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What will religion look like in the next 100 years?
Posted at: Aug/13/2019 : Posted by: Mel Mann
Related Category: Religion, Society,
Many years ago my father told me that there were “3 sins of polite conversation: religion, sex and politics.” Since many people tell me I am terrible at obeying rules, it seems only fair that I delve into religion and disobey my father one more time. People have a knack for getting attached to their religions and believing they are wonderful and will never change. Despite these attachments and the security they bring, religions and their institutions have continuously transformed.
Have you heard of Zoroastrianism? Before Mohammed, Jesus or Buddha, there was Zoroaster and the belief in him lasted over a thousand years. Approximately 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, there was Zoroaster, likely the first version of the one supreme God approach to organized religion. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great monotheistic religion, was the official faith of the mighty Persian Empire. The followers of Zoroastrianism attended great fire temples. With the collapse of the empire, the followers of Zoroaster were persecuted and converted to the new faith of their conquerors, Islam.
Zoroastrianism is still around today, but is consider a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.
Historians and Anthropologists have made it clear that religions are born, grow and die, and we easily accept that truth for all religions but our own. We are oddly blind to that reality if it is our personal religious faith. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognize a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. Especially when looking at our own faith, we have the need to perceive it as permanent and timeless. Yet when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek and Norse gods are no longer considered holy writings, instead their legends, are reserved for study and discussion in a college classroom or as a foundation in fantasy.
Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, was a truly broad church: ancient documents include stories about Jesus’ family life and testaments to the nobility of Judas. It took three centuries for the Christian church to consolidate around a canon of scriptures (Council of Nicaea). In 1054 Christianity split into two main organizations: the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Since then, Christianity has continued both to grow and to splinter into ever more disparate groups, from stanch Calvinist to snake-handling Pentecostals.
It is comforting to believe your core religion has arrived at the one and only ultimate truth, and therefore will no longer change. Using history as a guide, no matter how deeply held our religiously based beliefs may be today, they are likely to be transformed, challenged or transferred as they pass to our descendants, or simply to fade into faint cultural references in a boring college text.
If religions have changed so dramatically in the past, there are some key questions facing its future. What will religion look like in the future? Is there any substance to the claim that belief in gods will die out altogether? As our civilization and its technologies become increasingly complex, could entirely new forms of worship emerge?
One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th Century French Enlightenment writer, who wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Because Voltaire was an established critic of organized religion, this quote is often referenced cynically, but many scholars believe he was being perfectly sincere. He was arguing that belief in God is necessary for society to function, even if he clearly didn’t approve of the monopoly the church held over what form belief ought to take. The broad idea that a shared faith serves the needs of a society is known as the functionalist view of religion. There are many functionalist hypotheses, from the idea that religion is the “opium of the masses”, used by the powerful to control the poor, to the proposal that faith supports the abstract intellectualism required for science and law. One recurring theme is social cohesion: religion brings together a community. With a common purpose it is easier to form a hunting party, raise a temple or support a political party.
Any religion that endures has to offer its believers tangible benefits. Christianity, for example, was just one of many religious movements that came and mostly went during the course of the Roman Empire. In that period it was set apart by its ethos of caring for the less fortunate – meaning more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan Romans. Islam, too, initially attracted followers by emphasizing honor, humility and charity – qualities which were not common in 7th-Century Arabia.
Given these examples of filling a society’s needs, it is reasonable that different societies will invent the particular gods they need. Conversely, we might expect similar societies to have similar religions, even if they have developed in isolation. And there is some evidence for that. Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – have supernatural aspects and that the world has supernatural forces. These religions generally lack a specific human morality or abstract codes of conduct.
At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes violently enforces a moral codes (Yahweh, Christ and Allah). While not necessarily a direct cause and effect, it is interesting that most societies of large numbers of strangers also worship these all-powerful, or “big-gods.” Sharing a faith seems to help people to co-exist. Of course it could be the knowledge that Big God is watching that encourages us behave better.
As science provides more and more tools to understand our world, secularism also grows. Now many of us follow more laws handed down by government than shared by Moses. Soviet Russia and China adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression. Many speculated that by the 21st Century, religious believers would only be found in small sects. Now that we’re in the 21st Century, that speculation has been proven false. Nevertheless, participation in organized religion seems to be fading. In its place secularism is clearly on the rise in wealthy and stable countries like Sweden and Japan, but surveys show that checking the “none” box is becoming more common in the Arab world and Latin America as well.
Choosing “none” on a form does not mean that religion is disappearing, in fact it appears to be growing at a modest rate according to a Pew Research Center study in 2015. More interesting is that the study found that when people are faced with a cataclysmic event they look to religion for answers. As an example; the people affected by the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders who did not suffer.
As in so much of what we say, terminology matters. “Nones”, (those who answer “None” to questions about their religion), may be disinterested in organized religion, but the studies don’t specifically say those people identify as atheist. There appear to be very many ways of being an unbeliever or non-participant. There is a cliché on one of the dating websites when creating a profile “spiritual, but not religious.” Like many clichés, it’s likely rooted in truth. Linda Woodhead wrote The Spiritual Revolution, in which she described a shift in the British town of Kendal from organized religion towards a more self-guided practice of faith.
Woodhead says “Religions do well, and always have done, when they are subjectively convincing – when you have the sense that God is working for you.” In poorer societies, you might pray for good fortune or a stable job. The “prosperity gospel” is central to several of America’s megachurches, whose congregations are often dominated by economically insecure congregations. Ultimately, if your basic needs are well catered for, you are more likely to be seeking fulfilment and meaning from your religion. Traditional religion is failing to deliver on this, particularly where doctrine collides with the rapid changes of contemporary society.
The “nones” don’t actually seem to be atheists or secularists, but a mixture of “apatheists” – people who simply don’t care about religion – and practitioners of what some call “disorganized religion”. The major world religions are likely to persist and evolve, but there is a growth in the small religions jostling for recognition. Of course, the New Atheists will argue that religion amounts to little more than superstition, and abandoning these will enable societies to evolve and improve. Does that mean “capitalism” can become a religion?
If Big Gods and shared faiths are key to social cohesion, what happens without them?
Semi-religious social order might work well during good times, but when our social contract is challenged (economic instability, cataclysmic event, culture wars, etc.) the state sponsored religion and strongman politics seem to thrive. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is Hindu nationalists in India, Christian evangelicals in the US, or radical clerics in the Middle East. Yet social change clearly undermines religions which don’t adjust in a timely manner to an evolving society. Recently Pope Francis warned that if the Catholic Church didn’t acknowledge its history of male domination and sexual abuse it risked becoming “a museum”. Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support.
It appears that all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.
Zoroastrianism benefited from its adoption by the successive Persian dynasties. Christianity did not really thrive until it was adopted by the Roman Empire. In western countries, this support is unlikely except where evangelism is present (the US). As the social landscape shifts, religions tend to fall behind. For some people this void leaves a disenchantment and eventual departure from their organized religion. For others, this void may be an opportunity to explore other religious movements.
Maybe the next great religious movement will arise online?
A few years ago, members on the community website LessWrong began discussing the concept of an omnipotent, super-intelligent machine with the qualities of a deity, including Old Testament like vengefulness. This machine got named Roko’s Basilisk. The dogma is difficult to follow, but basically it states when a benevolent super-intelligence emerges, it will want to do as much good as possible. The earlier Roko’s Basilisk comes into existence, the better it will be able to do. So to encourage everyone to do everything possible to help to bring it into existence, it will perpetually and retroactively torture those who don’t. If this is the first you’ve heard of Roko’s Basilisk, don’t worry: the internet is a great place for obscure facts and ideas on unique tangents.
Roko’s Basilisk caused quite a stir when it was first suggested. Eventually the administrators of LessWrong banned its continued discussion. Predictably, that only made the idea explode across the geekier parts of the internet. Roko’s Basilisk was initially proposed as a “thought experiment” and yet it flirted with becoming the foundation for a new faith or belief system.
Esoteric beliefs have arisen throughout history, but with the aid of the internet it is much easier to find and build a community of believers around unique ideas. A far cry from shouting out an unorthodox belief in a medieval town square and being branded a heretic.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) entrepreneur Anthony Levandowski founded the “Church of Artificial Intelligence.” As formally stated: The goal of this new church is to create a transition to a world mostly run by super-intelligent machines. I am reminded of the limitations of Isaac Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics and the ultimate doom of Skynet in the Terminator movie. Optimistically, any sincere search for truth is supposed to be good, but does this mean we should be sending our weekly tithing to our internet service provider?
The 2011 UK census found that Jediism, the fictional faith of the Jedi Order in the Star Wars movie franchise had nearly 300,000 followers (down from a high of 400,000 in 2001). While some say it was started as a tongue-in-cheek prank; that is too many people not to be taken seriously. The Temple of the Jedi Order claims its members are “real people that live or lived their lives according to the principles of Jediism” – inspired by fiction, but based on the real-life philosophies that informed it. The UK government refused to recognize Jediism as a legitimate religion arguing they do not have a “Supreme Being.” If that is a reasonable standard for a government-recognized religion, then the 520 Million practicing Buddhist worldwide should feel outed.
Religious recognition is a complex issue worldwide, particularly since there is no widely accepted definition of religion even in academic circles. Skepticism about practitioners’ motives impede many new movements from being recognized as genuine religions, whether by officialdom or by the public at large. But ultimately the acid test, as true for any faith, is whether people make significant changes to their lives consistent with their stated dogma. Official status or recognition by a government may be irrelevant if you can win thousands or even millions of followers to your cause. Of course, by this definition the Keto diet might qualify as a religion.
Large societies have garnered their rules both from government and from religion. In particular, excluding Communist countries, government institutions have always referenced or sponsored religion. American courts and currency are all branded with “In God We Trust.” It would be difficult to believe that organized religion is fading into history. Nevertheless, when religion cannot evolve as fast as the world at large, people seek their guidance from other sources. Yet, when calamity strikes, people seem to return to religion as a means of explaining the unexplainable. History has shown that government needs religion as much as religion needs government to maintain order. Look no further than the Protestant Reformation to validate the chaos that results when religion and government are at odds.
The answer to all this is that there may really be no clear picture of how religion will look in 100 years. The biggest challenge to organized religion is the rapidly changing issues and morals of modern society. If religion does not change fast enough, you lose those who are seeking answers to their times. If religion changes too fast, you lose the adherents because you have altered their reason for membership. In large societies, the partnership between religion and government is critical to the stability of both. Government needs religion to help maintain order. People as well, even if they do not participate in an organized faith still seem to seek the stability of a “big god” or some kind of organized values system. Despite all our science and technology, religion is still relevant to helping man explain those things that do not fit any other formula. This may explain why “spiritual, but not religious” is such a popular answer.