The Future of Religion:
An Interview with Ninian Smart

By Scott London

In 1968, Time magazine asked "Is God Dead?" It was a provocative and poignant headline at the time. But now, some decades later, the newsweeklies are pondering the opposite question: What do we make of the extraordinary interest in spirituality and religion today? "Millions of Americans are embarking on a search for the sacred in their lives," writes Newsweek magazine, while U.S. News and World Report notes, with apparent surprise, that "the United States appears to be more religious today than it was at its founding."

Ninian Smart
Ninian Smart

The signs of a spiritual resurgence are everywhere. Titles like Talking to Heaven and Conversations with God top the bestseller lists. The latest offerings from Hollywood explore spiritual subjects like Tibetan Buddhism, life after death, and the limits of faith. Physicists debate the spiritual significance of quantum mechanics. The medical establishment wonders what to make of the startling discovery that prayer affects healing.

One of the most intriguing aspects the new religious scene in America is the pervasive mingling and mixing of different faiths and traditions. Never before in history have so many religious values and rituals coexisted within a single society. Much has been written about the cross-pollination of race, ethnicity and cultural values, but what happens when religions meet? Will the syncretism of the global village lead to some sort of universal religion, as some predict, or will it produce a vibrant mosaic of many different faiths?

Ninian Smart pondered these questions for the better part of five decades. As one of the world's foremost scholars of religion, and the author of some 30 books, he was widely regarded — until his death in January 2001 — as an elder statesmen in the world of religious studies.

Born in Scotland, he taught at the Universities of London, Birmingham, and Wales for many years before moving to the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1960s. He continued to teach there till the end of his life, dividing his time between England, Italy, and the United States.

I met Smart in Santa Barbara in April 1999 to explore one of his favorite subjects: the future of religion. A short, round man with a big smile and a delightful sense of humor, Smart's approach to the subject was at once playful and scholarly. Our conversation began with the quip that the study of comparative religion can make one "comparatively religious." I asked him if he had found that to be true.

Ninian Smart: Exploring the world's various religions can certainly change your outlook and may push aside some of the narrower views that are found in every religious tradition. But on the other hand it may deepen your religious experience. It depends on what sort of person you are.

Scott London: You belong to the Episcopal Church but have come into contact with and learned from many of the world's great religions.

Smart: Yes. I came in on this in a very unusual way. I was drafted into the British Army at the end of World War II and was put into the so-called Intelligence Corps. The first thing I did was spend a year and a half learning Chinese. That completely took me out of my original world view. We studied Confucian texts and so on. Then, the army being what it was, I was sent to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was then called). The dominant religion there is Buddhism. We were training local soldiers there. We decided that it was ridiculous to have a Christian chaplain for a unit that was predominantly Buddhist and some Hindu. So we invited the monk who was in charge of the neighboring temple to become our chaplain. I think we were the only unit in the British Army that had a Buddhist chaplain. I was eighteen when I went into the military so I became acquainted with other religious views at a very early age.

London: How would you describe your own faith today?

Smart: I often say that I'm a Buddhist-Episcopalian. I say that partly to annoy people. [Laughs]

London: How so?

Smart: I like to annoy people who think that a religion can contain the whole truth. No religion, it seems to me, contains the whole truth. I think it's mad to think that there is nothing to learn from other traditions and civilizations. If you accept that other religions have something to offer and you learn from them, that is what you become: a Buddhist-Episcopalian or a Hindu-Muslim or whatever.

London: How does Buddhism complement your Christian beliefs?

Smart: I think the Buddhist ethic is clearer and more systematic in some ways. The Buddhist notion is that our chief problems are greed, hatred and delusion. Well, delusion is not much mentioned in the Christian tradition. In the West, we have underplayed the idea that our moral and spiritual troubles have to do with a lack of clarity or insight because original sin has dominated so much of our thinking. We tend to think that our troubles are caused by insufficient will power. There are merits in thinking that, of course, but I think you can learn something too from Buddhism. In that respect, Buddhism is complementary to Christianity — it adds to it.

London: Perhaps this is one reason why Buddhism is being embraced by so many Americans today.

Smart: I think the attractiveness of Buddhism is that it doesn't involve a belief in God. That appeals to a lot of people — intellectuals and well-educated people in particular. It is also a very practical religion that offers techniques such as meditation. Also, there is the more peripheral fact that Buddhism has a very good spokesman — the Dalai Lama — who has had a lot of impact, and quite rightly so.

London: You wrote a book a few years ago where you spoke of Buddhism and Christianity as "rivals and allies."

Smart: Yes. In a sense, they are incompatible because there is no God in Buddhism — particularly in Theravada Buddhism. But they are also allies because their values and practices are compatible and they can work together — indeed, they would benefit greatly from doing so. That is what I meant by "rivals and allies."

But the fact of the matter is that Buddhism has changed a lot. In Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism, for example, you do get something like God or Christ. In fact, when St. Francis of Xavier arrived in Japan, he wrote back to the Vatican and made a joke. "It is unfortunate," he said, "that the Lutherans were here before me." By this he meant that Pure Land Buddhism was so much like Lutheranism.

London: Pure Land Buddhism?

Smart: Yes, it is a form of Buddhism in which if you call on the name of the Buddha Amida in faith (or Anitaba in the Indian context), you will be reborn in the Pure Land — it is like heaven. One of their saints said, "If a good person can be saved, how much more can a bad person be saved?" Luther could have written that. So there are forms of Buddhism which are very much like Christianity.

London: The Dalai Lama has been very outspoken about the need for mutual understanding between religions. Do you see any signs of progress on that front?

Smart: Certainly the understandings have advanced tremendously in the last fifty years, even if it is primarily through religious education and interfaith dialogues and things of that sort.

London: Some critics feel that interfaith dialogues tend to be rather wishy-washy — mostly polite conversation.

Smart: That's partly true. I don't go for dialogues greatly (though, in fact, tomorrow I'm going to Rome to participate in one). People say that it's mere conversation but, first of all, what's wrong with conversation? What would people otherwise be doing? They could be fighting each other. Secondly, who is going to decide what is wishy-washy? Suppose I would say, "I don't believe in hell," and somebody turns around and says that I'm a wishy-washy character because I don't believe in hell. Am I supposed to believe in hell to escape the disaster of being wishy-washy? What if two denominations, or two groups of people, decide they are going to do some work building houses in Tijuana to help the poor — is that wishy-washy?

London: There is a striking passage in your book Choosing a Faith where you describe the great number of West African Yorubas in Los Angeles today; the number of Sikhs in Birmingham, England; the Mormons in the Fiji Islands; the Tibetan Buddhists in Scotland; the Hindus in South Africa; and the Confucians in Berkeley, California. How will all these different traditions manage to coexist in the future?

Smart: Not just in the future — they are coexisting now. They are getting on together, despite the clashes and bitter warfare that we notice in places like Bosnia and Sri Lanka. This has come about partly through peaceful migration. For example, many doctors from Asia migrate to Britain or the United States to practice medicine. But a lot of it is also a result of unpeaceful migration. World War II left behind 300,000 Poles in Britain. There are Palestinians all over the Middle East. One could go on and on. The net result is that we have never had such a mingled population as we do now. There is not a big city in the world (except perhaps in Japan and one or two other places) where there are not sizeable numbers of whoever you care to mention. The second largest Greek city today is Melbourne, Australia. The largest Polynesian city is Auckland, New Zealand. And so on.

London: What will be the fate of religion in this new global village?

Smart: Well, one result of all these migrations is the emergence of new forms of religion. For example, some Hindus are building temples in Malibu now. They may have been educated in the West and know very little about Hinduism. So they have to invent it from scratch because they want their children to be Hindus. And this is happening not just for Hindus, but for Muslims, Confucians, and so on all over America and Europe. That's a hopeful sign.

One of the effects of religions getting together is that they borrow from one another. For example, I remember going into a town in the south of Sri Lanka and one of the first buildings I saw was the YMBA — the Young Man's Buddhist Association. It was a young men's organization modelled on the YMCA. They were borrowing a Christian organizational item. Another example is the growing number of Catholics who are practicing Yoga and meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and Hinduism. So there are these borrowings which I think fertilize the religions.

London: Syncretism, the word usually invoked to describe this kind of cross-pollination, tends to have very negative connotations.

Smart: Yes, this can be disturbing to people. They have often been taught, "You have to have solid faith and must be sure of your religion," and so on. They fear that they might be threatened by these new developments and mergings. So you get a backlash against it.

I believe that if you wanted to, you could work out a few equations. What happens when Religion A meets Religion B? Well, A becomes a little B-ified, and B becomes a little A-ified. Then people in A don't like the B-ification, so they become AA types. And the same goes for B. So there is always that dynamic going on when religions meet. Now, for the first time in history, all religions are meeting. So they are bound to interact in some alarming ways.

London: Are you concerned about the growth of fundamentalism?

Smart: It depends what sort you mean. I don't regard fundamentalism in the United States or in Europe as a terrible threat, partly because it is a self-curing disease. The younger generation drifts away, so fundamentalists always have to recruit to keep up with themselves.

London: You mean children never believe as strongly as their parents?

Smart: Yes, they become more liberal partly as a reaction to their parents and partly through education. Education tends to make people a bit softer.

London: What you're saying suggests that there is a kind of evolution that takes place over generations toward more and more liberal beliefs.

Smart: Yes, I believe that. But it's difficult to show because attendance in the liberal churches is declining today. But I think that is so, yes.

London: Many attribute these waning attendance figures to the growth of the self-help movement and the quest among a growing number of Americans for spiritual meaning outside of established religions.

Smart: Yes. A lot of it involves a new individualism, in a sense. People now have their own particular religion — a denomination of one. I suppose it's a part of the new age phenomenon, but it's much wider than that. On the whole, I would say that is healthy. But I think it was always there, secretly.

London: Secretly?

Smart: What I mean is this: My wife is from Italy and I know her relatives very well. A great uncle of hers died fifteen or twenty years ago. Near to the time of his death I remember asking him about life after death. He said, "I'm not concerned with that." I said, "What do you mean you are not concerned with it?" He said, "Well, there is talk of heaven and purgatory and all that and it doesn't bother me." I said, "That's rather unusual. You are a good Catholic and go to mass every Sunday, and yet you don't seem to think that bit of teaching is important." He said, "Yes, I think it's a good bit of teaching for young people. Priests should go on preaching that. But for me, well, I'm at a certain stage of life where I don't need that anymore."

You see, even in the old traditions, which appear to be very unchanging, you meet people who have come to their own very private conclusions — though they haven't always stated them in public. I think that today these things have become more public and probably more widespread. That is one great feature of the present state in America. And you will find the same thing, somewhat, in Europe too.

London: Do you think the spread of democracy around the world today is having an affect on how and what people believe?

Smart: Yes, I think so, partly because it removes the pressures to believe in any particular way. People have access to other ideas and ways of doing things that they never had before. And they have new freedoms. The Pope has many merits, but perhaps he doesn't fully understand this aspect of democracy. To put it a little crudely, these days nobody is afraid of excommunication. If they decide they don't want to be Catholic anymore and want to become Episcopalians or Hindus, they just do it. The churches no longer have the disciplinary powers to keep their followers in check. That means that they have to accept much more feeding up from below than they had to in the past. So, in a certain sense, the Pope is elected by those who believe in him. I've often admired the way many Catholics who have left the priesthood, for example, have nevertheless remained sincere Catholics. They voted with their feet.

I think there is a certain inevitability about these trends. For example, the government of Iran has been trying to ban satellite dishes because the leaders worry that Western ideas will come in and corrupt Islam. Well, whether they corrupt Islam or not, satellite dishes are going to win out in the long run. One of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that they were unable to insulate their people, as they had done in the past, from fax machines, television, radio and all that. So people inevitably get new ideas.

London: What do you make of the rise of evangelical movements around the world in recent years, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Smart: Well, the evangelicals have a long record in Eastern Europe. I remember visiting Romania some years ago with a BBC team. We were making a film about Romanian Orthodoxy. When we asked people, "why do you go to liturgy?" they said, "so we will not fall for the tricks of the Baptists." [Laughs] So they felt you had to go to liturgy to make sure your faith was alright, otherwise you might succumb to the evangelicals because it was so attractive.

With the new freedom of religion, such as it is, Russia is being penetrated not only by evangelicals but also new religious movements. I have some friends who are Moonies, for example, and they report on their successes in the former Soviet Union. I think there are two or three factors that help explain this. One is that the Russian church was corrupt. Two, these movements are new. And three, people in Russia have not had any religion — they have been under the Soviet ideology and probably not believed anything that one would recognize as religious. But now they are getting all sorts of choices.

London: In that respect, then, one could look upon the former Soviet world as a great experiment. The people now have the freedom to choose any faith they please.

Smart: Yes, but remember that a Russian faced with this is still a Russian, so he is more likely to be sympathetic to Orthodox Christianity.

London: Let's say it were possible to approach the question of faith from a completely fresh standpoint and, after examining the merits and shortcomings of the various religions, to actually choose a faith. What do you think a new global citizen might choose?

Smart: It depends on certain value judgments that people make. I mean, if you were going to be attracted to a mystical faith which involved the contemplative life, Buddhism would be quite reasonable. But then, not everybody is a budding mystic. In fact, it's pretty certain that very few people are. So another kind of religion, one that was perhaps more pragmatic and service-oriented, might appeal to those others. So I think you have to take your values into account.

London: Do you subscribe to the idea, expressed by some scholars of religion — most notably Huston Smith — that there is a core wisdom at the heart of the world's great religions?

Smart: No, I don't, because I don't think it can be shown or specified. I believe strongly that the mysticism of all the religions is just about the same. But that is not the only core. Anyway, why should they have a core? Wouldn't it be more interesting if they didn't? Or if they had several cores?

London: Perhaps we're evolving toward a time when there will be a single world religion composed of different tenets of the various world faiths. What's your view?

Smart: I don't think religions will merge into a great global faith. But I do believe we're moving toward a global ideology that has a place for religion and recognizes the contributions of the different traditions. Hopefully, it will have an overarching view as to how we can work together for the promotion of human values and spirituality. I would like to see an agreement that recognizes that we live on the same planet and that some interests, such as human rights, must be universal and that all religions must be respected.

Tolerance has been a very important feature of Christianity from its very roots, despite all the other things that have gone on since. And that, I think, must be the global perspective. Tolerance implies more than saying, "Well, let the Muslims go on with what they are doing." It also means trying to learn something from them and adding that to your own tradition. That is the attitude I think needs to inform the global citizen of the future.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appeared, in somewhat different form, in the June 1999 issue of "The Witness" magazine under the title "Borrowing From Buddhism." It is also available in a Turkish translation by Metin Pay.