ExPostModern, Religion

Expostmodern Religion

I sometimes refer to myself as an expostmodern priest. Many of you asked what that means.

Here is the answer: How to Be ExPoMod

I wrote this thanks to Colin Wright as a feature post for Most Interesting People in the Room and it’s spreading like wildfire on Twitter. More and more people are talking about ExPoMod because it sums up the changes that are happening across our lives right now. Popular attitudes, technology, business trends, the way artists work, even the narrative that resonates most with people in literature (or ad copy) are all changing.

The core of expostmodernism is a culture shift in a direction that is pro-individual. As travel and communication become easier, people don’t have to feel alienated from their work or the people around them. Technology helps people connect with similar thinkers anywhere in the world, instead of feeling like an outcast in their own community.

Postmodern cynicism is giving way, and a lot of factors are making the world a slightly more optimistic place: the uptake in creativity-focused industries, growth of niche markets, ease of travel and communication, and access to high quality information without formal institutions of higher education.

In some ways this shift in culture is a drastic one. A lot of older institutions are having a really tough time adjusting, and some are not going to make it to see the year 2100.

So What About Religion?

One of the points I make in Announcing ExPoMod is this: by understanding expostmodernism we can predict what strategies and ideas will be successful in the next 50 years.

Based on the trend of ExPoMod, strategies that will see the most success include:

  • Less required use of physical spaces (use technology to get people out of offices and let them work from anywhere, people in different cities collaborating, etc.)
  • Emphasis on individuals managing and marketing their own work (consultants, independent artists, self-employment, etc.)
  • Collaborative arrangements where all parties have input, instead of top-down structures
  • Anything that helps people to depart from old “modern” structures without endangering their finances or security.

If we take these four basic strategies and apply them to religion, we see something like this:

  • Sermons or other routine scheduled meetings will not be effective. Less people will want to commit to a physical meeting on a regular basis. Religious activities will need to be available through other media. Religions that make their services inclusive of digital participation will see a surge of new recruits while those who don’t will lose ground.
  • Members will expect more face time with the priest/pastor and expect personal contact. Clergy will be on social media and make themselves available for personal discussion (in person or by Skype). Those who don’t will fail.
  • The presentation of multiple voices and viewpoints will be valued. Clergy will be more successful if they ensure access to other teachers and leaders in their tradition (or even from other religions). This can be done with guest blog posts and podcasts rather than with in-person visits.
  • Narratives that focus on self-empowerment, personal transformation, and experimentation will inspire people and speak directly to their concerns. Support structures for members who move or travel (maintaining an ongoing relationship with them while they are away) will become a valuable cornerstone of any effective religious organization.

One of the great things about expostmodernism is that, unlike postmodernism, it is not inherently cynical. It hasn’t forgotten that truth is relative and that authority figures are often hypocritical, but that’s beside the point. The individual is capable of acting on their own and forming collectives with like-minded people around the world. Thus, there is no need to rely on so many authority figures or a universal definition of truth, and their value is irrelevant.

This pro-individual spirit, in a world where individualists no longer have to fight against society as lone outcasts, means a new optimism for spiritual growth. People are open to religious ideas and practices. However, they have to adapt to a new form:

Religion has to consist of a personal journey in order to speak to the 21st century.

(You can bet that Walk Like a God will do this in spades.)

Some religions are already geared to encourage a “personal journey” spirituality. Buddhism can expect to continue to grow, and Orthodox Christianity will hold its own. Neopaganism will stumble unless it can more consistently offer support structures and guidance for this kind of “personal journey” approach.

Religions that are highly ritualistic, such as Catholicism, will continue to decline. In fact, any tradition that focuses around a single static practice (Pentecostal Christianity, for example) will decline. Likewise, religions that hold together because of strong community-centric structure will shrink unless they can find a way to empower individuals (and are willing to do so).

These are a few of my predictions for the next 50 years of religion. They’re based on the values of expostmodernism which are becoming dominant. People have new options and unlimited access to other ideas, groups, and practices. They don’t need church to give them ideas anymore. Churches and temples that offer an experience that speaks to the individual will thrive. Personal transformation is the new Jesus.

If this post made you think, please tweet or Facebook share it. I like it when you do that. Thank you.


34 thoughts on “Expostmodern Religion

  1. You speak to several areas that are fascinating, but I want to focus on two in particular: “Less people will want to commit to a physical meeting on a regular basis. Religious activities will need to be available through other media.”

    And “The presentation of multiple voices and viewpoints will be valued.”

    I’m wondering how those ideas speak to the model of apprenticeship that Old Belief Society espouses. I recall that declining attendance and engagement was a significant issue for apprentices (and I certainly know that was a stumbling block for me). Also, while I don’t believe it was intentional, the apprentice system worked in sort of a vacuum. While you have great experiences with a variety of teachers, I don’t know that those teachers were ever invited (or even would have accepted) speaking to your apprentices.

    I also find it interesting that you describe expostmodernism as being “pro-individual,” and are a priest of a religion that strongly values the group and the family over the individual. How do you see a religion that grew directly out of a geographically limited world making the transition to such a scattered network?

    • Hi Colleen, really glad to see you here again. Love the new blog!

      These are excellent questions. I wondered how long it would be before someone asked how this would apply to my own temple.

      The answer is that Old Belief Society does some of these things well, but in other areas it will need to make changes to adapt and stay strong.

      On the “does things well” side I would say there are few religions that offer such a strong personal journey model or as much individual focus (and personal time with a teacher) as the Society.

      For things that will need to change, I think you hit the nail on the head. Apprenticeship will need to be more self-directed and less classroom-like. More of a “here is a practice, experiment with it and call me when you want to meet again for more” model. I think making the physical temple available for open practice (meditation, etc.) will be more valuable than long meetings.

      In other words the best thing Old Belief Society can do to adapt is to have the teacher step back and play a less central role, still available as a guide and mentor but not actively overseeing everything the students do.

      That’s on the apprenticeship side though, which is a small part of what the Society does. The public programs like ceremonies and festivals are really what affect the most people, and it will be interesting to see how the Temple evolves in that regard.
      On your other points: until the Old Belief Society has a larger pool of teachers it will be unable to fulfill the “multiple voices” aspect. On the other hand I don’t feel the Old Belief is geographically limited. The tradition began in Ireland, but what matters for the future is leveraging social media and the cloud to make participation location-independent. People can be inspired by heroic myth and personal development no matter where they’re from, but only if they can access it.

      Really great observations and questions. I’d love to talk with you more about this. Tea sometime?

  2. Cara says:

    Hmmmm…I agree with some, but not most. The value and power of group worship cannot be overstated and cannot be replicated through digital media. Group worship not only satisfies the individual spiritually, it satisfies their need for community. You can get some of that from non-fac2face methods such as digital or social media, but that is just a supplement.

    I also disagree that highly ritualistic religions will decline. Ritual has been around for as long as humans have been around for one simple reason – it works. Humans are humans and we haven’t evolved even a tiny bit (aside from very minor physical changes) I don’t see us evolving out of finding ritual a useful tool and needing human contact anytime soon.

    This post is titled religion, but seems to be more about self-help programs in place of religion. A religious practice can be a source of assistance for an individual to make a personal journey to be a better, happier person, but if that’s all you are looking for, a therapist might be a better option. And if that is all you are looking for, then yes, your list of what will succeed in the future is probably correct.

    This isn’t to say that a person cannot experience profound spirituality without ever talking to another human or engaging in a single ritual. Just that this will continue to be the exception, not the rule.

    As for the future of Paganism – look at the Pagan religions that are thriving around the world today. Many of them are far more focused on the family and community than the individual and use ritual and group worship as important elements. The Hellenic Polytheists in Greece now have grown large enough, and stable enough, that they have second (and third) generation marrying within the religion. Heathens are doing the same in the USA and elsewhere. Celtic Recons in the USA and Europe are seeing their numbers boom as both new converts and 2nd generation members stay in the faith.

    So I don’t think I can agree with most of what you said, I find it interesting and thoughtful. But I wholeheartedly agree with this “Churches and temples that offer an experience that speaks to the individual will thrive.” That has been true all down the ages.

    • Hi Cara,

      Excellent points. I should say I agree with your statements – community, and ritual, are two valuable things that will continue to be valued.

      However, personal development will also be increasingly valued.

      However, many religions that *used* to thrive on strong in-person community and a strong ritual focus will find that they need to add a personal development focus as well, and make use of digital media, or else they are going to lose membership.

      It’s sort of like cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers will always be popular, but if that’s all you sell, you’re going to lose customers to the guy who sells milkshakes and french fries too.

      One strategy I don’t think will work is “if [a personal journey is] all you are looking for, a therapist might be a better option.” If that’s the case then people will just choose therapy over religion.

      • Cara says:

        I see personal development as a by-product of most religions, but not a main feature. You seem (correct me if I’m not getting it) to say that religions need to make personal development one of the main features in order to keep people involved/part of the religion? Is that correct?

        I don’t know. Let me think out loud.

        I suppose a religion can choose to do that and I think it will attract people. But will it attract people who are looking for spirituality or therapy? I’m not sure either way on that. Will it attract people who are in it for the long haul and will raise their children in it? If not, then it won’t be successful for very long. One of Wicca’s challenges, which DOES have a large dose of self-help in it and is very individual based, is that it is surviving on mostly new converts. At this point, there should be more generations of Wiccans. Just my opinion.

        But most organized religions (and many disorganized religions – ha!) if you adhere to them will result in you going on a personal journey of self-discovery – if you are willing to do so, put forth the effort, and are at all self-aware. Looking at Christianity, if you follow the 10 commandments, there’s not much of a down side to that and whole heck of an upside for personal happiness. But if you aren’t willing to think or be self-aware – then no religion (or therapist) is going to be able to assist you in taking a personal journey of discovery and growth.

        Hmmm….need to think about this some more.

      • Kristofski says:

        “It’s sort of like cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers will always be popular, but if that’s all you sell, you’re going to lose customers to the guy who sells milkshakes and french fries too.”

        It really dismays me to see religion and spirituality compared to a capitalist venture.

  3. I don’t think you’re “making too much of it” at all, Drew. I think you’re more than likely right, that some segments of the post-modern population are moving past it because they’ve seen the shortcomings and they’re looking to get ahead of the curve… or eliminate it altogether. There’s a slow-but-steady growth in efforts by various people to disconnect from the system and form their own systems and connections. It’s a pattern that has occurred many time throughout human history, and we’re probably seeing the barest glimpses of the newest one… like rays of light over the Eastern mountains. It’s slow in coming, but it’s bright.

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  5. Guest says:

    Perhaps I am one of the exceptions Cara was talking about but I’ve never been moved spiritually by group ritual. I can receive tremendous religious benefit but nothing spiritually.

    Maybe I have a funny way of looking at religious vs. spiritual but to me religion is an attempt to communicate the spiritual in a social setting the result of which (if you manage to get in each other’s ball parks to so speak) is more of a culture than anything else. A way of approaching life and living based on a shared experience is perhaps a good way to put it. But spirituality to me is inherently experiential and by way of it’s mechanism inherently personal.

    To use a Recon analogy to illustrate what I mean: you can examine the lore or evidence of the old cultures together and participate together in ritual and that is religious but the unverified personal gnosis is the essence of what is spiritual about it.

    I understand how you can experience those things together, or at least be capable of it but for me it hasn’t happened. I think that’s probably because I cannot translate the spiritual experiences I have into something others can necessarily relate to or benefit from.

    Just because I have a spiritual experience in the same room as someone else who also has a spiritual experience at the same time doesn’t mean we’re sharing anything other than the room. And to be frank I’d be more comfortable having an experience like that in isolation and/or privacy than in a group setting.

    Having other people around would distract from the magic and beauty of what was happening for me so to hear the idea that the inherently superior method of spirituality is surrounded by others to me seems alien at best.

    Now I’m not writing off group ritual or religious experience. It’s just a fundamentally different experience and one that is both sacred and mundane. Sacred in the sense of set apart from ordinary activity but mundane in the sense of being not at all a spiritual activity.

    As to the use of digital technology vs. in-person ritual? I don’t see any difference besides the social aspect that communication becomes weaker through the lens of digital technology than not.

    Just my two cents.

    • This is fascinating Jack. I’m really glad you posted this. Just curious, what branch of Reconstructionism do you practice?

      I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how Reconstructionist traditions are in many ways looking ahead to ExPoMod. Reconstructionists have formed online community more than any other branch of paganism. Likewise, almost all practice in private or with a few close friends, rather than in large groups; Reconstructionists almost as a rule pursue spirituality as a personal journey. In many ways, intellectual self-enrichment are a key part of that journey.

      These traits were a liability in the 90s and contributed to Reconstructionism being small, unpopular and cliquish. In the last 4 years however there has been something of a revolution. More pagans accept and respect Reconstructionism as an important tool, and Reconstructionism as a movement is growing. I find that fascinating.

      One thing I should note, too – the first usage I’ve seen of collecting a “tribe” of friends and contacts was from Erynn Rowan Laurie. If the term was used in that sense prior to her, I’m not aware of it. So Seth Godin can thank a Reconstructionist for the term :)

      • Guest says:

        Rіdnovіry or Ukrainian Slavic Reconstructionism. I’m actually lucky enough to have a group in my area that sometimes holds rituals honoring the Slavic pantheon that I like to sit in on/participate in.

        I like the spirit of the idea of tribalism but I feel the sentiment might be misplaced in modern society. You can obtain a family of choice and be close but a tribe is a different way of socializing in my opinion. More like the extended family than the large group of close friends.

        I think that there is another trend in the movement to critique postmodernism, that there can be such a thing as truth and also relativity. Basically the idea that things can still be true in more than a subjective sense but that there is no overarching highest truth. Kind of a, “pluralism is the highest metaphysical reality”, as a polytheist that idea speaks to me a lot. Do you know if it is related to “ExPoMod”?

        Wicca went through similar growing pains as Reconstructionisms when it was principally initiatory/mystery. After all how could many people become involved with all the secrecy? When it switched to being super-public in the nature-based form of neo-Wicca it lost a lot of what make it unique but also gained a lot of followers who took it far a field of where Gardner ever intended to go.

        Perhaps digital technology will bring a shift to reconstructionism that makes it less reliant on the past and more of an explicitly modern thing in it’s own right? Perhaps this is already happening? Either way I will still like the technique and the culture of using it in the way that’s developed.

        • Ah, one of the first reconstructionists I met does Rіdnovіry, what a beautiful religion!

          I think the biggest shift that has helped reconstructionist movements in the last 6 years is the tendency to view reconstructionism not as a religion itself, but as a technique or process used to build religion. Thus, reconstructionists are specialists who recover ideas and practices that were lost; those ideas and practices–the religion itself–can be used by people who do not have the interest in doing difficult research themselves. I remember the first conversations where this idea came up and seeing some of the old guard of the CR movement reject it out of hand but a couple of them seemed to embrace it and ever since I’ve seen it spread more and more. The idea that you can have ancient practices without reading 30 college-level books makes it far more accessibly.

          What you say about truth and relativism is exactly spot-on. I was thinking about that as I wrote the How to Be ExPoMod paper but I don’t know that it ever came through. Yes, that is a huge part of the worldview. I like your way of putting it – a sort of “epistemological pluralism.” I might steal that ;)

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  9. I agree with a lot of this, but I think that many religions – Christians especially – have been working the personal transformation angle for years and that THAT is why people are leaving churches in droves. That’s why I left and why a lot of people left. I didn’t want another self-help sermon about how Jesus could help me get rich or get laid or get whatever the hell else I wanted. I wanted to know how Jesus and religion could address the problems of the world, and I was mostly told that that wasn’t his problem because no body in charges of the churches had a clue how to help the world or much of a desire. Why help the world if things are fine in your own life? Yes, at older, traditional churches and brand new emerging churches there is a focus on missions and social justice, but in the churches of the post-modern era, the mega churches, the churches with hip Wednesday night black-lit youth room rock shows, the message has been “It’s all about YOU” for many, many years. And for a long time it drew thousands of people in and it still does, but a lot of kids are sick of it and saying peace out to the whole thing.

    • Hi Chase, great to see you here!

      I don’t think “pray to be rich” or “me me me” is what I meant by personal journey. I meant the structure itself.

      In a personal journey spirituality, the individual is given spiritual practices which they perform on their own, and thus pursue their own spiritual development. Whatever the goal is (be at one with God, become enlightened, whatever), they decide how to move toward it and do so in a more self-directed way, and the church or temple exists to support that process. That’s very different than giant communal gatherings whether they are in the form of a sermon or a rock concert.

      I agree that spirituality’s goal needs to about more than just the self but I also think that pursuing that goal will be more of an individualized process.

  10. I like hanging out here because I get exposed to so many perspectives I would otherwise have missed. Religion has never been a part of my life and it’s both foreign and fascinating imagine integrating a ‘religion’ into my life and journeys. (although, as you use it in context at times I don’t know what you mean by the term; perhaps you could provide a definition somewhere)

    As for ExPoMod– it’s the way of the world, from my perspective. I didn’t realize it had a name. Have you seen Clay Shirky’s videos on motivation in the 21st century? They’re really very interesting and speak a lot along this line.

    • I haven’t, do you have a link? Otherwise I guess I will apply some google fu tonight :)

      Re. the definition of religion, there is no single definition that applies to all religions. Thus I tend to go with the “opt-in” definition: a group or movement is a religion if the members or leaders say it’s a religion. By the opt-in method, nobody is unfairly denied their freedom of religion protections because of someone else’s definition, and no groups are labeled as a religion when they’d rather not be (atheist organizations, for example).

  11. Erulisse says:

    I find it immensely interesting that the responses I’ve seen so far have mostly been reactions to your view on the increasing need for/trend toward digital engagement rather than the shift toward personal spirituality and the need for emphasizing individual practice as an important component of the religious experience.

    You mention Catholicism and Neopaganism as two particular places where you see the effects (or expect possible effects) of this and as someone who is Pagan (at least vaguely) I think I agree with you- sort of. Not that either path is likely to become totally irrelevant but that any tradition that focuses strictly on group ritual without providing points for personal engagement and individual spiritual formation is going to languish.

    My experience (being part of the lay leadership of a Pagan community with 50 members and an extended network of probably about 100 at this point) shows that while there may still be people who are content to simply show up on Sunday morning (or evening), experience the service, and go home by and large people are looking for opportunities to engage on other levels. We’ve had a lot of success with classes, workshops, and small group opportunities and I know that by and large most other churches who are currently growing are having the same experience. An engaging worship service can be an important part of the equation but if all that’s there is form without readily available substance to back it up people aren’t going to be satisfied when there are so many other options.

    One of the other things that I see- and it may be a driving factor for some of the trends that you mentioned, is I think people are becoming a lot less interested in religion that is very top-down or power-over and much more interested in learning how to forge personal connections with the divine and other people in a more power-with or power-from-within model and groups that embrace that are probably likely to be more successful that groups that don’t. In that vein, I suspect that what we will actually see in the case of the Paganism is a more apparent distinction between sections of the movement that emphasize personal experience and personal development as part of the religious experience and sections that don’t. I suspect that the former will grow and the latter will probably shrink and possibly some will die away. It’s not so much a matter of some forms of experience being “better” so much as people choosing what they view is relevant for themselves.

    • I couldn’t have said it better Erulisse. And yes, I was also surprised that all the talk was about digital technology. That’s kind of the smallest of the issues to sort out, since the technology side is happening whether we like it or not.

      I think this part sums up exactly what I think is at stake:

      I suspect that what we will actually see in the case of the Paganism is a more apparent distinction between sections of the movement that emphasize personal experience and personal development as part of the religious experience and sections that don’t. I suspect that the former will grow and the latter will probably shrink and possibly some will die away. It’s not so much a matter of some forms of experience being “better” so much as people choosing what they view is relevant for themselves.

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  13. Kristofski says:

    I enjoyed your “ex-post-modernism” article (though I still think “digitalism” is a much better name), though I have to say that I have issues with this one. The main one being the idea that religions should change the way they work simply because they will get more people that way. Religions/spiritual paths shouldn’t be about playing a numbers game. Surely the whole point of the individualism you talk about is that everyone has different needs and different desires, so everyone will want to do their spirituality in different ways. For some people this will be viewing a live stream of a service along with millions of other people around the world, for others it will be meeting with a small group of friends to work through various rituals and exercises.

    It seems to me that multiplicity is the important thing you’re missing from this theory; one of the main benefits of the digital age is that it is much easier for people with obscure interests or who are outcast to find each other, even if that’s just in the same city, and because this can be done in an informal way there is less need for religions to have permanant homes and make money, and therefore less need for religions to act like businesses and be concerned about numbers.

    • Kristofski, these are excellent, amazing points. I should say first off I’m not suggesting religions should run out and change their practices to get more members, but I do see a trend looming on the horizon about which strategies will be most successful. How an organization balances that trend with their own priorities is up to them. I agree that integrity should always come first.

      However, I don’t think there will ever be a time when formal institutions of religion need to stop fundraising or organizing. (Nor do I think that would be a good thing – fundraising and organizing are critical to effective religion.) Even if religion moves away from large, formal buildings, they will have new costs including the cost of the technology they will use to keep a network going without a meeting place. Digital technology is not free and designers, consultants and similar are extremely pricey. The more members you have, the more digital infrastructure you need, so the costs scale.

      But that’s focusing on one tiny part. I think digitalism is a bad name for this movement is because it’s so narrow. There’s a reason Modernism is called Modernism and not Coalism. Digital technology is one of a dozen powerful factors influencing culture right now, and religion needs to deal with a shift in expectations that goes beyond just streaming their services. At least… that’s my prediction ;)

      • Kristofski says:

        But surely when a religion needs more resources it will be because it has more people involved in it, and so it will easily be able to gather resources? And there are many digital resources that can be got for free or cheap, especially if you are a relatively small and more personal religion (I really dislike it when groups of any kind try and use design etc to make themselves seem like some kind of big fancy organisation when really it’s just a couple of people in their living room. Fair enough if it’s a business trying to make money, but religions should not be run like businesses!)

  14. Kristofski says:

    That post was a bit rambley (I’m quite tired at the moment), but my basic point is that religions shouldn’t be in competition with each other over how many souls they have and it shouldn’t be seen that the “best” religion is the one with the most ticks on the census. This seems very un-ex-po-mo to me.

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