Religiosity is not a subject like, say, technology, in the sense that it is not so easy to pinpoint milestones and dates, or translate views into figures and statistics. Moreover, when dealing with a tough subject like spirituality, one would usually define it. However, since this is a short article, the terms “spirituality,” “religiousness,” “religious feeling,” “mysticism,” “religion,” etc. will be used in their broader sense.
I will deal with spirituality in vague terms, referring to the multifarious expressions of the search for meaning of life and death, of the search for all-encompassing explanations in front of the wonder of existence and the universe, of the search for a deeper connection with ourselves, with others and everything that exists, including God (or gods) and life after death.
Sometimes, spirituality refers to a system of ideas that accounts for the totality of existence and justifies a morality. This gives an account of the world, of history, of the human being and the meaning of the human being, of society, of coexisting with others, of good and bad, of what one should and should not do. Sometimes, spirituality searches for answers to questions such as: Who am I? Where am I heading? Why should we practice solidarity toward others? Which cause is worth risking our future for? Why should we struggle against injustice? Simply out of necessity, or for some historical reason, or because of some natural order? Is the old morality still valid and needed? And all this leads to the search for a new image of the world, a new kind of society, of values, of interpersonal relationships, of dialogue between each human being and his or her neighbours, between each human being and his or her soul.
A new type of religiosity has begun to develop in recent decades. This does not only mean that new religions have been born; it means that there is a new way of addressing spirituality, a new sensibility even within the existing religions. But it is also a fact that new expressions of religiosity have appeared and developed. Some of these expressions stem from traditional backgrounds, as reinterpretations or re-assertions of the old. On the other hand, all sorts of daring mixtures between traditional and non-traditional beliefs have given birth to colourful hybrids. All this is typical of the pre-religious stage of civilisations, as history has witnessed many times. That is, the stage that precedes the rise of a new expression of spirituality that will encompass and engulf everything, an integral view that will give a structured shape to a new rising civilisation.
The world is going through a global process of inter-penetration of cultures, which can be called “worldisation” for want of a better term, since “globalisation” is too narrow and biased to encompass the whole phenomenon. Thanks to this process, religions keep on expanding beyond their once-traditional frontiers. They grow everywhere within the space left by the dominant religions. This has been taking place in the five continents thanks to unprecedented large-scale migrations, communications, and by missionary efforts as well. Whether this expansion is intentionally directed by religious hierarchies or not, whether they represent mainstream religion or not, the fact remains that all cultures, where earlier there was a rather monolithic prevalence of one religion, now have to take stock of a growing diversity. Some are coming to terms with such diversity; others still have to.
This goes along with the process of social and cultural de-structuring that accompanies the crisis of change in present-times turning point. In line with it, within every religion, the diversity grows, generating different sensibilities within the same creed. While some entrench themselves in fundamentalism, others come to terms with a multi-religious society and try to build bridges of mutual understanding and co-operation. From the point of view of statistics, though believers do not formally change allegiance, gaps open wide within the folds of every religion.
Alternative or emergent religions, new religious movements, cults, sects, creeds, etc. they all refer to the same growing phenomenon. And there has also been a proportional rise in the study of the same phenomenon, as well as in the organised or unorganised opposition to it. The dimension of this new religiosity grows further when we do not only consider the number of registered followers, but also the millions who – without formally belonging to any religious group – consume books, magazines, videos and internet pages that deal with various forms of religiosity. We may also add those who attend lectures, courses or functions.
Underlying this religiosity is a diffuse background of rebellion. The process of de-structuring I referred to does not only take place in the social, political or cultural fields. People have also started to drift apart and move away from so-far unquestionable dogmas and hierarchies. This alienation happens first within the heart and the minds of average people. Religious tenets no longer organise people’s lives or society. Thus, some religious organisations start resembling empty shells, devoid of actual life, though still standing thanks to the inertia given by many factors other than deeply-felt, full-hearted support from members. Many so-called “leaders” increasingly represent a machinery in which self-preservation, power or money have become the utmost considerations. There is a close correspondence between the gap that is prevalent and perceived in the political field, and that which is taking place in the field of established religions as organisations.
By this, I do not mean that religions have lost their impetus – quite the contrary. As recorded by the mass media everyday, they are not increasingly cut off from power in political, economic, and social decision-making. Besides, none of what has been said earlier about religions can remain standing today, for both supporters of religion and its critics have failed to notice the change that is taking place within the human being. If, in the past, some have thought of religions as soporifics to political or social action, today they oppose them for their powerful influence in those fields. Where others once imagined religions imposing their message, now they find that this message has changed. And those who once believed that religions would last forever doubt their eternal quality today, while those who assumed that religions were soon to disappear are now surprised to witness the eruption of new forms that are manifestly or latently mystical.
Neither has religiosity ceased to stir people’s consciousness all over the world. A new spirituality begins to be expressed in the entire world: it is not the spirituality of superstition, it is not the spirituality of intolerance, it is not the spirituality of dogma, it is not the spirituality of religious violence, it is neither the heavy spirituality of the old charts nor of those worn-out values. It is the spirituality that has woken up out of its deep slumber to nurture human beings again in their best aspirations.
There is a diffuse aspiration for freedom from obsolete dogmas and burdening formalities. There is a diffused longing for a deeper experience of religious faith, a diffused need for actual experience and not just outward observances. In this sense, religions will be of profound interest only when they attempt to point to God rather than to talk about God. And the diffuse background of rebellion that underlies the new religiosity precisely targets whatever runs against all the above spiritual needs.
What is in store for religiosity in the coming years? There are few in this field who can intuit what the future holds, because there are so few concerned with trying to understand in what direction human intentionality, which definitively transcends the individual human being, is heading.
If humanity desires something new to “make itself known,” it is because that which tends to make itself known is already operating deep within the human being. But it is not by claiming to be the representative of some God that the depth of the human being becomes the abode of a transcendent intention.
Rather than advancing predictions in such difficult human matters, I am just offering some possible scenarios. As a consequence of the impact of this new religiosity and, of course, as a consequence of the dizzying changes taking place in all societies, it is possible that at their core the traditional religions may undergo re-accommodations and adaptations of substantial importance.
Contrary to what a well-known German philosopher announced, if God has not died, then religions have responsibilities to humanity that they must fulfil. Today they have a duty to create a new psycho-social atmosphere, to address themselves as teachers to their faithful, and to eradicate all vestiges of fanaticism and fundamentalism. They cannot turn away and remain indifferent to the hunger, ignorance, bad faith, and violence in today’s world. They must contribute vigorously to tolerance and foster dialogue with other beliefs and every person who feels a sense of responsibility for the destiny of humankind. They must open themselves – and I hope this will not be taken as irreverence – to manifestations of the divine in different cultures. This is the challenge they face and the contribution to the common cause expected from them in this exceedingly difficult moment.
It is highly likely that people all over the world will experience further psychosocial shocks in the coming years and that this new type of religiosity I have been referring to will figure as an important factor in this phenomenon. The problem lies in the critical transition between the world we have known until now and the world that is coming. As at the end of any civilisation, and the beginning of another, we will have be alert to possible financial collapse, possible administrative de-structuring and breakdown, possible replacement of nation states by para-states (or even gangs), the possibility of widespread injustice, disheartenment, the diminishing of the human being, the dissolving of bonds between people, loneliness, growing violence, and emergent irrationalism – and all of this in an ever-accelerating, ever more global setting. Indeed, the conditions for the present transition to a new civilisation are extremely challenging. Let us consider how the gap between the post-industrial information societies and the societies of hunger is widening. Let’s consider the growth of marginalisation and poverty even within the wealthy societies, and the yawning generation gap that appears to be bringing to a halt the historical march in which the new surpasses the old. Let’s consider the dangerous concentration of international financial capital, mass terrorism, sudden secessions, ethnic and cultural conflicts, increasing environmental imbalances, and population explosion with megalopolises teetering on the verge of collapse. The ethnic and cultural differences believed to have been overcome in the process of history are once again being revived. The predominance of technology over science, the exclusively analytical vision of the world, and the dictatorship of abstract money over the concrete realities of production – all these are now firmly entrenched. Even without being apocalyptic, we have to agree that the current picture presents many difficulties.
What do people believe in today? Perhaps in new alternatives for life? Or do people simply let themselves be swept along by a current that now seems to them irresistible and completely independent of their intentionality? A new religion bursts onto a human landscape in a particular historical period, and so it is often said that at that moment God “reveals” himself to the human being. But in order for that revelation to be accepted in a given historical moment, something must happen in the consciousness of the human being. That change has generally been interpreted as if “outside” the human being, placing it in the external or social world, and there are certain benefits to be gained in doing so. But something is lost as well – the capacity to understand the religious phenomenon as an internal experience.
“External religions” claim to speak about God and God’s will, instead of speaking about religious sentiment and the innermost experience of the human being. Even the fact of seeking support in externalised worship could be meaningful if through such practices the believers were able to awaken or reveal the presence of the sacred or the divine within themselves. For if it is true that God has died in the heart of religions, as Nietzsche announced, then we can be sure that God will return to life in a new dwelling, as we learn from the history of the origins of every civilisation – and that new dwelling will be in the heart of the human being, far removed from every institution and all power.
The fact that until now religions have been external corresponds to the type of human landscape in which they were born and developed. Nevertheless, the birth of an inner religion is possible, or, in order to survive contemporary religions may convert to an internal religiosity. However, this will only take place to the extent that human consciousness is ready to accept a new revelation. We are now beginning to catch glimpses of this in those societies in which the human landscape is undergoing such drastic change that the need for internal references is becoming a matter of extreme urgency.
As it seems very clear that religiosity is advancing everywhere, one important issue is whether the official, established religions will be able to adapt this psycho-social phenomenon to the new urban landscape, or whether they will be overwhelmed by it.
It may also happen that a diffused religiosity will continue to grow in small, chaotic groups, without constituting a formal organisation (such as a church), and if this is the case it will not be easy to grasp the real magnitude of this phenomenon. Although the comparison is not entirely legitimate, a distant antecedent comes to mind: As Imperial Rome began to lose faith in her official religion, all manner of cults and superstitions began to arrive from every corner of the empire. And one of those insignificant groups eventually became a universal church. Similarly, Buddhism arose unheralded from the outskirts of a rising empire that, during a wide crisis of change in all fields, was superseding the ancient republics.
Today it is clear that if it is to advance, this diffuse religiosity must somehow combine the landscape and the language of our times – a language of computer programming, technology, and space travel –with a new social Gospel.
To conclude, I must reaffirm that a new civilisation is being born – the first planetary civilisation of human history. This will certainly be accompanied by a new expression of religiosity. And, therefore, those crises that happen and will still happen in a next future will serve, notwithstanding their distress, to overcome this last stage of the human prehistory and enter a truly human history. And, in this scenario, each one of us will see whether to take the decision to accompany this change or not, and each one of us will see whether to look or not for a deep renovation in our own lives.