Envisioning the Next Religion (1995)

A sermon presented by Doug Muder at Princeton Unitarian Church on 29 January 1995 (1996 version)

Opening Words

Three notable Unitarian-Universalist virtues are open-mindedness, intellectual courage, and a willingness to
change with the times. Those are virtues we will need today, as we try to envision the future of religion in
America. There is a fourth virtue which UUs are not famous for, but which we can invoke if we really have
to, and that is humility. That will also be important today, because ultimately the future is unknowable. We
can imagine, we can deduce, we can speculate, but we cannot know. So let us begin this service by
summoning up our open-mindedness, our courage, our willingness to change, and even our humility.


From The Politics At God’s Funeral by Michael Harrington

God, one of the most important political figures in Western history, is dying.

The event, then, is not simply theological. With a few lapses into liberalism, or even radicalism, God has been a leading conservative in Judeo-Christian society. His death not only means empty churches and bereft individuals but also marks the rending of the social fabric. This insight is corroborated, not contradicted, by the recent revival of a fundamentalism whose desperate orthodoxy tries to will the departing deity back into existence. . .

The new religions that the social scientists are so fond of are, almost without exception, personal rather than social. They are part of what Daniel Bell has called a “retreat to the private world where religions have authority only over their followers and not over any other section of the polity or society.” That is the definition of the abyss which lies between religion as the expression of the values of a community and religion as a matter of private belief. The latter may well be profound and even holy, but it is not the organizing principle of a civilization. That is what Judeo-Christianity was for several millennia. That is why it is so sorely missed now.

From A History of God by Karen Armstrong

The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of humn beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently, there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutally exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look at our [three] religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of “God”: each generation has to create the image of God that works for it. The same is true of atheism. The statement “I do not believe in God” has meant something slightly different at each period of history. …
Despite its otherworldliness, religion is highly pragmatic. We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed –sometimes for something radically different.


In radio, silence is called “dead air”. For us also, silence is often a sign of failure. The battery is dead. The joke wasn’t funny. We lost our place. We missed our cue. We were too stunned, or too embarassed to reply. And so there was silence. But let us take a moment now to remember that silence can also be a sign of success. Sometimes, silence is exactly what we intended.


Where I live is about 20 miles away from Brookline, Massachusetts where the recent abortion-clinic shootings were. Those shootings have touched off a lot of discussion and raised a lot of important issues, some of which are very immediate. But this morning I’d like to start off by calling attention to a less immediate, more abstract issue that these shootings–and the whole abortion controversy–point out very starkly: In our society today, we can’t get general agreement about what murder is.  If you look at some of our other divisive political issues, you’ll find similar problems down at the root. We can’t get general agreement about what a marriage is. We can’t agree about what a family is. We can’t agree about what a community is.

In societies prior to ours–and even here half a century ago–these would not have been political questions; they would have been religious questions. The only way for a prior society to discuss them at all would have been in terms of its dominant religion. Because throughout history that has been one of religion’s most important jobs: A people’s common religion gives meaning to the words and concepts of political discourse. But America today is a nation without a common religion. As the first reading pointed out, the Judeo-Christian tradition has lost the power to define the terms of our political discourse–terms like murder, marriage, family, community. This is a serious problem for our society, and my personal belief is that we have not seen anything like the worst of it yet. In the long term, a nation that is fragmented religiously will not be stable politically. When a people’s vocabulary starts to lose its meaning, they lose the ability to talk through their differences. And at some point, they start shooting each other.

Now, so far I don’t sound all that different from those TV evangelists who wax apocalyptic about “our spiritual crisis”. And if I stay on that track, you know what has to come next, because the conclusion is always the same: We have to go back. Back to that old time religion, which, the song tells us, ought to be good enough for us.

Well, I’d like to leave that track now, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the old time religion is not to my taste. And the second is that I don’t think that history works that way. Societies in spiritual crisis don’t go back to the old religion. They go ahead to the new one. It’s always scarier to look forward, because you haven’t been there before. You have to admit that you don’t know where you’re going, and you can’t be sure that you’ll like it when you get there. But that’s what I want to do today: I want to invite you look forward to the next religion, the one that doesn’t exist anywhere but in the future.

When I was starting to write this sermon, my first temptation was to launch right into all my ideas about the next religion. But then it dawned on me how un-Unitarian that would be: to raise an interesting question and then start giving answers. I also realized that I don’t have all the answers, and I would really like to get more people thinking about this question. So I decided that it would be a better use of our time together if I invited you to start envisioning the next religion for yourself, and gave you a few pointers to get you off on the right foot.

As our second reading pointed out, religions change all the time. Usually it is a gradual evolution, like Unitarians evolving from Puritans. Once in a great while the change is more drastic, like the conversion of Rome to Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment. The possibility of that drastic kind of change is what I want to get you thinking about. And I’d like to illustrate my pointers by considering one of those examples in more detail: the birth of Christianity.

If we were to go on a tour of the preChristian Roman Empire, and look at the local religious beliefs, we would (with the benefit of hindsight) see the pieces of Christianity everywhere. Take monotheism for example. Monotheism in Rome came in three very different flavors: Jewish, Greek, and Persian. The Jews had a very worldly God, who was a major player in human history. He made empires rise and fall. He caused floods and decided who would survive them. By contrast Greek monotheism, which derived mainly from Plato, pictured a very abstract, impersonal, other-worldly God. We could perceive this God not through its actions in history, but by its interactions with our invisible, immortal souls. These souls were imprisoned inside our physical bodies until death, and after death they would be free to perceive God more clearly. The Persian flavor wasn’t really monotheism at all, it was dualism: In this version, all of history is a build-up to the ultimate battle between Light and Darkness. Ultimately Light will be victorious, and God will reward those of us who chose the right side.

To a Roman, these three flavors of monotheism were distinct, complete, and mutually contradictory. But in hindsight, we can see that Christian monotheism adopted all of these beliefs simultaneously. In addition to the various flavors of monotheism, there were a number of savior cults in Rome. Your savior could be a great healer, like Asclepius the son of Zeus. He could be a human hero who had travelled to the world of the dead and returned, like Orpheus. He could have instituted a communal meal, like Mithras, who was, by the way, born on December 25. He could have been a Son of God who had died and been resurrected, like Dionysus. There is very little in the Jesus mythos that you couldn’t find somewhere in one of the savior cults of Rome.

There was even a syncretic movement, which held that the different religions needed to be assembled somehow. So the first pointer I would like to give you on envisioning the next religion is this: You don’t need to invent much. The pieces are all here someplace.

Now, so far it sounds like I’m running Christianity down, saying that it was unoriginal. But I want to say more than that: Christianity was brilliantly unoriginal. We can see those pieces in hindsight, but to see with foresight how they would be assembled–or even that they could be assembled–would have been almost impossible. If you want to claim that it took divine inspiration, I can’t argue with you. Because at the time all those pieces were in opposition to each other. Imagine how difficult it would be to tell a Roman what the new religion was going to look like. You’d say “monotheism” and he’d say, “Wait, do you mean Jewish or Greek or Persian?” And you’d say “Yes.”

He’d say, “Will the religion focus on God, or on a savior?” And you’d say, “Yes.”

“Will it be a personal religion or a state religion?” “Yes.”

“This savior, will he be human, or divine?” “Yes.”

So the second pointer is this: Don’t see opposites, see complements. Any time you find yourself picking sides, you’re going the wrong way. The next religion won’t come about because one side of a controversy defeats the other. It will come about because a new point of view legitimizes both sides of a controversy. So, will the new religion be rational or mystical? Yes. Will it be based on history or on myth? Yes. Will it be intellectual or experiential? Yes. Personal or social? Yes. Religious or scientific? Yes. In fact, whenever you find one of these apparent contradictions, one of these pairs of strong opposites–that’s not a problem, that’s a clue. What that tells you is that both of these ideas are too important to get rid of. Each has survived, even in the face of strong opposition from the other. The next religion has got to respect that.

The third pointer is this: Recognize that the whole culture is working with you. Looking back on Rome, it is very tempting to anthropomorphize, to say that somehow, unconciously, the Roman culture knew what it needed and worked very hard to come up with it. There were thousands, perhaps millions of people who worked on the ideas, the myths, and the rituals that ultimately became Christianity. Most of them probably had no idea they were working together on a new religion, and many of them probably wouldn’t even have liked the result. But it couldn’t have happened without them.

Likewise in America today, I believe the culture is working on something. We’re importing religions and pieces of religions from all over the world. Take a walk through the bookstores. We’re paying attention to Indian gurus, Japanese Zen masters, African and Native American shamen. We’re trying to revive pre-Christian paganism. We’re trying to find the Jewish goddesses who didn’t make it into the Bible. We’re listening to our guardian angels. We’re trying to channel teachings from 10,000 year old warriors, or from extra-terrestrials, or from wherever we can get them. Millions of people are involved in the digestion process, in the working through of all that material. Most are motivated by personal spiritual quests, and never really intended to work together. But I think hindsight will say that those millions did work together, and that the next religion couldn’t have happened without them.

When you start to take seriously the idea that we might all be working on something together, an interesting thing happens to your perceptions. You find yourself listening to people who once would have made you boil over. And things that used to sound crazy start to sound like interesting experiments–sort of like Ben Franklin flying a kite in an electrical storm. I’ll give you an example: There are people at Star Trek conventions who dress up like Klingons and hold Klingon rituals. What could be crazier than that? But when you work on the next religion, you constantly run into this question: What do we do with the old rituals and symbols? Can we still find meaning in them, even if we don’t believe in the stories or cosmologies they are based on? Just when you’re about to give up and say that we can’t, here comes this Klingon cult. If they’re finding meaning in symbols and rituals that are based on a work of pure fiction, that’s very, very interesting.

You may also find yourself treating popular culture with more respect, because it too is filled with interesting experiments. When we watch a popular TV show or read a popular book, we are making contact not just with the people involved in creating it, but also with all the people who have propelled it into popularity. Those millions of people making simple yes-or-no decisions about what to read, what to watch, and what to tell their neighbors about, are like the neurons of a giant brain. That brain occasionally has interesting things to tell us about the next religion.

For instance, if a religion had an impersonal force at the center of it, rather than an anthropomorphic God, is that necessarily boring and abstract, or could it inspire heroic action? George Lucas tested that notion in the Star Wars movies. We now can be sure that tens of millions of people have fantasized about heroic actions inspired by an abstract force.

Or consider this question: What will be the role of eternal life in the next religion? I’m not sure, but if you want to think about it, I’d advise you to read one of Anne Rice’s vampire novels. Her vampires are immortal, and yet they struggle endlessly with essentially religious questions about the lack of meaning in their lives. They can live forever, but why should they? Every summer tens of thousands of people will read these novels on their vacations. What does that mean? And what is it doing to the culture’s ideas about eternal life?

Some of the narrower niches of popular culture are places of incredible religious experimentation. And in general, the younger the audience, the more experimentation is going on. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I was going to read you part of, is another piece of beach reading. It’s a cyberpunk novel with a plot that runs at about the speed of an MTV video. But what that hyperactive plot revolves around is a reinterpretation of Sumerian mythology. Comic books like Doom Patrol and Sandman are introducing their readers to concepts from Jewish Kabbalah. The four pagan elements are embodied in Saturday morning cartoons like Captain Planet. And in the preschoolers’ favorite TV show, Power Rangers, there is more stuff going on than I have time to talk about. When the next religion finally does come together, you might not find it in a theological journal. It might be in a video game.

So, those are my three pointers to keep in mind when you envision the next religion:

 1) You don’t have to invent much.
 2) See complements instead of opposites.
 3) Remember that the whole culture is working on this with you.

So now that we’re all colleagues, and I’ve given you my three pointers, I thought I’d mention briefly where my own speculations have taken me. So I’ll wind up by making a few predictions.

First, I think that the metaphors of the next religion will come from biology. For several hundred years now, we’ve been talking about religion in mechanical terms, as if the Universe were a giant clock and God were the Great Clockmaker. Several popular books have suggested that we replace those old Newtonian metaphors with something from modern physics. But personally, I think that modern physics has gotten so far away from the experience ordinary people that it is no longer useful as a source of religious metaphors. Biology, though, is something we can all relate to. Patterning the next religion on biology has a couple of other virtues. Biologists have to be more humble than physicists, because biological systems always have more factors than we can model, and there are exceptions to every rule. Religious theories would benefit from that kind of humility. Also, while a mechanical system will tolerate diversity up to a point, in a biological system diversity is actually good. If a species doesn’t have enough diversity, it’s probably not going to survive.

My second prediction is that intellectual religion and experiential religion are going to come back together. Currently they’re divorced, with Unitarianism being on the intellectual side. Try this experiment: Go to coffee hour and tell people that you’ve been born again in Christ. Watch their reactions. That’s not supposed to happen here. We don’t do religious experience. On the other hand, if you go to a Pentacostal church and start talking about modern Biblical scholarship, you’re going to upset a lot of people there. They don’t do that. But there are no irreconcilible differences here. There’s no reason that a UU couldn’t have a religious experience, or that a Pentacostal couldn’t read modern scholarship. In the next religion, people will do both, and no one will think it is the least bit strange.

My third prediction is that polytheism is going to make a comeback. One of the most common religious experiences is a sense of Presence, a feeling that something is here, that this place is special. And yet it just isn’t credible to most of us that the omnipresent God is somehow here but not there. Similarly it’s hard to believe that the One God of the Universe really cares whether I get that promotion, or whether my marriage stays together, or how my kids get raised. But at the same time, it’s very important to believe that somebody cares. I think this will be handled by a multiplicity of gods or angels or something. We won’t lose monotheism entirely; I think people will continue to believe in an ultimate unity, like the Tao or Luke Skywalker’s Force.  But day-to-day, people will only deal with a small piece of divinity at any one time, and polytheism will allow them to admit that it’s only a small piece.

Fourth, suspension of disbelief will be an important concept. Many people have had life-changing experiences while reading novels or watching movies. They don’t have faith in those stories, but they suspend their disbelief, and this opens them up to new experiences. In the next religion, suspension of disbelief will allow people to open themselves to many different religious myths and rituals, and to have a wide variety of religious experiences. So, four predictions: Biological metaphors, intellect and experience get remarried, polytheism, and suspension of disbelief. Good luck with your own envisioning, and let me know if you come up with anything interesting.

Closing Words

We remember the past; we imagine the future; but we must live in the present. Let us not turn our
back on this day, but instead let