What happens if people stop believing in deities, or, at the very least, reject organized religion as a way to reach the divine? Today, we explore the future of religion, what might replace it, how the dwindling numbers of the religious may respond, and what we gain and lose from that shift (if it is indeed a shift). Plus, a look at nature-worshipping Russian pagans, conspiracy theory shamans and DIY spirituality.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Reporter
what replaces religion?
Call it the John Lennon “Imagine” route. Universalists tend to gravitate toward an overarching truth or the main principles of most religions. The increasing interest in universalism is due in part to the rise in humanism, continuing the 20th-century focus on advancing science, liberalism and democracy as the backbone of global understanding. The dream is that reason and logic will form a common ground that transcends race, class and other points of divisiveness — a dream that critics argue ignores differences people should stay “woke” to.
2. Moral Compass
Who is our society’s most potent moral figure? A century ago, the answer in America was clear: Jesus Christ (even Christianity’s biggest opponents praised the man himself, using his example to illustrate how far Christians had fallen short). Today? Adolf Hitler. That’s what Alec Ryrie writes in his Los Angeles Review of Books essay “The Cross and the Swastika,” arguing that society, once judged by its proximity to Christ’s goodness, is now oriented around its badness compared to Hitler (in other words, Godwin’s law is no accident). Having “our moral lodestar” be a secular and a negative one has consequences.
3. Rising Politics?
It doesn’t seem coincidental that a drop in Western religiosity has coincided with a rise in heightened political association and moralization. The latter also provides everything from prophetic figures and tribalism to moral certitude (and, with it, superiority). The ceremonies and symbolism are familiar too, as Donald Trump showed during his turbulent march to the U.S. presidency — one initially propelled by a more secular, nonchurchgoing conservative base that nonetheless flocked to his church.
Accepting that some doubters may call religion itself a conspiracy, the loss of faith likely leads to new unsubstantiated obsessions. QAnon followers, and their shamans, for example, wait for revelatory “drops” from the mysterious (and suddenly silent) “Q.” Robbed of a divine plan to provide life’s meaning or ease its ills, new spiritualists blame an often-undefined “elite” and rebel against evidence-based medicine, at times with tragic results. This is bipartisan: The past four years have proved conservatives and liberals alike to be conspiracists.
In one 263-word stretch in “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg says “Moloch” 39 times (once every seven words). Despite the verbal whipping, the biblical bull god isn’t the villain of the poem: Moloch becomes the catchall for society’s modern gods, from “robot apartments!’ and “invisible suburbs!” to other “sensitive bullshit!” (namely, capitalism, corruption and arms races). In a society without religion, there are not fewer gods, but more. Everything, Moloch.
In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., St. Jerome Catholic Church of Hyattsville, Maryland, has seen its numbers skyrocket thanks to its more orthodox reputation. It mimics a trend of intentional community living that Rod Dreher advocates in his bestseller The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Rather than digging deeper into culture wars, Dreher urges conservative Christians to band together in a semimonastic tradition. With regular Bible study groups, rosary nights and daily Mass, such networks follow the Anabaptist tradition of the Bruderhof, the German word for “place of brothers,” that has spawned at least 23 intentional communities across four continents.
2. Band Together
Barriers across faiths will evaporate as the numbers of the religious dwindle. This is the survival mechanism of most cultural majorities turned minorities. The Irish, Germans and Italians all faced racism from white Protestants in the 19th century — today, American whiteness no longer delineates itself by national origin. America went from wondering if JFK would take orders from the pope as its first Catholic president to electing its second, Joe Biden, with a shrug. Evangelicals find themselves associated more often with papists these days, partly because both groups are among the few to still oppose abortion (even if Biden doesn’t).
3. The Next Step?
Christians and Muslims finding common ground, as one Baptist group did in supporting the reversal of Trump’s travel ban from Muslim-majority countries. Interfaith groups, and even compounds, are on the rise everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Omaha, Nebraska. Individual religions could even become moot someday, with the world divided simply between believers and nonbelievers. The framework already exists: The two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, share an ancestry, Scriptures and a god — the next largest, Hinduism, doesn’t exclude the validity of other religions, while the fourth, Buddhism, is increasingly diversifying too.
In-person religious instruction seems destined to decrease. American attendance of religious services had already fallen sharply in the first two decades of the new millennium, and that was before the pandemic altered churchgoing habits and made virtual worship a reality. As youngsters have turned to YouTube and Spotify to form their political opinions, they will increasingly eschew pastors to seek spiritual enlightenment from star podcasters and social media gurus. Many are already practicing syncretism, selecting beliefs from the buffet of religious thought based on their personal spiritual appetites.
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Known for its fire temples and boasting millions of believers at its height, it has been called the world’s first monotheistic religion by some. Its beliefs were spread along the Silk Road and aided by its status as the state religion of three Persian dynasties (its major scriptural text, the Avesta, was written by the prophet Zoroaster, whom some scholars believe was a contemporary of Cyrus the Great). Possibly responsible for giving the Abrahamic religions their beliefs in heaven and hell, the religion has fewer than 200,000 followers today, most of them in Iran and India, to stoke its eternal sacred flames.
This gnostic religion once was a major contender to Christianity and Islam as one of the world’s preeminent religions. Mani, its founder, believed he was a final prophet sent to enlighten the world in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and the Buddha, and taught of a dualistic struggle between light and dark. Dominating the Arabian Peninsula for a time, the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad and, as a result, Islam, led to Manichaeism’s banishment to the Far East, where various Chinese dynastics persecuted its adherents to extinction.
The absence of religion sometimes leads to the rise of a different, more ancient form of spirituality. Look to the former Soviet Union, whose collapse gave rise to a paganism centered on naturalistic ritual worship, known as the Slavic Native Faith. Eschewing brick-and-mortar churches for connecting with nature and seasonal celebrations, paganism has grown popular with city-dwelling Russian athletes and soldiers, among others.
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While increasing in the United States and Europe, the global share of the religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to drop from 16 percent to 13 percent by 2050, according to a Pew Research Center projection conducted in 2015. Atheists tend to be older and have fewer children than religious adults, but agnostics and other unaffiliated individuals are also poised to see their portion of the population pie thin. A majority of the nonreligious live in the Asia-Pacific region, including China — the global capital of atheism — where deaths of the unaffiliated are expected to outnumber births by 2030.
2. Demographic Destiny
Christians are expected by Pew to grow in raw numbers (to 2.9 billion by 2050) while holding steady percentagewise. Islam, though, will grow so rapidly that Muslims will almost equal Christians in number (with 2.8 billion by 2050). Rumors of Christianity’s collapse have been overstated, particularly in the U.S., where the most fervent followers remain as consistent as ever.
3. What We Risk Losing
These trends are driven more by high birth rates than by converts. Still, while a belief in God may be more difficult for some, there are far fewer doubting Thomases about the benefits of such belief. Some sociologists have called the march of science “disenchanting,” while others worry that the criticism of religion’s veracity ignores its value as a survival mechanism for a fatalistic humanity that often needs a reason to stick around.
4. Voltaire, Defender of God?
Even Voltaire declared that “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” While some insist the line was cynical, others argue it was the famous religion critic’s admission 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,” writes Sumit Paul-Choudhury, the former editor-in-chief of New Scientist.
5. Churches, the New Pubs
As of May 2019, places of worship outnumbered pubs in famously boozy England — and that was before COVID-19 permanently shuttered hundreds more bars. The fastest-growing communities are Catholic churches offering multilingual services, youth-focused Pentecostal groups such as Hillsong, and Black evangelical churches, including Windrush-generation immigrant families and more-recent West African arrivals. Such specialized faith groups underscore the ways religion could remain a community linchpin for new arrivals in foreign lands worldwide.
Four out of every 10 Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, according to Pew. The Catholic Church recently rewarded the exploding Latin American faithful with their first papacy, and an African pope is quite possibly next, given the continent is the institution’s fastest-growing base. Meanwhile, Islam is booming, even outside the Middle East: India, while retaining its Hindu majority, will surpass Indonesia for having the world’s largest Muslim population in coming decades.
2. The Secular North
Political power of evangelicals in America is already waning, and will continue to as Christians drop from more than three-quarters of the population to two-thirds. Europe, the traditional seat of the Catholic Church, is so starved for vocations that it heavily relies on African priests to helm its cathedrals. It is the only continent where the raw number of religious will actually drop in the next three decades — although Buddhism, arguably the favorite religion for those who don’t really like organized religion, is expected to nearly double in Europe during that time.
3. The Muddy Middle
This isn’t a geographic location, but that doesn’t make it any less real. I’m talking about the internet, and the way that all these claims of demographic destinies and continental divides may be moot if society continues its trend toward digitization. Just as local political campaigns can now draw national, and even global, attention, the boundaries of religious movements are less distinct than ever. Those hazier lines mean the future demographics of religion may be less defined by the nation of your birth and more by the social media site you most frequent.