The Future of Religion8 August 2016
It was halfway through an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that I began to contemplate the meaning of life, our existential place in the universe and the role of divine forces in shaping our lives. Suffering from a lingering cold and resigned to watching day-time television in my pyjamas, I committed the mortal sin of turning the channel to 7mate. Amidst the sheer inanity of their conversation, I began to seriously doubt the possibility of intelligent design. If God does exist, then why has he allowed man to diverge so significantly from any semblance of righteous purpose that this monstrosity has come to pass as entertainment? If this is God’s plan, we’re all passengers on a sinking ship.
It is 233 years since German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche famously opined, “God is dead.” Of course, he was not referring to the bearded man in the sky, falling from his golden perch atop the Gates of Heaven, as surely, if such a deity did exist, he would have the power to manipulate gravity so as not to fall prey to its deadly might. What Nietzsche was actually referring to was the shattering of Christianity’s credibility as a source of absolute moral principles. Science, philosophy and reason would subsume religion as explanatory guides to the universe, and consequently undermine its claims to a divinely conceived, objectively true code of ethics. Once people accepted that the earth was born from atoms and not the hands of a divine creator, Christianity’s strict, unobjectionable moral regime would also lose its credibility.
What Nietzsche failed to foresee, perhaps because his untamed facial hair obscured his sight, was that religion would remain a dominant force in the lives of millions of people for many years to come. Whilst the amount of non-theists has significantly increased, and the absoluteness of religious belief has certainly eroded, secularisation and atheism have failed to take hold in the transformative way in which Nietzsche envisaged.
In fact, the future will likely see an increase in the prevalence of religious belief. According to a report by the Pew Research Centre, which examined demographic trends affecting religious observance, by the year 2050 “atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.” Whilst the non-religious will grow by over 100 million, their share of the global population will decline from 16 per cent to 13 per cent due to rapid global population growth.
What religions will actually be followed in the future? Islam is predicted to grow by over 73 per cent by the year 2050. The number of Muslims in the world will nearly equal the number of Christians. Cue the blustering anger from old white dudes everywhere, if they are not an extinct species by that time. Contrary to Nietzsche’s assertions, God, or at least Allah, seems to be alive and kicking.
Whilst global behemoths like Islam and Christianity will continue to dominate, splinter groups will flourish in future. For instance, Iceland is currently experiencing a resurgence in Paganism which is tipped to increase for some years. The neo-pagan Asatru movement has doubled its membership since 2009, and are currently building temples in Reykjavik and other Northern European capitals to encourage future growth. This religious sect does not maintain belief in ancient Nordic Gods like their ancestors, but do encourage modernised Pagan values such as acceptance of diversity, which led the group to endorse same-sex marriage seven years before it was legalised in Iceland. They also enjoy eating horse meat, drinking mead and worshiping Thor.
Also flying the flag for religious ridiculousness has been the exponential growth of many unusual religions. These include Jediism (the genuine belief in the Force as the omnipresent power shaping the universe), Pastafarianism (the somewhat satirical belief in the appeasement of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a God-like figure made of pasta), and finally Frisbeetarianism (the belief that when one dies, their soul goes up to the roof and stays there until someone knocks it down with a long pole). These three religions hold varying degrees of sarcasm, depending on the devotion of the follower. If anything can be certain it is that man’s tendency to attach himself to ridiculous belief systems is surely set to continue for many years.
There can be no doubt that religion is here to stay. “That religion has a future would be news to the confident secularisation theorists of generations past,” James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College wrote in Slate magazine. “Once expected to wither on the vine, religion will most assuredly persist into the future.” So, is it time for Father Harry to smash down some holy wine in celebration yet? Unfortunately for the spiritually devout, whilst religious identification is surging, its other vital signs are on life support.
Religious identity and religious practice are two different things. One might say they are a Catholic. What they may not reveal is that instead of attending mass, they spend their Sundays violently masturbating, listening to offensive hip-hop music and reading the comments section on Reddit, all of which are strictly prohibited by Catholic doctrine. Many may identify with a religious institution, but their level of engagement with that tradition and the extent to which it impacts their behaviour is entirely circumstantial.
It is the decline in the actual practice and performance of religious belief which gives most hope to ardent anti-theists. A study by the American Sociological Review suggests that of 20 industrialised countries analysed, 16 experienced significantly declining rates of church attendance, which will continue to worsen in the coming decades. In future, most religious people may pray alone or simply allow religious teaching to inform their lives, but they will be less engaged in formal traditions of worship.
For the minority of religious people who will continue to engage in traditional forms of worship, the future will present increased mobility and diversity for the observance of their faith. The internet will increasingly be utilised as a platform for worship, particularly by those incapable of attending physical ceremonies. Before you get worried about Mormons replacing doorknocking with Facebook poking, thus far, digital worship has tended to be a less confrontational affair. Websites, such as, Catholic TV and ChurchServices.TV offer thousands of viewers the opportunity to live stream mass from home. Furthermore, the YouTube channel Daily Mass has amassed 12,660 followers, and various cathedrals and churches regularly live stream their masses on YouTube, garnering upwards of 100,000 views. These platforms continue to surge in viewership, suggesting a strong future for digital worship.
Despite these alternative methods, religious practice continues to significantly erode in Western countries and is expected to continue deteriorating in the future. Today, one in six Americans are non-religious. By 2050, that number will climb to one in four. Particularly, over a third of young people in the US do not identify with any religion, suggesting that generational change will contribute to a decline in religious activity in future Western societies. In a dire assessment penned in the World Street Journal, Prof. Daniel Dennett of Tusk University suggests that in the long run, religious identification may vaguely continue but religious practice “largely will evaporate, at least in the West. Pockets of intense religious activity may continue, made up of people who will be more sharply differentiated from most of society.”
As to whether the decline of religious worship in the West is desirable or not touches upon one of humanity’s greatest quarrels. Is there a higher power? Is man better off believing one way or another? Such questions attract inherently subjective answers. Personally, I will admit to watching the YouTube video “Christopher Hitchens verbally bitchslaps dumbass religious nutter” more times than perhaps is spiritually or physically healthy. Whilst I disagree with the likes of atheist provocateurs Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their generalisations of religious people as delusional, fanatical and inherently violent, I tend to agree with their contention that the institutionalised, unwavering belief in God often legitimises hatred, bigotry and marginalisation, which I find utterly deplorable. Although there are many religious people who are thoroughly decent, and many non-religious people are not, there is an unmistakable correlation between devotion to traditional interpretations of scripture and bigoted views on race and sexuality.
Yet, it is precisely such traditional interpretations of scripture that will experience the steepest declines in future. Already, social liberalism is radically shaking up institutions which were, until recently, bastions of social conservatism. People increasingly form their own independent interpretations of scripture, picking and choosing what aspects of religion they agree with based on their social context and the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. For instance, 53 per cent of Australian Christians agree with same-sex marriage, as do 62 per cent of members of other religions, despite the Catholic Church and most other religious institutions formally opposing it. Galaxy Research Polls suggest that these numbers will continue to rise, potentially prompting cultural change within religious institutions to remain relevant amidst the changing tides of public opinion.
The nature of religious belief is significantly changing. There are few who still hold church doctrines to be absolute, incontestable understandings of divine truth, and thus religions have less cultural and moral power to dictate the behaviour of followers. “We cannot assume our belief is axiomatic,” Prof. Smith says. “It is contestable and contested. In a secular age, doubt is faith’s constant companion.” Perhaps in this regard, Nietzsche was right.
As I watch the Kardashian sisters bicker over a bowl of yoghurt, I wonder whether this entire journey of spiritual exploration was at all worthwhile. If there is one that can be said with near certainty, it is that man will forever be wrestling with the nature of his existence, the origins of his creation and the existence of a higher power. Until then, I’ll continue to question intelligent design, and Kim will continue to exemplify the limits to God’s infinite wisdom.