Religion in the West in the Next Decade

05/12/2015 08:48 am ET | Updated May 12, 2016
Shutterstock / Ruggiero Scardigno

While it is not suitable for historians to speculate on the future of humanity, they can nevertheless try to ascertain -- in the present and the near future -- sufficiently coherent tendencies, out of which emerge developing potentialities. Thus, and only in this respect, does it become possible to advance short-term forecasts on the future of religion in the West.

Transformations that affect this part of the world, heir of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, are numerous and inevitably have repercussions on the religious sphere. We indeed live in a globalized, multipolar world, increasingly shaped by a complex "disenchanted" economy, that has a detonating effect on national borders and gradually marginalizes politics. This interplay fuels an increasing mobility of populations in search of prosperity, a powerful force that stirs our world and hastens contact (though not always in a peaceful manner) between different ethnic and cultural groups. Moreover, everyday life in the third millennium is henceforth firmly enmeshed in the online world, meaning that it is open to a new digital and virtual environment that knows no boundaries or concrete spatiotemporality. The Internet, globalization, migratory flows, plural and postmodern culture..., all of these could be summed up by the disconcerting term advanced by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, "liquid." Indeed, liquidity has come to define the human world of the past few decades.

Yet it is clear that this liquidity noticeably permeates the religious system, even when it is fixed into something hard and sharp to the point of being dangerous. Because, paradoxically, there is nothing more unstable and mutable than a religion that lends itself to fundamentalist manipulation under the pretense of either restoring a mythical primordial purity (which in fact has never existed) or of unscrupulously justifying economic and geopolitical imperialism. What researchers have noticed, and often with some unease, is the growing difficulty of defining religion in a world characterized by exponential transformation. One need only consider the explosion of religious views being disseminated on the web, emanating from users' innumerable makeshift beliefs; users' whose identities are constantly being renegotiated according to their needs and desires of the moment. The typical believer of the day, one whose religion is in flux, has been likened to that of the "convert" or the "pilgrim": he moves around, travels from one paradigm to the next in a world where cultural referents are constantly changing. This predicament is no doubt related to the return of religion as a strong and sometimes conflictual identity marker. It is precisely when cultural boundaries dissolve, thereby reducing the citizen to a universal consumer (or servile producer of consumer goods) that the disoriented individual seeks out or creates his own solid bearings with which to establish his identity.

Traditional religious institutions have a difficult time adapting to the new landscape and seem to have fallen behind these social transformations. In an era of memetic culture, and the spread of instantaneous communication of ideas, symbols and other significant cultural information, can its structures, traditions and hierarchies follow suit? Solid in a liquid word, they risk sinking. This is a clear trend that we previously thought could be explained by secularization. But with institutional religions' diminished influence in the public sphere, secularization is no longer -- in this new millennium -- a center of interest in religion. As an expression of eternal thirst for meaning and an indomitable need for hope, it mutates and returns in ways so different that we are tempted to call it by another name, spirituality. In the West, the distinction between belief and non-belief is losing steam. Indeed the question has shifted: absolutes are at the nexus of individual decision making, rendering them relative when pegged up against collectivity. And this is taking place in an environment where the border between what is private and what is public becomes more and more permeable. The structures of plausibility of coherent and collective metaphysical truths are disintegrating in favor of a variable pluralism in which personal experience supersedes any allusion to religious traditions and the grand narratives of the West, or in other words, to any shared spiritual or intellectual past.

The matter of the future of religion lends itself to that of politics at the dawn of the modern era, a question philosopher Carl Schmitt dedicated much of his career to. The discovery of America and the birth of navigation technology redefined geopolitical and religious equilibria and upset the norms that governed international relations between states. In opposition to the "nomos of the earth" appeared the "nomos of the sea," who carried with him a new worldview based not on state structures tied to the earth, but rather a redefined maritime power determined by technological superiority. Religion, (as well as many other areas of human life in this century), is facing a similar ordeal: the globalized, liquid, mobile, interconnected, unstable and economically complex environment in which contemporary western societies operate demands a major reconfiguration. One thing is certain, religion will have to learn to master this "nomos of the sea" if it is to navigate these new high seas.

This post is part of a series commemorating The Huffington Post's 10 Year Anniversary through expert opinions looking forward to the next decade in their respective fields. To see all of the posts in the series, read here.

This piece was originally published by HuffPost Québec and was translated into English.