Huffington Post UK has published the results of a survey showing that half of Britain thinks religion does more harm than good, and that you don’t need it to be a good person. This seems to be a trend in Europe that was started in the Scandinavian countries. It’s in contrast to the United States, where religion still has substantial influence, although even here that influence is in decline. (The percentage of people claiming no religion in the US has gone from 8% to 20% in the last couple of decades.)
The decline of religion in the west seems unprecedented in world history. Religion dates back to at least the Upper Paleolithic and, prior to the 20th century, was pretty much a cultural universal. But increasingly, people in developed societies are turning away from it. Or are they?
I’ve noted before that religion historically had three main functions:
- Explaining the world.
- Supporting the social order.
- Soothing existential anxiety.
This is a simplification of function lists I’ve read from anthropologists and other scientists like Jared Diamond.
In the modern world, science has pretty much taken over 1. And modern societies have built a number of institutions to handle 2. (Related to 2, amanimal recently called my attention to a fascinating article comparing religion to sports and the social cohesion benefits of rituals and symbols.) Indeed, its not uncommon here in the US for our constitution, government, courts, etc, to be referred to as our “civil religion“.
3 has been the one that has taken the longest, from a historical perspective, to replace. But I think that replacement is happening. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries with the strongest social safety nets, the ones that protect their citizens from the worst consequences of the vicissitudes of life, are also the ones at the forefront of religion’s decline. These social safety nets are reducing the existential anxiety that fueled the need for 3.
This raises an interesting question. Is religion so much in decline, or are the ancient supernatural religions simply in the process of being replaced? As I’ve written before, religion is a difficult beast to define. A historian centuries from now looking back may interpret what’s happening as more of a transition from one set of worldviews to a new set. They may see our modern emerging “religion” as a syncretization, a merging, of science and civil religion, including the social welfare state.
This is a view typically resisted by both religion’s advocates and its opponents. They see religion as inescapably linked to its traditional supernatural beliefs. Along those lines, maybe it’s not religion per se that’s in decline but supernatural beliefs. Except that many people who are not religious, even in Scandinavia, still hold supernatural beliefs, often retaining belief in a hazy “universal spirit” or “higher power”.
Of course, this may all be a matter of semantics. An argument could be made that words should be defined according to their common meanings. And by that measure, religion is in decline, and may, in decades to come, be in danger of extinction.
Could something reverse that decline? Given 3 above, I’d say yes. If life were to become harsh and unpredictable again in the west, I think we’d see a resurgence in traditional religion. The only thing separating us from that resurgence would be a devastating war, a natural catastrophe, or some form of economic collapse. If any of these happened with sufficient magnitude that civic institutions were overwhelmed, I think it would be a boon for religion.
An interesting thought experiment is to consider what might happen if these types of events happened after traditional religion had died out. Would totally new religions rise up? Or would people return to the old ones?
What do you think? Is religion headed for extinction? Or is it too hardwired into the human psyche and we’re only seeing a temporary lull? Could we avoid falling back into religion if civilization collapsed or declined?