Sunday, August 1, 2010


[Advance text of lecture to be given on April 23, 2009 in Chittagong at the request of Professor Muin-ud-din Ahmad Khan]

Predicting the future—an impossible task but heuristically
interesting exercise

The last thing that any responsible historian should do is set himself up as a predictor of the future of so protean a phenomenon as the religious life of humankind for an entire century along the zigzag road of human history. So what am I to do when asked to do just that by a respectable philosopher like our distinguished senior colleague, host and friend, Professor Muin-ud-din Ahmad Khan? Instead of dithering over the assignment, let me propose that, rather than attempting to predict the future of religion with any degree of precision, we look toward the future together, linking what we already know is taking place to whatis more or less likely to develop later in the century in relation to what we do know now. We may not determine just how our posterity will feel and act religiously, but we may gain some idea of the kind of global conditions with which they will have to cope religiously and/or otherwise. 

Let us assume that it is reasonable for humans to look toward the future, at least the near future, and try to make reasonable guesses, if not firm predictions. We do this all the time, often enough with a fair degree of short-term accuracy and it’s good for us that we do so. Otherwise all our projects and planning would come crashing down around our uninformed heads. The simpler the questions to be answered, the closer they relate to us and our surroundings and the shorter the time we project into the future, the more likely will our guesses be borne out. But the more complex the question or topic of concern, the more dynamic and variable it is and the farther into the future we try to project the outcome, the tougher the task becomes until it becomes virtually or actually impossible.

It’s in that category of the virtually or actually impossible that we must place the grand question of the state of human religious history toward the end of the twenty-first century. This century is already characterized by what we call high-tech communications and we are assured that radically more advanced technology, including communications technology, is on the way. It is these yet to come (but in the cyber pipeline as it were) even more sophisticated hi-tech 2 resources that I am dubbing ‘hyper-tech’ in this talk. I was fudging or exaggerating a bit when I said ‘virtually or actually impossible’ because while I’m convinced that there is so much about the future of religion in rest of this century that we cannot anticipate, there is still quite a bit that we can anticipate with some degree of confidence. We can surely point to some factors that will be affecting human religious life a century down the road (and with greater certainty the closer we are in time to the present). Likewise I think we can make reasonable guesses (again more confidently and accurately the closer we are to the beginning than the end of the century) about certain typical characteristics and aspects of religious life even if we can’t say all that much about the overall state of religions life of eight or ten billion people by the year 2101!

But why, we might well ask ourselves, bother to do so (apart from honoring the request of a distinguished scholar like Professor Muin-ud-din)? There are several good reasons. For one thing, it stretches our minds to do so and gets us to consider possibilities we’d be less apt to think about if we’re always looking to the past as we historians tend to do or are preoccupied with the immediate present as most sensible people tend to be. We tend to take the given for granted and not realize how changing human life has always been and how it is becoming more so every day.

There is another aspect about thinking of the future that has more of an ethical or moral character to it. And it is that, I suspect, that lies behind Professor Muin-ud-din’s insistence that we focus on the future, even a hundred years into the future. If we think that human beings have some degree of free will, if we think that we do have some capacity for making choices, then moral or ethical issues come into play. What should we want the future to be like? What should we decide to do now to make the desired future more likely to eventuate? From this perspective, dealing with the future, at least the near future and the local future that will likely affect us and that we can expect to affect most forcefully, takes on a moral quality. What kind of human condition would we hope to see prevail? What are likely to be the results of our decisions and actions? Even those of us with minimal scope for influencing the actions of others and those of us with minimal education and access to global knowledge, may expect to influence how our children grow and live and exert their own influence some decades into the future.

For those who have access to education and specialized knowledge in areas of global significance the scope for informed guessing about the future, and not just the temporally and locally immediate future, is greater and so is the moral onus to use that knowledge constructively to guide themselves and others in preparing for the future. Much the same and even may be said for those holding the levers of power and influence in national and international organizations: governments, financial institutions, major religious communities etc. It their cases the onus is to become informed as best they can about probable future developments or scenarios and then to take constructive action so as to preparewell for the anticipated, though not necessarily certain or guaranteed, future.3 When it comes to natural processes, like depleting natural resources and global warming, it may be possible to predict with some degree of certainty what conditions will be like at a particular time in the future. Based on that knowledge certain responsible decisions may be made to prepare people for the future condition even if that condition itself cannot be altered. When it comes to the impact of human activities on the natural environment, however, there is scope for human intervention and influence and here especially there is both opportunity and obligation for those in positions national and international leadership to inform themselves as best they can about the scope for human intervention. They also have the responsibility to organize human intervention to minimize natural disasters and depletions of resources and to maximize new opportunities for restoring the natural environment, whether by nature itself or nature as modified by science, technology and human behavior. Further on in this talk I’ll come back to the matter of potential reciprocal influence: of religion on the natural environment and of the natural environment on religion as we march on through the twenty-first century.

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