The Emergence of Customized Religion
I had an interesting conversation with a friend today about the future of religion in the Western world, and it sparked these thoughts:
When I was a kid there were four television networks. Then cable TV came along and gave us dozens--and ultimately hundreds--of channels. Then the Internet came and there was viewing on demand. Viewing entertainment became atomized and wildly diverse. Likewise, when I was a kid there were printed newspapers and news magazines. Many are still around but all have diminished greatly now that the Internet has provided us with a plethora of options for obtaining news and information. It used to be that radio stations were the primary source for hearing new music and then you had to go to a record store to buy the recordings (or join the Columbia House Record Club). No you have iTunes and Pandora and Spotify and YouTube, etc. Many other similar examples could be cited, from house shopping to booking travel to getting restaurant recommendations.
What the Internet has given us is disintermediation. The middle-men and gatekeepers and authorities are less and less necessary. They might continue to be around (we still have realtors and travel agents, despite Redfin and Expedia) but they're no longer required, and so their influence is greatly diminished and competition among them for the scraps is fierce.
I think the same goes for religion. It used to be that people tended to remain in the faith of the culture they were born and raised in. Access to travel began to change that, as people were exposed to other options. But now one can easily discover a world of religious ideas and even within a particular religion a multitude of different viewpoints.
One might end up liking and incorporating elements from diverse religious sources. For example, I've been very intrigued by the "secular Buddhism" movement, which has undertaken the excision of speculative and supernatural elements from Buddhism (such as reincarnation, karmic reward/punishment in the next life, supernatural abilities, demigods and demons, etc.) that are not intrinsic to the original core teachings of the Buddha (impermanence, dependent causation, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, etc.). When those core teachings are uncoupled from the supernatural mumbo-jumbo which (oftentimes) developed at a later date, what remains is a cogent and concise philosophical system and way of life that offers practical results. The "secular Buddhist" movement is akin to movements in Christianity such as the Jesus Seminar and some elements of Progressive Christianity. Similar endeavors have occurred in Judaism and Islam (and, I assume, also in Hinduism, though I'm not sure). The goal is getting to what is intrinsic, practical, applicable and verifiable while eschewing that which is speculative, unverifiable and other-worldly.
It seems that when this is done one of the byproducts is that a greater degree of compatibility and even complementarity between different faiths emerges. I suppose Unitarians and Quakers have been ahead of the curve in this regard.
So, I think in the future we will see many more options in religion and many of those options will be "mix and matchable," customizable, boutique. Hyphenated affiliations will become more common: Buddhist-Christian, Islamic-Hindu, Sufi-Jew, Wiccan-Catholic, etc. (and why stop at blending two?). Stalwart keepers of the old guard will lament the loss of religious exclusivity, and there will always be purists. They will decry the syncretism and consumerism (sometimes rightly so, sometimes wrongly so). But, I believe, this trend--which is already emerging--will become more and more prevalent. Religious monocultures will surrender space to synergistic polycultures. People will take an active and intentional role in crafting their religion. Ongoing evolution of one's faith will be assumed. A world of resources will be readily available to everyone, to enable them to form and practice their own systems of belief and practice. People will tolerate, maybe even appreciate, one another's faith mosaics.
Is this a good thing? Probably in some ways yes and in some ways no. Is this a bad thing? Probably in some ways yes and in some ways no. But I think it is what it is as an emerging trend.