The Shape of the Next Religion

An article by Doug Muder, 1991, revised 1993

Modern America, like Rome at the time of Christ, is in a period of rising secularism and religious chaos. Christianity has lost the power to shape our culture, and no rival religion or philosophy seems able to take its place. We argue that this period of tension will end as the Roman one did–with the advent of a new religion that will synthesize the best features of our current religions into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Waiting for the Unknown God

The citizens who gathered on Mars Hill to listen to Paul talk about “the unknown God” had little reason to be optimistic about the future of religion. The old ways were dying, the old gods seemed abstract, and though cults and philosophies were springing up everywhere, none of them seemed equal to the task of giving the people of this cosmopolitan empire a moral vision capable of making sense out of a world so different from the world of their ancestors. The ancient agricultural religion might arouse nostalgia, but it was backward-looking and ill-suited to the governing of a cosmopolitan empire; the Greek philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism were intellectually satisfying, but had little potential for mass appeal; Judaism was spreading and had its attractions, but the bitter political issue of Judean independence made it hard to reconcile with Roman patriotism; the mystery religions of savior-gods like Dionysus or Mithras promoted powerful religious experiences, but it was not clear how to channel that energy towards any socially useful purpose. It would have been hard to fault one of Paul’s spectators for believing that no religion would ever again dominate the Roman Empire. Each of the contending religions had good ideas, but they seemed incompatible with each other. Surely none of the contenders was capable of winning out, and they would continue to squabble ineffectively against each other while the Roman world slid further into an amoral secularism.

With hindsight we can see that this opinion was both right and wrong. None of the contending religions did win out, but eventually the Empire would be dominated by Paul’s Christianity, a new religion that synthesized features from all the others. It married the mythological monotheism of the Jews to the philosophical monism of Plato, and added an admonition to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. It provided a new savior whose rituals resembled those of Mithras and produced a powerful religious experience called the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Christian holidays came to resemble those of the agricultural religion in both timing and significance: Christmas coincided with the Winter Solstice festival honoring the rebirth of the Sun (and with the December 25th birthday of Mithras), while the spring festival celebrating the resurrection of the Corn God (coincidentally Passover) continued to be celebrated as Easter. Whether by craft, luck, or divine inspiration, young Christianity pulled together the ideas and practices of rival religions in a way that was ideal for its time.

In modern America we also have little reason to be optimistic about religion. Again we are witnessing the increasing secularization of society, a weakening sense of individual responsibility and duty, and a loss of faith in our social institutions. Even observers with no particular attachment to religion are alarmed. The noted socialist Michael Harrington wrote an entire book, The Politics at God’s Funeral, to ask the question of how society will hold itself together in the absence of a dominant religion.

Like ancient Rome, we have no shortage of religions or religious ideas. On the contrary, virtually any religion that is practiced anywhere in the world is being practiced in America. But Christianity has lost the power to shape our culture’s world view, and no other religion or philosophy seems capable of taking its place. The problems of all the major contenders are well understood, as thinkers from each religious point of view have made devastating and quite accurate critiques of all the others. Just as there are very good reasons for believing that Christianity will not regain its former dominance, there are equally good reasons for believing that none of its current rivals will replace it.

And yet America, like Rome before it, will again someday have a dominant religion. The pieces of that future religion are all around us, sitting inside our current religions, seeming to us to be as incompatible as Dionysus and Jehovah were to the Romans. But they are not incompatible; they only appear to be so because they sit inside of religions that contradict each other. The purpose of this article is to extract these pieces from their current context, dust them off, and place them next to each other. It may still not be possible to see precisely how the next religion will fit them all together, but the broad outlines are becoming clear.

The Contenders

Almost all of the religions currently contending for dominance in America can be placed in one of the following four categories: historical monotheism, Scientism, Eastern religions, and Earth-centered religions.

Historical monotheism. This category includes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, as well as a few less well-known religions. The defining trait of historical monotheism is the belief in a single, universal God who has revealed Himself at specific times and places in human history. I will tend to focus on Christianity because it has been by far the most influential form of historical monotheism in America and the West in general, but many of the same comments could also be applied to the other religions in this class.

Scientism. This is the belief that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge, and that the scientific community is the ultimate arbiter of what is true. Many people who call themselves atheists or agnostics are believers in Scientism, as are a number of reformed Jews and liberal Christians. From this point of view, traditional authority and revelatory religious experiences are viewed with suspicion or even contempt. Despite the fact that many of Scientism’s followers claim to be non-religious or even hostile to religion, Scientism’s defining beliefs themselves are not scientifically testable and must be classified as religious beliefs. Many fundamentalist Christians believe (correctly, in my opinion) that Scientism has replaced Christianity as the unofficial state religion.

Eastern religions. This category includes ancient religions like Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, as well as their many New Age spin-offs, such as Transcendental Meditation. In their American incarnations, they are characterized by their techniques of mental development (meditation, yoga, and various forms of artistic development) and their goals (transcendence of the ego, heightened awareness, and universal compassion).

Earth-centered religions. These include the aboriginal religions of the American Indians and Africans, reconstructed versions of pre-Christian European religions like Neo-Paganism and Wicca, and the beliefs of an occasional Christian or Jew like the heretical Catholic theologian Matthew Fox. The religions in this category can be thought of as the spiritual wing of the environmental movement. They tend to be loosely organized and hard to pin down, but for the most part they look on the Earth and its biosphere as a living being to be worshipped and celebrated. They believe that mankind’s proper mission is to learn to live in harmony with the Earth and its life forms, rather than to dominate them.

Though Eastern and Earth-centered religions are spreading rapidly in America, they are still widely regarded as eccentric and outside the mainstream. Christianity and Scientism, on the other hand, are rival establishments engaged in a perpetual struggle for power, symbolized by such issues as school prayer or the teaching of evolution. It is natural to imagine the future as belonging to one or the other of them, either in the form of a Christian revival, or as the rational, postreligious world of Star Trek and other popular science fiction. As we shall see, however, there are good reasons why neither combatant can win out, and why I believe that the future will take a different course entirely.

The Infertility of Christianity

The Christian Bible is like a drug store, Mark Twain wrote. The stock remains the same, but the medical practice changes. Christians tend to be embarrassed by (or to deny entirely) the extent to which their religion has changed over the centuries, but they shouldn’t be. In generation after generation, people have faced challenges unforeseen by their ancestors, and though they have often needed to discard the ideas and practices that had been handed down to them, they have been able to find in the Christian myths, symbols, and sacred texts the wherewithal they needed to construct a viable religion for their times. Such an ability to provide new meaning and guidance in unforeseen circumstances is an essential virtue if a religion is to endure. It is a virtue that late 20th century Christianity is in danger of losing.

The search for new guidance tends to be a non-rational process, one that works through our art and literature, and only later emerges in our treatises. Michelangelo shifted his focus from David triumphant to David readying himself for battle, and so helped make it possible for a morality of conscience to replace a morality of consequences. Luther’s notion that an individual’s relationship to God was more important that his institutional relationship to the Catholic Church would not have caught on (and might not have been thought of at all) if centuries of courtly romance literature had not stressed the superiority of individual love to social convention. Impressionist painters demonstrated that there was more to a scene than its literal detail, allowing us to have an increased awareness of the subjectivity of experience. Artists revision old symbols and writers retell old stories. They shift the emphasis, introduce new details, change the point of view. Most of these experiments come to nothing, but occasionally one takes hold and allows society to remake itself in a new image.

Americans today find themselves in unforeseen circumstances more frequently than perhaps any people in history. And so it is not surprising to find that our popular culture is filled with such experimentation. The recent genres of fantasy and science fiction, for example, are a virtual playground for new twists on religious ideas and mythic symbols. Unfortunately for the future of Christianity, very few of those ideas and symbols are Christian. Luke Skywalker succeeds by virtue of his rapport with the pantheistic Force, not his relationship to Jesus Christ. Evolutionary transcendence, not salvation after death, is mankind’s destiny in Arthur Clarke’s 2001 and Childhood’s End. Fantasy novelists are finding that virtually any pagan pantheon is easier to write about than the Christian Trinity, and even such a heavily Christianized myth as the Arthurian cycle (even the quest for the Holy Grail!) has been reclaimed for paganism by Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

In contemporary culture Christianity is represented almost entirely by its dark side. The Devil and the Antichrist still provide dramatic tension, but Christ and the Apostles do not. Where Judeo-Christian symbols are used, they are more likely to be portrayed negatively than positively. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, the Ark of the Covenant symbolizes a wild, primitive force too dangerous for modern man, and Indiana Jones survives not through faith or virtue, but because he refuses to look when the Ark is opened. The Last Crusade ends similarly, as Jones survives by allowing the Holy Grail to be lost again.

The lack of positive Christian symbols in the popular culture has been recognized by fundamentalists for decades, and they typically have explained it by some external cause, such as media prejudice or the influence of the Devil. But these explanations become more and more implausible as time goes by. Christian organizations now have their own cable network, their own publishing houses, and their own universities. They have no lack of wealth with which to produce their own films and television series. But all these advances have made no dent on the problem, which is simply that Christian concepts fail to catch the popular imagination. Writers, artists, and film-makers choose to address the problems of our times in non-Christian terms because the myths and symbols of Christianity have become infertile.

Such infertility is the beginning of a vicious cycle. An infertile religion is attractive predominantly to those who are afraid of the changes they see around them, and yearn for the past rather than the future. Such people are threatened by any experimentation with the myths and symbols of their religion, and violently reject future-oriented believers who attempt to find new meaning. With each passing decade Christianity goes deeper into this cycle. Consider the uproar caused by the film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. In this retelling, Satan offers Jesus the chance to throw off the burden of saving the world, and lead a comfortable but shallow life. The relevance of such a temptation to our well-fed lives is only too obvious, and Jesus’ heroic decision to return to the cross can inspire us in a way that his refusal to turn stones into bread no longer can. The resulting firestorm of Christian protests sent an unfortunate message to future writers and filmmakers: When they consider the unresolved problems of modern life, they should look to other heroes for inspiration and leave Jesus alone.

In the days of the abolitionists Christianity was a leading force for social change. But now it can only react to change, and its reactions are typically late and inadequate. Whether the subject is the changing role of women, genetic engineering, artificially prolonging the lives of the terminally comatose, surrogate motherhood, or any of the other moral challenges that fill our lives and our literature, Christian leaders typically have little to say beyond “Go back.” More and more Christianity becomes a religion of nostalgia, and it is increasingly difficult to imagine it giving birth to a vital, creative world view for a new generation.

The Moral Inadequacy of Scientism

As our religions begin to fail us it is natural to look to science. Certainly science now fills many of the roles that once belonged to religion. It heals the sick, makes the lame walk, and the blind see. Its rockets and cameras have taken us on voyages worthy of Dante. Its big bang theory gives us a cosmological creation myth and its evolution theory provides a human creation myth. Contemplating its mysteries can fill us with awe and wonder, and the thrill of scientific discovery can rival that of religious revelation.

Scientism views science as the evolutionary successor to religion, and indeed religion’s ongoing loss of habitat tempts us to believe that it is headed for extinction. Even the proponents of Biblical creation myths now cast their position in the form of a rival scientific theory and quote research journals instead of scripture. As the academic disciplines of archeology, comparative religion, and historical linguistics continue to advance and gain respect, we approach the day when the interpretation of the sacred texts themselves will belong to the domain of science, and debates among believers will be adjudicated by secular experts. Once it was thought that religion was essential to morality, but today even this proposition is dubious. Many atheists and agnostics live lives dedicated to moral values like justice or compassion, and pass these values on to their children with approximately the same degree of success as the religious.

Is there then any territory that is uniquely religion’s own? Would a Scientistic, postreligious society lack for anything that religion might have given it? I believe that it would. Though such a society may not lack for moral values, it would lack the ability to create new moral values. Certainly science could not create them. Reason can make deductions, but it cannot tell us what to assume. Science can give us means, but it cannot give us ends. We might imagine, for example, that psychology and sociology someday will empower us to shape our psyches and societies as we wish–but they will not tell us what to wish for.

A Scientistic society could retain moral values from a prior religion, and might even implement those values more efficiently than the religious society did. But as technological and social change distanced it from the vision of its religious ancestors, such a society would face a grim choice: It could continue to enforce an increasingly irrelevant and pointless morality, or it could replace the outmoded moral values with the only kind of values science understands–physical values like pleasure, lack of pain, or convenience.

It is precisely this grim choice that we are now facing in our most divisive moral issues–abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity, divorce, and euthanasia. With our left hand we struggle not to be ruled by the prejudices of our dead ancestors, while our right hand recoils in horror from the prospect of a future devoid of heroism, in which all choices are simply matters of convenience. In the absence of a vital, fertile religion we lose the possibility of a third option: a new moral vision that recasts these paralyzing dilemmas and restores contact with the source of moral courage in our souls.

Predecessors of the Next Religion

The ultimate truths of existence have always been beyond humankind’s ability to comprehend or communicate. Throughout history individuals and societies have simply done the best they could–they have used the concepts and metaphors available in order to construct religions that capture whatever portion of truth that they have felt the most need for. Major changes in either a society’s needs or its ability to express itself necessitate major changes in its dominant religion. Over time the old images and stories lose their power to explain or motivate, and new ones rise to take their place. Understanding the nature of this process is essential if we are to guess where it will go next. Granting that no handful of paragraphs can do justice to ten thousand years of history, we can nonetheless capture much about the religious developments leading up to our current situation by arranging them into six definable epochs.

Hunter/gatherer animism. The best developed and most respected knowledge of primitive hunter/gatherer cultures was the knowledge of plants and animals. The world of plants and animals, then, provided these cultures with their most complex, most meaningful set of metaphors. They made use of these metaphors in their religion by creating rituals in which humans took on the roles of plants or animals and by telling explanatory stories about plant and animal spirits.

Agricultural Earth worship. Agricultural society demanded more social structure and provided a new and richer source of metaphors. The Earth as Great Mother took precedence over all other beings, and her yearly cycle of birth and death was the fundamental cycle of society. Time itself was imagined as a cycle, and the annual festivals did not simply re-enact the first planting or the first harvest, they invoked the eternal planting and the eternal harvest, which was and is and is to be.

City-state polytheism. Civilization created a multiplicity of roles in addition to those of farmer or hunter–potter, warrior, merchant, metal-worker and a host of others. Trade arose, and with it debts that could not be settled or canceled in a single year. The classical pantheons of antiquity developed to meet these needs, along with a notion of linear time (or cyclical time with an unimaginably long cycle). The new sciences of mathematics and astronomy provided a model for these ideas by charting the motions of the visible planets. The planets of astrology, like the classical gods and the diverse human roles, kept each to its own cycle. The configuration of all the planets repeated, if ever, in a cycle that was incalculably long. As above, so below.

Imperial monotheism. The unification of city-states into empires presented new challenges, and gave prominence to a new kind of knowledge, the knowledge of government. The warrior, the ruler, the law-giver–these roles took precedence over all other social roles, and throughout the Mediterranean ancient storm gods were replaced by a new vision of the divine: the Sky Father. Wielding the thunderbolt of war, watching from on high, and handing down his judgments from the mountain tops, the Sky Father came to dominate pantheon after pantheon.

In Persia a parallel development was taking place, as the dualistic vision of Zoroaster provided a new way for diverse peoples to be united. The world was portrayed as a battleground in the war between the Gods of Light and Darkness, of Truth and Lie. The Zoroastrian mythology told of a primordial perfection that had been corrupted by darkness, but which would be restored again at the end of time. Whatever their languages or cultures, people could join together in the cause of Light and Truth, and share in the ultimate victory. These two tendencies came together in Judaism (possibly during the captivity of the Jews in Babylon), creating a new monotheistic vision that eventually would dominate Rome as Christianity and the Near East as Islam.

Medieval Catholicism. Politics remained the dominant metaphor for religion in Europe through the Middle Ages, but the political reality changed drastically with the collapse of Rome. The doctrine of the Trinity split the Godhead as the Empire itself was splitting between East and West. And as the Western Empire splintered into countless feudal fiefdoms, each came to be protected by its own patron saint. Saints also became patrons of the various arts and trades, restoring much of classical paganism under the monotheistic umbrella of Christianity. The Catholic God (like his Pope in Rome) was all-powerful but remote, and daily life became the province of the pantheon of saints.

Design monotheism. The dream of Rome reunited was never fulfilled, and yet monotheism rose again. In part this was due to the old political imagery, as the fiefdoms began to unite into nations and the doctrine of the divine right of kings developed. But the monotheistic revival of the Reformation contained a new element as well, one that became increasingly important with time. This was a new set of metaphors centering on mechanics and design. The universe was envisioned as a vast clockwork created by a Great Designer, operating under the Designer’s simple but abstract laws. This vision motivated the search for unifying principles, and made possible the rise of science. In turn the success of scientists in finding such unifying principles argued powerfully for the correctness of the vision. Newton’s stunning explanation of all motion in terms of three mathematical laws crowned this process, and the effects of this achievement rippled out into all fields of thought. (When Jefferson sought to justify American independence in his Declaration, he did not back his argument with the authority of scripture as Luther might have done. Instead he argued in the style of Newton, making deductions from abstract but “self-evident” principles attributed to God.) The significance of this mechanistic metaphor grew with the Industrial Revolution. Machines became an essential part of daily life and were an increasing source of social and economic power for those who could invent, own, or operate them. It became natural to describe any strange or complex phenomenon in mechanistic terms. Roosevelt’s New Deal spending “primed the pump” of the American economy, but a constriction of credit might cause it to “throttle back”. Behaviorism applied the mechanistic metaphor to human consciousness, and determinism argued that every particle in the universe had a unique and determinable future.

This summary illustrates several points. First, at any given point in history there is a central metaphor, a field of thought which provides the images and vocabulary for a culture’s religious expression. This field of thought–be it hunting, agriculture, politics, or physics–may have no explicit religious content of its own, but the images and concepts that it provides have a profound effect on the religion of its time. Second, there seems to be no clear evolutionary trend toward one set of beliefs or away from another. Sometimes monotheism succeeds polytheism, for instance, and sometimes the reverse is true. The beliefs themselves mean different things at different times, depending on the underlying metaphors that describe them. The Sky Father of ancient times, for instance, both is and is not the same being as the “Divine Providence” of the Puritans, while the Christian Devil both is and is not the Zoroastrian God of Darkness. Third, the remnants of all these epochs are still with us. The bunnies and eggs of Easter go back to the agricultural cycle, while the Eucharist is a remnant of animistic magic. The Great Mother lives on as the Catholic Madonna and has recently been reborn as the Gaia hypothesis. Old religious institutions may be extinguished, but the underlying beliefs seldom are. Their seeds are deep in the cultural loam, and even after centuries of weeding and spraying you will still find them springing up in the back corners of the garden. Finally, and most importantly, a religion is not just a set of beliefs about God or the gods. A religion provides a complete vision of life, humanity, and how the universe works. God is only one of many characters in the story that a religion tells. As our knowledge grows and our needs change, we have both the opportunity and the necessity of telling the story in a new way.

The Breakdown of the Great Design

The last two centuries have been difficult ones for proponents of the Great Design. In the prior centuries scientists had found that the harder they looked at phenomena, the simpler their descriptions became. The more they thought about a subject, the more they realized that its apparently complex manifestations were just the logical consequences of a few simple laws. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, the harder scientists looked, the more they saw that the apparent simplicity was only an approximation. Rather than unifying, things began to splinter.

This trend began innocently enough in the early 1800s when attempts to find a simpler set of axioms for geometry instead caused the subject to split into Euclidean and non-Euclidean–two self-consistent theories with mutually contradictory hypotheses. The search for a broader, more basic set of axioms on which to base mathematics met with a series of unexpected failures through the rest of the century until Gödel brought the whole project to a halt in the 1920s by proving that no finite set of axioms for arithmetic could be both complete and non-contradictory. Philosophically this was devastating, for it meant that the job of intuition in mathematics would never be complete. No matter how many “self-evident” axioms you intuited, there would still be true statements that you could not prove.

The problems spread to physics in the late 19th century. Light, it seemed, acted like a wave in some circumstances and like a particle in others. With special relativity, time itself splintered. There was now no way to say that two events were simultaneous–to some observers one event might precede the other, while other observers might find the temporal sequence reversed. Quantum mechanics made chance an essential part of science, and despite Einstein’s denial that God plays dice with the universe, it became increasingly clear that in fact He does. Far from a unique and determinable future, quantum mechanics gave us an infinity of possible futures, with only chance to decide among them.

In recent decades the study of chaos has brought these disturbing trends to everyday matters like the weather. No set of atmospheric measurements can ever be complete enough or accurate enough to allow accurate long-term weather prediction. The flapping wings of a butterfly can create enough of a disturbance to make the difference between sunshine and storm on some future day.

Over the centuries the metaphor of design and the corresponding expectations of unity have spread to many fields beyond science, with disappointing results there as well. In politics, predictions of a world government have failed to materialize, the large colonial empires (including the Communist empire) have dissolved, and centrally planned economies have proved to be inefficient. In technology, the “one big computer” of countless science fiction stories has not appeared, and instead millions of personal computers have brought computing power to the masses. In communications, the once-monolithic mass media has splintered into hundreds of cable channels and thousands of desktop publications. Where once we worried about the inevitability of monopolies, now we wonder how saurian giants like IBM, Sears, and General Motors will survive.

This is the source of our current difficulties. The Newtonian vision of the world as a unified machine built by a single Designer–a vision which lies at the root of Scientism as well as modern Christianity–has lost its power to make sense out of our lives. Whatever else the universe may be, it has become clear that it is not a machine. And if it does proceed by design, the principles and intentions of the Designer may well be beyond our knowing. There is a need not just for a new religion, but for a new central metaphor.

Ecology over Physics

What might we look for in a new central metaphor? The purpose of such a metaphor is to increase our power to express ourselves and our relationship to all that is. A central metaphor must come from a field of knowledge complex enough to allow us to express relationships of great subtlety. And yet it must be simple enough that a large fraction of the population can feel comfortable speaking its language. Its effects should be as much a part of our everyday lives as animals were to the hunter/gatherers or machines were to the people of the Industrial Revolution. And if it has such explanatory powers, its spread should be already apparent as nearby fields of knowledge begin to import its terms. In addition, there should be a popular perception that this field of knowledge provides answers to our problems, and that its point of view captures valuable information that our previous mechanistic view overlooked.

In the past few years several books have been written claiming that the “new” physics will give us our new metaphors just as the “old” physics gave us our old metaphors. But it is quickly apparent that post-Newtonian physics fails on all counts except perhaps complexity. Modern physics is something that happens inside multi-billion-dollar colliders and is interpreted by a tiny priesthood whose language is unintelligible to the bulk of society. Far from spreading to other fields, it cannot even assert authority over that part of popular culture which lies within its natural domain–science fiction. While plots occasionally hang on some nuance of modern physics, the background universe remains solidly Newtonian. Rather than embracing the new world vision, authors have invented countless gimmicks like “subspace” or “hyperspace” to preserve simultaneity or other aspects of the Newtonian world. The only phrase of common English to come from the new physics is “quantum leap”, and that is popularly used in a sense very different from the original. (Far from being a drastic realignment, a quantum leap in physics is the smallest change possible.)

By contrast ecology, the study of the interactions of large-scale biological and physical systems, fulfills all these conditions. Its subject is complex, yet it is made up of objects and concepts with which we are all familiar–competition and cooperation, mutation and extinction, growth and decay, replenishment and exhaustion. In the nearby field of economics, ecological terms are driving out mechanistic ones. Increasingly the market is portrayed as an ecology in which products find “niches”, go through “generations”, and have “life cycles”. The expansion of economic metaphors has in turn pushed ecological notions to far distant fields. In politics and philosophy there is now a “marketplace of ideas”, an abstract ecology in which theories compete, cross-fertilize, and evolve. Finally, with its focus on wholes rather than parts, ecology provides a needed correction to centuries of mechanism. With its applicability to environmental problems, ecology will play a major role in mitigating the destructive consequences of the machine age.

Implications of the Change in Metaphor

Shifting our central metaphor from physics to ecology will have effects far beyond the scope of this essay. Most importantly from a religious point of view, it will facilitate three changes that will have great impact in their own right: immediate experience will take on a new importance, polytheism will return under the umbrella of pantheism, and we will learn to value diversity rather than merely tolerate it.

The importance of experience. Viewing the world through the eyes of physics, “here” is an infinitesimal speck in the cosmos and “now” is a barely perceptible dot on a time line. It strains credulity to believe that anything of significance could be happening here and now. The effects of this are readily visible in contemporary Christianity: Whatever is happening in the present pales in comparison to what happened at Eden, Sinai, or Golgatha, and it pales again in the face of what will happen at death, on Judgment Day, or in the eternity that waits hereafter. Even the born-again experience, the most powerful experience that Christianity offers, is important not in itself, but because it signifies salvation and eternal life.

Eastern religions, on the other hand, grew up in cultures where physics and its Cartesian coordinate systems have far less influence. To them the here-and-now is precisely what is important. Past and future and far-away places are not ultimate realities; they are instead useful concepts that help us make sense out of our present experiences. From an Eastern point of view the present does not derive its importance from its place in history; instead history itself derives its importance from the present.

Our culture could benefit greatly from an increased emphasis on direct experience. Many of the problems of modern society–the boredom, the purposelessness, the sense of insignificance–stem from the fact that it is difficult for us to give importance to the here-and-now. We despair when we realize how hard it is for an individual to change the world or affect history, and yet we never question the assumption that an event must have worldwide or historical implications in order to be important. A trip to the local bookstore will show that popular culture is full of admonitions to “live in the moment” and “be here now”. But all these urgings will have little effect so long as our view of space and time makes the here-and-now seem insignificant. Under these conditions any attempt to focus on our present experience seems like self-indulgence of the worst kind. But when physics is simply one science among many, the importance of its space-time continuum will diminish, and we will be free to give our experiences the value they deserve.

Many models, many gods. Ecology is so far from a Grand Unification Theory that no one even talks about it. Even the most complex mathematical or computer models take into account only a small fraction of the vast number of factors that affect an ecological system. Consequently the field takes all of its theories and models with a grain of salt. In any given situation the factors left out of a model may turn out to be more important than the ones accounted for, and a wise ecologist will always have a few extra models in his back pocket in case his favorite one fails to explain the data.

An ecological central metaphor would encourage the same kind of humility in regard to our religious belief systems. From this point of view human experience is so wide and deep that none of our belief systems can capture it in its entirety. Similarly, none of our theologies can give a complete picture of divinity or a complete set of practices for relating to it. This will make it possible for people to hold multiple, mutually contradictory models of God in their hearts–male, female, loving, judgmental, indifferent, honest, devious, open, mysterious–and relate to whichever best fits their circumstances. In its conception of the vastness of the divine, the new view will resemble pantheism, but in the multiple models that it will apply to daily life it will resemble polytheism.

This will be a very liberating way to look at life. Rather than shoehorning our experiences into the particular set of concepts our dogma gives us (and explaining away whatever doesn’t fit), we will be able to hold our experiences intact and search for the concepts that best explain them. Moreover, we will be able to drop the restrictive notion that one set of beliefs has to explain everything. Our religious thinking, like our ecological thinking, is just not advanced enough to allow that kind of unification. Any grand theory we could build at this point would have to do violence to the data.

It will also be a frightening way to look at life, for it will admit that we do not know with certainty what is going to happen to us, or even what is happening to us. We are doing the best we can to apply our experience, the revelations that have been given to us, and the collected wisdom of humanity–but that is not the same as saying we know what is going on. The new metaphor will encourage us to be open about our ignorance, and it will allow us to lay on the table the fears that we now hide away.

Machines, ideals, and diversity. A machine is designed with a mission and a purpose, and all of its parts contribute to that purpose. It is designed to run best under a certain set of ideal conditions, and its parts must fit within certain narrowly defined tolerances. Deviation from these ideals and tolerances is wrongness, and will cause the machine to perform poorly or even break down.

Many of us who would deny strenuously that we believe the world is a machine, or that we ourselves are parts in a machine, nonetheless run our lives according to these assumptions. We struggle with the notion that our lives should have a mission and a purpose within some larger mission and purpose of the world as a whole. We seek after a vision of the ideal world and our ideal place in it. We sense every divergence from this ideal (either our own or someone else’s) as a wrongness that should be fixed. We tolerate (within bounds) others who fit into our vision poorly, but deep in our hearts we hold them responsible for the fact that the world does not work the way it ought to.

Ecology knows nothing of such narrowly-defined ideals or missions or purposes. Each individual and each species in an ecology is trying to survive, but no one knows what the ecology itself is trying to do, if anything. Some years see droughts and others floods, but in either case nothing has gone wrong–it is just the way of things. Some years there are not enough rabbits for the foxes and some years there are not enough foxes to keep the rabbits under control, but nothing needs to be fixed. There is no ideal number of rabbits and foxes in a forest, and the actual numbers will vary wildly as conditions change. There is also no ideal individual rabbit or fox. Some years favor large foxes and some favor small. Those individuals poorly adapted to the present circumstances are the species’ insurance against a change in those circumstances.

While from a mechanistic view it is sometimes preferable to tolerate diversity rather than risk shutting down the machine to fix it, from an ecological point of view diversity actually has value. The new metaphor will encourage us to appreciate those diverse parts of ourselves and our communities that we now only tolerate grudgingly.

The effects of a culture’s central metaphor are pervasive. They lie behind every idea and concept, affecting even those people who think that they have rejected the underlying set of beliefs. Shifting from a physical or mechanistic metaphor to an ecological one will change more than just how we generate our power or dispose of our garbage. It will affect everyone, whether they consider themselves practitioners of the new religion or not, and it will change everything.

The Shape of the Next Religion

Once the shift to an ecological metaphor is made–and with it a shift toward experience, polytheism, and diversity–many of the artificial barriers between conflicting points of view melt away, and it becomes clear what parts of our current religions will carry over into the next religion. In particular, the next religion will:

1. Include the practices and validate the experiences all of our current religions.

Dogmas conflict in ways that practices and experiences do not. When beliefs are the defining characteristic of a religion, then it is threatened by other religions with contradictory beliefs. But when a religion focuses on experience, and regards beliefs simply as tools for making sense our experiences, it has no need to fight with anyone. If my beliefs represent ultimate Truth, then your conflicting beliefs must be wrong. But if all human metaphors and belief systems are inadequate, and we are all just trying to make sense of our lives as best we can, then the diversity of our beliefs is an advantage, and we can learn by comparing notes with each other.

This is very different from ecumenism, which attempts to sweep conflicts under the rug and results in a belief-oriented religion whose beliefs are vague–a very thin soup indeed. In an experience-oriented religion, however, it is possible to be quite passionate about one’s own experiences without rejecting or belittling the experiences of others. The states of enlightenment achieved by Hindu mystics do not contradict the raptures of Christian saints–both are important examples of the human experience of the divine, and the practices that lead to each are well worth studying.

As an example, let us consider just how much of Christianity could survive inside the next religion. Practitioners of the next religion could contemplate the story of Jesus and meditate on the vision of a personal, caring, self-sacrificing God that is implicit in that story. Many of those who did this would no doubt have the born-again experience, that powerful experience of being in contact with a being who sees to the inmost depths of our souls and loves us unconditionally. The security that this love provides could give them the courage to look at the flawed portions of their lives and to change them, as so many Christians have. They could practice the communion ritual, pray regularly, and attempt to follow the example of Jesus.

What would they not do? They would not attach significance to the Christian belief system as a thing in itself. They would see the significance of the Bible in the experiences that it inspires and the wisdom that it captures, not in its scientific or historical accuracy. Even if it could be conclusively shown that Jesus had never existed, they would not be threatened and would have no need to deny whatever evidence had appeared. They would have experienced what they experienced, and whether the character who inspired those experiences was historical or fictional would make no difference to them. Similarly they would not feel bound by other people’s impressions of Jesus or the words attributed to him by ancient writers. To the extent that the various accounts of Christian experiences coincided with their own, they would feel a sense of comradeship, but when those accounts differed or went off into realms that their own experience did not, they would take it with a grain of salt.

My personal opinion is that many Christians will be more comfortable in the next religion than they are in their current churches. They will find that it is the experience and practice of Christianity that is attractive, but that its claim to be a universal theology is simply baggage for the experience and practice to carry. In addition, by focusing on their own experiences Christians would reclaim the Bible for themselves, and take it back from the historians, archeologists, and linguists.

Examples like this could be multiplied at length. Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Wiccans alike will find their practices welcomed and their experiences valued in the next religion.

2. Encourage and facilitate powerful religious experiences.

It has been said that only an unfortunate bishop has a saint in his diocese. This sums up the ambivalence that most religions feel about religious experience, which is above all a wild and unpredictable force. Belief-centered religions encourage the particular experiences that their belief system allows, but are quite afraid of all others. A Jewish boy who finds that he is born again in Christ has a serious problem, as does a fundamentalist woman who hears the call of the Great Mother. Liberal Christians are afraid even of Christian religious experiences like glossolalia, because they associate these experiences with the more repressive aspects of Christian dogma.

But a religion that values experience as experience (and not as support for this or that theological position) can welcome transcendent experiences of all sorts. There are many well-trod paths that lead to direct experience of the divine: meditation, yoga, fasting, ritual magick, chanting, ecstatic dancing, and a host of others. The next religion will encourage these practices and will not be threatened by what comes of them.

Scientism might ask “Why bother?” but by now the answer should be readily apparent. Whether one believes that divinity is inside us or transcends us, it is the ultimate source of new moral vision and new values. Whatever happened to Moses on Sinai, Buddha beneath the bodhi tree, or Paul on the road to Damascus, it was not the result of rational, scientific reflection. And if it had been, it would not have changed the world.

3. Harmonize with science.

Science is not going to go away, and technology is not going to become a less powerful influence on society. But this is no problem for the next religion, because science has no interest in religious experience or moral values. Science is simply a means of codifying our observations and making predictions based on them. It is interested predominantly in the physical world, and then only in events that are reproducible. Science cannot even tell us that miracles do not occur, only that we are unable to replicate them with any regularity. (Even this observation is circular–what we can reproduce we don’t regard as miraculous.) There is nothing in science that need upset the practitioners of the next religion.

Religion trespasses into the domain of science when it makes historical claims or claims to be able to change the physical world in predictable ways through non-physical means. Science transgresses on religion when it makes reductionistic claims, as for instance when the results of brain research are used to claim that consciousness is nothing but a chemical or electrical process. The next religion will grant science dominion over the world of physical facts, and it will laugh at reductionistic claims about the ultimate meaning of things.

4. Anticipate change.

A good machine arrives quickly at a steady state and runs smoothly thereafter. Similarly, our visions of paradise–Eden, Heaven, or even Marxist utopia–have all been steady-state visions. All problems have been solved, and nothing need ever change again.

Unlike machines, however, ecologies rarely settle down to a steady state. Something is always springing up or passing away. The rivers shift their banks, the mountains wear down, the glaciers advance and retreat. In the next religion people will not expect their ideas and practices to carry on unchanged for all time. They will instead expect the world to continue to change as it always has, and they will plan to change with it. In the next religion change is not imperfection, it is just the way of things.

5. Value myth, and not confuse it with history.

Psychology is only beginning to grasp the significance of myth in telling us who we are as individuals, what the identity of our group is, and what role we play in the larger scheme of things. In Search of Excellence tells us that even major corporations–never noted for their spirituality–have spontaneously developed their own mythologies to illustrate the ideals of the corporate culture and how they came to be established.

And yet, a religion that presents its mythology as history will never make peace with science. Each new archeological discovery or new method of textual criticism will pose a challenge that will demand a new denial, rationalization, or reinterpretation. Eventually this baggage will be too heavy to carry, as it currently is for many Christians. But if a religion truly values its mythology, then there is no need to claim it as history. Fundamentalists cling so desperately to historical accuracy of the Genesis creation story because if it is “just a myth” it has no value for them. But this is an absurd point of view–would we really prefer an accurate history of Troy to The Iliad? Would we choose true Danish history over Hamlet? The next religion will recognize that myth is often more important than history, just as the exploits of King Arthur have as much significance to Western culture as the actions of any historical English king. Whether Arthur is historical or not does not matter, for he is mythic.

6. Empower groups and individuals to create new rituals.

Ritual and symbol speak to a part of our psyche that is deaf to reason. Our self-images are virtually impervious to rational argument, and so we need rituals to mark major life-transitions like marriage, coming of age, and the birth or death of loved ones. In addition, we need rituals to deal with the painful residue of our experiences, such as excessive guilt or traumatic memories. Our current religions have preserved a number of important ancient rituals, but somehow they have lost the ability to create new ones. And so we lack rituals to mark life transitions that our ancestors did not face, such as divorce or retirement.

The knowledge base necessary to create meaningful rituals, however, has not been lost. It has just been driven underground into Wiccan works such as Starhawk’s Spiral Dance or the sometimes-lucid, sometimes-arcane writings of the English mystic and trickster Aleister Crowley. The next religion will re-inject these ideas into the mainstream, and the ability to create rituals will be disseminated to the masses, rather than held by a priesthood.

7. Connect the individual to a larger community.

Although it has been strained by the demands of our mobile society, the traditional Christian congregation of families is the most viable social structure available. Such an institution supports our families (which are themselves under strain), nurtures our friendships, gives us contact with people of all ages, and provides a setting in which an individual can be noticed and make a difference. The next religion will be organized in congregations that look not terribly different from most Christian churches.

These congregations will, however, have one great advantage over Christian congregations–diversity of belief. Contrary to its claims, a congregation of believers inevitably stifles rather than encourages religious thought and experience. A person who honestly opens his mind to thought or his soul to experience cannot predict the outcome. If his thoughts and experiences should lead him beyond the dogma of his congregation, he may (like Abraham) have to leave his friends or split his family. It is far safer to close the mind and soul, and accept the reassurances that we are all going to Heaven.

A congregation of the next religion, conversely, will not be dedicated to any particular god or dogma. It will dedicate itself rather to providing a supportive place in which people can find their own relationship to God or gods. In the new congregation, someone who hears a new voice or finds a new truth will not be threatened with the loss of community or family. Such an environment will give people the security they need to think clearly about their religion and to open themselves to the divine.

Diversity gives a further advantage in dealing with strain or disaster. A congregation of believers can be a great comfort in such times of trial, but only if the trial is one that their dogma handles well. Such a congregation is like a field of genetically identical corn, all sharing the same vulnerabilities. A believer whose life points out a weakness in his dogma learns not to discuss it with his fellow parishioners, because he will meet with their defenses rather than their compassion. The religious diversity of the new congregation, on the other hand, will enable it to be compassionate to all.

From our current, belief-oriented perspective it may be hard to imagine what will hold such a group of people together. But from an experience-oriented point of view the answer is clear: the experiences common to human life will hold them together. Already it is possible for people of diverse beliefs to share their bereavement at a funeral service or to celebrate together at a wedding. We all suffer the insecurities of adolescence. We all desire to find our place in the world and the friends and partners who will join us there. We all face the inevitability of physical deterioration and death. Our triumphs and disasters are all unique, and yet the experiences of triumph and disaster are common to everyone. Humanity is no small thing for people to have in common.

8. Provide a basis for moral decision-making and a motivation for moral action.

When morality is based on experience rather than dogma, a revolution takes place. A dogma-based morality attempts to shame or coerce people into doing the “right” thing. An experience-based morality helps people learn how to live value-filled lives. It teaches us how to deal with the root problems of living in modern society–alienation, boredom, and a sense of pointlessness. Experience-based morality is a joyous practice, not a coercive one.

Where will this teaching come from? Much of it will come from the same sources that moral lessons have always come from, our traditions. It is a fact of considerable importance that societies throughout history have, for instance, taught that honesty has more merit than thievery, or that a life of industry is more satisfying than a life of drunkenness. Great teachers like Jesus, the Buddha, and Confucius have had a great deal to say about how to live a value-filled life, and the next religion will pass these lessons on. Lessons will also come from studying the characters of literature, and the examples of other people. Some people live with a sense of great satisfaction, while others–apparently equally fortunate–are filled with resentment. What is the difference? How can we become like the one and not the other?

Most importantly, people will be taught to look for lessons in their own experience. They will be encouraged to be more self-aware, to see what is valuable in their experiences and why. Having spent an evening working in a soup kitchen or teaching someone to read, how does that experience compare with an evening in front of the television? Which is more likely to add a sense of value to life? Last but not least, people will learn from the gods they have chosen to commune with. Practitioners of all religions have noted that prayers for guidance or insight are frequently answered. They will continue to be.


Predicting a social movement is a bit like predicting an earthquake. It is much easier to point to the fault line and measure the pent-up forces than it is say when the quake will occur and how strong it will be.

To my knowledge there is no religious group that fits the description I have given. Nonetheless, I believe that the religion I have described is viable today in America, and once introduced could rise to dominance within fifty years. This is extraordinary speed for a religious revolution, but it is possible because the triumph of the next religion will not require conversions of Pentecostal magnitude. Our existing churches are filled with people who have a “yes, but. . .” relationship with the dogma of their denomination. They go along up to a point, but then they go off on their own. This is for many a guilty secret or a source of embarrassment. Such people will find that they can better practice their religion in the new church than in their current one. They could believe what they already believe, say what they think, and be welcomed. Similarly, couples with religious disagreements could join the new church together and both be supported. Groups of friends would be able to join the same church without first hammering out a common creed. Once started, such a process could spread with the speed of a virus.

There are several ways that the next religion could come about. It could be popularized by a charismatic teacher. It could be envisioned by a popular novelist and started by his readers. (The Church of All Worlds, for example, is a small religious group patterned after the belief system in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) Or an existing church could evolve to fill the waiting niche.

The third possibility is the easiest to imagine. The most likely candidates are the liberal Christian denominations and the Unitarian Universalists. These groups have a history of theological evolution and an acceptance of new ideas. Moreover, they find themselves in an identity crisis. In the public mind the word “Christian” has been taken over by the fundamentalists. (When Pat Robertson ran for president, for example, his followers referred to him as “the Christian candidate”. The media did not challenge this assertion.) Having freed themselves from many of the dogmatic aspects of Christianity, they often find themselves without a firm foundation for the beliefs and practices they want to keep. They have an intuition of what it means to be a good community, but the metaphors and symbols of their Christian tradition do not allow them to state this vision in a way they can be proud of. Their non-authoritarianism comes off as wishy-washiness or moral uncertainty. Their tolerance appears to be a lack of standards, their open-mindedness a lack of conviction. They cannot help but envy the certainty and zeal of the fundamentalists.

But a liberal church that could take the bold steps of adopting the ecological metaphor, focusing on experience, welcoming polytheism, and teaching the joyous aspect of morality would find that its identity crisis was over. It could stop explaining why it no longer is what it used to be, and could focus instead on becoming what it wants to be. But let us not underestimate those bold steps. The hardest thing of all for a liberal church would be to focus on experience. Of all religious groups in America, these are the ones that are most infected with Scientism. They are suspicious of myth and ritual, and they are very suspicious of religious experience. They have left the born-again experience behind them, and have toned Jesus down from a charismatic miracle-worker and mythic hero to a teacher of ethics on a par with Socrates. For a liberal church to convert to the next religion, it would have to convince itself that religious experience is possible, that it is not a form of insanity, and that it is desirable. Perhaps this is asking too much.

But whether any of the liberal churches seizes the opportunity or not, the fault line is still there and the quake will come. Individuals are creating the next religion on their own. It is only a matter of time before they find each other and start a church.


The next religion will re-assemble the desirable pieces of our current religions just as Christianity re-assembled pieces from the religions of Roman times. It will take the social structure of Christianity, Scientism’s respect for facts and logic, Eastern religion’s focus on experience, and the ecological awareness of the earth-centered religions. It will accept the religious experiences of all religions, value their practices, study their myths, and meditate on their symbols. It will be a welcoming place for people of all beliefs. It will help them learn to live lives of value, and to find what is waiting to be found in the experience of the divine.

Read more essays by Doug Muder