Throughout history, people’s faith and their attachments to religious institutions have transformed, argues Sumit Paul-Choudhury. So what’s next?

By Sumit Paul-Choudhury

Before Mohammed, before Jesus, before Buddha, there was Zoroaster. Some 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, he had a vision of the one supreme God. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great monotheistic religion, was the official faith of the mighty Persian Empire, its fire temples attended by millions of adherents. A thousand years after that, the empire collapsed, and the followers of Zoroaster were persecuted and converted to the new faith of their conquerors, Islam.

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.

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 recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a 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 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 civilisation 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 organised 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.

One recurring theme is social cohesion: religion brings together a community

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 emphasising honour, humility and charity – qualities which were not endemic in turbulent 7th-Century Arabia.

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 animal, vegetable or mineral – 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 practised 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 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.

The pattern Pew predicted was of “the secularising West and the rapidly growing rest”. Religion will continue to grow in economically and socially insecure places like much of sub-Saharan Africa – and to decline where they are stable. That chimes with what we know about the deep-seated psychological and neurological drivers of belief. When life is tough or disaster strikes, religion seems to provide a bulwark of psychological (and sometimes practical) support. In a landmark study, people directly affected by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders, who became marginally less religious.

People affected by the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders

We also need to be careful when interpreting what people mean by “no religion”. “Nones” may be disinterested in organised 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 there are those who belong but don’t believe – parents attending church to get a place for their child at a faith school, perhaps. And, finally, there are those who believe 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 actually 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 actually 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 organised religion, with its emphasis on fitting into an established order of things, towards practices designed to accentuate and foster individuals’ own 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. Organised 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.
alt 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 fulfilment 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.

Syncretism is the “pick and mix” approach of combining religious traditions and practices

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. “It’s really important that they’re 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 towards without having to make a leap of faith to 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 canevolve 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 “disorganised 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.