Future of religion

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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The world religion model will become a great deal more complex. Add in people with dual-conscience religious lives, hybrid and new religious movements, the obvious importance of First Nations’ values and systems, and there will be a very different set of social patterns in 2052. We may well be witnessing a shift to intercultural religious awareness, away from the multicultural model where religion was, almost universally, a second-tier identity. Intercultural may mean learning more about other cultures in order to manage and transact daily business and friendly exchanges.

Canadians did not embrace neutrality in this regard because we are just boring. Ours is a history of religious conflict that has been, thankfully, resolved in some ways to public peace. When you encounter resistance to public expressions of religion, you are encountering a generation (mine and older) for whom the memory of religious strife and prejudice is lasting.

We live in a world in which legal gender constructions, marriage, family models have been radically altered in the last 40 years. Religion, in our social imaginary (to borrow from Charles Taylor), is seen to be private, voluntary and expressed in legal rights as individual, not corporately bound.

I cannot imagine this changing too radically in the Canadian context. On the other hand, I never thought I would live to see same-sex marriage. Rights may be universal, but religious rights are often on a collision course with legislated rights. I think of the gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools as an example where the resolution really calls for looking at religious identities and their legal rights, whether there will be exceptions made, or whether current constructions of human identity will be regarded as universal in our society.

It will be fascinating to see what aspects of religious identity in the public sphere become routinely admitted as an expression of individual legal rights. Lawyers and their organizations are watching these developments closely.

It will be fascinating to see if one hard-line aspect of ‘secularism,’ of the Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris variety, gains a religious designation. In some respects, it bears the dogma that all religion is bad (with sometimes odd proofs for these assertions), an argument that poses as a species of aggressive neutrality. No religion is always an absolute. That is the first thing you learn: People practice, believe and follow and do so in ways that really are not taken from the world religions’ textbooks. The widely situated and differing cultures of the Victorian progenitors of world religions model are now found in the same places, freely and obviously interacting, the connection with earlier places, times and spaces is barely even there. You can see this any day at Western or the affiliates. In a global world, as is often said, the connections have become instant and bewilderingly so.

The next 40 years will see excellent and painstaking historical inquiry into the marrow of this shibboleth. Secular society will be one model among many, and perhaps not just on the global scale. How the diplomatic minefield of international relations and religious rights and identity will be negotiated will be a new field for scholars, lawyers, diplomats. We have seen these trends already. We have some hard choices ahead. Religious skepticism may be seen as one monocultural value competing with others, even in the same places and institutions—rather than being a standard of enlightened thought, rejecting religious identity may become a mark of ignorance.

That ‘all religion is good’ is as vacuous a proposition as ‘all religion is bad’. I think the next four decades will continue to let light into the historical and current excesses against people and populations in suffering because of a religion or because of their religion. The whole landscape deserves detailed study and engagement. Absolute maxims are not helpful, neither are the rallying calls of the past in such a profoundly changed world.

So, in this sense, we continue world religions as a first coat of paint, a basic view, an undercoating of knowledge. But at the same time, the diorama based on a vast pools of information once settled and located in a globe before the sweeping changes alluded to above are not going to be particularly useful except as scholarly artifacts. Of note will be how we study the way in which global mixtures have deeply inflected religions: look at how everyone knows of karma, meditation, ashrams and so on.

Bill Acres is a Theology professor at Huron University College.