Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion? (explored in multiple sections)

#1
Meh... Originally intended for these to be separate posts, but the system will combine them together anyway, with even less space between them.

(Section 1 - Intro; Reason to believe) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: . . . If you believe your faith has arrived at ultimate truth, you might reject the idea that it will change at all. But if history is any guide, no matter how deeply held our beliefs may be today, they are likely in time to be transformed or transferred as they pass to our descendants – or simply to fade away. If religions have changed so dramatically in the past, how might they change in the future? Is there any substance to the claim that belief in gods and deities will die out altogether? And as our civilisation and its technologies become increasingly complex, could entirely new forms of worship emerge? To answer these questions, a good starting point is to ask: why do we have religion in the first place?

Reason to believe. One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th Century French polymath, who wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” ...Voltaire was a trenchant critic ... But in fact, he was being perfectly sincere. He was arguing 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. Many modern students of religion agree. The broad idea that a shared faith serves the needs of a society is known as the functionalist view of religion. There are many functionalist hypotheses [...]

Those faiths that endure are “the long-term products of extraordinarily complex cultural pressures, selection processes, and evolution”, writes Connor Wood [...] Under this argument, any religion that does endure has to offer its adherents tangible benefits. Christianity, for example ... According to Wood ... was set apart by its ethos of caring for the sick – meaning more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan Romans. [Also in its afterlife, a person's caste or class status in their old life was not maintained by default, which was very attractive to the poor.] Islam, too, initially attracted followers by emphasising honour, humility and charity – qualities which were not endemic in turbulent 7th-Century Arabia.

[...] the teeming societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes enforces, moral instructions ... the upshot is that sharing a faith allows people to co-exist (relatively) peacefully. The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves. Or at least, it did...




(Section 2 - Imagine there's no heaven) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: [...] Today, many of our societies are huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths co-exist with each other – and with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future. [...] Sociologists argued that the march of science was leading to the “disenchantment” of society: supernatural answers to the big questions were no longer felt to be needed...

[...] Despite this, religion is not disappearing on a global scale – at least in terms of numbers. In 2015, the Pew Research Center modelled the future of the world’s great religions based on demographics, migration and conversion. Far from a precipitous decline in religiosity, it predicted a modest increase in believers, from 84% of the world’s population today to 87% in 2050. Muslims would grow in number to match Christians, while the number unaffiliated with any religion would decline slightly.

The pattern Pew predicted was of “the secularising West and the rapidly growing rest”. Religion will continue to grow in economically and socially insecure places like much of sub-Saharan Africa – and to decline where they are stable. That chimes with what we know about the deep-seated psychological and neurological drivers of belief. When life is tough or disaster strikes, religion seems to provide a bulwark of psychological (and sometimes practical) support. In a landmark study, people directly affected by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders, who became marginally less religious.

We also need to be careful when interpreting what people mean by “no religion”. “Nones” may be disinterested in organised religion, but that doesn’t mean they are militantly atheist. In 1994, the sociologist Grace Davie classified people according to whether they belonged to a religious group and/or believed in a religious position. The traditionally religious both belonged and believed; hardcore atheists did neither. Then there are those who belong but don’t believe – parents attending church to get a place for their child at a faith school, perhaps. And, finally, there are those who believe in something, but don’t belong to any group.

The research suggests that the last two groups are significant. The Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent in the UK is conducting a three-year, six-nation survey of attitudes among those who say they don’t believe God exists (“atheists”) and those who don’t think it’s possible to know if God exists (“agnostics”). In interim results released in May 2019, the researchers found that few unbelievers actually identify themselves by these labels, with significant minorities opting for a religious identity. What’s more, around three-quarters of atheists and nine out of 10 agnostics are open to the existence of supernatural phenomena...




(Section 3 - The old gods return) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: In 2005, Linda Woodhead wrote "The Spiritual Revolution", in which she described [...] that people were rapidly turning away from organised religion, with its emphasis on fitting into an established order of things, towards practices designed to accentuate and foster individuals’ own sense of who they are. If the town’s Christian churches did not embrace this shift, they concluded, congregations would dwindle into irrelevance while self-guided practices would become the mainstream in a “spiritual revolution”.

Today, Woodhead says that revolution has taken place ... with no real end in sight. “Religions do well, and always have done, when they are subjectively convincing – when you have the sense that God is working for you,” says Woodhead, now professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK. [...] if your basic needs are well catered for, you are more likely to be seeking fulfilment and meaning. Traditional religion is failing to deliver on this, particularly where doctrine clashes with moral convictions that arise from secular society – on gender equality, say. In response, people have started constructing faiths of their own.

What do these self-directed religions look like? One approach is syncretism, the “pick and mix” approach of combining traditions and practices that often results from the mixing of cultures. [...] An alternative is to streamline. New religious movements often seek to preserve the central tenets of an older religion while stripping it of trappings that may have become stifling or old-fashioned...

[...] But Woodhead thinks the religions that might emerge from the current turmoil will have much deeper roots. The first generation of spiritual revolutionaries, coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, were optimistic and universalist in outlook, happy to take inspiration from faiths around the world. Their grandchildren, however, are growing up in a world of geopolitical stresses and socioeconomic angst; they are more likely to hark back to supposedly simpler times. “There is a pull away from global universality to local identities,” says Woodhead. “It’s really important that they’re your gods, they weren’t just made up.”

In the European context, this sets the stage for a resurgence of interest in paganism. Reinventing half-forgotten “native” traditions allows the expression of modern concerns while retaining the patina of age. Paganism also often features divinities that are more like diffuse forces than anthropomorphic gods; that allows people to focus on issues they feel sympathetic towards without having to make a leap of faith to supernatural deities.[...] Not all are liberally inclined. Some are motivated by a desire to return to what they see as conservative “traditional” values – leading in some cases to clashes over the validity of opposing beliefs.

So the nones mostly represent not atheists, nor even secularists, but a mixture of “apatheists” – people who simply don’t care about religion – and practitioners of what you might call “disorganised religion”. While the world religions are likely to persist and evolve for the foreseeable future, we might for the rest of this century see an efflorescence of relatively small religions jostling to break out among these groups. But if Big Gods and shared faiths are key to social cohesion, what happens without them?




(Section 4 - One nation under Mammon) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: One answer, of course, is that we simply get on with our lives. Munificent economies, good government, solid education and effective rule of law can ensure that we rub along happily without any kind of religious framework. And indeed, some of the societies with the highest proportions of non-believers are among the most secure and harmonious on Earth.

What remains debatable, however, is whether they can afford to be irreligious because they have strong secular institutions – or whether being secular has helped them achieve social stability. Religionists say even secular institutions have religious roots: civil legal systems, for example, codify ideas about justice based on social norms established by religions. [...] Financial exchanges, where people meet to conduct highly ritualised trading activity, seem quite like temples to Mammon, too. In fact, religions, even the defunct ones, can provide uncannily appropriate metaphors for many of the more intractable features of modern life. [...]

[...] Connor Wood is not so sure. [...] “I’d be careful about calling capitalism a religion, but a lot of its institutions have religious elements, as in all spheres of human institutional life,” says Wood. “The ‘invisible hand’ of the market almost seems like a supernatural entity.” [...] He contends that a strong, stable society like Sweden’s is both extremely complex and very expensive to run in terms of labour, money and energy – and that might not be sustainable even in the short term. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’re entering into a period of non-linear change in social systems,” he says. “The Western consensus on a combination of market capitalism and democracy can’t be taken for granted.” [...] The pseudo-religious social order might work well when times are good. But when the social contract becomes stressed [...] “This is the human animal looking around and saying we don’t agree how we should behave,” Wood says. “And we need authority to tell us.”




(Section 5 - Mind the gap) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: . . . [Linda] Woodhead is sceptical that Christianity or other world religions can make up the ground they have lost, in the long term. Once the founders of libraries and universities, they are no longer the key sponsors of intellectual thought. Social change undermines religions which don’t accommodate it ... And their tendency to claim we sit at the pinnacle of creation is undermined by a growing sense that humans are not so very significant in the grand scheme of things.

Perhaps a new religion will emerge to fill the void? Again, Woodhead is sceptical. “Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,” she says, “and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.” Zoroastrianism benefited from its adoption by the successive Persian dynasties; the turning point for Christianity came when it was adopted by the Roman Empire. In the secular West, such support is unlikely to be forthcoming, with the possible exception of the US. In Russia, by contrast, the nationalistic overtones of both Rodnovery and the Orthodox church wins them tacit political backing.

But today, there’s another possible source of support: the internet. Online movements gain followers at rates unimaginable in the past. [...] None of these are religions, of course, but they do share parallels with nascent belief systems – particularly that key functionalist objective of fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. Some have confessional and sacrificial elements, too. So, given time and motivation, could something more explicitly religious grow out of an online community? What new forms of religion might these online “congregations” come up with?




(Section 6 - Deus ex machina) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: A few years ago, members of the self-declared “Rationalist” community website LessWrong began discussing a thought experiment about an omnipotent, super-intelligent machine – with many of the qualities of a deity and something of the Old Testament God’s vengeful nature. It was called Roko’s Basilisk. [...] it goes that when a benevolent super-intelligence emerges, it will want to do as much good as possible – and the earlier it comes into existence, the more good it will be able to do. So to encourage everyone to do everything possible to help to bring into existence, it will perpetually and retroactively torture those who don’t – including anyone who so much as learns of its potential existence.

Outlandish though it might seem, Roko’s Basilisk caused quite a stir when it was first suggested on LessWrong – enough for discussion of it to be banned by the site’s creator. Predictably, that only made the idea explode across the internet – or at least the geekier parts of it [...] Their case was not helped by the fact that many Rationalists are strongly committed to other startling ideas about artificial intelligence ... Such esoteric beliefs have arisen throughout history, but the ease with which we can now build a community around them is new.

[...] The mechanism may be new, but the message isn’t. The Basilisk argumentis in much the same spirit as Pascal’s Wager. ... Even the technological trappings aren’t new. In 1954, Fredric Brown wrote a (very) short story called “Answer”, in which a galaxy-spanning supercomputer is turned on and asked: is there a God? Now there is, comes the reply. And some people, like AI entrepreneur Anthony Levandowski, think their holy objective is to build a super-machine that will one day answer just as Brown’s fictional machine did. “There are many ways people think of God, and thousands of flavours of Christianity, Judaism, Islam,” Levandowski told Wired. “But they’re always looking at something that’s not measurable or you can’t really see or control. This time it’s different. This time you will be able to talk to God, literally, and know that it’s listening.”




(Section 7 - Reality bites) Tomorrow's gods: What is the future of religion?
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801...f-religion

EXCERPT: Levandowski is not alone. In his bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the foundations of modern civilisation are eroding in the face of an emergent religion he calls “dataism”, which holds that by giving ourselves over to information flows, we can transcend our earthly concerns and ties. Other fledgling transhumanist religious movements focus on immortality – a new spin on the promise of eternal life...

[...] “Unreligions” seek to dispense with the supposedly unpopular strictures or irrational doctrines of conventional religion, and so might appeal to the irreligious. The Turing Church, founded in 2011, has a range of cosmic tenets [...] But as missionary religions know, what begins as a mere flirtation or idle curiosity – perhaps piqued by a resonant statement or appealing ceremony – can end in a sincere search for truth. The 2001 UK census found that Jediism, the fictional faith observed by the good guys in "Star Wars", was the fourth largest religion: nearly 400,000 people had been inspired to claim it, initially by a tongue-in-cheek online campaign...

[...] Scientology was barred from recognition as a religion for many years in the UK because it did not have a Supreme Being – something that could also be said of Buddhism. In fact, recognition is a complex issue worldwide, particularly since that there is no widely accepted definition of religion even in academic circles. Communist Vietnam, for example, is officially atheist and often cited as one of the world’s most irreligious countries – but sceptics say this is really because official surveys don’t capture the huge proportion of the population who practice folk religion....

Scepticism about practitioners’ motives impedes many new movements from being recognised as genuine religions, whether by officialdom or by the public at large. But ultimately the question of sincerity is a red herring, Singler says: “Whenever someone tells you their worldview, you have to take them at face value”. The acid test, as true for neopagans as for transhumanists, is whether people make significant changes to their lives consistent with their stated faith. And such changes are exactly what the founders of some new religious movements want. Official status is irrelevant if you can win thousands or even millions of followers to your cause.

Consider the “Witnesses of Climatology”, a fledgling “religion” invented to foster greater commitment to action on climate change. [...] They didn’t see any need to bring God into it – Irzak was brought up an atheist – but did start running regular “services”, including introductions, a sermon eulogising the awesomeness of nature and education on aspects of environmentalism. Periodically they include rituals, particularly at traditional holidays. ... “We hope people get real value from this and are encouraged to work on climate change,” she says, rather than despairing about the state of the world. The congregation numbers a few hundred, but Irzak, as a good engineer, is committed to testing out ways to grow that number. Among other things, she is considering a Sunday School to teach children ways of thinking about how complex systems work.

[...] Transhumanism, Jediism, the Witnesses of Climatology and the myriad of other new religious movements may never amount to much. But perhaps the same could have been said for the small groups of believers who gathered around a sacred flame in ancient Iran, three millennia ago, and whose fledgling belief grew into one of the largest, most powerful and enduring religions the world has ever seen – and which is still inspiring people today. Perhaps religions never do really die. Perhaps the religions that span the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps the next great faith is just getting started.
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