A History of the Future, part 7.

Belief Systems in the Early 22nd Century

The fate of religion in the 21st century was not what might have been predicted. In Europe and America, which had seemed headed toward creeping atheism, four things happened together, which historically have always been correlated: population movements slowed, as rising transport costs and house/land prices encouraged children to stay with or near their parents and extended families; ‘organised’ occupations involving job stability, unions, and co-operation between well-known colleagues became more prominent, replacing transient and individualist work; birth rates began to increase again; and organised religion became more popular.

In America, religion was largely class-based. Among the (mainly Hispanic) working classes, so-called ‘union Catholicism’, which stressed family values, fraternal solidarity, traditionalism, charity, redistribution, and social justice became dominant. ‘Mainline’ Protestant churches evolved to fill the same niche in the non-Hispanic working class, with religion becoming a proxy for race. Likewise, among the transient lower classes, Catholicism (often excommunicated) and Protestantism evolved to fill similar functions, with charismatic churches stressing miracles and divine intervention, the power of the priest and of faith, and the glories of the afterlife. For the upper classes, Evangelicalism was the preferred religion: conservative, unifying values married to a personal faith that demanded dedication but not public display. The Barons themselves, however, preferred more ritual religions: ‘high’ Catholicism and ‘high Protestantism, of any denomination, to which they donated generously. The Third Estate, meanwhile, largely abandoned traditional religion, but their tight-knit communities were perfect breeding grounds for new faiths, based chiefly on the human potential movement, the environmental movement, and various pseudosciences. These religions penetrated to some degree into the other classes, but usually clandestinely, and they were usually held up for public mockery.

Indeed, they found greater favour outside America than in it. American new religions became deeply rooted in (primarily) Protestant areas of Europe, as a new piety was rediscovered there that their existing religions were unable to meet. In Catholic Europe, however, new religion formed under the umbrella of Catholicism, Old Catholicism, and moderate Anglicanism. This ‘Free Catholicism’, though initially sponsored by the Vatican to renew the faith, grew out of control, and became excommunicated; nonetheless, by the end of the century it had taken over the continent. Free Catholicism, or ‘Oratorism’ or ‘Nerianism’, after the organisation most associated with its birth, harked back to the ideals of the counter-revolution: it sought to bring people back into the flock by increasing the attractiveness of church, demonstrating how it could be relevant to daily life, and not something that was an alternative to modernity. The effort had three prongs: monasteries flourished as refuges from modernity, emphasising the possibilities of lay monasticism and part-time monasticism; in turn the new monks became more visible in the cities as charity workers and bringers of peace; and theologians, in seeking to stress relevance and the sanctification of life, reached eclectically, becoming as likely to quote Marcus Aurelius, Charles Darwin or, particularly, Lao Tse as they were to quote the Bible. Abstruse theological debates were shelved as irrelevant.

Islam was also a major force within Europe, spread by Turkish and Moroccan laborials. However, these immigrant and largely transient populations tended toward atheism and secularism as their old social structures were broken down by the pressures of integration, and European Islam adopted a marked anti-clerical bent. Indeed, by the end of the century, European Muslims were identified more by their sense of shared community, however hypothetical, than by any religious behaviour. In Turkey and Morocco themselves, more devout forms of the faith continued, but even these were strongly moderated by ‘Western’ secular liberalism. Indeed, as Europe moved toward a more authoritarian ideology, it was the Muslim populations that most strongly held to the old liberal-democratic ideals.

However, this liberal Islam was only one strand of the religion. In Muslim areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus, the extremist, reactionary religion that had caused so many troubles at the start of the century refused to die away, becoming a beacon for rebellion against Russian and Chinese dominion; despite their avowed hatred of the West, before long they returned to being funded by American and Canadian intelligence agencies to destabilise their Asian rivals. In North Africa and the Middle East, meanwhile, de facto American rule created resentment. Partly in order to harness this resentment more completely, and partly to secure Chinese funding, Islamic revolutionaries in these areas articulated a faith that focused less on personal morality and more upon social justice. In effect, this movement merged Islam with a form of communism, although they did not officially quote Marx or Mao. For most of the century, the region, with its oil reserves, was too important to be left to such rebels, and so a range of dictators were supported by American troops; but during the Long Winter, as those reserves dried up completely and American coffers ran out, foreign soldiers were withdrawn, and a wave of Islamocommunist regimes arose. Foremost among these was Egypt, whose capital, Cairo, was the largest city anywhere in the Muslim world, and the largest in Africa. Although the new regimes kept their countries independent from one another, nonetheless the heads of the ‘Cairo School’ were unofficially recognised as the supreme instructors of the revolution.

In China, the urban middle classes initially abandoned all forms of religion – all that had been good in religion was now contained in Maoism, which had been shorn of superstition and feudalism. Later in the century, however, when the new populations were settled, a minor but substantial craze began for the ‘mysteries of the West’ – chiefly the new American religions, and also several forms of Christianity: chief among them the new Nerian faith, which was able to combine its own appeal with that of traditional Taoism and Buddhism. This religion, along with charismatic Protestantism, had already become extremely popular among the poorest and most transient classes.

Similarly, the export of Chinese and Western religion to the developing world had immense impact, thanks to the influence of the diaspora of educators. Among the poorer classes, the more charismatic and conservative branches of Christianity continued to dominate, but the new faiths, Maoism, Buddhism, and also atheism, gained important footholds in the educated, ruling classes.


3 thoughts on “A History of the Future, part 7.

  1. Paul says:

    Hey fascinating series this. But I just realised you left out two important faiths, Hinduism and Judaism. Do they just wither away in the face of the religions mentioned here?

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    Good point. I guess I didn’t mention them because they didn’t seem important. Hinduism obviously is important in the Indian context, but as this timeline has India falling apart, its world role is rather small. I suppose it continues to exist as a sort of reservoir of belief important in a local context and from which other people may draw images and ideas.
    Judaism is already extremely unimportant as a religion, only really salient for political reasons. In terms of numbers, it’s smaller than Spiritism, or Juche, or Sikhism, or half a dozen African religions. The current trend is for higher birthrates in Israel and lower in the US (so that iirc Israe recently overtook the US in terms of number of self-identifying jews), but I suspect that over the next century that may change – increasing birthrates in the US (associated with higher levels of manufacturing) and decreasing birthrates in Israel (associated with the fact that Israel is massively dependent on expensive imports, particularly of water, which will make the country far less viable if transport costs increase) may make Judaism once again a primarily American religion. In both places, lower birthrates, higher conversion rates and more intermarriage suggest that the importance of Judaism will dwindle further. In any case, it certainly seems likely that it will become an increasingly orthodox and conservative religion – simply for demographic reasons. Ten years ago, estimates had it that in the US each jewish woman had on average 1.86 children; but among ‘modern orthodox’ families it was 3.3 children, among ‘ultra-orthodox’ families it was 6.6 children, and among Hasidim it was 7.9 children. And historically the more orthodox the family the LESS likely there would be conversion.

    In fact, that’s a problem at the heart of this series. I put forward what might be considered a fairly ‘pro-religion’ timeline, in that I don’t buy the ‘religion is going to die in the next century’ views some militant atheists express. But I worry I may have radically underestimated the importance of traditional religion demographically. Some estimates say that by 2100 between a half and two thirds of the US population will be Mormon, for instance. When hyper-religious communities have birth-rates ten times higher than atheists in the same society, and very little conversion (eg only 5% of Amish children leave their birth-religion, but apparently have between 5 and 7 children per woman compared to 1 or under for atheists – their population doubles every twenty years at the moment), it’s hard to escape the idea of an overwhelmingly religious world in a few centuries.

    However, if there’s a hope I’m pinning this timeline on its on the idea that as well as religion changing birth-rate, birth-rate changes religion. If you have children, you are more likely to become religious, and if you don’t have children you are more likely to stop being religious. It seems as though the religious impulse is particularly sparked by the experiences associated with parenthood – and close relations to others in general. Religiosity, birth-rate, familial and communal living, and agricultural and manufacturing employment are all correlated.

    So I think what we’ll see is a tendency for fringe and reactionary religious groups to gradually take over with their superior birthrates, but gradually become less religious as their increasing size exposes them more fully to economic pressures on society.

  3. nac says:

    Scary. Those stats might turn me into a hegemonic, propaganda-spewing atheist yet, if only to delay the inevitable. 😛

    Huh? What happened to my earlier comment? I said: Awesome, this is exactly like the religious stratification in feudal Japan. …or something like that. Whatever, wasn’t important.

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