Religion in the Twenty-First Century

By Huston Smith

Huston Smith is a philosopher, film producer, and author. He is widely regarded as the most eloquent and accessible contemporary authority on the history of religions. Born in Soochow, China in 1919, he received his education in the USA. For fifteen years, he was Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A leading figure in the comparative philosophy of religion, he has taught at Hamline University, Washington University, the Universities of Denver and Colorado, and Syracuse University. He is currently visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Smith has produced three PBS series: “The Religions of Man,” “Science and Human Responsibility,” and “The Search for America,” as well as a number of international award winning films on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism and Sufism. His record, “The Music of Tibet,” was acclaimed as an “important landmark in the study of extra-European musics and music itself” by The Journal of Ethnomusicology.

In 1961 Smith was invited as the Charles Strong Lecturer on World Religions to the Universities of Australia, and was appointed Distinguished Visiting Lecturer of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa and Annual Lecturer of the John Dewey Society in 1964. He is the holder of seven honorary degrees. Huston Smith works and lives in Berkeley, California.

The skies are clearing after a major storm, and the future of religion looks bright—even assured. From another weather station, however, we hear a different report. A tornado is approaching that could level religion forever.

My aim in this essay is to align these opposite reports in the manner of binocular vision. If we close our right and left eyes alternately, different images oscillate; but with both eyes open we see things in depth. Comparably here. Perhaps aligning the conflicting forecasts of religion’s future can add depth to our understanding of what that future might be. I begin with those who see religion as on its way out.

God Is Dead. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the West hit upon a new way of knowing. We call it the scientific method, and it quickly replaced revelation, its predecessor, as the royal road to knowledge. Conceptually, it spawned the scientific worldview, and its technology created the modern world. The citizens of these physical and conceptual environments constitute a new human breed whose beliefs correspond to very little in the heritage of their forebears. As a consequence, religion—the kingpin of that heritage—has been marginalized, both intellectually and politically.

First, politically. Fresh continents to occupy and easier travel have introduced a new phenomenon into history: cultural pluralism. The result has been to edge religion from public life, for religion divides whereas politics seeks unity. Concurrently, religion has been marginalized intellectually. Science has no place for revelation as a source of knowledge, and as moderns tend to think with science on matters of truth, confidence in revelation has declined. Marx considered religion “the opiate of the people,” “the sob of an oppressed humanity,” and Freud saw it as a symptom of immaturity. Children who cannot accept the limitations of their actual parents dream up Fathers in Heaven who are free of those limitations. Theism is wish fulfillment—a pandering to “the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind,”1—and the religious experience (“the oceanic feeling”) is regression to the womb.

For religion to be marginalized socially and forced to the wall intellectually is no small event. Some see it as substantial enough to warrant the pronouncement that God has died.2 Sociologists compile statistics on the change, but for the intellectual historian two developments suffice. First, on the question of God’s existence the burden of proof has shifted to the theist; and as proofs of the supernatural are difficult in any case, the classic proofs for God’s existence have pretty much collapsed. The second sign, though, is more telling. Whereas atheists and theists used to agree that God’s existence is an important issue, now even that common ground has vanished. The tension between belief and disbelief has slackened. “It leaves no mark on intellectuals now,” a cultural historian has observed, adding: “we have witnessed a decline in the urgency of the debate.”3 The atheism of indifference or apathy simply refuses to take the question of God seriously.

Such, a French psychiatrist has written, “has become the common lot of at least a considerable portion, if not the majority, of our contemporaries.”4 Their number has given rise to a distinction between secularization and secularism. The word “secularization” is now typically used to refer to the cultural process in which the area of the sacred is progressively diminished, whereas “secularism” denotes the reasoned stand that favors that drift. It argues on grounds that are cognitive, moral, or both, that the desacralizing of reality and consequent recession of the God idea is a good thing. Whether favored or merely accepted, though, the change itself seems undisputed. The Chronicle of Higher Education condensed it into a single sentence: “If anything characterizes ‘modernity,’ it is a loss of faith in transcendence, in a reality that encompasses but surpasses our quotidian affairs.”5

How, in the face of these seemingly irrefutable signs of faith’s decline—”its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” in Matthew Arnold’s memorable phrase—is it possible to argue that the future of religion is promising?

The Eyes of Faith. One of the interesting recent developments in physics has been the realization that at its frontiers the observer must be included in the experiment. It’s not just that we can’t know where a particle is until we perform an experiment to locate it. The particle literally isn’t anywhere until (by collapsing its wave packet) an experiment gives it its location. Whether or not this Copenhagen reading of the matter will prevail, it at least highlights the active component in knowing. Knowing is not a passive act. If seeing is believing, believing is also seeing, for it brings to light things that would otherwise pass unnoticed.

The Life’s dim windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’ the Eye (William Blake).6

How does this affect the question of religion’s future? The Death-of-God prediction of religion’s demise was reported through eyes that register data that is available to everyone. Religion, though, sees through the eyes of faith, and in doing so sees a different world. Or better, it sees the same world in a different light.

In this new light things look different in a way that is commanding. Arguments are irrelevant here, as they are when a rope that was mistaken for a snake is recognized for the rope that it is. The sacred world is the truer, more veridical one, part of the reason being that it includes the mundane world. It also redeems that world by situating it in a context that is meaningful—completely so. The whole (of which the visible world is part) is not only more inclusive than the visible world. It is better than the visible world—infinitely better in being able to shine its glory on everything. Because its power is ineluctable, it cannot be gainsaid, for (as William James put the point) “religion says that the best things are the more eternal things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word.”7

Backed by its ineluctable authority, religion’s future (seen from this second perspective) is secure. As long as there are human beings there will be religion, for the sufficient reason that the self is a theomorphic creature—one whose morphe (form) has God (theos) built into it. Having been created in the image of God, every human being has a God-shaped vacuum built into its heart. We know that nature abhors vacuums, so people keep trying to fill theirs. Searching for an image of the divine that will fit, they paw over images as if they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, matching them successively to the gaping hole at the puzzle’s center. (We call the wrong images idols to underscore their inadequacy. Calvin likened the human heart to an idol factory.) They keep doing this until, the right “piece” having been found, it slips into place and life’s puzzle is solved. The sight of the picture that then comes to view is so commanding that the soul finds its attention riveted to it completely; so completely that no attention remains for it to notice itself as the person who is seeing the picture. This sublime self-forgetfulness, this ecstatic release from ego-encasement, is salvation, or enlightenment. It is the complete and only possible liberation from the bondage of human finitude—the cord is cut, the bird is free. Achieving this freedom amounts to graduating from the human condition, but the passage in no way threatens the human future. Other generations are always waiting in the wings, eager to have their go at life’s curriculum.

The gulf that separates this faith-oriented projection of religion’s future from the worldly one this essay opened with is vast; but we live in the uni-verse, so in some way we must try to bring the two together. If we are religiously “unmusical” (Max Müller’s phrase) and its account leaves us cold, the situation is simple: the worldly prognosis tells the tale. Others, though, have a problem on their hands. The religious forecast carries weight, but so does the secular one. This is where binocular vision enters. How does the future of religion look when we take into account both what social scientists tell us—our first reading—and what the eyes of faith report?

To bring the two together we need to look again at the historical developments of this century, this time with eyes that are peeled for signs of their spiritual significance.

The Ground Is Cleared. Those signs come to light when we remember the vacuum in the human heart that was mentioned a few paragraphs back, and the jigsaw pieces with which people try to fill it. None of the pieces the modern world has reached for have fit.

The two most important pieces have been Marxism in the East and Progress in the West, these being the principal gods of modernity. Of course Marxism believes in progress too, but it stresses its ideological program for effecting that progress. As for East and West, I use those words to refer to the poles that polarized the twentieth century politically, though of course Marxism began in the West.

Go back to the point I began this essay with: the new way of knowing that Europe hit on in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We call it the scientific method, and with it, knowledge began to proliferate; for science houses the controlled experiment, the controlled experiment proves, and proven knowledge snowballs. The eighteenth century’s Industrial Revolution established these points historically, for by applying the knowledge that was ballooning, it raised Europe’s living standards dramatically. Together these scientific and industrial revolutions produced a third and psychological one: the Revolution-of-Rising-Expectations which has powered modernity ever since. It spawned three heady dreams which coalesced in the Enlightenment Project. Thanks to its new and reliable way of knowing, modernity would send ignorance packing. Applying its new knowledge to nature, it would send scarcity packing. And it would send superstition packing. The superstitions the Enlightenment had in mind were principally those of the Church, and as the Church’s back was being broken, it seemed that mankind was ready to step into the Age of Reason. This reason spelled Progress, the hope that has powered the modern world since it swung to view.

As for Eastern Europe and subsequently China, its version of that hope has been, for the bulk of this century, Marxism. To set it in perspective we need only go back to the Revolution-of-Rising-Expectations that the scientific and industrial revolutions gave rise to. Hegel cashed in on that revolution’s forward-looking stance and fashioned from it a metaphysics. From the seeming fact that things were getting better and stood a good chance of continuing to do so, Hegel extrapolated backwards to infer that they had always been improving. Progress is the name of the game for being inscribed in the structure of the cosmos. (In Hegel’s vocabulary, Being is the necessary unfoldment of its Idea in ever-increasing consciousness and freedom.) Support for this heady scenario was welcome from every quarter, and Darwin supplied it from science. Himself inspired by Hegel, he painted the natural history of life on earth in strokes that fitted perfectly into Hegel’s version of an evolution that is cosmic in sweep.

So far so good. But when we come to human history, Darwin’s engine of progress—natural selection working on chance variations—chugs too slowly to explain. A principle was needed to account for progress in centuries, not eons, and Marx supplied it with his theory of class struggle. “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history,” Engels intoned by Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery.

One last step was needed, and though Marx assumed it, Engels (with Lenin’s assistance) articulated it explicitly. To inspire not just hope but conviction, communism’s happy ending—the classless society—needed to be assured, and that required metaphysics. For science is never enough, not even natural and social science together. To inspire conviction, hope needs to be anchored in the very nature of things. So Hegel’s cosmic vision was reaffirmed, but with an important change. Its inclusive and forward-looking features were in place, but its vocabulary needed to be converted from idealism to materialism. This had the double advantage of making the theory sound scientific and at the same time directing attention to the politico-economic scene; specifically to the means of production as the place where the gears of history grind decisively.

This is the package that in this century persuaded the Eastern half of humankind—the world’s largest nation (the USSR) and its most populous one (the People’s Republic of China). With its “jigsaw piece” (communism) placed beside the piece the West reached for (Progress), we can proceed to the point for which they were introduced. Neither filled the spiritual hollow in the human makeup.

To begin again with the West, Progress has turned into something of a nightmare. The campaign against ignorance has expanded our knowledge of nature, but science can’t get its hands on values and life-giving beliefs. That’s disappointing. It’s discouraging to discover that not only are we no wiser (as distinct from more knowledgeable) than our forebears were; we may be less wise for having neglected value questions while bringing nature to heel. That possibility is frightening; for our vastly increased power over nature calls for more wisdom in its use, not less. The Enlightenment’s second hope, of eliminating poverty, must face the fact that more people are hungry today than ever before. As for the belief that the Age of Reason would make people sane, that now reads like a cruel joke. In the Nazi myth of a super-race (which produced the Holocaust), and the Marxist myth of a classless utopia (which produced the Stalinist Terror), our century fell for the most monstrous superstitions the human mind has ever embraced.

With this last point we have already moved to the Eastern half of our twentieth century where Marxist hopes have not just declined but collapsed. The Soviet Union has disintegrated, and while Maoism remains nominally in place in China, no one believes it anymore—capitalism is advancing there faster than anywhere else on the planet. In its heyday, Marxism inspired commitment by claiming that its idealism was grounded in truth. This is indeed the winning formula, but our century has falsified both halves of its Marxist version. All of Marx’s major predictions have turned out to be wrong. (1) The European model of production has not spread throughout the world. (2) The working class has not progressively grown more miserable and radical. (3) Nationalism and religious zeal have not declined. (4) Communism does not produce goods more efficiently than free enterprise, nor distribute them more equitably. (5) And in communist countries the states show no signs whatever of withering away. Faced with this predictive shamble, apologists regularly switched their appeal from truth to idealism—are we to forget the suffering masses? But the Marxist record on compassion is no better than its record on truth. In justifying communism’s (often vicious) means by the humanitarian end Marx expected them to lead to, he saddled his movement with a bloody-mindedness history has rarely seen.

Modernity’s coming to see its gods for what they are—idols in their inability to deliver what was expected of them—is the most important religious event of the twentieth century. With the ground cleared of its illusions, we can now examine that ground to see if it shows signs of new life.

Re-nascence. At least we can say that religion weathered its winter. On his seventy-fifth birthday, Malcolm Muggeridge looked back over his long worldwatch as editor of The Manchester Guardian and concluded that the most important single fact of the twentieth century is that the USSR, with every totalitarian means at its disposal, was unable to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church. The same can be said of the People’s Republic of China respecting its religions. Confucian ethics are back in the schools, and a new church is opening in China every day.

Even intellectuals who are not themselves believers now speak respectfully of religion’s durability. Having discovered no society that is without religion, anthropologists (riding their “functionalist” theory that pointless institutions fall by the wayside) now agree that religion is “adaptive.” Neuroscientists trace its utility to the very structure of the human brain. Without going into details,8 “once the left-brain interpreter was fully in place and reflexively active in seeking consistency and understanding, religious beliefs were inevitable.”9 Alex Comfort, a gerontologist, writes that “religious behaviors are an important integrator of man’s whole self-view in relation to the world.”10 Carl Jung reached the same conclusion as a psychologist. His conclusion “that human beings have a built-in religious need grew out of observing actual dreams of his patients.”11 A leading authority on Freud draws all this together by likening faith to the glue that holds communities together; adding ominously that the weakening of this glue in the twentieth century has changed Dostoyevski’s question, “Can civilized men believe?” to “Can unbelieving men be civilized?”12

As that second question is an oblique way of affirming religion’s importance, informed observers (as was noted) have returned to the pre-Enlightenment position of taking it seriously. That, though, does not touch the question of its truth. On balance, intellectuals now believe in religion. Do they believe in God?

Some do and some don’t, of course. What follows is an assessment of the general scene, with special attention to changes that are now occurring.

The New York Review notes that “a revival of theism seems to be taking place among intellectuals.”13 One evidence of this is the founding (in the 1970s) of the Society of Christian Philosophers. In the middle half of our century philosophy was cool (where not hostile) toward religion, whereas in this closing quarter the just-mentioned Society—whose journal, Faith and Philosophy, carries Tertullian’s epigraph, “Faith seeking intelligence”—boasts over a thousand members and is by far the largest subsidiary organization in the American Philosophical Association.

Things like this could not happen if the three-hundred-year tension between science and religion had not begun to ease; for science continues to be what modernity believes in, so new life for the spirit requires its imprimatur. That (unofficial, of course) endorsement is coming through the realization that science is not omnicompetent. Its powers respecting nature and technology are awesome, but its parade of marvels proceeds from a line of inquiry that is powerful and at the same time limited. The usual way to register its limitation is to say that science can’t deal with values and existential meanings, but the more important likelihood is that there are things it cannot connect with—things that are as real as material objects, and that affect us as much if not more, but which scientific instruments don’t register.14

This withdrawal of science to its important but not omnicompetent domain allows religion more intellectual room than the twentieth century accorded it, for religion specializes in the invisibles that science cannot touch. The stage is being set, it seems, for the twenty-first century to accept religion (and its ally, art) as equal partners to science in discerning the full range of reality.

That assessment seems secure, but another prospect is so recent that one cannot foresee its prospects. Is it possible that science, which today is still working on according religion scope and respect, will tomorrow actively endorse it?

Focally this is not possible, for as the preceding footnote indicated, controlled experiments cannot register spirit’s workings. Indirectly, though, there is a way that science could eventually underwrite religion’s claims. If there were not slightly more matter than anti-matter in the universe, the two would cancel each other out and the universe wouldn’t exist. And if the forces of contraction and repulsion were not exactly balanced in the way they are, the universe could not support life. The list of such “coincidences” is so long that Stephen Hawking says flatly that the probability of there being a universe in which life is possible is in the order of absolute zero.

Why, then, in the face of this near-zero probability, does it exist? In a televised interview, the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson answered as every theist would: “Of course there has to be a mind behind it all.”15

It is going to be interesting if the very project that has gotten where it has by excluding final causes—explaining things via their author, or the purposes they serve—finds itself ending by proclaiming them. That would be more than a just and durable peace; it would be the final resolution to the warfare between science and religion that has troubled the modern era. It could also spell hope for the future—not just the future of religion, but the human future. For as Whitehead once observed, the future of civilization depends, more than on anything else, on the way the two most powerful forces of history, science and religion, settle into relationship with each other.

Conclusion. The conclusion that we have reached—that the twenty-first century will be religious; very likely more religious than our own—leaves untouched the question of the form(s) that religion will assume. Will new religions replace the traditional ones? If the great historical religions retain their vitality, will they also retain their separate identities, or will they phase into one another in the way certain Christian denominations are dropping their differences? If a world civilization emerges, will there be a single world religion? And there is the question of whether the evils that have plagued religion in the past can be mitigated—superstition, dogmatism, bigotry, oppression, neuroses, and the like. Now that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud have brought them forcibly to our attention, can we heed the warnings of these secular prophets without ejecting the baby with its bath water?

These questions are already very much with us and will continue into the next century. But they are beyond the scope of this statement.


1 Sigmund Freud, “The Future of an Illusion,” in Vol. 12 of the Pelican Freud Library (Pelican, 1985), p. 212.
2 From a famous passage in Thus Spake Zarathustra in which Nietzche has a madman running through the streets announcing that God is dead.
3 Alaisdaire MacIntyre in (with Paul Ricoeur) The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 5.
4 Ignace Lep, Atheism in Our Time (New York: Macmillan Co., 1963), p. 11.
5 January 9, 1978, p. 18.
6 William Blake, Complete Poetry (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 614.
7 The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902).
8 They can be found in Michael Gazzaniga, The Social Brain: Discovering the Networks of the Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
9 Michael Gazzaniga, The Social Brain: Discovering the Networks of the Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1985), p. 166.
10 Alex Comfort, I and That (New York: Crown Publishers, 1979), pp. 69-70.
11 Mary Ann Mattoon, Understanding Dreams (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1984), p. 97.
12 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 4.
13 Martin Gardner in The New York Review, May 8, 1986, p. 25.
14 It is important to see that science no longer opposes these possibilities. Quantum physics now plays freely with the possibility that not only matter but space and time derive from something that eludes their restrictions. There is also the surprising discovery that at the level of particle physics, power increases rather than decreases with smallness. To produce a million million protons would require a light pulse a million times smaller than one that can produce a million protons. This line of thought leads logically (though no experiment could prove it) to the possibility that if there is something of zero size, its power would be infinite.

It stands to reason, moreover, that if things that are greater than we are–where “greater” refers not to size or brute power but to what is superior to us in value-aspects, such as intelligence–science cannot detect them. This follows from the fact that science’s mode of detection is the controlled experiment, and we can control only what is inferior to us. If there are things that exceed us in every respect– angels? God?– they are not going to fit into our experiments because, as we don’t know what their variables are, there is no possibility of our controlling those variables.
15 “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.” Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

Spirituality in an Age of Science
October 1, 2000
What Christ Means to Me
December 1, 2000
Show all

Religion in the Twenty-First Century