What is the future of religion?
Another 1,500 years later – today – Zoroastrianism is a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.
We take it for granted that religions are born, grow, and die – but we are also oddly blind to that reality. 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. And when religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek, and Norse pantheons are now considered legends, not holy writ.
Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, was a truly broad church: ancient documents include yarns 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 – and then in 1054, it split into the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Since then, Christianity has continued both to grow and to splinter into ever more disparate groups, from silent Quakers to snake-handling Pentecostalists.
If you believe your faith has arrived at the ultimate truth, you might reject the idea that it will change at all. But if history is any guide, no matter how deeply held our beliefs may be today, they are likely in time to be transformed or transferred as they pass to our descendants – or simply to fade away.
If religions have changed so dramatically in the past, how might they change in the future? Is there any substance to the claim that belief in gods and deities will die out altogether? And as our civilization and its technologies become increasingly complex, could entirely new forms of worship emerge?
To answer these questions, a good starting point is to ask: why do we have religion in the first place?
Reason to believe
One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th Century French polymath, who wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”Because Voltaire was a trenchant critic of organized religion, this quip is often quoted cynically. But in fact, he was being perfectly sincere. He was arguing that belief in God is necessary for society to function, even if he didn’t approve of the monopoly the church held over that belief.
Many modern students of religion agree. 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, who might then form a hunting party, raise a temple or support a political party.
Those faiths that endure are “the long-term products of extraordinarily complex cultural pressures, selection processes, and evolution”, writes Connor Wood of the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston, Massachusetts on the religious reference website Patheos, where he blogs about the scientific study of religion. New religious movements are born all the time, but most don’t survive long. They must compete with other faiths for followers and survive potentially hostile social and political environments.
Under this argument, any religion that does endure has to offer its adherents tangible benefits. Christianity, for example, was just one of many religious movements that came and mostly went during the course of the Roman Empire. According to Wood, it was set apart by its ethos of caring for the sick – meaning more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan Romans. Islam, too, initially attracted followers by emphasizing honor, humility, and charity – qualities that were not endemic in turbulent 7th-Century Arabia. (Read about the “light triad” traits that can make you a good person.)
Given this, we might expect the form that religion takes to follow the function it plays in a particular society – or as Voltaire might have put it, 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 – although when it comes to religion, there are always exceptions to any rule.
Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects – whether animals, vegetables, or minerals – have supernatural aspects (animism) and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces (animatism). These must be understood and respected; human morality generally doesn’t figure significantly. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately. (An exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion, is still widely practiced in hyper-modern Japan.)
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 enforces, moral instructions: Yahweh, Christ, and Allah. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan argues it was a belief in these “Big Gods” that allowed the formation of societies made up of large numbers of strangers. Whether that belief constitutes cause or effect has recently been disputed, but the upshot is that sharing a faith allows people to co-exist (relatively) peacefully. The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves.
Or at least, it did. Today, many of our societies are huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths co-exist with each other – and with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world.
Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.
Imagine there’s no heaven
Powerful intellectual and political currents have driven this proposition since the early 20th Century. Sociologists argued that the march of science was leading to the “disenchantment” of society: supernatural answers to the big questions were no longer felt to be needed. Communist states like Soviet Russia and China adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression. In 1968, the eminent sociologist Peter Berger told the New York Times that by “the 21st Century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture”.
Now that we’re actually in the 21st Century, Berger’s view remains an article of faith for many secularists – although Berger himself recanted in the 1990s. His successors are emboldened by surveys showing that in many countries, increasing numbers of people are saying they have no religion. That’s most true in rich, stable countries like Sweden and Japan, but also, perhaps more surprisingly, in places like Latin America and the Arab world. Even in the US, long a conspicuous exception to the axiom that richer countries are more secular, the number of “nones” has been rising sharply. In the 2018 General Social Survey of US attitudes, “no religion” became the single largest group, edging out evangelical Christians.
Despite this, religion is not disappearing on a global scale – at least in terms of numbers. In 2015, the Pew Research Center modelled the future of the world’s great religions based on demographics, migration, and conversion. Far from a precipitous decline in religiosity, it predicted a modest increase in believers, from 84% of the world’s population today to 87% in 2050. Muslims would grow in number to match Christians, while the number unaffiliated with any religion would decline slightly.
We also need to be careful when interpreting what people mean by “no religion”. “Nones” may be disinterested in organized religion, but that doesn’t mean they are militantly atheist. In 1994, the sociologist Grace Davie classified people according to whether they belonged to a religious group and/or believed in a religious position. The traditionally religious both belonged and believed; hardcore atheists did neither. Then some belong but don’t believe – parents attending church to get a place for their child at a faith school, perhaps. And, finally, some belief in something, but don’t belong to any group.
The research suggests that the last two groups are significant. The Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent in the UK is conducting a three-year, six-nation survey of attitudes among those who say they don’t believe God exists (“atheists”) and those who don’t think it’s possible to know if God exists (“agnostics”). In interim results released in May 2019, the researchers found that few unbelievers identify themselves by these labels, with significant minorities opting for a religious identity.
What’s more, around three-quarters of atheists and nine out of 10 agnostics are open to the existence of supernatural phenomena, including everything from astrology to supernatural beings and life after death. Unbelievers “exhibit significant diversity both within and between, different countries.
Accordingly, there are very many ways of being an unbeliever”, the report concluded – including, notably, the dating-website cliche “spiritual, but not religious”. Like many cliches, it’s rooted in truth. But what does it mean?
The old gods return
In 2005, Linda Woodhead wrote The Spiritual Revolution, in which she described an intensive study of belief in the British town of Kendal. Woodhead and her co-author found that people were rapidly turning away from organized religion, with its emphasis on fitting into an established order of things, towards practices designed to accentuate and foster individuals’ sense of who they are. If the town’s Christian churches did not embrace this shift, they concluded, congregations would dwindle into irrelevance while self-guided practices would become the mainstream in a “spiritual revolution”.
Today, Woodhead says that revolution has taken place – and not just in Kendal. Organized religion is waning in the UK, with no real end in sight. “Religions do well, and always have done, when they are subjectively convincing – when you have the sense that God is working for you,” says Woodhead, now professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK.
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. But if your basic needs are well catered for, you are more likely to be seeking fulfillment and meaning. Traditional religion is failing to deliver on this, particularly where doctrine clashes with moral convictions that arise from secular society – on gender equality, say.
In response, people have started constructing faiths of their own.
What do these self-directed religions look like? One approach is syncretism, the “pick, and mix” approach of combining traditions and practices that often results from the mixing of cultures. Many religions have syncretistic elements, although over time they are assimilated and become unremarkable. Festivals like Christmas and Easter, for example, have archaic pagan elements, while daily practice for many people in China involves a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The joins are easier to see in relatively young religions, such as Vodoun or Rastafarianism.
An alternative is to streamline. New religious movements often seek to preserve the central tenets of an older religion while stripping it of trappings that may have become stifling or old-fashioned. In the West, one form this takes is for humanists to rework religious motifs: there have been attempts to rewrite the Bible without any supernatural elements, calls for the construction of “atheist temples” dedicated to contemplation. And the “Sunday Assembly” aims to recreate the atmosphere of a lively church service without reference to God. But without the deep roots of traditional religions, these can struggle: the Sunday Assembly, after initial rapid expansion, is now reportedly struggling to keep up its momentum.
But Woodhead thinks the religions that might emerge from the current turmoil will have much deeper roots. The first generation of spiritual revolutionaries, coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, were optimistic and universalist in outlook, happy to take inspiration from faiths around the world. Their grandchildren, however, are growing up in a world of geopolitical stresses and socioeconomic angst; they are more likely to hark back to supposedly simpler times. “There is a pull away from global universality to local identities,” says Woodhead.
This article is part of a BBC Future series about the long view of humanity, which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle and widen the lens of our current place in time.
Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” she wrote.
That’s why the Deep Civilisation season is exploring what matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for us and our descendants.
“They must be your gods, they weren’t just made up.”In the European context, this sets the stage for a resurgence of interest in paganism. Reinventing half-forgotten “native” traditions allows the expression of modern concerns while retaining the patina of age. Paganism also often features divinities that are more like diffuse forces than anthropomorphic gods; that allows people to focus on issues they feel sympathetic toward without having to make a leap of faith in supernatural deities.
In Iceland, for example, the small but fast-growing Ásatrú faith has no particular doctrine beyond somewhat arch celebrations of Old Norse customs and mythology but has been active on social and ecological issues. Similar movements exist across Europe, such as Druidry in the UK. Not all are liberally inclined. Some are motivated by a desire to return to what they see as conservative “traditional” values – leading in some cases to clashes over the validity of opposing beliefs.
These are niche activities at the moment, and might sometimes be more about playing with symbolism than heartfelt spiritual practice. But over time, they can evolve into more heartfelt and coherent belief systems: Woodhead points to the robust adoption of Rodnovery – an often conservative and patriarchal pagan faith based around the reconstructed beliefs and traditions of the ancient Slavs – in the former Soviet Union as a potential exemplar of things to come.
So the nones mostly represent not atheists, nor even secularists, but a mixture of “apatheists” – people who simply don’t care about religion – and practitioners of what you might call “disorganized religion”. While the world religions are likely to persist and evolve for the foreseeable future, we might for the rest of this century see an efflorescence of relatively small religions jostling to break out among these groups. But if Big Gods and shared faiths are key to social cohesion, what happens without them?
One nation under Mammon
One answer, of course, is that we simply get on with our lives. Munificent economies, good government, solid education, and effective rule of law can ensure that we rub along happily without any kind of religious framework. And indeed, some of the societies with the highest proportions of non-believers are among the most secure and harmonious on Earth.
What remains debatable, however, is whether they can afford to be irreligious because they have strong secular institutions – or whether being secular has helped them achieve social stability. Religionists say even secular institutions have religious roots: civil legal systems, for example, codify ideas about justice based on social norms established by religions. The likes of the New Atheists, on the other hand, argue that religion amounts to little more than superstition, and abandoning it will enable societies to improve their lot more effectively.
Connor Wood is not so sure. He contends that a strong, stable society like Sweden’s is both extremely complex and very expensive to run in terms of labour, money, and energy – and that might not be sustainable even in the short term. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’re entering into a period of non-linear change in social systems,” he says. “The Western consensus on a combination of market capitalism and democracy can’t be taken for granted.”
That’s a problem since that combination has radically transformed the social environment from the one in which the world religions evolved – and has to some extent supplanted them.
“I’d be careful about calling capitalism a religion, but a lot of its institutions have religious elements, as in all spheres of human institutional life,” says Wood. “The ‘invisible hand’ of the market almost seems like a supernatural entity.”
Financial exchanges, where people meet to conduct the highly ritualized trading activity, seem quite like temples to Mammon, too. Religions, even the defunct ones, can provide uncannily appropriate metaphors for many of the more intractable features of modern life.
A Roman Catholic priest officiates mass on the first day of trading at the Philippine Stock Exchange in Manila (Credit: Getty Images)
The pseudo-religious social order might work well when times are good. But when the social contract becomes stressed – through identity politics, culture wars, or economic instability – Wood suggests the consequence is what we see today: the rise of authoritarians in the country after country. He cites research showing that people ignore authoritarian pitches until they sense a deterioration of social norms.
“This is the human-animal looking around and saying we don’t agree on how we should behave,” Wood says. “And we need authority to tell us.” It’s suggestive that political strongmen are often handed in glove with religious fundamentalists: Hindu nationalists in India, say, or Christian evangelicals in the US. That’s a potent combination for believers and an unsettling one for secularists: can anything bridge the gap between them?
Mind the gap
Perhaps one of the major religions might change its form enough to win back non-believers in significant numbers. There is precedent for this: in the 1700s, Christianity was ailing in the US, and has become dull and formal even as the Age of Reason saw secular rationalism in the ascendant. A new guard of traveling fire-and-brimstone preachers successfully reinvigorated the faith, setting the tone for centuries to come – an event called the “Great Awakenings”.
The parallels with today are easy to draw, but Woodhead is sceptical that Christianity or other world religions can make up the ground they have lost, in the long term. Once the founders of libraries and universities, they are no longer the key sponsors of intellectual thought. Social change undermines religions that don’t accommodate it: earlier this year, Pope Francis warned that if the Catholic Church didn’t acknowledge its history of male domination and sexual abuse it risked becoming “a museum”. And their tendency to claim we sit at the pinnacle of creation is undermined by a growing sense that humans are not so very significant in the grand scheme of things.
Perhaps a new religion will emerge to fill the void? Again, Woodhead is sceptical. “Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,” she says, “and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.” Zoroastrianism benefited from its adoption by the successive Persian dynasties; the turning point for Christianity came when it was adopted by the Roman Empire. In the secular West, such support is unlikely to be forthcoming, with the possible exception of the US. In Russia, by contrast, the nationalistic overtones of both Rodnovery and the Orthodox church win them tacit political backing.
But today, there’s another possible source of support: the internet.
Online movements gain followers at rates unimaginable in the past. The Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” has become a self-evident truth for many technologists and plutocrats. #MeToo started as a hashtag expressing anger and solidarity but now stands for real changes to long-standing social norms. And Extinction Rebellion has striven, with considerable success, to trigger a radical shift in attitudes to the crises in climate change and biodiversity.
None of these are religions, of course, but they do share parallels with nascent belief systems – particularly that key functionalist objective of fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. Some have confessional and sacrificial elements, too. So, given time and motivation, could something more explicitly religious grow out of an online community? What new forms of religion might these online “congregations” come up with?
We already have some ideas.
Deus ex machina
A few years ago, members of the self-declared “Rationalist” community website LessWrong began discussing a thought experiment about an omnipotent, super-intelligent machine – with many of the qualities of a deity and something of the Old Testament God’s vengeful nature.
It was called Roko’s Basilisk. The full proposition is a complicated logic puzzle, but crudely put, it goes that when a benevolent super-intelligence emerges, it will want to do as much good as possible – and the earlier it comes into existence, the more good 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 – including anyone who so much as learns of its potential existence. (If this is the first you’ve heard of it: sorry!)
Outlandish though it might seem, Roko’s Basilisk caused quite a stir when it was first suggested on LessWrong – enough for discussion of it to be banned by the site’s creator. Predictably, that only made the idea explode across the internet – or at least the geekier parts of it – with references to the Basilisk popping up everywhere from news sites to Doctor Who, despite protestations from some Rationalists that no one took it seriously. Their case was not helped by the fact that many Rationalists are strongly committed to other startling ideas about artificial intelligence, ranging from AIs that destroy the world by accident to human-machine hybrids that would transcend all mortal limitations.
Such esoteric beliefs have arisen throughout history, but the ease with which we can now build a community around them is new. “We’ve always had new forms of religiosity, but we haven’t always had to enable spaces for them,” says Beth Singler, who studies the social, philosophical, and religious implications of AI at the University of Cambridge. “Going out into a medieval town square and shouting out your unorthodox beliefs was going to get you labelled a heretic, not win converts to your cause.”
The mechanism may be new, but the message isn’t. The Basilisk argument is in much the same spirit as Pascal’s Wager. The 17th-Century French mathematician suggested non-believers should nonetheless go through the motions of religious observance, just in case a vengeful God does turn out to exist. The idea of punishment as an imperative to cooperate is reminiscent of Norenzayan’s “Big Gods”. And arguments over ways to evade the Basilisk’s gaze are every bit as convoluted as the medieval Scholastics’ attempts to square human freedom with divine oversight.
Even the technological trappings aren’t new. In 1954, Fredric Brown wrote a (very) short story called “Answer”, in which a galaxy-spanning supercomputer is turned on and asked: is there a God? Now there is, comes the reply.
And some people, like AI entrepreneur Anthony Levandowski, think their holy objective is to build a super-machine that will one day answer just as Brown’s fictional machine did. Levandowski, who made a fortune through self-driving cars, hit the headlines in 2017 when it became public knowledge that he had founded a church, Way of the Future, dedicated to bringing about a peaceful transition to a world mostly run by super-intelligent machines. While his vision sounds more benevolent than Roko’s Basilisk, the church’s creed still includes the ominous lines: “We believe it may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is not. We plan on doing so by keeping track of who has done what (and for how long) to help the peaceful and respectful transition.”
“There are many ways people think of God, and thousands of flavors of Christianity, Judaism, Islam,” Levandowski told Wired. “But they’re always looking at something that’s not measurable or you can’t see or control. This time it’s different. This time you will be able to talk to God, literally, and know that it’s listening.”
Levandowski is not alone. In his bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the foundations of modern civilization are eroding in the face of an emergent religion he calls “dataism”, which holds that by giving ourselves over to information flows, we can transcend our earthly concerns and ties. Other fledgling transhumanist religious movements focus on immortality – a new spin on the promise of eternal life. Still, others ally themselves with older faiths, notably Mormonism.
Are these movements for real? Some groups are performing or “hacking” religion to win support for transhumanist ideas, says Singler. “Unreligions” seek to dispense with the supposedly unpopular strictures or irrational doctrines of conventional religion, and so might appeal to the irreligious. The Turing Church, founded in 2011, has a range of cosmic tenets – “We will go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods, and resurrect the dead” – but no hierarchy, rituals, or proscribed activities and only one ethical maxim: “Try to act with love and compassion toward other sentient beings.”
But as missionary religions know, what begins as a mere flirtation or idle curiosity – perhaps piqued by a resonant statement or appealing ceremony – can end in a sincere search for truth.
The 2001 UK census found that Jediism, the fictional faith observed by the good guys in Star Wars, was the fourth largest religion: nearly 400,000 people had been inspired to claim it, initially by a tongue-in-cheek online campaign. Ten years later, it had dropped to seventh place, leading many to dismiss it as a prank. But as Singler notes, that is still an awful lot of people – and a lot longer than most viral campaigns endure.
Some branches of Jediism remain jokey, but others take themselves more 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 the fiction, but based on the real-life philosophies that informed it.
With those sorts of numbers, Jediism “should” have been recognized as a religion in the UK. But officials who assumed it was not a genuine census answer did not record it as such. “A lot is measured against the Western Anglophone tradition of religion,” says Singler. Scientology was barred from recognition as a religion for many years in the UK because it did not have a Supreme Being – something that could also be said of Buddhism.
Recognition is a complex issue worldwide, particularly since that there is no widely accepted definition of religion even in academic circles. Communist Vietnam, for example, is officially atheist and often cited as one of the world’s most irreligious countries – but sceptics say this is really because official surveys don’t capture the huge proportion of the population who practice folk religion. On the other hand, official recognition of Ásatrú, the Icelandic pagan faith, meant it was entitled to its share of a “faith tax”; as a result, it is building the country’s first pagan temple for nearly 1,000 years.
Scepticism about practitioners’ motives impedes many new movements from being recognized as genuine religions, whether by officialdom or by the public at large. But ultimately the question of sincerity is a red herring, Singler says: “Whenever someone tells you their worldview, you have to take them at face value”. The acid test, as true for neopagans as for transhumanists, is whether people make significant changes to their lives consistent with their stated faith.
And such changes are exactly what the founders of some new religious movements want. Official status is irrelevant if you can win thousands or even millions of followers to your cause.
Consider the “Witnesses of Climatology”, a fledgling “religion” invented to foster greater commitment to action on climate change. After a decade spent working on engineering solutions to climate change, its founder Olya Irzak concluded that the real problem lay not much in finding technical solutions, but in winning social support for them. “What’s a multi-generational social construct that organizes people around shared morals?” she asks. “The stickiest is religion.”
So three years ago, Irzak and some friends set about building one. They didn’t see any need to bring God into it – Irzak was brought up an atheist – but did start running regular “services”, including introductions, a sermon eulogizing the awesomeness of nature, and education on aspects of environmentalism. Periodically they include rituals, particularly on traditional holidays. At Reverse Christmas, the Witnesses plant a tree rather than cutting one down; on Glacier Memorial Day, they watch blocks of ice melt in the California sun.
As these examples suggest, Witnesses of Climatology has a parodic feel to it – light-heartedness helps novices get over any initial awkwardness – but Irzak’s underlying intent is quite serious.
“We hope people get real value from this and are encouraged to work on climate change,” she says, rather than despairing about the state of the world. The congregation numbers a few hundred, but Irzak, as a good engineer, is committed to testing out ways to grow that number. Among other things, she is considering a Sunday School to teach children ways of thinking about how complex systems work.
Recently, the Witnesses have been looking further afield, including at a ceremony conducted across the Middle East and Central Asia just before the spring equinox: purification by throwing something unwanted into a fire – a written wish, or an actual object – and then jumping over it. Recast as an effort to rid the world of environmental ills, proved a popular addition to the liturgy. This might have been expected because it’s been practiced for thousands of years as part of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year – whose origins lie in part with the Zoroastrians.
Transhumanism, Jediism, the Witnesses of Climatology, and the myriad of other new religious movements may never amount to much. But perhaps the same could have been said for the small groups of believers who gathered around a sacred flame in ancient Iran, three millennia ago, and whose fledgling belief grew into one of the largest, most powerful, and enduring religions the world has ever seen – and which is still inspiring people today.
Perhaps religions never do die. Perhaps the religions that span the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps the next great faith is just getting started.