Religion will still be with us 100 years from now, but most likely in forms that we would hardly recognize.
The evolutionary process has endowed humans with large brains that enable us to think in complex ways, including about the meaning and purpose of our lives. This quest for meaning, whether primitive or postmodern, is the foundation of all religion. It is from this quest that religious rituals, institutions, and personal practice evolve. Religious forms that do not adapt to changes in culture cease to exist.
Currently we are in a period of structural change in which the historic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—are being pulled apart internally by reactions to three major stressors: (1) Global technological advances that are exposing individuals to alternative worldviews; (2) Capitalism, with its focus on individual achievement and material well-being; and (3) The explosive growth of modern science, which is radically altering our understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.
I see six responses to these challenges playing out globally.
First, secular materialists in the Western world are rejecting religion, not so much out of hostility but simple indifference. Religion is not necessary to their way of life; their meaning system is confined to the material world, and even if they practice “mindfulness” or some other pseudo-religious ritual, it is to make them more functional within our hyper-capitalist world of rapid technological and social change. Secular materialism, in my view, is a substantial threat to religion, as we know it. But it is also an engine of creativity, forcing the historic religions to adapt in order to survive.
Second, we are simultaneously witnessing a surge in the number of fundamentalist reactionaries. These individuals are deeply threatened by advances in science and technology and what they view as the corrupting influence of modern capitalism, particularly its emphasis on individual rights and personal choice. They want to return to a mythical past when life was simpler, gender roles were highly differentiated, and belief was uniform. Ironically, they may utilize modern technology to spread their gospel of a former golden age when traditional institutions and authority figures benevolently ruled the masses. In my view, fundamentalist reactionaries have existed in every era, but they typically burn out after a generation or two – although, in the meantime, they may serve as a highly disruptive influence.
Third, the latest entrants into the religious marketplace are spiritual libertarians, comprising Millennials, many Gen-Xers, and others sympathetic to pluralistic worldviews who are wary of corrupt institutions, both political and religious. They are unsatisfied by a postmodern culture that has abandoned the search for universal meaning, even as they reject exclusivist institutional claims to truth. Instead, they seek the intimacy of a few spiritual friends, access to self-help therapies—so long as they can choose their “guru”—and celebrate the right of everyone to do their own thing, if it does not hurt others. Because this can be a rather lonely, anxiety-ridden existence, some spiritual libertarians make their way into charismatically driven mega-churches or similar groups where answers are radically simplified, thus dealing with the problem of over-choice. But these churches flourish only because they embrace the hype of modern culture and its emphasis on personal success. While some commentators think the current generation of “spiritual but not religious” people will return to organized religion as they age and struggle to raise children, I’m not so sure.
Fourth, because it is highly unlikely that organized religion will vanish overnight, institutional reformers will seek modest change, trying to liberate their communities from the dead weight of tradition and dysfunctional bureaucracies. These reformers believe in the value of the institution and tinker around the edges, trying to revive the original animating spirit of the religion. Pope Francis is a good example. While he might believe in enabling women to have a more prominent role in the Church, and might like to abandon some of the proscriptions related to divorce, birth control and so on, he has to move slowly and incrementally, replacing a bishop or cardinal here and there, rooting out corruption when it is most blatant. Reformers always have to deal with institutional inertia, but they also have to contend with the fact that the masses may not be interested so much in “truth” as in “miracle, mystery, and authority,” the triad announced by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. So, yes, the Catholic Church will prevail for a long time. I predict a shorter lifespan for many of the mainline Protestant denominations that are racked by divisions between conservative and progressive factions.
Fifth, religious innovators have throughout history addressed the problem of human meaning by creating new institutional forms and packaging transformational ideas in new belief structures and practices. For the past decade or so, I have been studying Pentecostalism in dozens of countries in the global South, where it is booming. Pentecostalism is an innovative expression of Christianity, uniting mind and body in ecstatic worship. Because its non-hierarchical character empowers lay believers, the movement gives agency to individuals while simultaneously filling them with joy and hope. There is corruption within some of these fast-growing congregations, as well as some magical practices. But it is an alternative to the religious package available in traditional religion, which is why large numbers of Catholics and religiously uncommitted people are embracing Pentecostalism.
Finally, there is a class of intellectuals and religiously serious people who do not belong in any of the previous five categories. For lack of a better term, I call them mystic seekers. They find it impossible to fit into one of the boxes of conventional religion, yet they are not religiously unconcerned. Embracing science in all of its unfolding complexity and humbled by what they do not know, they view the historic religions as social constructions that represent the attempt to articulate a human-divine connection. These individuals are sometimes found in retreat centers and places that invite contemplation, but they are always aware that icons, rituals, and creeds are “fictions,” not ends in themselves. Like mystics of the past, this journey is highly individualistic and sometimes even quite lonely. But I think this population is slowly expanding, especially among highly educated people, who seek a deeper source of meaning and purpose than what institutional religion and secular culture provide.
Predicting the future of religion presupposes a linear progression in which science, technology, and capitalism continue, roughly in lockstep with each other. Some of the formulations that I have posed above could be altered dramatically if one of two things were to occur: First, if some sort of environmental catastrophe radically changed the physical conditions of life on this planet; or, second, if capitalism were to implode, dragging technological innovation down with it. In either case, authoritarian political structures might arise that would likely reverse many of the current emphases on human freedom and personal choice—until the next renaissance. On a more positive note, it is quite possible that human evolution will continue unabated. One result is that the human mind will expand its capabilities, making the quest for meaning even more expansive.Have something to say?
A growing number of people, millions worldwide, say they believe that life definitively ends at death – that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan. And it’s an outlook that could be gaining momentum – despite its lack of cheer. In some countries, openly acknowledged atheism has never been more popular.
“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% – bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.
While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely?
It’s impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion – including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it – can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come.
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Scholars are still trying to tease out the complex factors that drive an individual or a nation toward atheism, but there are a few commonalities. Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,” Zuckerman says. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.
Crisis of faith
Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay (where the majority of citizens have European roots) are all places where religion was important just a century or so ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world. These countries feature strong educational and social security systems, low inequality and are all relatively wealthy. “Basically, people are less scared about what might befall them,” says Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
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Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland. “Very few societies are more religious today than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Zuckerman says. “The only exception might be Iran, but that’s tricky because secular people might be hiding their beliefs.”
The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity. (Still, a recent Pew survey revealed that, between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of Americans who said they are atheist rose from 1.6% to 2.4%.)
Decline, however, does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity. “People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning,” Norenzayan says. “For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”
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This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly secular society. There was a sudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever. While exceptions to this rule do exist – religion in Japan plummeted following World War II, for instance – for the most part, Zuckerman says, we adhere by the Christchurch model. “If experiencing something terrible caused all people to become atheists, then we’d all be atheists,” he says.
The mind of god
But even if the world’s troubles were miraculously solved and we all led peaceful lives in equity, religion would probably still be around. This is because a god-shaped hole seems to exist in our species’ neuropsychology, thanks to a quirk of our evolution.
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Understanding this requires a delve into “dual process theory”. This psychological staple states that we have two very basic forms of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 2 evolved relatively recently. It’s the voice in our head – the narrator who never seems to shut up – that enables us to plan and think logically.
System 1, on the other hand, is intuitive, instinctual and automatic. These capabilities regularly develop in humans, regardless of where they are born. They are survival mechanisms. System 1 bestows us with an innate revulsion of rotting meat, allows us to speak our native language without thinking about it and gives babies the ability to recognise parents and distinguish between living and nonliving objects. It makes us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events like natural disasters or the death of loved ones.
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In addition to helping us navigate the dangers of the world and find a mate, some scholars think that System 1 also enabled religions to evolve and perpetuate. System 1, for example, makes us instinctually primed to see life forces – a phenomenon called hypersensitive agency detection – everywhere we go, regardless of whether they’re there or not. Millennia ago, that tendency probably helped us avoid concealed danger, such as lions crouched in the grass or venomous snakes concealed in the bush. But it also made us vulnerable to inferring the existence of invisible agents – whether they took the form of a benevolent god watching over us, an unappeased ancestor punishing us with a drought or a monster lurking in the shadows.
Similarly, System 1 encourages us to see things dualistically, meaning we have trouble thinking of the mind and body as a single unit. This tendency emerges quite early: young children, regardless of their cultural background, are inclined to believe that they have an immortal soul – that their essence or personhood existed somewhere prior to their birth, and will always continue to exist. This disposition easily assimilates into many existing religions, or – with a bit of creativity – lends itself to devising original constructs.
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“A Scandinavian psychologist colleague of mine who is an atheist told me that his three-year-old daughter recently walked up to him and said, ‘God is everywhere all of the time.’ He and his wife couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten that idea from,” says Justin Barrett, director of the Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and author of Born Believers. “For his daughter, god was an elderly woman, so you know she didn’t get it from the Lutheran church.”
For all of these reasons, many scholars believe that religion arose as “a byproduct of our cognitive disposition”, says Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. “Religions are cultural arrangements that evolved to engage and exploit these natural capacities in humans.”
Hard habits to break
Atheists must fight against all of that cultural and evolutionary baggage. Human beings naturally want to believe that they are a part of something bigger, that life isn’t completely futile. Our minds crave purpose and explanation. “With education, exposure to science and critical thinking, people might stop trusting their intuitions,” Norenzayan says. “But the intuitions are there.”
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On the other hand, science – the system of choice that many atheists and non-believers look to for understanding the natural world – is not an easy cognitive pill to swallow. Science is about correcting System 1 biases, McCauley says. We must accept that the Earth spins, even though we never experience that sensation for ourselves. We must embrace the idea that evolution is utterly indifferent and that there is no ultimate design or purpose to the Universe, even though our intuition tells us differently. We also find it difficult to admit that we are wrong, to resist our own biases and to accept that truth as we understand it is ever changing as new empirical data are gathered and tested – all staples of science. “Science is cognitively unnatural – it’s difficult,” McCauley says. “Religion, on the other hand, is mostly something we don’t even have to learn because we already know it.”
“There’s evidence that religious thought is the path of least resistance,” Barrett adds. “You’d have to fundamentally change something about our humanity to get rid of religion.” This biological sticking point probably explains the fact that, although 20% of Americans are not affiliated with a church, 68% of them say that they still believe in God and 37% describe themselves as spiritual. Even without organised religion, they believe that some greater being or life force guides the world.
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Similarly, many around the world who explicitly say they don’t believe in a god still harbour superstitious tendencies, like belief in ghosts, astrology, karma, telepathy or reincarnation. “In Scandinavia, most people say they don’t believe in God, but paranormal and superstitious beliefs tend to be higher than you’d think,” Norenzayan says. Additionally, non-believers often lean on what could be interpreted as religious proxies – sports teams, yoga, professional institutions, Mother Nature and more – to guide their values in life. As a testament to this, witchcraft is gaining popularity in the US, and paganism seems to be the fastest growing religion in the UK.
Religious experiences for non-believers can also manifest in other, more bizarre ways. Anthropologist Ryan Hornbeck, also at the Thrive Center for Human Development, found evidence that the World of Warcraft is assuming spiritual importance for some players in China, for example. “WoW seems to be offering opportunities to develop certain moral traits that regular life in contemporary society doesn’t afford,” Barrett says. “People seem to have this conceptual space for religious thought, which – if it’s not filled by religion – bubbles up in surprising ways.”
What’s more, religion promotes group cohesion and cooperation. The threat of an all-powerful God (or gods) watching for anyone who steps out of line likely helped to keep order in ancient societies. “This is the supernatural punishment hypothesis,” Atkinson says. “If everyone believes that the punishment is real, then that can be functional to groups.”
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And again, insecurity and suffering in a population may play a role here, by helping to encourage religions with stricter moral codes. In a recent analysis of religious belief systems of nearly 600 traditional societies from around the world, Joseph Bulbulia at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and his colleagues found that those places with harsher weather or that are more prone to natural disasters were more likely to develop moralising gods. Why? Helpful neighbours could mean the difference between life and death. In this context, religion evolved as a valuable public utility.
“When we see something so pervasive, something that emerges so quickly developmentally and remains persistent across cultures, then it makes sense that the leading explanation is that it served a cooperative function,” says Bulbulia.
Finally, there’s also some simple mathematics behind religion’s knack for prevailing. Across cultures, people who are more religious also tend to have more children than people who are not. “There’s very strong evidence for this,” Norenzayan says. “Even among religious people, the more fundamentalist ones usually have higher fertility rates than the more liberal ones.” Add to that the fact that children typically follow their parents’ lead when it comes to whether or not they become religious adults themselves, and a completely secularised world seems ever more unlikely.
For all of these reasons – psychological, neurological, historical, cultural and logistical – experts guess that religion will probably never go away. Religion, whether it’s maintained through fear or love, is highly successful at perpetuating itself. If not, it would no longer be with us.
And even if we lose sight of the Christian, Muslim and Hindu gods and all the rest, superstitions and spiritualism will almost certainly still prevail. More formal religious systems, meanwhile, would likely only be a natural disaster or two away. “Even the best secular government can’t protect you from everything,” says McCauley. As soon as we found ourselves facing an ecological crisis, a global nuclear war or an impending comet collision, the gods would emerge.
“Humans need comfort in the face of pain and suffering, and many need to think that there’s something more after this life, that they’re loved by an invisible being,” Zuckerman says. “There will always be people who believe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they remain the majority.”
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