Love it or hate it, the world's religions are in no danger of disappearing any time soon. But that doesn't mean religious and spiritual sensibilities aren't going to evolve. To learn more about religion's future, we talked to Michael LaTorra. By day, he's a mild-mannered Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico State University, and by night he's a black-garbed Zen priest at the Zen Center of Las Cruces.
He is also the author of A Warrior Blends with Life: A Modern Tao, a book about spirituality in modern life.
io9: Before we look ahead, can you tell us how religion has changed in the past 150 years?
LaTorra: The old ways are dying. The largest world religions, Christianity and Islam, continue to grow in membership. But internally, they are riven with factionalism. People may become members of these religions because they are seeking God or maybe just community fellowship or simply because they were born into families associated with those religions. What some people find, after a while, is that their religion has many dogmatic beliefs and rules for living that sometimes do not fit with what seems like a good life, a fulfilling life. Nevertheless, some people remain affiliated with a religion due to social pressure that would make leaving very difficult. The lesson to draw from this is that people belong to religions for lots of different reasons, and not always because they believe every dogma in it. Often times, people stay in a religion because leaving it would put them at odds with their families and friends.
Yet it is easier today to leave a religion than ever before, especially in Europe and America, Japan and Australia and certain other countries. The big exception here are Muslim countries. Perhaps the only way a Muslim can experience some freedom of religion is to join a Sufi order, where there is much more emphasis on mystical practices and experiencing Divine Love, and less on other aspects of religion. This has made Sufism somewhat suspect among the conventional exoteric branches of Islam, the Sunni and the Shia.
Probably the most important religious development over the decades since the end of World War Two is the encounter of Westerners with Asian religions that teach meditation, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. As more Westerners have taken up the practice of meditation, scientists have become interested in measuring the effects of meditation on the brain and the body. More and more studies have converged on the conclusion that meditation physically changes the brain. Some doctors have been recommending meditation to their patients. The current wave of interest in mindfulness meditation is evidence of this.
How do you distinguish between being religious and being spiritual? Is it irrational today to still believe in God or other supernatural forces?
According to recent surveys, approximately 20% of Americans declare themselves to be spiritual but not religious. There is more than one way to interpret the meaning of this, of course, and my perspective is only one among many. I interpret this on different levels. First, I would define being religious as being associated with an established religious institution. Being spiritual, on the other hand, is a more nebulous term. It might mean feeling drawn to, or associated with, something numinous without any necessity to be a member of a group. On a second and deeper level, I distinguish between types of religion (and this would also entail spirituality) as being either exoteric or esoteric. The exoteric is the outer or conventional level. Exoteric religion is all about beliefs, doctrines, ceremonies, and institutions. The deeper, often hidden esoteric level is all about practices that transform the practitioner. The esoteric also includes the community of those who engage these practices, and the guiding teacher who instructs and initiates these practitioners. All of the major ancient religions began as small esoteric groups, or what some people today might disparagingly refer to as "cults." The running joke has been that the difference between a cult and a religion is about 100 years.
In very practical terms, we could say that the difference between an exoteric religion and an esoteric spiritual group (or religion) is that the exoteric religion focuses on believing certain things and behaving in approved ways, while the esoteric religion or group focuses on engaging certain transformative practices, such as meditation for example. Belief versus practice is the dividing line then.
Many religious believers will argue for the importance of believing in God. They will also assert that God has instructed humanity to behave in certain ways, and not in others. In addition, they may claim that it is their duty to persuade or even coerce others into following those instructions.
Esoteric spiritual practitioners would say that what you believe is much less important than what you do. Especially what you do with your attention. Meditation and certain other practices engage both the body and the mind. When people practice these disciplines of attention correctly (which anyone can learn to do with some instruction) they will have all sorts of effects, including greater mental clarity, less emotional reactivity, more relaxation, and so forth. And that's just the beginning. If you go deeper, you may experience extraordinary states of consciousness, and plumb greater depths of your psyche. That can be scary territory. But if you do this under the guidance of a teacher who knows that territory, the practice results in positive transformations.
So, to answer the last part of your question: belief is always irrational. Believing in God is not rational. However, spiritual practices that open a person into a feeling of Divine Presence are neither rational nor irrational, just as it is neither rational nor irrational to fall in love. It's not a matter of belief then, but of personal experience and tacit understanding. As the Sufis say "He who tastes, knows."
Psychologist Nigel Barber predicts that the world will eventually become predominantly secular — and many see this as a good thing. Do you think he's right? And do you agree that we'd be better off in a world free from religion?
Religions, especially the hide-bound religions that fight for supremacy at terrible cost in human lives and suffering, are clearly negative influences. However, they show no signs of disappearing as of yet. On the other hand, the increasing numbers of those who list "none" as their religious preference on surveys, as well as the partially overlapping category of those who consider themselves to be "spiritual but not religious", comprise the strongest evidence for a waning influence of the old, exoteric religions in many advanced industrial countries.
The popularity in some quarters of the so-called New Atheists—Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens—comprises the strongest evidence for rising secularism. I should point out, however, that one of those atheists, Sam Harris, practices meditation, has had good things to say about the spiritual philosophy of non-dualism, and has written approvingly of the work of paranormal researcher Dean Radin. So even some atheists hold beliefs more commonly associated with people who identify themselves as being spiritual if not necessarily religious.
I think and I hope that we will see a lessening of religious stridency. The three world religions that originated in the Middle East, the so-called Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have been drawing blood for many centuries, and it's only gotten worse in recent years. This has got to stop. The notion that all of these religions are praying to the same God, and yet this same God told each of these religions separately that it is supposed to rule the world, is dangerous nonsense. It is a prescription for disaster.
Which of the world's religions, if any, are best positioned for the future?
It's hard to say how today's major religions will fare in the future. That really depends on how well they adapt to the real needs of human beings. The history of religion is replete mutual borrowings, the deemphasizing of some older ideas and the introduction of new once, and so forth. Of course, the religious hierarchies downplay all this. They like to claim that they have only made minor adjustments, but never changed the religion at its core. This is simply not so.
In the case of Christianity, for example, all that we knew of the diversity of beliefs among early Christian groups in the first two centuries after the death of Jesus came from the writings of the group that won out over all others and became the single Christian Church (before the split between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). The losers were the Gnostics who were condemned by the hierarchy of the Church. There were no extant Gnostic texts to give their side of things. Then, quite unexpectedly, a cache of Gnostic texts was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Suddenly, the voice of Gnosticism was heard unfiltered. The party line of conventional, dominant Christianity now had a counterpart in the form of texts that portrayed Jesus and his teaching in a different light.
The ancient roots of the major religions of today are quite different from what the large, bureaucratic religious institutions represent now. Scholars of archeology and ancient texts know this, but for the most part the public does not.
In my view, the worst off religions as this century unfolds will be those that preach exclusiveness, hell-fire and damnation. There is a clientele for such doctrines, of course, based on the individual psychological orientation of adult members. People tend to seek out religions that agree with their own predispositions. Some people want to hear hateful doctrines proclaimed from the pulpit. But their number is small. Most people prefer love over hate, and happiness over hellishness. So I think the future prospects for religions that preach against same-sex marriage, for instance, is dim.
Most people are not looking for a religion that asks much of them. They want comforting beliefs within a community of people who will behave nicely towards one another. Few people are interested in undertaking serious spiritual disciplines such as meditation and self-enquiry. That's why most people prefer an exoteric religion over an esoteric spiritual practice. This will probably remain the case for a long time to come. Nevertheless, an increasing number of people are seeking out esoteric spiritual teachings, teachers, and communities. Even though they represent only a small percentage of the total population, their influence on the global development of humanity will be disproportionately large over the long run.
You're a practicing Zen priest. At the same time, you're a firm believer in the efficacy of rationality and scientific empiricism. How do you reconcile these two belief systems, and how do they play-off each other?
Science is an excellent tool. It's well-suited to discovering how nature functions, in terms of physics, chemistry, biology and so forth. I am in favor of taking science as far as it can go in those terms. As a philosophy for living, however, science is bereft. It has no answers for questions such as "What is a good life?" The dogmatic belief that science is the only path to any and all kinds of knowledge has been called "scientism." There's a world of difference between science and scientism. Science is a fine tool, but scientism is a cruel master; it disparages the life of feeling and persecutes those who would enjoy the numinous, unspeakable side of reality.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all." I would agree.
At the same time, I am very excited by scientific research into the neurological correlates of meditation and mystical experience. Functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) machines are revealing which parts of the brain are affected by meditation. Studies are showing permanent changes in the brains of long-term meditation practitioners. This research is still in its infancy. So we can expect to learn a lot more about this in years to come.
What do you think religion and spirituality will be like in, say, 50 to 100 years?
We may be quite surprised by future religion. I think it will be somewhat different in 50 years, even more different in 100 years, and extremely different in, say, 300 years. What will make religion so different is the combined effect of two very different driving forces. One force is the rapid development of science and technology that will give us greater understanding of, and control over, the human organism and has the potential to also provide us with a more abundant yet less stressful life. The other force is the rediscovery, or renewal, of the most ancient spiritual practices that existed as the root source of all great religions.
Future science might show us how biological life arises and how it can be created anew. We will develop technology that enables us to create synthetic life-forms. Science may show that we live in a multiverse, or a universe of universes, with an unfathomably huge number of inhabited worlds in each one. We might discover that conscious minds with a level of intelligence equal to or greater than ours can exist in many different forms, including artificial ones we create ourselves, in computers and robots. We may also develop ways to merge our minds with these machines, thus becoming cyborgs. Or we may transfer our conscious intelligence into these devices as new substrates for living. Every one of these developments would create major challenges for the old-time exoteric religions, in terms of their cosmologies or their moralities.
Esoteric religions would have a much easier time dealing with all of these. The esoteric religions, or spiritual paths, are rooted in an ancient worldview that always included many worlds, and featured many forms of conscious life existing in them. The transfer of consciousness between different forms of embodiment is a core teaching of all esoteric spirituality.
But there's also the possibility that things could get grim in the future. Could catastrophic and existential risks affect religious sensibilities?
The question of existential risks, including climate change, is of much more immediate concern. The entire earth-world is in crisis. We have literally been destroying our own home through pollution, overpopulation, and other depredations. There is no "silver bullet" technology that can undo the damage we have done and continue to do. Humankind must change its ways of living. We consume too much, and we waste too much. We treat non-human life forms as if they exist solely for our use, not as fellow inhabitants of this planet who have as much right to live here as we do. Our abuse of the earth cannot go on much longer without severe consequences for our own continued existence.
I believe we can change in time, though. We already have the technology necessary to live ordinary, pleasurable lives of comfort and security, if we simply have the will to change the current systems by which we run human affairs. As the saying goes, there is enough to go around for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed. We must tilt away from the competitiveness and mindless consumption patterns that characterize our current economic paradigm toward a more cooperative social and economic order. Market forces should not be the only factors determining how we live. We need cooperative human community, where relationships can be enjoyed on the human-scale, in face-to-face living circumstance. This is how we lived during more than 90% of our evolutionary history. Intimate community is required to keep us sane. Moreover, living in such communities forms an integral part of real spiritual practice.
What I am describing here is a combination of the past and the future. Call it our ancient future, where high technology and ancient forms of spiritual practice in community are combined. The other essential component of esoteric spiritual practice in addition to having a community of practitioners is to have a highly spiritually evolved Teacher. Modern people do not like this requirement. They want to do it all themselves, as individual egos striving to achieve some overwhelming victory. The ego cannot achieve any such victory, because the ego itself is the problem. That's why spiritual practitioners need to be in a community of practitioners in relationship with a Teacher of some real degree of Awakening. Such a Teacher can show people to themselves and point the way out of the dilemma that ego creates for itself.
Can we use human enhancement technologies to work in conjunction with our spiritual beliefs and goals?
We can use technologies to help in some ways. Technologies that scan brain and body can reveal the neurological and physiological correlates of the blissful states. These states exist in a complex hierarchy that was mapped centuries ago by masters of meditation. I imagine that we might develop technologies one day that can also induce these states. But bliss is not the same as self-understanding, transformation, and Awakening. The latter achievements require active participation by the individual consciousness. Blissful states might be induced electromagnetically in a manner similar to how euphoric states are produced by drugs. Self-understanding cannot be induced that way, however. Awakened consciousness demands conscious participation.
There are more basic aspects of the life of spiritual practice having to do with maintaining a healthy body in a benign living circumstance that would definitely benefit from technological assistance. The human species is subject to numerous diseases that either stem directly from genetic causes or are made more likely due to genetic predispositions. Once we know exactly how these genetic diseases arise, and how to edit our DNA to fix disease genes, then I think we are morally obliged to do so.
Automation that can reduce the amount of human labor needed to sustain a comfortable lifestyle would also be a boon. Right now we are suffering from a rising unemployment due to automation and this trend seems likely to accelerate. We need to change our political and economic system so that some of the profits produced by automation are given over to the population as a whole in the form of a Basic Income Guarantee. That would put a floor of economic safety under everyone's feet.
Brain and body implants might also be used to enhance our lives. I do not believe these are necessary for spiritual practice at all, and they might even prove detrimental if wrongly used. So, again, we need to move carefully down this path. But it might prove valuable to develop bio-technological hybrids, otherwise known as cyborgs, so that we and our advancing computer technology never diverge too far from an evolutionary path of common interests.
In the long run, our spiritual destiny lies beyond Man and beyond the Earth. Technology and spirituality will merge when we move out into the solar system and beyond. From the perspective of our far future descendents, whose bodily forms and modes of consciousness would be inconceivable to us today, our emergence into the cosmos will mark the beginning of the longest span of human history.