Before Muhammad, before Jesus, before Buddha, there was Zarathustra. About 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, he saw a vision of the one Supreme God. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world's first great monotheistic religion, became the official faith of the powerful Persian Empire, its fiery temples were visited by millions of adherents. After another thousand years, the empire collapsed, and the followers of Zarathustra were persecuted and adopted the new faith of their conquerors - Islam.
And today, even 1500 years later, Zoroastrianism is a dying faith, its sacred flame is worshiped by very few people.
We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die - but we are also strangely blind to this reality. When someone tries to create a new religion, it is often rejected as a sect. When we recognize a religion, we treat its teachings and traditions as eternal and sacred. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth dries up. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek and Norse pantheons are now considered legends rather than holy scripture.
Even the dominant religions today have continually evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, adhered to rather diverse views: ancient documents contain information about the family life of Jesus and evidence of the noble origin of Judas. It took the Christian church three centuries to unite around the canon of scripture, and then in 1054 it disintegrated into the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Since then, Christianity has continued to grow and disintegrate into increasingly fragmented groups, from silent Quakers to Pentecostals using snakes during services.
If you believe that your religion has reached the absolute truth, you can reject even the idea that it will change. But if history gives some kind of reference point, then it says: no matter how deep our beliefs are today, most likely, over time, passing to descendants, they will be transformed - or simply disappear.
If religions have changed so much in the past, how can they change in the future? Is there any reason to believe that belief in gods and deities will completely fade away? And will new forms of worship emerge as our civilization and its technologies become more sophisticated?
To answer these questions, it is good to start with a starting point: Why do we have any religion at all?
Reason to believe
One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th century French polymath, who wrote: "If God did not exist, he should have been invented." Because Voltaire was a fierce critic of organized religion, this quote is often quoted with a tinge of cynicism. But in fact, the statement was completely sincere. Voltaire argued that faith in God is essential for the functioning of society, despite the fact that he did not approve of the monopoly of the church over this faith.
Many modern scholars of religion agree with this. The broad idea that shared faith serves the needs of society is known as the functionalist view of religion. There are many functionalist hypotheses, from the idea that religion is "the opium of the people" used by the powerful to control the poor, to the assumption that faith supports the abstract intellectualism necessary for science and law.The theme of social cohesion is often repeated: religion unites society, which can then form a hunting party, build a temple, or support a political party.
Lingering beliefs are "the long-term product of extremely complex cultural pressures, selection and evolutionary processes," writes Connor Wood of the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston on the religious reference site Patheos, where he blogs about the scientific study of religion. New religious movements are being born all the time, but most of them are short-lived. They have to compete with other religions for parishioners and survive in potentially hostile social and political conditions.
According to this argument, any existing religion should offer tangible benefits to its adherents. Christianity, for example, was just one of many religious movements that emerged (and mostly disappeared) during the Roman Empire. According to Wood, it stood out for the idea of caring for the sick - which means that more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan Romans. Islam also initially attracted followers, emphasizing honor, humility and mercy - qualities that were not characteristic of the troubled Arabia of the 7th century.
Given this, one would assume that religion will serve the function it plays in a particular society - or, as Voltaire would say, different societies will come up with specific gods they need. Conversely, one would expect similar societies to have similar religions, even if they developed in isolation. And there is some evidence of this - although when it comes to religion, there are always exceptions to any rule.
For example, hunter-gatherers tend to believe that all objects - animals, plants, or minerals - have supernatural properties (animism) and that the world is infused with supernatural powers (animatism). They need to be understood and respected, and human morality is usually not essential. This worldview makes sense for groups that are too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who need to know their environment down to the smallest detail. (Exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion that is still widespread in hypermodern Japan.)
At the other end of the spectrum, wealthy Western societies are at least nominally loyal to religions in which one considerate, almighty god sets and sometimes enforces spiritual rules: Yahweh, Christ, and Allah. Psychologist Ara Norenzayan argues that it was the belief in these “big gods” that allowed the formation of societies consisting of a large number of strangers. The question of whether faith is cause or effect has recently become a topic of discussion, but as a result, shared faith allows people to (relatively) coexist peacefully. Knowing that the Big God is watching over us, we behave properly.
Today, many societies are huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths coexist with each other and with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey the laws created and enforced by governments, not God. The school is actively separating from the church, and science provides the tools for understanding and shaping the world.
With all this in mind, the notion is reinforced that the future of religion is that it has no future.
Imagine that there is no paradise
Powerful intellectual and political currents have been striving for this since the beginning of the twentieth century. Sociologists have argued that the scientific march leads to "disbelief" of society: no longer required supernatural answers to important questions. Communist states such as Soviet Russia and China made atheism their state policy and did not even approve of private religious expression.In 1968, eminent sociologist Peter Berger told the New York Times that "by the 21st century, religious believers will only remain in small sects that will unite to oppose the world's secular culture."
Now that we are in the 21st century, Berger's gaze remains a symbol of faith for many secularists - although Berger himself disowned it in the 1990s. His successors are encouraged by research showing that in many countries more and more people are declaring that they do not belong to any religion. This is most evident in wealthy and stable countries such as Sweden and Japan, but more surprisingly in Latin America and the Arab world. Even in the United States, which has long been a notable exception to the axiom that richer countries are more secular, the number of “non-religious” is growing rapidly. In the 2018 US General Social Survey, the item “none of the religions” became the most popular item, displacing evangelical Christians.
Despite this, religion is not disappearing globally - at least in terms of numbers. In 2015, the Pew Research Center modeled the future of the world's major religions based on demographics, migration, and conversion data. Contrary to forecasts of a sharp decline in religiosity, he predicted a moderate increase in the number of believers, from 84% of the world's population today to 87% in 2050. The number of Muslims will increase and equalize with Christians, while the number of people not associated with any religion will decrease slightly.
Modern societies are multicultural, with many different religions living side by side.
The Pew model was about the "secularized West and the rapidly growing rest of the world." Religiousness will continue to rise in economically and socially insecure places, such as much of sub-Saharan Africa, and decline where there is stability. This is due to the underlying psychological and neurological factors of belief. When life is difficult, when adversity occurs, religion seems to provide psychological (and sometimes practical) support. People directly affected by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand have become significantly more religious than other New Zealanders who have become less religious, according to a landmark study. You should also be careful when interpreting what people mean by the combination of "no religion." They may not be interested in organized religion, but that doesn't mean they are militant atheists.
In 1994, sociologist Grace Davy classified people according to whether they belong to a particular religious group and / or believe in a particular religious position. Traditionally, a religious person both belongs and believes, but atheists neither. There are also those who belong to a religious group but do not believe - parents who attend church to find a place in a religious school for a child, for example. And finally, there are those who believe in something, but do not belong to any group.
Research shows that the last two groups are quite significant. The Understanding Unbelief Project at the University of Kent in the UK is conducting a three-year study in six countries among those who say they don’t believe in the existence of God (“atheists”) and those who believe that it is impossible to know for sure about the existence of God (“agnostics "). Interim results published in May 2019 reported that very few non-believers actually categorize themselves in these categories.
What's more, about three-quarters of atheists and nine out of ten agnostics are willing to believe in the existence of supernatural phenomena, including everything from astrology to supernatural beings and life after death. Non-believers “exhibit great diversity both within and between different countries.Accordingly, there are so many ways to be non-believers,”the report concludes, including, in particular, the phrase from dating sites“believer but not religious”. Like many clichés, it is grounded in truth. But what does it really mean?
Return of the old gods
In 2005, Linda Woodhead wrote Spiritual Revolution, in which she described an intensive study of the faith in the British city of Kendal. Woodhead and her co-author found that people quickly turn away from organized religion with its need to fit into the established order of things, with a desire to emphasize and develop a sense of who they are. They concluded that if urban Christian churches did not accept this shift, these congregations would become irrelevant, and the practice of self-government would become the main thrust of the "spiritual revolution."
Today Woodhead says a revolution has taken place - and not just in Kendal. Organized religion in Britain is weakening. “Religions succeed and have always succeeded when they are subjectively convincing - when you feel God is helping you,” says Woodhead, now professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University.
In poorer societies, it is possible to pray for good luck or stable jobs. The “prosperity gospel” is central to several of America's mega-churches, whose congregations are often dominated by economically insecure congregations. But if your basic needs are well met, you are more likely to seek fulfillment and meaning. Traditional religion fails to deal with this, especially when its doctrines clash with moral convictions that emerge in secular society - for example, regarding gender equality.
As a result, people start to invent their own religions.
What do these religions look like? One approach is choose-and-mix syncretism. Many religions have syncretic elements, although over time they assimilate and become invisible. Church holidays such as Christmas and Easter, for example, have archaic pagan elements, while the daily practice of many people in China includes a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Confusion is more commonly seen in relatively young religions such as Wudism or Rastafarianism.
The alternative is to redirect the flow. New religious movements often seek to preserve the central tenets of the old religion, removing aspects that looked stifling or old-fashioned. In the West, humanists tried to remake religious motives: there were attempts to rewrite the Bible without any supernatural elements, calls for the construction of "atheist temples" dedicated to contemplation. And "Sunday Meeting" seeks to recreate the atmosphere of a lively church service without turning to God. But without the deep roots of traditional religions, they don't do much: The Sunday Meeting, after an initial rapid growth, is now struggling to stay afloat.
But Woodhead believes the religions that could emerge from the current turmoil will have deeper roots. The first generation of spiritual revolutionaries, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, had an optimistic and universalist worldview, happily drawing inspiration from religions around the world. However, their grandchildren are growing up in a world of geopolitical tensions and socio-economic problems, they would return to simpler times. “There is a transition from global universality to local identities,” says Woodhead. "It is very important that these are your gods, and not just fictional ones."
In a European context, this creates the basis for a revival of interest in paganism. Renewal of half-forgotten "native" traditions allows expressing contemporary problems while preserving the patina of the times. In paganism, deities are more like indeterminate forces than anthropomorphic gods.This allows people to focus on what they empathize with without having to believe in supernatural deities.
For example, in Iceland, the small but fast-growing Asatru religion has no specific doctrine, with the exception of some primordial celebrations of Old Norse customs and mythology, but is actively involved in social and environmental issues. Similar movements exist throughout Europe, such as the Druids in Great Britain. They are not all liberal. Some are motivated by a desire to return to what they consider to be conservative "traditional" values, which in some cases leads to clashes.
So far, this is a niche activity, which often turns out to be a game of symbolism, rather than a sincere spiritual practice. But over time, they can evolve into more soulful and coherent belief systems: Woodhead cites the adoption of Rodnoverie - a conservative and patriarchal pagan faith based on recreated beliefs and traditions of the ancient Slavs - in the former Soviet Union as a potential model for the future.
Thus, "people without religion" are mostly not atheists or even secularists, but a mixture of "apatheists" - people who simply do not care about religion - and those who adhere to the so-called "disorganized religion." World religions are likely to persist and develop for the foreseeable future, but by the end of this century we may see the rise of relatively small religions competing with these groups. But if Big Gods and shared religions are the keys to social cohesion, what happens without them?
One nation for Mammon
One possible answer is that we just keep on living. A successful economy, good government, a decent education, and effective legal regulations can ensure that we live happily without any religious framework. Indeed, some of the societies with the largest number of non-believers are some of the safest and most harmonious on Earth.
However, the following question remains unresolved: are they non-religious because they have strong secular institutions, or did the lack of religiosity help them achieve social stability? Religious leaders say that even secular institutions have religious roots: civil legal systems, for example, bring into the law ideas of justice that are based on social norms established by religions. Others, such as the “new atheists,” argue that religion is essentially superstition and that abandoning it will allow societies to improve. Connor Wood is not so sure about this. He argues that a strong and stable society like Sweden is extremely complex and expensive in terms of labor, money and energy - and it can become unstable even in the short term. “In my opinion, it is very clear that we are entering a period of non-linear changes in social systems,” he says. "The Western consensus on the combination of market capitalism and democracy should not be taken for granted."
This is a problem, since this combination radically changed the social environment compared to that in which world religions developed - and to some extent supplanted them.
“I would be careful about calling capitalism a religion, but there are religious elements in many of its institutions, as in all areas of human institutional life,” says Wood. "The 'invisible hand' of the market seems to be an almost supernatural entity."
Financial exchanges, which are ritual trading activities, also appear to be temples to Mammon. In fact, religions, even extinct ones, suggest very suitable metaphors for many of the less solvable features of modern life.
A pseudo-religious social order can work well in times of calm.But when the social contract is bursting at the seams - due to identity politics, culture wars or economic instability - the consequences, according to Wood, look as we see them today: an increase in the number of supporters of authoritarian rule in several countries. He cites research showing that people ignore the level of authoritarianism until they feel a deterioration in social norms.
“This human being looks around and says that we disagree with how we should behave,” says Wood. "And we need an authority to say that." This suggests that politicians often go hand in hand with religious fundamentalists: Hindu nationalists in India, say, or Christian evangelicals in the United States. It's a powerful combination for believers and alarming for secularists: can anything bridge the gap between them?
Remember the abyss
Perhaps one of the major religions could change enough to win back a significant number of non-believers. There is even such a precedent: in the 1700s, Christianity in the United States was in a difficult position, it became boring and formal. A new guard of itinerant fire and brimstone preachers have successfully bolstered the faith, setting the tone for centuries to come - an event known as the Great Awakenings.
It is not difficult to draw parallels with today, but Woodhead is skeptical that Christianity or other world religions will be able to restore the lost ground. Christians were once the founders of libraries and universities, but they no longer serve as key suppliers of intellectual products. Social change is undermining the institutional foundations of religions: earlier this year, Pope Francis warned that if the Catholic Church does not recognize its history of male dominance and sexual abuse, it risks becoming a "museum." And the assertion that man is the crown of creation is undermined by the growing feeling that humans are not all that important in the grand scheme of things.
Is it possible that a new religion will emerge to fill the void? Again, Woodhead is skeptical about this. “From a historical perspective, the rise or fall of religions is influenced by political support,” she says. "All religions are transitory unless they receive support from empires." Zoroastrianism was helped by the fact that it was accepted by the Persian dynasties, the turning point for Christianity came when it was accepted by the Roman Empire. In the secular West, such support is unlikely to be provided, with the possible exception of the United States.
But today there is another possible source of support: the internet.
Online movements are gaining a following in a way that was unimaginable in the past. The Silicon Valley mantra "Move fast and change" has become universal for many technologists and plutocrats. #MeToo started out as a hashtag of anger and solidarity, but now its supporters advocate for real changes in longstanding social norms.
These are not religions, of course, but these nascent belief systems have parallels with religions, especially with the core purpose of fostering a sense of community and common purpose. Some also have confessional and sacrificial elements. So, with enough time and motivation, could something clearly more religious emerge from the Internet community? What new forms of religion might these online congregations come up with?
Piano in the bushes
Several years ago, members of the self-proclaimed Rationalist community began discussing on LessWrong an omnipotent, superintelligent machine that possesses many deity qualities and something of the vengeful nature of the Old Testament God.
It was called the Basilisk Roco. The whole idea is a complex logic puzzle, but, roughly speaking, the point is that when a benevolent supermind appears, it will want to be of as much benefit as possible - and the sooner it appears, the better it will handle it.Therefore, in order to encourage people to create it, he will constantly and retroactively torture those who do not, including anyone who learns of its potential existence. (If this is your first time hearing about this, sorry!)
While the idea might sound crazy, Rocko's Basilisk caused quite a stir when it was first talked about on LessWrong - eventually the site's creator banned the discussion. As you might expect, this only led to the idea spreading across the Internet - or at least to parts of it where geeks live. Links to the Basilisk are popping up everywhere, from news sites to Doctor Who, despite protests from some rationalists that no one really took it seriously. Compounding the issue is the fact that many rationalists are firmly committed to other outrageous ideas about artificial intelligence - from AIs that accidentally destroy the world, to human-machine hybrids that transcend the boundaries of death.
Such esoteric beliefs have arisen throughout history, but the ease that today allows a community to be built around them is new. “New forms of religiosity have always emerged, but we haven't always had room for them,” says Beth Singler, who studies the social, philosophical and religious impact of AI at Cambridge University. "If you walk out into a medieval town square shouting out your unorthodox beliefs, you will not win followers, but you will be labeled a heretic."
The mechanism may be new, but the message is old. The Basilisk argument overlaps with Pascal's idea that a 17th-century French mathematician suggested that unbelievers should undergo religious rituals in case a vengeful God did exist. The idea of punishment as an imperative for cooperation is reminiscent of the "big gods" of Norenzayan. And the reasoning about ways to evade the gaze of the Basilisk is no less intricate than the attempts of the medieval scholastic to reconcile human freedom with divine control.
Even technological attributes are not new. In 1954, Fredrik Brown wrote a (very) short story called The Answer. It describes the inclusion of a supercomputer that unites all computers in the galaxy. He was asked the question: is there a God? “Now there is,” he replied.
And some people, such as entrepreneur Anthony Lewandowski, believe their holy goal is to create a super machine that will one day answer that question in the same way as Brown's fictional machine. Lewandowski, who made his fortune in self-driving cars, made headlines in 2017 by founding the Future Path Church, dedicated to transitioning into a world driven primarily by superintelligent cars. Although his vision looks more benevolent than Roco's Basilisk, the church's creed still contains ominous lines: “We believe it might be important for machines to see who is friendly and who is not. We plan to do this by tracking who did what (and for how long) to help facilitate a peaceful and respectful transition.”
“People think of God in very different ways, there are thousands of shades of Christianity, Judaism, Islam,” says Lewandowski. “But they always deal with something that cannot be measured, that cannot be seen or controlled. It's different this time. This time you will be able to speak to God literally and know that he is listening to you."
Lewandowski is not alone. In the best-selling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the foundations of modern civilization are crumbling in the face of an emerging religion he calls dataism. It is believed that by giving ourselves to the streams of information, we can go beyond earthly concerns and connections. Other budding transhuman religious movements focus on immortality - a new round of promises of eternal life.Still others combine with older beliefs, especially Mormonism.
Are these movements real? Some groups practice religion in order to gain support for transhuman ideas, Singler said. “Non-religions” tend to dispense with the supposedly unpopular restrictions or irrational doctrines of conventional religion and can therefore appeal to non-believers. Founded in 2011, the Turing Church has a number of cosmic principles - “We will go to the stars and find gods, build gods, become gods and raise the dead,” but there is no hierarchy, rituals or forbidden actions, and there is only one ethical principle: "Try to act with love and compassion towards other sentient beings."
But, as missionary religions know, what begins with simple flirting or idle curiosity - perhaps triggered by a resonant statement or an engaging ritual - can end up in a sincere search for truth.
The 2001 UK census showed that Jediism, the fictional faith of the good guys from Star Wars, turned out to be the fourth largest religion, with nearly 400,000 people claiming it, initially through a joking internet campaign. Ten years later, he dropped to seventh place, causing many to reject him as a joke. But as Singler points out, it is still practiced by an unheard-of number of people - and much longer than most viral campaigns have lasted.
Some branches of Jediism remain jokes, while others take themselves more seriously: the Temple of the Jedi Order claims that its members are "real people who live or have lived their lives in accordance with the principles of Jediism."
With such indicators, Jediism would seem to be recognized as a religion in Great Britain. But the officials, who apparently decided that these were frivolous responses, did not. "A lot is measured against the tradition of Western Anglophone religion," Singler says. For many years Scientology was not recognized as a religion in Great Britain because it did not have a Supreme Being - as, for example, in Buddhism.
Recognition is a complex issue around the world, especially since there is no universally accepted definition of religion even in academia. For example, communist Vietnam is officially atheistic and is often cited as one of the most secular countries in the world, but skeptics attribute this to the fact that official polls do not cover a huge proportion of the population professing traditional religions. On the other hand, after the official recognition of the asatru, the Icelandic pagan faith, she was entitled to her share of the "tax on faith"; as a result, they build the country's first pagan temple in nearly 1,000 years.
Many new movements are not recognized by religions due to skepticism about the motives of their followers on the part of both officials and the public. But ultimately, the question of sincerity is a red herring, Singler says. A litmus test for neo-pagans and transhumanists alike is whether people are making significant changes in their lives in accordance with the proclaimed faith.
And such changes are exactly what the founders of some new religious movements want. Official status doesn't matter as long as you can attract thousands or even millions of followers.
Take the nascent "religion" of the Climatology Witnesses, conceived to raise awareness of climate change issues. After a decade of working on engineering solutions for climate change, its founder, Olya Irzak, came to the conclusion that the real problem is not so much finding technical solutions as getting social support. “What social structure of several generations organizes people around a common morality? she asks. "The best is religion."
So, three years ago, Irzak and several of her friends began to create a religion.They decided that there was no need for God - Irzak was raised to be an atheist - but began to hold regular "services", including performances, sermons praising the charm of nature, and environmental education. They include rituals from time to time, especially on traditional festivals. On Christmas Day the Witnesses plant a tree instead of chopping it down; on Glacier Memorial Day, they watch ice cubes melt in the California sun.
As these examples show, the Climatology Witnesses make a parody - lightheadedness helps newcomers cope with initial awkwardness - but Irzak's underlying purpose is serious enough.
“We hope it brings real value to people and encourages them to work on climate change,” she says, rather than despairing about the state of the world. The congregation numbers only a few hundred people, but Irzak, as an engineer, is looking for ways to increase this number. Among other things, she considers the idea of creating a Sunday school to teach children to think about the work of complex systems.
The Witnesses are now planning further activities, such as a ceremony in the Middle East and Central Asia just before the vernal equinox: cleansing by throwing something unwanted into a fire - a recorded desire or real object - and then jumping over it. This attempt to rid the world of environmental problems has become a popular addition to the liturgy. Expected: Humans have been doing this for millennia during Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which has its origins in part with the Zoroastrians.
Transhumanism, Jediism, Witnesses of Climatology, and a host of other new religious movements may never go mainstream. But the same might be thought of the small groups of believers who gathered around a sacred flame in ancient Iran three thousand years ago and whose fledgling faith has grown into one of the largest, most powerful, and enduring religions the world has ever seen - and which still inspires people today.
Perhaps religions never die. Perhaps the religions that are sweeping the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps the next great faith is in its infancy.