profound, it is also humbling – our wars and our squabbles and our antagonisms seem petty in the face of the vastness of the universe that science has revealed to us.

And a secular life can provide a moral compass, one that I find in many ways to be richer than the rule-based morality of religion. How genuine is your morality if the basis for your ethics is the fear of punishment at the hands of a divine being? To act kindly, compassionately, and to work toward the alleviation of suffering for its own sake seems to me a much richer guideline for ethical behavior.

The problem is that secular life often lacks a community around which to communicate scientific and philosophical ideas, to provide encounters with awe-inspiring experiences, or to talk about how to live a fulfilling and ethical life. Young secular individuals can communicate some of these ideas in online media and forums, but the feelings that these digital communities engender are a paltry replacement for what you feel when gathering around the Kaaba in Mecca alongside thousands of people who share your beliefs and values, or participating in a group meditation at a Zen temple in front of a statue of the Buddha, or fasting with your community while praying for repentance at a synagogue, or even doing community service with your local church. There is deep wisdom in these practices, even if they are based on beliefs that don’t stand up to philosophical and scientific scrutiny.

Maybe it’s time for secularism to take a cue from religious and spiritual traditions and use similar practices to offer an increasingly secular world a sense of purpose and meaning. My ideas here are not new, and to an extent secularism may already be rising to meet the challenge. Alain de Botton recognized the wisdom and value in religious practice when he proposed that we need a new kind of atheism, an atheism that borrows from the rituals and community-oriented principles of existing religions; Sam Harris advocates for a sort of secular spirituality based on meditation, mindfulness, and explorations of consciousness; many atheists and agnostics are turning to Buddhism under the assumption that it can fulfill the role of religion without marrying them to implausible metaphysical beliefs, an assumption which may or may not be consistent with what Buddhism actually preaches; and the popularity of “Sunday assemblies” or “atheist churches” is on the rise.

I think that this trend in secularism gives us a glimpse of what spirituality will look like in 100 years. I don’t see religious doctrines or priests or recitations of mantras or prayers in languages you don’t understand. Rather, I see beautiful buildings devoted to community, to the power of human thinking, to the full range of human experience. Buildings where you can attend speeches and seminars by academics and artists and community leaders and practitioners of meditation. Buildings where anyone – secular, spiritual, agnostic, atheist – is welcome to come and exchange ideas. Buildings full of art that celebrates the human condition. I see music written to celebrate the universe itself, music as inspiring as anything that Bach ever wrote for the Church. I see the formation of new traditions and the celebration of new holidays. And I see awe in the face of all that we will understand about the cosmos and about ourselves, and awe in the face of all that we will have yet to learn.

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