Centuries ago, Irish monks set sail from their island out towards the horizon. Their boats were filled with hand-copied books on science, philosophy, literature, and scripture. They planned to share their books with those they met, wherever the winds and tides carried them. They did this as a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage beyond the familiar and into an unknown future.
As a scientific researcher who studies the psychology and neuroscience of spiritual experiences, I sit at a desk rather than the bow of a ship. And while I don’t have nearly as much at stake as those Irish monks, I too, often find myself looking to the horizon, wondering about the future. How will current trends eventually transform spiritual practice?
While I only offer a few visions for the future of spirituality here, each represents a challenge and an opportunity. Each also includes a paradox. With spirituality, paradoxes come with the territory. As always, we will do best to meet each possibility with knowledge, compassion, and common sense.
Science will play an ever-increasing role in spirituality. The Dalai Lama represents a transitional figure in world history on this point, as the first major religious leader to whole-heartedly embrace scientific methods. Neuroscientists, such as Andrew Newberg, will continue to learn about how the brain changes during spiritual practices and experiences – and psychologists, such as Martin Seligman, will continue to learn about the effects of spiritual practice and experiences on health and well-being.
While scientific research provides more knowledge, scientific thinking means less certainty. Science cannot “prove” whether God, all-pervading consciousness, or spiritual realities do or do not exist. Because they will depend less on beliefs and dogma, spiritual practices and experiences will become more available to religious, spiritual-but-not-religious, and secular humanists alike. We will choose spiritual practices, in part, based on evidence about their outcomes, as with mindfulness based stress reduction and compassion meditation.
The spirituality of the future will be more scientifically knowledgeable and more humble about our answers to life’s biggest questions.
Technology will continue to inform all aspects of our lives, including our spirituality. Apps, such as headspace, will remind us to meditate or pray. We will also use technology to enhance certain spiritual practices. For example, meditation training could eventually be improved with non-invasive brain stimulation technology, a possibility we are beginning to study at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.
While technology can improve many parts of life, it can also detract from our personal relationships and distract our minds. Self-imposed breaks from screen time may become part of the natural rhythm of our lives. We may, for example, begin to banish social technology during meals, vacations, and spiritual retreats.
The spirituality of the future will be selective in its use of technology by using what enhances spiritual practice and by mindfully avoiding overuse.
We will seek and share more spiritual experiences. Research has shown that such experiences can result in profoundly positive mental health benefits. For example, breakthrough studies have shown that psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) can reliably create positive spiritual experiences in laboratory settings. This may eventually allow psychiatrists to prescribe a spiritual experience to help ease the dying process, treat victims suffering from PTSD, or provide a meaningful rite of passage for young adults. In the future, people will increasingly seek spiritual experiences by integrating ancient and modern practices.
Spiritual experiences will become less taboo to share. More groups such as “mystics anonymous” will emerge to provide safe spaces to discuss these meaningful moments with other people in community. You can read about mystics anonymous (and my own experience), in the forthcoming book, Being Called .
While we will seek and find more spiritual experiences, there will be more emphasis on channeling these experiences into service. As these experiences become more accessible, there is a danger that people will pursue “boutique mental states” for merely personal pleasure. Perhaps volunteering will become as important as finding time for a yoga session. Serving others has always been the true heart of spirituality and, one hopes, will remain so.
The spirituality of the future will make spiritual experiences more accessible and place more emphasis on serving others.
Spirituality will become more pluralistic. Ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality, or ideological differences will not form a basis for excluding people from spiritual communities. Such concerns will eventually become non-issues and those who oppose such simple, humanistic values will be seen as being on the wrong side of history.
While inclusion will increase within groups, a healthy respect for differences will develop between spiritual, religious, and philosophical communities. Put in the simplest terms, pluralism is about “live and let live.” Pluralism is the opposite of “hegemony”, in which one single belief system dominates all others. Claims of religious, spiritual, or atheistic hegemony will seem as ridiculous as nationalistic claims to world domination do to us now. Secularism allows for the freedom to follow any belief system, and therefore represents a pluralistic ecosystem for the spirituality of the future to thrive.
The spirituality of the future will be more socially inclusive and will foster more respect for the differences between us.
As we collectively step out towards the future’s unknowable horizon, spirituality can provide ancient means – enhanced by modern science, technology, ideas, and social progress – to help us find our way to a more flourishing future.