In a world that seems increasingly polarized, greater religious literacy is indispensable. The Pew Research Center’s data shows that the world is becoming more religious as it becomes more interconnected. As individuals and communities become more connected to one another across cultural boundaries, and as technology increasingly transforms our economies and societies, there is an ever-greater need for people to develop a nuanced understanding of the values, perspectives, and behaviors inspired by different forms of religious activity and belief. Sensitive policymaking, which appreciates and respects the values and principles of faiths worldwide has thus become inevitable, while simultaneously creating challenges for groups who fear the loss of their own identity when confronted by the recognition of others.
It is not just enhanced connectivity, which is driving change. We are at the beginning of a new economic and social period, which I see as the fourth industrial revolution, one unlike any preceding period within the industrial era. A staggering confluence of technological innovations across the physical, digital, and biological spheres are creating disruptive transformations that will leave no aspect of global society untouched. The exponential speed, breadth, and depth of these changes herald shifts in entire systems of production, management, and governance and are transforming the way we work, live, worship, and express our human identity. The constant integration of technology in everyday life is powering major changes in social structure, culture, and behavior, reshaping individuals’ sociability and networks in ever-changing patterns.
The changes underway are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril. As I discuss in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is worrying evidence that recent and upcoming technological advancements may contribute to higher levels of unemployment, exacerbate inequality, and fragment communities both across and within countries. Alternatively, the same breakthroughs have the potential to empower local economies, allow developing countries to rapidly engage in global markets and enhance dialogue across cultures, religions, and geography.
We can only meaningfully address these challenges if we draw on the collective wisdom of our minds, hearts, and souls. This includes all of us, across all sectors and stakeholder groups, taking responsibility for shaping a future that reflects common objectives, values, and ethical principles. We must ensure that we develop and use technologies to empower and strengthen communities rather than disempower and divide them. Furthermore, we should reflect on the everyday choices we make that shape the role of technology in society. The more we think about how best to harness the technology revolution, the more we will engage in self-reflection and examine the underlying social models that technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution to serve the global public interest.
The engagement of religion and faith leaders in defining the moral framework of the fourth industrial revolution is therefore essential. Faith is the most powerful force guiding societal and economic interactions, and it is the source of moral and ethical guidance for individuals and communities. In order for us to increase levels of religious literacy and appreciate better the complex ontologies that link religion, technology and society, we need nuanced, constructive conversations among religious leaders and with their followers about the ethical standards that should apply to emerging technological innovations. Only then can we start to discern a common, positive, and coherent narrative that overcomes the fragmenting power of technology in favor of its unifying elements.
This is a task easier said than done. While interreligious dialogue is occurring in many ways, in many places and on many topics around the world, there is still much to be done to raise awareness regarding the importance of engaging with different religions. In addition, efforts must also be made to increase the general sensitivity towards, and knowledge of, religious beliefs and doctrines, which are often portrayed as diametrically opposed.
Perhaps the core challenge facing those engaged in this task is that negative, violent and intolerant behaviors are often linked to the practice of religion in media headlines. Shared messages of peace, equality, and tolerance are thus overshadowed by reports of extremist and violent behaviors, which often favor the creation of stark divisions and—in worse cases—brutal conflicts. The rise of radicalism and the latest waves of extremism that have inundated the world are of deep concern, as is the misuse of religious vocabularies to serve political, ideological and, ultimately, earthly purposes.
Indeed, despite the world having become overall more peaceful, an increase in religious hostilities has been recorded worldwide and has been accompanied by a rise of non-state actors supposedly motivated by religion. All of this creates significant confusion and angst for people trying to appreciate the role of religions other than their own in modern life. Only a concerted effort to increase religious literacy can appropriately counter the propagation of such harmful narratives.
From its inception, the World Economic Forum has recognized the significance of faith and values in guiding societal and economic interactions. As the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, the Forum engages leaders of diverse faith traditions to contribute to multi-faceted and nuanced discussions of economic, social, and political development. The Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith is developing a toolkit for business and government leaders to encourage a deeper understanding of the impact religion and faith have on society, extending invitations to governments and companies to engage religious people more openly in world affairs and key ethical debates. By integrating faith communities into global, regional and industry agendas, the Forum aspires to foster elements of inclusiveness and tolerance, and harness the power of values and principles. This is to keep the human being—and what I call “inspired intelligence”—at the center of efforts to improve the state of the world.
Indeed, navigating and shaping the fourth industrial revolution will require us to master multiple different “intelligences.” Most obviously, we need new approaches to contextual intelligence—the ability to understand and apply knowledge across a wide range of topics, sectors, and stakeholders. The fourth industrial revolution, however, also demands increased emotional intelligence—the ability to process and integrate our emotions and feelings and those of others to remain sensitive to impacts outside our own experience. It certainly requires physical intelligence—the ability to carefully support our own vitality and energy while operating in volatile, challenging, and often stressful environments.
Perhaps the most important today, however, is the need for inspired intelligence—nourishing our spiritual and creative faculties to ensure that we retain and build a collective moral consciousness that allows us to work together to overcome both common and individual challenges. Religion and faith are not just the wellspring of this consciousness; they also offer rich philosophy and transformative experiences that connect us to the ineffable.
We are in the midst of an incredible social, political, ecological, and economic transformation. The speed and types of changes we are experiencing require greater appreciation for nuance and human understanding, as well as deeper connections to one another. Religion, spiritual beliefs, and faith have the ability to explore new forms of modernity while staying connected to the nourishing aspects of our traditional value systems. We must therefore take every opportunity to draw on the power of faith to catalyze a new cultural renaissance that will enable us to be part of something much larger than ourselves—a global, connected civilization.
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