Gosh, I was hoping religion would go the way of the dodo.
God handed down the truth and the devil said, "Let's organize and call it religion."
November 19, 2009, 1:06 pm
By JOHN TIERNEY
Does religion have a future? Who looks more like an evolutionary dead end: the religious American or the agnostic European? Or will both give way to some sort of compromise -- people bound by new institutions that provide the social benefits of religion without belief in a traditional deity?
I raise these questions after reading my colleague Nicholas Wade's fascinating new book, "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures," in which he argues that people have a genetically based urge to worship, engraved by natural selection in the mind's neural circuits because of the tremendous advantage religion conferred on early societies. (You can read a summary of the argument in his Week in Review article.)
If there is a religious instinct, how do we make sense of the declining church attendance in western Europe? As an agnostic myself, I've tended to see the European trend as a harbinger of a general move toward secularism as societies become richer and more educated. But you don't see that trend in the United States, where church attendance is still robust, and Nicholas told me that he sees a long future for religion: "The extent to which people practice religion in modern states may wax and wane, depending on social circumstances like war or privation, but religion is unlikely to disappear entirely."
You might conclude, from the low birth rates (below replacement levels) in European countries, that agnostics and atheists are eventually going to lose out, from an evolutionary standpoint, and be replaced by the growing populations of believers from other societies. But it's also possible that the nonbelievers could develop new godless institutions that confer the evolutionary benefits of religion.
In "The Faith Instinct," after discussing some of the challenges to traditional beliefs (like the arguments of scholars that Jesus had little to do with the invention of Christianity, and that Muhammad might not even have existed), Nicholas notes that music appreciation, like religion, is a universal human faculty that draws people together, stirs the emotions, and exalts the mind to a different plane. He then observes:
Is there not some way of transforming religion into versions better suited for a modern age? The three monotheisms were created to meet conditions in societies that existed many centuries ago. The fact that they have endured for so long does not mean they were meant to last for ever, only that they have become like some favorite Mozart opera that people are happy to hear over and over again. But the world of music did not achieve final perfection in Mozart.
Some Mozart devotees might argue with that last assertion, but I like the parallel between opera and religion. Going to the opera has always reminded me of going to church -- the solemn congregants dressed in their best clothes, listening to their own sacred hymns and texts -- but it doesn't have the same overall impact. As Nicholas notes, religion has traditionally involved people in a multisensual communal experience (music, poetry, dancing) that touches "the deepest emotions of which the mind is capable, inspiring people to look beyond their own self interest to something they may value more, the health and survival of their society, culture or civilization."
But nowadays many religions have toned down those experiences (Nicholas notes that pews were put in churches to stop people from dancing), and many people seem untouched by religion. Nicholas suggests this is because "the three monotheisms seem long ago to have reached the limits of their development, lagging behind the increasing complexity of human societies and the vast growth of organized knowledge." He writes:
Religious behavior evolved for a single reason: to further the survival of human societies. Those who administer religions should not assume they cannot be altered. To the contrary, religions are Durkheimian structures, eminently adjustable to a societys needs. They are shaped in implicit negotiation with supernatural powers who then give instructions to promote societys interests. Much of course depends on the craft and inspiration of the negotiators. But first it is necessary to understand that negotiation is possible.
Maybe religion needs to undergo a second transformation, similar in scope to the transition from hunter gatherer religion to that of settled societies. In this new configuration, religion would retain all its old powers of binding people together for a common purpose, whether for morality or defense. It would touch all the senses and lift the mind. It would transcend self. And it would find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another and to what has been learned of the human condition through rational inquiry.
What would the product of such a transformation look like? One possibility that occurs to me is a version of environmentalism, but with better music and with rituals that are more elegant than sorting garbage. A Church of Green could provide some of the same moral lessons and communal values as traditional religions, and I suspect it's no coincidence that green fervor is especially prevalent in European countries where traditional religion is on the decline.
Do you see any possibilities for new religions, or for ways in which current religions could evolve?