The multiplying tensions of religion(s) and the future

Just a quick observation on religious futurism(s).

With religions, we might term revelatory knowledge, which is deemed to be eternal, of divine or suprahuman provenance and therefore unchangeable wisdom. With the scientific method, we have a progressive, though unending, search for fundamental reality, generated via the attempts to disprove hypotheses empirically.

There is clearly a potential if not actual tension between the two, and we’ve seen this in the centuries since the Enlightenment period when the scientific method first came to the fore.

What happens when we add the temporal factor of futurism to the mix? Do we add tensions or multiply them? How do they manifest?

It’s going to be different for every religion, predicated on the nature of each faith’s own sense of revelatory knowledge of course. Some will be more malleable than others, and some more malleable on certain topics than others.

It’s also dependent on two other aspects which are perhaps less immediately obvious. The first of these is the future vision embedded within a particular religion. If a faith has a designated end point, in terms of apocalypse, apotheosis or otherwise, then obviously any world view based on that faith assumes that the world is moving inexorably towards that position, perhaps at varying speed, perhaps with occasional setbacks, but overall, invariably towards a set destination point.

The second aspect which may not be so obvious is a particular religion’s comfort zone in terms of adapting to scientific developments. A more fundamentalist faith is going to struggle with this more than a less rigid one, for example. In this sense, some religions may be somewhat surprising.

Catholicism is often perceived, from outside at least, as antipathetic to science due to anti-scientist positions it occasionally assumed during the Inquisition period. Nevertheless, Catholic clerics have played significant roles in the development of a number of scientific breakthroughs – genetics to name but one – and the Vatican observatory today is one of the leading institutions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In short, Catholicism has a strong sense of futurism even if elements of its dogma are not especially malleable or open to debate.

Islam likewise has been a strong supporter and fellow traveller of science at various geographic and historical points, and has no issue with futurist concepts such as alien intelligence, or space travel.

By contrast, Buddhism, which is often understood at least by non-practitioners as one of the more rational, or less revelatory, forms of faith, has a number of points where it finds scientific rationality tricky to engage with. There are reams of books attempting to square this particular circle, some of them inspired by or even co-authored by the Dalai Lama, who is well aware of just how hidebound his own particular variant of Buddhism is.

What is the disconnect here? The answer of course is adherence to the notion of a godhead. The Abrahamic monotheisms are unapologetically attached to the concept of a creator deity. It’s their core belief. Buddhism on the other hand manifests very differently. Some forms, inspired by Hinduism, have many supernatural beings in their pantheon. Tibetan Buddhisms in particular are prone to this. Others, and one thinks of some of the more austere Theravadan forms, do not espouse gods of any kind or form.

Because of the existence of the latter, Buddhism MAY not require belief in a godhead, and therefore it has tended to be perceived by atheists who practice science (or who practice futurism, in the form of science fiction or otherwise) as potentially more acceptable. The reality on the ground and across the entirety of the belief complex, is not as clearcut of course.

As always, I do not have any simple answers here, especially as answers would require the power of prophecy. It is unknowable how religions will develop in the future alongside further scientific insights and discoveries, because it depends on the nature of the discoveries, how they relate to existing revelatory dogma in various faith forms, and how faiths respond to apparent contradictions.

But it does seem to me that the simple tension between revelatory knowledge and empirically tested knowledge leads to a much more complex relationship when we try to project any of this into the future.

And based on the study I have personally done on Anglophone SF and its relationship with Catholicism, and now Buddhism, it seems to me that the futurists are to date struggling to encompass the complexities of that potential relationship.

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