Discussion: Spirituality and Futurism

Light (image by seyed mostafa zamani, Flickr, CC)A new monthly piece on Future Conscience which sets up a topic for discussion for all of those who read the site.  This particular post also has a secondary motive, in that I am strongly influenced by my personal spirituality (I’ve even written a parable on this very site!) and it infuses everything that I write with a certain direction and sensibility.

Because of this, I want to start writing some posts which explore spirituality with a bit more depth.  I thought it would be prudent to ask whether you, the readers, would appreciate such an approach every now and then or whether you like your futurism to deal more with hard science; technological progress; and secular ethics.

So, today’s discussion surrounds the role of spirituality in futurist dialogue.  Is there enough of it?  Would you like to see more of it? To what degree should metaphysical ideology shape our view of the future and the direction we are heading in?

Obviously, such paradigms greatly influence the moral and ethical foundations of any discussion – and futurism is no different in this regard – and so I would like to hear just where you think the line should be drawn.  Is futurism a discipline that should try to overcome subjective interpretations of spirituality and religious ideology in favour of universal secularism; or should it embrace them wholeheartedly in their variety and expression?

Whilst writing for this site over the past eighteen months, I have examined and regularly read many futurist blogs and am often personally disheartened to see that the futurist ‘market’ seems to have unconsciously moved itself away from discussions of spirituality.   Unless, of course, it is seen through the lens of the political ramifications of religion and its impact on nationality and foreign policy.

This partly comes from the subject matter involved in the field of futurism: which tends to surround ideas of technology and scientific progress.  It also somewhat evolves from the view that in all scientifically empirical disciplines there is more of a tendency to adapt a kind of atheistic – or at least, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – mentality.  Modern science feels that it can say quite a lot about religion and spirituality in the form of neurology and social anthropology; but it often doesn’t seem to be able to handle the lens being turned back onto it by paradigms that can hold different conceptions of ‘truth’.

Since Future Conscience is a personal blog, I feel it is okay for me to start adding posts that explore the spiritual motivations (or lack thereof) behind certain technological and social progressions.  Indeed, I have been doing this all along.  For me, to ignore the spiritual component of existence in favour of a purely utilitarian or ego-centric perspective is to walk down a path that inevitably ends in hardship for a great number of individuals.  This mentality can be seen through every post that has been written for this blog; but I am currently considering making it more explicit and surface-level.

I strongly disagree, for instance, with a large number of social commentators who believe that organised religion is facing some kind of death knell at the hands of rational progress and ‘lucidity’ – washing away the silly superstitions and cocked-eyed vision of the more faith oriented.

Instead, I see only a rapid resurgence in those seeking to find meaning in religion – and, more particularly, personal spiritual paradigms – then we have seen in the past few decades.  Unfortunately, many of those seeking such meaning are finding it in the radically fundamentalist evangelical Christian or Islamist movements (to name two predominate ones) because there are very few highly visible alternatives.

Our communication networks are making it far easier to connect with like-minded individuals than ever before, and one outcome of this is the vast amount of dialogue and discussion surrounding spirituality in its many forms.  For some, coming to grips with your own personal relationship with the divine often means having to fight against the social norms that you are surrounded by.  The internet, with its ideological variety, will always offer an alternative viewpoint.

In many instances, this leads one down a path towards the rejection of religion as it is quite easy to see the flaws involved in many organised evangelical or fundamentalist movements around the globe.  Online, these fundamentalist perspectives are easy to discover and often quite domineering and hostile in their approach to those who think differently to them.

Personally, I see such rejection of these extremes as the easy way out – a cop out for the thinker who merely wishes to extrapolate from the negatives seen in fundamentalist religions towards a world-view arguing that humanity would be far better off without religion at all.

Altar & Knave (image by The Wandering Angel, Flickr, CC)However, where the more militant atheist sees a call for rejection of spirituality and religion, I see a challenge to produce a more nuanced and rationally coherent form of metaphysical understanding. Indeed, these forms of spirituality have always been present behind the more dogmatic organised manifestations of religion – but it is time that they begin to find a larger audience and more mainstream recognition.

Science and religion are not merely to be seen as hostile to one another (indeed, it is important to recognise that scientific advancement throughout history often developed out of highly religious viewpoints); they should rather be viewed as counterparts that are exploring different facets of an overwhelming complex universe and our place within it.

There is also a great need to discuss more closely and openly the difference between organised religion and personal spirituality – a distinction that many people feel they understand implicitly but can often also be taken too far in that personal forms of spirituality can often become a collection of un-contextualised thoughts and beliefs strung together merely through convenience rather than a deeper understanding (many aspects of the ‘New Age’ movement spring to mind here).

I would argue strongly and continuously that science and rational empiricism, no matter how hard they may seek to try, will never be able to entirely undermine the position of those who wish to claim a form of ‘faith’ in something beyond empirical reality.  In fact, I would also argue that all viewpoints – regardless of how ludicrously fundamentalist or rationally logical they may be – require a basis of faith.  For every belief and viewpoint is predicated upon basic level assumptions about truth; progress; and the human condition.

I could go on for much longer on this topic (and for those who want to see me do so, don’t worry – it’s coming); but for now I want to leave it a bit more open in the hopes that some readers will contribute to this discussion and we can start something going here that explores all of these topics and many more with particular focus on the futurist discipline.

So, what do you think: does religion and spirituality have a role to play in futurist discussion? Should futurism remain almost solely the bastion of scientific empiricism?  Is there enough recognition in Singularity theory (to take one example amongst many) of the spiritual and ideological assumptions that lie at its very basis?

What do you think of the future of spirituality – will it remain at the centre of what it means to be human, or is it just a way for us to find comfort in the dark?  A way that is no longer needed now that logic and science is beginning to shed so much light?

Is there room for spirituality in futurism?

I look forward to your thoughts on the issue, and don’t worry – Future Conscience isn’t going to turn into some fundamentalist evangelical rant of a blog!

10 Responses to Discussion: Spirituality and Futurism

  1. GLPer says:

    I see two issues here: the role of spirituality as an ideology (or cluster of ideologies) that might inform futurist discourse, and secondly the role of spirituality in the future as a topic for futurist discourse. Firstly, to take the examples of the natural and human sciences (as areas of study), the primary role of secularism is to bypass the competing claims of mutually exclusive religions and talk about a sphere of reality whose existence everyone agrees on, (the mundane world)even if they don't agree about the facts pertaining to that reality. So, for eg. a Muslim and a Buddhist can have an amicable argument about the economic causes of World War 2, or the amount of dark matter in the universe, without getting into more intractable debates about eg. whether God created dark matter or whether people who took human life were punished in their next incarnation. (NB. there is a prophecy in Tibetan Buddhism of a future apocalyptic battle between Buddhists and Muslims – I wonder how this might impact a more explicitly 'Buddhist' futurist discourse!) Now, if religious people could be more pluralistic in their spiritual thinking, amicable debates on these issues might in fact be a greater possibility than at present. They would be interesting, certainly, but I'm not sure how practical they would be. In my own academic writing, which happens to be about historical religious literature, I see a practical purpose in leaving to one side the spiritual claims of such literature in light of my own beliefs, and assuming a limited “empiricist” stance. I know that some people eg. the Discovery Institute, a Christian conservative think-tank, would have us include ideas about God in our scientific literature – most famously in discussion of evolution. I feel, aside from DI's questionable theology (eg. finding evidence of God's handiwork in the evolution of certain bodily organs), their whole approach does not ADD anything of value to the the science. It is not analytically productive in what is, essentially, an empirical/secular/mundane enterprise. This is not to say that separate discussion of some divine order behind the world of material things might not fruitfully take place, but I feel it should be separate. If futurism is some sort of flipside to historicism, then it is more or less a matter for empirical speculation. What do you think?

    As for the second issue, the role of spirituality in the future – I agree that there is a problem with secular interpretations of religion eg. as superstition, as worship of community, as a form of political resistence etc. etc. ad nauseam . . . . clearly these reductions of religion, intentionally or otherwise, do not do justice to the metaphysical depth of religious thinking. Perhaps a useful distinction here is between the observable, empirical expressions of religion – something which sociologists, historians, anthropologists, neurologists etc. might well theorise upon- and the actual truth claims that religions profess – a matter for theologians and other assorted believers to sort out for themselves. I agree also, as you have said, that the various sciences have a certain basis in faith themselves, but this is a roots and branches issue (or do I mean apples and oranges?) The various sciences are like branches of a tree – the result of multiple bifurcations from an original trunk, leading ulitimately back to the soil. Religious claims are not so much based in faith – they ARE faith, or in this case, the roots. To say, for eg., that the theory of natural selection and that of divine creation should be taught “side-by-side” as competing faith claims is a nonsense. (DI calls it “teaching the contraversy”, which I regard as a poor substitute for actual teaching!) Scientific theories may be based on faith claims, but they are not faith claims in themselves.

    I realise I've deviated from futurism somewhat, but hopefully my points still relate to your discussion somehow!

    • RAGordon says:

      These are exactly the kind of topics that I wanted to tease out with my post – and it's a pity that more 'professional' futurists haven't chipped in yet. You've brought a lot of interesting asides to this discussion, and also there's a need for me to somewhat clarify my position as some of the things you said make perfect sense.

      To begin with, I agree with you completely that there are certain disciplines that should remain empirical at their core. History – as you state – is one such discipline that should at least try and find an objective, empirical basis. What I've been lead to as a result of your comment is that there is really at least two forms of 'futurism'.

      The first form is dependent on empirical observation of technological trends – a kind of future history as you allude to. This form of futurism seems to be by far the most dominant at the moment. If you survey what self-professed 'futurists' are linking to or discussing on Twitter (for example), it is at least 90% technology based. They are discussing empirical things, empirically. Fair enough.

      But the second form is where Future Conscience tries to fit in, and that is the more subjective field of 'opportunity futurism' (a term I just made up then). In that we discuss possibilities and opportunities for change, rather than solely make predictions about what change will occur or examine emerging technologies as they do occur. I think it is this second form of futurism that spirituality has a role to play in – simply because it is almost impossible to evaluate different opportunities/possibilities without some form of moral or ethical framework. Moral and ethical frameworks, whether they be of a religious or secular persuasion, are – to me – the domain of human spirituality. I strongly believe in secular spirituality as a part of this conversation, not merely the religious form. I think I just want people to be more aware and explicit about where they are coming from…I'm also a strong proponent of a pluralistic space for conversation and dialogue – which is why I have a strong stance against 'fundamentalism' as opposed to either 'religion' or 'science'.

      I very much like your line 'Scientific theories may be based on faith claims, but they are not faith claims in themselves'. I agree with this statement completely, and think that is a very elegant way of putting it. After-all, it is through the scientific method that we are able to arrive at a great deal of practical and utilitarian outcomes.

      However, what does science have to say about 'progress'? Should it actually have anything to say about what constitutes 'progress'?

  2. GLPer says:

    I see two issues here: the role of spirituality as an ideology (or cluster of ideologies) that might inform futurist discourse, and secondly the role of spirituality in the future as a topic for futurist discourse. Firstly, to take the examples of the natural and human sciences (as areas of study), the primary role of secularism is to bypass the competing claims of mutually exclusive religions and talk about a sphere of reality whose existence everyone agrees on, (the mundane world)even if they don't agree about the facts pertaining to that reality. So, for eg. a Muslim and a Buddhist can have an amicable argument about the economic causes of World War 2, or the amount of dark matter in the universe, without getting into more intractable debates about eg. whether God created dark matter or whether people who took human life were punished in their next incarnation. (NB. there is a prophecy in Tibetan Buddhism of a future apocalyptic battle between Buddhists and Muslims – I wonder how this might impact a more explicitly 'Buddhist' futurist discourse!) Now, if religious people could be more pluralistic in their spiritual thinking, amicable debates on these issues might in fact be a greater possibility than at present. They would be interesting, certainly, but I'm not sure how practical they would be. In my own academic writing, which happens to be about historical religious literature, I see a practical purpose in leaving to one side the spiritual claims of such literature in light of my own beliefs, and assuming a limited “empiricist” stance. I know that some people eg. the Discovery Institute, a Christian conservative think-tank, would have us include ideas about God in our scientific literature – most famously in discussion of evolution. I feel, aside from DI's questionable theology (eg. finding evidence of God's handiwork in the evolution of certain bodily organs), their whole approach does not ADD anything of value to the the science. It is not analytically productive in what is, essentially, an empirical/secular/mundane enterprise. This is not to say that separate discussion of some divine order behind the world of material things might not fruitfully take place, but I feel it should be separate. If futurism is some sort of flipside to historicism, then it is more or less a matter for empirical speculation. What do you think?

    As for the second issue, the role of spirituality in the future – I agree that there is a problem with secular interpretations of religion eg. as superstition, as worship of community, as a form of political resistence etc. etc. ad nauseam . . . . clearly these reductions of religion, intentionally or otherwise, do not do justice to the metaphysical depth of religious thinking. Perhaps a useful distinction here is between the observable, empirical expressions of religion – something which sociologists, historians, anthropologists, neurologists etc. might well theorise upon- and the actual truth claims that religions profess – a matter for theologians and other assorted believers to sort out for themselves. I agree also, as you have said, that the various sciences have a certain basis in faith themselves, but this is a roots and branches issue (or do I mean apples and oranges?) The various sciences are like branches of a tree – the result of multiple bifurcations from an original trunk, leading ulitimately back to the soil. Religious claims are not so much based in faith – they ARE faith, or in this case, the roots. To say, for eg., that the theory of natural selection and that of divine creation should be taught “side-by-side” as competing faith claims is a nonsense. (DI calls it “teaching the contraversy”, which I regard as a poor substitute for actual teaching!) Scientific theories may be based on faith claims, but they are not faith claims in themselves.

    I realise I've deviated from futurism somewhat, but hopefully my points still relate to your discussion somehow!

  3. Etera says:

    Great article, thank you. Your article got me thinking looking for “alternatives” where science progressed significantly alongside with spirituality. I couldn’t help but write this. Japan, an absolutely unique and separate culture with its language where there is no future tense in or a grammar concept of future … there are only 2 grammar forms: perfect and not perfect signifying what has passed and what has not passed or happened (apologies, I am translating my thoughts right now and might have chosen wrong English equivalents).

    Seems that this culture originating in highly seismic regions was built of sensation of fragility and ephemerality of existence (hence their houses made out of oiled paper with room/s always changing by altering the partitioning with removable doors). For Japanese there are matters that happened/passed and are being. Yet their advancement in science and spirituality with Mono no aware (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono_no_aware) at the centre of it I believe could serve as a good example of spirituality in present-futurism or futurism determined by the present.

    • RAGordon says:

      That's a very interesting response. Thank you for sharing that, as I didn't know any of that before. Given that Japan is a society at the very forefront of technological progress and the 'futurist' aesthetic the fact that they are heavily steeped in a kind of national, almost secular, spiritualism (developing out of Shinto) is an important aspect to consider in this discussion.

      I'd definitely like to hear more on this topic from those who are better versed in Japanese culture. Thank you again for posting that, it's certainly given me something to look into!

  4. Etera says:

    Also… the topic to me seems to be present in mainly Christian traditions. Kabbalah and Judaism do not conflict with science and further corporeal development. Nether say – not that it’s relevant to us right now – Egyptian traditions. In fact I believe they were very much interconnected one within each other. I think this conflict of spirituality and futurism you quite rightly brought up is a “common stage” for Christian traditions. Take Galileo…hmmm.. ANY inventor, artist, etc – they were all considered “breaking away from the ways of G-d” in their time. I see the same here: right now science is considered a complete absence of G-d in Western world. Thus to answer your question whether religion and spirituality have a role to play in futuristic discussions, I think they will, it’s just one of those stages. Also if you look at it from another angle: they have to: otherwise there is no “life” and no futurism as a reality.

  5. Yes, it's great idea to add a monthly feature! This is what makes Future Conscience different from all the other futurist blogs. I totally look forward to seeing more direct discussion of spirituality here. You're not attracting the dogmatic types as far as I can see, so no worries about everyone getting all offended. I think most rational people can see that there are things in life that don't lend themselves to empiricism. Like, for example, your excellent question on defining “progress.” Plenty of data (like low infant mortality or measurable water resources for all) can help define it, but there's also a great deal of subjectivity that comes into play when we start talking about what we value and why. In fact, I have trouble imagining how anyone could talk about the future without stirring up spiritual concerns which then must be avoided, denied, or addressed.

    • RAGordon says:

      Thanks Robin, glad you think it's a good idea! Discussion is obviously one of the cornerstones of futurism, as everything within it is merely speculation and projection. It's also good to see a handful of regular readers on here who are commenting, so I think even if it's only half a dozen of us we can have a nice discussion about something once a month :)

      I'm also planning on having another regular once-a-month feature, which will be the predictions. Hopefully then, I'll do a minimum of four posts (roughly one per week) – with the first one of the month being a discussion, then two topical/personal pieces, then ending the month with some futurist predictions. I'm hoping that people will like that basic format, so will try it out for a bit and see how it goes.

  6. connor1231 says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this kind of stuff lately, idk if this blog still gets monitored but I’d love to discuss with you. I’ve always wondered how religion will be viewed in the future. Many people I’ve heard say that in the future we will become super intelligent, or become cyborgs, or “upload” ourselves, but they all agree that we will eventually figure everything out and do away with religion once and for all. But you seem to be saying that even if we figure everything out, you still think there is room for religion or spirituality? I hope there is! Do you think there is merely room for spirituality but no need for it? How Do you see spirituality fitting In with being cyborgs or uploaded, and concepts like that. I ‘d love to discuss…comment if you still monitor this!

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