Martin Luther, Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann

A Religious Evolution Is at Hand

What to expect, why it matters

“I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience, so help me God. Amen.”—Martin Luther

I recently had a piece in the Salt Lake Tribune about Martin Luther’s work and today’s evolving religious landscape.

The idea is that just as the printing press helped launch the Protestant reformation, a new technology is causing religion to evolve once again.

We see this in the way the internet enables people to easily discover uncomfortable facts about their religion. We also see it in the way previously marginalized voices—including women, people of color, and the LGTB community—have a more equal chance to be heard online. Because of this, religious adherents are increasingly noticing flaws with traditional religion and changing their beliefs.

A new technology, a new evolution.

The effects of this evolution are reflected in data from the General Social Survey, which predicts that by 2035 more than a third of Americans will claim no religion as their own.

This is likely a troubling prospect to some believers, especially those who benefit from the religious communities they were raised in. Perhaps there are even some nonbelievers who worry about the prospect of a society without religion.

What will the future bring?

There’s no way to know for sure, but there are patterns from the past that may indicate what’s to come. The more we understand these patterns, the better prepared we can be—and the more we can deliberately shape a future we want.

To this end, I’ve compile a few observations below about how religious evolutions seem to work, starting with the root of religion: Spirituality.

1. Religious evolutions start with a focus on inner spirituality.

Almost without exception, religious evolutions begin when a leader focuses on inner spirituality instead of exterior authority. Buddha taught that enlightenment is within reach without the help of Brahmin priests. Jesus preached the good news that the Kingdom of God is within you, irrespective of Pharisaical authority. Martin Luther claimed that it’s by grace and the Word of God that you are saved—not by Catholic priests.

We’re in the middle of this shift again where the masses increasingly value inner forms of spirituality. This is partly why we’ve see an explosion of books about mindfulness in the past two decades, as shown by Google below.

To me, this sudden interest in mindfulness is evidence that people once again long for spirituality without the baggage of rigid hierarchy or dogma.

The ground is ripe for an evolution.

2. Evolution leads to social tension.

Because a focus on inner spirituality often contradicts exterior authority, religious evolutions always lead to social tension.

Take the Protestant reformation, for instance, where hundreds of unorthodox practitioners were slaughtered and millions of soldiers and civilians died in religiously inspired wars.

We thankfully aren’t as prone to burn so-called heretics at the stake today, but we often still struggle to understand one another. We’ve all heard stories of people wrestling to keep relationships alive as their beliefs evolve, and we can be fairly certain that these stories will amplify in the years to come.

3. Evolution (likely) leads to a better life.

And yet there’s reason to hope we’ll survive this social tension and end up better for it. After all, the Protestant reformation paved the way for the age of enlightenment, a time of flourishing in science, mathematics, and exploration.

We see hints of similar positive changes happening today. For instance, the sociologist Phil Zuckerman has mapped metrics of wellbeing to a society’s level of religiosity, and he’s found that countries that have shifted toward religious unaffiliation (such as Norway, Germany, Switzerland, etc.) tend to rank higher in terms of wellbeing. Specifically, he shows that these countries tend to have lower rates of aggravated assault, lower murder rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, less sexually transmitted disease, higher quality healthcare, higher literacy rates, and more.

Zuckerman also shows that the same results are true for states in the US. That is, less religious states (such as Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island) tend to have better wellbeing than more religious states (such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia).

Other studies suggest that this increased well-being is only true where religious disaffiliation is dominant. By contrast, in areas where religious belief is dominant, the religious tend to have better well-being than the irreligious, likely indicating that well-being is heavily tied to belonging to a community.

For me, the primary takeaway here is that the worries of religious adherents—that the world is about to go to pieces because of this evolution—are likely misplaced. It seems that religious evolutions might very well lead to a better life, as seen in the aftermath of the Protestant reformation and as seen in the fact that humanity is quickly eliminating extreme poverty, improving literacy, expanding democracy, and much more—even as the current religious evolution is at hand.

4. Religion is here to stay.

Even though there’s a clear trend toward religious disaffiliation, religion won’t go away entirely. To the contrary, this era of rapid religious disaffiliation is likely a sign we’re in a transitionary phase, a phase where traditional religions will evolve and grow alongside a variety of new communities, new structures, and new belief systems.

This is similar to what happened in the Protestant reformation, where new religions pushed Catholicism to evolve.

In the same way, today’s religions will take on new forms.

On the surface, many of these new forms might seem like the old guard and might even be called by the same names (Baptist, Hindu, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, etc.). However, their essence will be quite different. My guess is they’ll be similar to the religion that Martin Luther King Jr. embodied — a religion that holds unorthodox scriptural views and fights on behalf of the marginalized. This is the direction most major religions have quietly trended over the centuries, and this is the direction they’ll continue to trend.

In addition, many entirely new forms of religion (or religious-like communities) will spring up. To a degree, I see this happening in secular communities such as the Council for Secular Humanism. However, I don’t believe these secular communities will have staying power unless they attempt to address life’s biggest questions and celebrate the world’s greatest wonders and mysteries like religions do.

After all, people belong to religion not just to be part of a social gathering, but also to hold grand vision and purpose together. Because of this, I believe that the most effective secular communities will find ways to integrate the best aspects of the world’s wisdom traditions and take bold positions on big topics such as the meaning of life. (More on that in a later post.)

5. New mythologies will emerge and old mythologies will adapt.

The writer Joseph Campbell ascribed a positive connotation to mythology, saying that they served a sociological function to hold cultures together. He added that “myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

In this sense, mythologies are essential for cultural progress.

Campbell believed that a new mythology would emerge to match the needs of contemporary society. “The new mythology to come must be a global mythology,” he said. He added, “It’s got to solve the problem of the in-group by showing that there’s no out-group.”

He went on to say that the new global mythology must contain “not only a synthesis of oriental and occidental ideas, but also a new creative universal outlook that will transcend both.”

In short, the new mythology should:

  1. Hold a global perspective
  2. Embrace ideas from the East and the West while transcending them both

This mirrors a running theme from the author Ken Wilber, who has been writing on this topic for decades and recently wrote a book called The Religion of Tomorrow. For Wilber, religion will evolve to “transcend and include” the traditions that came before it and become more expansive in the process.

“The new mythology to come must be a global mythology. It’s got to solve the problem of the in-group by showing that there’s no out-group.”—Joseph Campbell

Traditional religions will increasingly come to integrate the whole of humanity into their mythology as well. In a fully global era, it won’t work to believe that a tiny slice of believers will go to heaven while rest of the planet will be cast to hell for not growing up in an area where one specific religion is dominant. Outdated myths like that must evolve and include more and more of the billions of people on earth.

Conclusion: We Should Hope for the Best (as We Work Towards It)

Time will tell how religion evolves.

What we can be certain of, as we look at the past, is that it will evolve.

We see it over and over again. Just look at the chart below to see how often it has happened over the centuries (click here to zoom in).

A single view of all the world’s religions. Click here to see a version you can expand. Can you find your religion (or former religion) on the chart?

Each new branch in the image above is the result of a religious evolution. Buddhism evolved from Hinduism, Christianity evolved from Judaism, Islam evolved from both Christianity and Judaism, and so on. In addition, each of the older religions continue to evolve as well (even if the evolution seems to move at a glacial pace), creating a mix of traditional religions and new communities that are more cognizant and inclusive of the world at large.

This trend is not about to end.

Above all, I’d like to see traditional religion and new communities evolve together in healthy, productive ways as people do their best to follow their conscience. I believe that we will see this, as we deliberately work toward a more expansive worldview.


Thanks for reading! You can click Follow or enter your email below to see future posts about spirituality and—sorry, sometimes I can’t help myself—about politics.