io9 interviewed Michael LaTorra, a zen priest, about religion’s future.
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.
io9: How do you distinguish between being religious and being spiritual? Is it irrational today to still believe in God or other supernatural forces?
LaTorra: 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...