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The Future of Religion Is an API
How to "port in" world wisdom wherever you are
Adapted from a presentation I gave at the most recent MTA Conference.
I could start by saying that an API is an application programming interface, but that’s boring and clarifies nothing.
So let me instead start with an example.
Say that you’re ordering a ride in an Uber. You type in where you want to go, and their app calculates the directions to tell you the cost of the drive.
This experience works partly because Uber has paid Google millions of dollars to use the Google Maps API, an API that ports Google’s map data directly into the Uber experience.
Why would Uber do this? Because Uber doesn’t have the ability to map the entire world. So rather than build all that from scratch, they’ve used (via an API) what Google has already built.
An API ports in data from somewhere else. Plug and play.
The process has also been compared to a waiter at a restaurant. You sit down and order your food and then the waiter takes your order to the kitchen and brings your food to you.
Likewise, an API takes a command (“drive me to the airport”), and translates that to a data source and back.
Here’s a visual:
Because APIs help programmers build on what’s already been created, they’ve taken off in recent years. Web APIs alone have increased more than 10x since 2005.
How is the future of religion an API?
Again, I’ll start with an example.
A reporter once asked the Dalai Lama what he’d say to Americans who wanted to become Buddhists. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Learn from Buddhism if that is good for you. But do it as a Christian, a Jew or whatever you are.”
The Dalai Lama advised Christians to port in concepts from Buddhism.
I don’t interpret the Dalai Lama as saying that no one should ever change religions or belief systems. I just hear him acknowledging that Buddhism is embedded in certain cultural contexts from India, Thailand, China, and Japan — and that it’s typically not worth trying to force all those cultural contexts into your life if you haven’t previously had much experience with them. Instead, it’s better to port the best ideas from Buddhism into your own cultural context, whether it be religious or secular.
It’s an approach that happens the other way around as well.
One story tells of a university student who visited a Zen master and asked if he’d ever read the Christian Bible. When the Zen master said he hadn’t, the student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
“Whoever uttered those words,” the Zen master said, “I consider an enlightened man.”
The Zen master didn’t convert to Christianity, but he “ported in” this Christian idea into his own worldview.
In some sense, this process of “porting in” ideas has always been a quality of religions. In academic circles, it’s called syncretism — the process of merging separate ideas together as one. It’s seen in Islamic-style arches in Christian cathedrals, Buddhist temples attached to Shinto shrines, Egyptian gods in Greco-Roman form, etc.
Human beings can’t help but take aspects of ideas they like from the cultures they’re surrounded by. They port these ideas into their own worldview.
It’s rampant in my own Latter-day Saint heritage, where the surrounding Christian American culture gets woven into meetings. People express reverence for America’s founders, quote Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis in general conference, play Christian pop music at Especially for Youth. It’s all ported in from the surrounding culture.
But we’re facing something bigger than traditional syncretism today.
Why? Because we live in an increasingly connected world. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to encounter wisdom from dozens of traditions at once. The Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the poetry of Rumi — it’s all instantly available.
Some people may see this accessibility as a threat to traditional institutions. And in a way, it is. No culture exposed long enough to another can remain the same.
But it doesn’t need to be a threat. It can be an opportunity—an opportunity to port enriching ideas, stories, and practices from around the world. Like the Apostle Paul wrote, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Just as we now have access to technology that maps the entire world (allowing us to get anywhere we need through the power of APIs), we also now have access to the entire world’s wisdom. We should port this wisdom into our cultural experience and enjoy how our cultural experience evolves.
In this way, the future of religion is an API.
Questions and (Attempted) Answers
After my presentation, several people asked questions. Here is my recollection of a few of those questions along with my answers.
What’s an example of an API that Latter-day Saints could offer?
When I was asked this question, I couldn’t think of a good answer. Since then, I’ve realized that data from the site JustServe.org—which helps people find service opportunities in their area—could make for a perfect API (and may already being used in that way). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could offer the data from JustServe.org to other religions and service organizations, and these other institutions could then offer the data to their members in their own apps. The value for the Church is that this move would build good will. The value for the other institutions is that they wouldn’t have to build this database from scratch.
How can the future of religion be an API when those who have embraced syncretism have historically been disempowered?
It’s true that monotheistic religions—particularly Christianity and Islam—have often overpowered polytheistic religions. But syncretism is still rife inside of monotheism. To name one example: Christianity is the result of porting in Jewish texts into Greek and Roman philosophies about the divine. And the religion dominates to this day largely because it merged a story about a child born in a manger with a militaristic empire to become the universal religion (which is literally what the word “catholic” means). This empire then conquered all of northern Europe and then the Americas, converting millions of people in its wake. Without merging with this empire, Christianity would not have so many adherents today, so it seems to me that 1) syncretism is happening all the time, and 2) syncretism isn’t necessarily a threat to institutions but part of their evolution, for good and for bad (depending on your view).
Still, this question is perceptive. Is it possible for a religion to thrive if it truly believes wisdom can come from anywhere? Doesn’t it need rigid hierarchies—to say, “This source of wisdom is the true source”—to grow? I have to admit that historically it seems that starkly defined canons seem to increase adherents. I have my doubts this will continue to work in a hyper-connected world, but time will tell.
Isn’t this idea of an API equivalent to sleeping with lots of people rather than being faithful to one person? And isn’t there a downside to all this?
No, the metaphor of an API isn’t equivalent to sleeping with lots of people. Instead, it’s more about taking whatever is true, beautiful, and good and integrating it into whatever relationships you already have.
But yes, there are risks and potential downsides. When you “port in” new ideas, your relationships (to people and to the institutions you belong to) evolve. These relationships may look quite different—so different, in fact, that some people might think you’ve completely lost your way. When this happens, it can strain certain relationships, resulting in loneliness or even at times a complete loss.
So yes, there are downsides. But they are the downsides that come with growth.
Put simply, I’m saying is that since we now live in a hyper-connected world, it’s inevitable that religions will “port in” ideas from around the world. Given this, we should 1) be aware that it’s happening, and 2) ensure that we’re deliberately porting in ideas that are generative for us and our communities.
There are many ways to do this. For my part, I’m working on a slowly growing wisdom library for kids from traditions around the world—a library I hope becomes a literal API one day.
Have you seen other examples? If so, I’d love to know.