Listening to a podcast the other day spurred me to ask what the future holds for religion in a quickly-changing world. Futurist Raymond Kurzweil, who has a history of accurate predictions regarding artificial intelligence, sees robots becoming as intelligent as humans by the year 2029. Kurzweil, an incredibly prolific inventor and writer, holds that because technological change is exponential rather than linear, the world will see drastic technological breakthroughs in the coming decades that will increase lifespan, spawn robots capable of feeling, and have nanotechnology swimming in our bloodstream. All of this will eventually lead to a singularity, or the time at which humans cannot keep up with the advancements in technology. Imagine the replicants in Blade Runner, and you get a pretty good idea.
Which naturally made me wonder what the role of religion will be in such a new world. The vision in Blade Runner or Minority Report seems to be largely if not completely secular. People of faith, such as the "mystics" Ayn Rand portends in Atlas Shrugs, seem to be apocalyptic lunatics, caricatures who have only ever read the book of Revelation. But I don't think that will be the case in full. With every change comes reactions, and certainly the popularity of the dreadful Left Behind series is proof that changes in the world (even mere millennia) spark absurd reactions of fear. But ultimately, the apocalyptic fear monger is the exterior vision of the way technology may drive people to real faith. Technology, like a good photograph, is always full of promise and potential, but rarely cashes in. Technology, for many, brings with it a great amount of hope that our lives will be improved, diseases cured. Some dream of a techno-utopia.
But technology will be just as flawed as any other human effort. With every benefit comes a trade-off. You get to live longer? Great, but don't expect to be able to retire before you're 80 to pay for it. No more cancer? A plague is probably just around the corner; they always are, and they're always ahead of our medicine. More information at your fingertips? It's at everyone else's too, so the world just got infinitely more competitive. When technology fails, we will either continue to grasp for new hopes, or will revert to that which is real hope. That is not to say technology is a bad thing, or that I fear it. It's coming whether I like it or not. But its possibilities are limited, not infinite, and it definitely won't allow us to live forever.
What has the impact of technology already been on religion? I can't help but think that there is some link between the rise in fundamentalism over the last 20 years with the rise of technology. For example, the Internet has both allowed jihadists to propagate their message, but it may have also struck a great sense of fear among them. It was one thing when the West was relegated to nations thousands of miles away. But the Internet has erased borders and boundaries. The Internet has allowed the West to "infest" every corner of the world with its ideologies, commerce, and (gasp!) religion. It has gotten harder and harder to remain isolated, so it makes perfect sense that some who wish to remain so are fighting back.
We should remind ourselves that while America creates and devours knowledge at unprecedented rates, there is a real fear of information among many about what changes may come. We should have known that the information revolution would spark just that: a revolution. Surely we should have been able to guess that not everyone is in favor of knowledge. Some groups want to stay in the dark, and they desperately want others to stay there with them, at any cost.
So will it only get worse? Certainly the current wars will have to play themselves out. If democracy is possible in the Middle East, eventually the people there will adapt to technology, though it will take a very long time. I am optimistic that they will. But at a slower and steadier rate, I can't help but think that massive changes in the world around us will always draw people to faith. I'm not crazy about that evangelism strategy, mind you. But when I parallel the imagery of robots curing disease in our body, with say communion bread and wine, the older medicine seems like it may be a bit more appealing.
There is an aesthetic reason for this as well. It seems like the world of technological advancement is a sterile one, one where human interaction is limited. The blogosphere is even heralded by some as a replacement community to local communities. I don't see it. Technology enhances are life, it doesn't change the needs of people. We will always crave real relationships, real truth, and religion offers this in ways technology can't. I'll certainly be interested to see the way technology, not just the Internet and vaccines, but serious new technologies change the role of religion in society.