The end of religion?

A couple weeks ago, I came across a BBC article entitled “Will religion ever disappear?

That word “ever” is the first clue as to where this author is coming from and her likely intent in writing the article.

If we’re going to try to answer that question, let’s put some facts on the table.

First, religion is a global phenomenon. Every single last country on this planet has groups of people holding to one religion or another. Religious people are found in every socio-economic slice of the human pie. If you group people according to how much education they have, you’d have religious people in every single category. No matter what race, age, gender, height, weight, sexual orientation … all of these include some who are religious.

Second, religions have been around during every period of human history. Some have spanned millennia and are still here: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and many others. Certain others were also long-lived but have since died out: the Aztecs, Mayans, Druids, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Egyptians. We even have evidence of religions which preceded recorded history: I’ve blogged before about Venus-like statues found buried in Siberia with human bones that were radiometrically dated to 25,000 years ago, and also about Neanderthals showing signs of believing in an afterlife.

So how does the author of this BBC article ever think that religion is on its way out?

She claims that there’s a trend: that “a growing number of people … say that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan“. And she bases that claim on a quote from a sociologist (“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before … Very few societies are more religious today than they were 40 or 50 years ago”), on a Gallup poll saying those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% between 2005 to 2011, and on a Pew Research poll showing that Americans who claimed to be atheist rose from 1.6% to 2.4% between 2007 and 2012.

Pretty slim evidence against something as big as religion.

Personally, I think that author’s hopes are misplaced. Religion is here to stay. For better or for worse.

I’m often intrigued by how the self-described enlightened atheists might in fact only be kidding themselves. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people refer to being “spiritual, but not religious“. In one poll of 1,700 American scientists, one fifth of those who identified themselves as atheists labelled themselves as ‘spiritual atheists’. Other ‘atheists’ will re-label their religion as ‘karma’: in a news article about some sad story involving priests, one reader commented on how they rejected religion but that “I believe in karma … I hope they get their due …”. Or those who believe in some kind of strange life force in the universe that they can tap into. A very popular TV personality promoting the “Law of attraction” and a book entitled The Secret which has sold 19 million copies worldwide and been translated into 46 languages. The basic premise being there are energies out there and if you focus on either positive or negative thoughts, you can bring about corresponding results.

Many think they’re only motivated by the material and the visible, but don’t seem to notice the subtle clues of an irrational belief in invisible powers beyond their control. Every newspaper and many magazines have an astrology or horoscope section in their print. Baseball players go through a ritualistic routine as they step up to bat … and wouldn’t even think about changing that up. Astronauts have their pre-launch rituals. Stock traders, gamblers and architects all have superstitious quirks. How many people attach some kind of significance to “lucky seven“, or Friday the 13th … throwing a pinch of salt over their left shoulder … black cats … walking under ladders … broken mirrors. Do you use the phrase “Knock on wood“, or consider Feng shui for your home or office?

Okay, I’ll admit, most of those are relatively weak influences on our beliefs and actions. But just the same, a deep-seated suspicion of things beyond the natural … the ‘supernatural’ … and a comfort in repeating rituals runs deep in Homo sapiens. Some think this is an evolutionary artifact. We’ve been wired to be suspicious of some Being or Agent around every corner, and in every rustling of the leaves, and with every unexplained death in the tribe. I’ll blog on that someday, but not today: this post is already too long.

So I’ll finish with this. I’m not at all saying religions are simply glorified superstitions. But I will ask whether religious beliefs that can be defended on moral, philosophical or theological grounds are worse than irrational beliefs or habits that you can’t explain.

If the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes“, it’s probably because you immediately associate religion with all kinds of violence, hate, and killing. [cue John Lennon’s “Imagine“]

I’m not going to defend any religions with which I don’t have direct personal experience. Christianity is the only one for which I have insider knowledge. Sure, there have been evils foisted on humanity by groups that historians will refer to as “the church” or “Christianity“. And when the media reports on conflicts around the world, the reporters feel compelled to attach convenient labels on the participants: ‘Christian’ militants fighting ‘Muslim’ opponents, or ‘Protestants’ battling ‘Catholics’.

But none of these groups are acting on any teachings of Jesus Christ. Instead, they’re simply using religion as a very powerful weapon. And that weapon is no different than several other equally powerful ones in humanity’s arsenal. Think of the evils that have been foisted on humanity in the name of ideology (Communism) … race (Rwanda, and other cases of ethnic cleansing; slave-trade) … empire-building (Alexander the Great; Nazi Germany) … economics (the slave-trade; prostitution; blood diamonds; Aztec/Mayan gold; sweat shops; the Iraq war) … scientific knowledge (Josef Mengele; the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima) … or simply just to gain power and control (North Korea).

On the other hand, there are those who take the teachings of Jesus as their mandate and have done many great things. From feeding the hungry, providing for the needy, protecting the vulnerable, caring for the sick and orphaned, standing up to injustice. Sometimes doing so sacrificially. As I wrote just last week, think of all the hospitals, orphanages, universities, and schools that have been built by those groups. Matthew chapter 25 in action.

And like other religious leaders, Christ gave a list of commands. But these are different from the negatively worded ten commandments (“Thou shalt not …“) and the complicated list of 613 laws in the Torah. Instead, they’re few and simple: … love … give … serve.

Will religion ever disappear?

I hope that it does.

At least those forms of religion which shift the focus away from God and onto self. Those which are synonymous with selfishness, intolerance, and hatred.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)


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2 thoughts on “The end of religion?

  1. I agree with you on most things here, but I think we need to retire the old refrain that “those people aren’t following the teachings of Jesus Christ.” At best, you can say “those people aren’t following what I think the teachings of Jesus Christ” are, because according to them, they are most certainly following them. No single Christian has a monopoly on what the teachings of Jesus actually are and what they look like in modern day. Those that seem obsessed with Old Testament style living are using Matt 5:17-18 as their guide that “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets”. Furthermore, if you believe that the entire Bible was inspired by god, then if you follow any part of it, you are following “the teachings of Jesus”, which is why many people are much more interested in following the informative epistles. Now, maybe that’s not how YOU interpret it (I don’t know) but it is false to claim that they are not following Jesus when there’s no single consensus on what following Jesus looks like. Saying “everyone who does bad things in the name of god is just using god as an excuse; they would do bad things anyway” is every bit as much an oversimplification as saying “everyone who does bad things in the name of god is doing them because they are religious, which is why religion is bad.” Neither of these two sides of the spectrum captures the truth.


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