The Religion of the Future

How can we organize a society that gives us a better chance to be fully alive? How can we reinvent religion so that it liberates us instead of consoling us? A new book provides some answers.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger
31 March 2014

Credit: All rights reserved.

Every religion grounds an orientation to existence in a comprehensive view of who we are, of what we can become, and of our place in the world. It does so even if the comprehensive view is one that emphasizes the limits to our understanding of the world and of our place within it. The meaning of any such inclusive account becomes clear only through its implications for how we are to live. It is above all by a judgment of its bearing on the conduct of life that we read the message of a religion.

It can be no different for a religion of the future…the higher religions, products of spiritual innovations achieved many centuries ago, provide an inadequate basis for our decisions now about how to live and what to do with our lives. A reorientation of existence, against the background of a reconstruction of society, is the prophetic core of a change in our religious beliefs.

The change of life that we should seek…is to live in such a way that we die only once.

We squander the good of life by surrendering to a diminished way of being in the world. We settle for routine and compromise. We stagger, half-conscious, through the world. Anxious for the future, we lose life in the only time that we have, the present.

To grasp what is at stake in the enhancement of life, we must recognize the marks of vitality: surfeit, fecundity, and spontaneity, and thus as well the ability to give surprise and to be surprised.

Surfeit is excess over structure: the overcoming of the limits that an established order places on insight, experience, and vision. The order may be the institutional arrangements of society, embedded in a view of the possible and desirable forms of human association. It may also be the rigidified version of the self in one’s own character. Surfeit is expressed in works and deeds that are not countenanced by the settled orders of society or of character.

Fecundity is the vigor, variety, and range of what we do and make in the possession of life. Its outward sign is a ceaseless exuberance, an energy that ends only in death.

Spontaneity is the weakening of the influence of the past on the future: the attenuation of path dependence in our experience. It is confirmed by the ability to surprise ourselves as well as others.

Viewed from another, complementary angle, the purpose of our self-transformation is to increase our share in some of the attributes that we ascribe to the divine while eschewing any effort to possess, or to mimic, other such attributes. We can make ourselves more godlike in the sense of the first set of attributes. However, we cannot become God: the second set of attributes is not only forever beyond our reach but also incompatible with our humanity.

The qualities to which we cannot and should not aspire are those of eternity, omniscience, and completeness. We cannot aspire to eternity because we are mortal. We cannot aspire to omniscience because we are groundless. We cannot aspire to completeness because we are insatiable. All of our activities take place in a finite world, in which we enjoy limited capabilities. The strengthening of our powers can never approach the limit of omnipotence.

It is because we do not and cannot have these resources that we may hate God, or rather hate in ourselves the lack of the divine powers that are denied to us. This hatred and self-loathing can become obstacles to the possession and the enhancement of life. They leave their mark on our refusal to acknowledge the irreparable flaws in human existence.

It is a refusal that expresses itself, by subterfuge, in the cruelty, born of self-hatred and despair that remains an undercurrent impulse in all the world-historical religions but especially in the religions of salvation. For it is these religions, with their conception of a transcendent, all-powerful, and all-knowing God who intervenes in history, that show us, by contrast, what we can never hope to become.

The essence of Prometheanism, as a sequel to the struggle with the world, is the attempt to become more godlike in precisely this sense: the sense of the attributes that are prohibited to us. The triumphalism, the resentment, and the cruelty accompanying Prometheanism rank among the psychological consequences of this misunderstanding of our condition.

Our share of the divine lies in another direction: the direction of embodied spirit. We transcend finite circumstance. We are also incomplete: it is only by connection with others that we enhance the sentiment of being and developing a self. That all such connections also threaten us with loss of individual distinction and freedom is the contradiction inscribed in our being. This contradiction is most completely resolved, to the extent that it can be resolved at all, in love, freely given and freely rebuffed. It is also resolved, although less fully, by the higher forms of cooperation.

The powers to transcend definite structure and to respond to our incompleteness through love and cooperation are complementary, not contradictory, features of our experience. To the extent that we experience ourselves, and act, as puppets of an established regime of life, thought, or character, we cannot fully engage other people or the world.

In the salvation religions, even the transcendent God is represented as being incomplete: God needs and creates human beings - a notion disconcerting to the theologians and philosophers who struggled to represent the one and transcendent God in the categories of Greek philosophy.

By transcending finite structure and by living out, through love and cooperation, the implications of our incompleteness, we open ourselves both to other people and to the world. This, and this only, is the experience of the divine in which we can hope to share, not the inhuman powers that the Promethean wants to claim for humankind. It is with regard to this second set of attributes of the divine that we can aspire to become more godlike by the same means, and in the same fashion, in which we become more human.


Other things being equal, the more we are able to organize our activities through a division of labor, untainted by subjugation and dependence, the freer we become. Insofar as we achieve this goal, we can do more and we can become more, individually as well as collectively.

We soften the conflict between the enabling conditions of self-assertion: the imperative of connection and the imperative of independent agency. We diminish the price, in loss of autonomy, that we must pay for connection. We do so, moreover, outside the realm of the intimate personal relations in which love offers the consummate form of such a reconciliation. Cooperation substitutes for love in life among strangers.

The capacity to cooperate is, at the same time, the most powerful and pervasive influence on the development of our practical capabilities. Together with the enlistment of science and technology in production, it is the overriding factor in the material progress of society.

In the long sweep of economic history, we can distinguish three stages in the development of our capacities to produce goods and services…In the first, the most primitive stage, the size of an economic surplus over current consumption remains a powerful constraint on the expansion of output and the enhancement of productivity.

In a second stage…production comes to be supported by science, embodied in technology. Industrial mass production…is the characteristic example. In a third stage… production… becomes a continuing experiment, a practice of permanent innovation, a turning of our cooperative activities into an expression of the analytic and synthetic operations of the mind… Such is the promise of what today is often described as the new, creative, or post-Fordist economy.

At the time when this book was written, this style of production remained largely confined to vanguards, weakly linked to other sectors of each national economy. Most of the labor force, in the richer countries as well as in the major developing economies, remained excluded from this economic vanguardism…the present confinement of the practices of the new economy to relatively isolated advanced sectors has been the path of least resistance for the development of the emerging style of production.

The work of transformative thought and politics is to create alternatives to the path of least resistance.

Institutions as well as education may either encourage or inhibit the development of our cooperative capacities. So, however, does an idea: the idea, inspired by the past wave of religious revolution, of the shallowness of the divisions within mankind…the religion of the future establishes the disposition to cooperate with strangers on the strongest foundation that it can have: the basis of our understanding of who we are and of what we can become.

Excerpted from The Religion of the Future by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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