Is there any future for “religion”? How might that idea change in the future? Will belief in gods die out altogether, or will new forms of worship emerge?

These are just some of the questions writer and former editor-in-chief of New Scientist Sumit Paul-Choudhury has considered in an interesting new piece on the BBC Future website.

Driving the news

“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”, Paul-Choudhury observes in his article.

But to get at how “religion” might change in the future, the writer first looks at why scientists believe “religion” emerged in the first place.

Paul-Choudhury considers a number of “functionalist” hypotheses. That is, variations on the theme that religion evolved to serve the needs of society.

His hypotheses are as follows:

  • That religion is the “opium of the masses”, “used by the powerful to control the poor”
  • That religion “supports the abstract intellectualism required for science and law”
  • That religion is necessary for “social cohesion”

Paul-Choudhury doesn’t come down for one or other of these hypotheses.

He prefers instead the more modest conclusion that for a religion to endure it has to offer its adherents “tangible benefits”.

In the case of the industrialised West, the great benefit religion offered was the chance for peaceful coexistence beyond kinship and territorial ties.

“Offered”, because as Paul-Choudhury rightly points out, “secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world”.

But that doesn’t mean, paradoxically enough, that faith is dying out.

More and more people are defining themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.


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Go deeper

According to researchers, he most successful religions today – at least in terms of numbers – are those that concentrate on the individual’s, rather than society’s, needs.

“Religions do well, and always have done, when they are subjectively convincing – when you have the sense that God is working for you”, Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK, told Paul-Choudhury.

It’s precisely this search for subjective conviction that’s driving people to craft their own forms of religion, unhappy as they are with organised religion’s clash with secular morality, for example.

Paul-Choudhury considers a few forms these new religions take:

  • Syncretism: “the ‘pick and mix’ approach of combining traditions and practices that often results from the mixing of cultures”
  • Streamlining: the preservation of “the central tenets of an older religion while stripping it of trappings that may have become stifling or old-fashioned”
  • “A pull away from global universality to local identities”, as Woodhead puts it. “Reinventing half-forgotten “native” traditions allows the expression of modern concerns while retaining the patina of age”, as Paul-Choudhury

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The intrigue

Religions in the West are shrinking because of three main factors, Paul-Choudhury continues.

They are no longer at the vanguard of intellectual inquiry, they are refractory to social change, and they promote a human-centric view of a universe that, thanks to scientific research, grows bigger by the day.

But human history shows us that for a religion to become dominant it needs political support.

Or at least that was the case before the advent of the internet.

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Why it matters

New online “religious” movements – which have the potential to “gain followers at rates unimaginable in the past”, as Paul-Choudhury observes – include devotion to all-knowing artifical intelligence systems or human-machine hybrids.

These new “religions” hold out the promise of transcendence above our human limitations and the automation of the difficult decisions we humans are faced with every day, thanks to transhumanist technologies and the insights of big data.

But from the Turing Church to the Temple of the Jedi Order to the Witnesses of Climatology, these new religions are having troubles in getting recognised as such by government authorities.

In that way, the new religions raise a very old question: what exactly is “religion”?

Paul-Choudhury says the “acid test” for what constitutes a “religion”, “as true for neopagans as for transhumanists, is whether people make significant changes to their lives consistent with their stated faith”.

But is organised religion today still making that difference?

And does organised religion really need a supernatural theology on top of the rule of the Turing Church, for example: “Try to act with love and compassion toward other sentient beings”?

If we can think about that, the religion of the future hypothetical will have served for something in the here-and-now.

What do you think? What will religion look like in the future?

Leave us a comment!

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.