“Forecaster of the Future, Is Dead at 81” headlines the obituary of Anthony J. Wiener in the New York Times.
He and Herman Kahn in 1967 co-authored “The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years,” a book much favored by then-in-vogue “futurists” and many of the rest of us.
The “framework” helped many like me frame writings on a couple of subjects for decades, as evidenced in footnotes or lines in columns.
I recall having used it to respond (favorably) to sociologist Robert Bellah at a conference on “The Culture of Unbelief” in Rome in 1969.
What was the appeal, and what is the challenge of Kahn/Wiener 45 years after they published, and 12 years after the date 2000 bannered in the book’s title?
First was its look at the future of technology. Douglas Martin checked off some “futures” in the Wiener obituary. “Home computers? Check. Artificial organs and limbs? Check. Pagers and ‘perhaps even two-way pocket phones?’ Why, yes.”
What drew me was what we can call “Scenario I: The Secular Cultures.”
Readers could not miss “Table 1: There is a Basic Long-Term Multifold Trend toward: 1. Increasingly Sensate (empirical, this-worldly, secular, humanistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, contractual, epicurean or hedonistic, and the like) cultures.”
However, Kahn and Wiener, who developed corollaries to this Table 1, Scenario I, (among others) throughout the book and in subsequent projects, sounded a bit uneasy about what looked and felt to be obvious, taken-for-granted in mainstream cultures of politics, business, universities, media and the like in Western Europe and North America.
Yes, the secular, as they spelled it out, seemed to be ever more entrenched.
Yes: in the same years the other-worldly lived on, in pop culture, formal religion and the like. Think “New Religious Movements,” “Alternative Medicine,” “The New Mysticism,” “Pentecostalism,” “Eastern Religions,” “Spirituality” and on and on.
The years since 1967 have also seen serious questioning of “the secular hypothesis,” “Enlightenment rationality,” etc. as part of post-modernity.
Were Kahn and Wiener so blinded as not to have room for them? Not at all. They kept their eyes open to counter-trends, and spelled some out. The secular would be challenged. Let them foresee:
“A variety of strange religions would likely spring up in an effort, that would probably fail, to re-explain the universe. Such religions may attempt to glorify man in ways that repudiate the rational and scientific interpretations that have flourished since the Renaissance; or they might be masochistic and denigrative of man. More likely both types would flourish under [certain] conditions.”
The authors quoted major writers who foresaw the end of the “Sensate” culture.
“… Almost all of the nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers of history seem to believe it likely that some new kind of ‘religious’ stage will follow a termination of Sensate culture. This stage could be spiritual and intellectual, rather than rising out of technology … or it could be properly religious, a simple development of Christianity … or it could be a new synthesis of East and West … or something completely different. In any case, it is usually argued that there will be some unpleasant events between the Late Sensate chaos and the new religiosity.”
Two competing and interactive scenarios thrive, after the death of a major foreseer of one of them, Anthony J. Wiener.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.