Religion’s Future Part 1: The Role of Religion
This is part 1 of a two-part series speculating on the future of religion. The second part is here.
As the monotheisms die out thanks to all the corruption and violence and rape and such in their hierarchies, a lot of people will be left without the comfort and community that they’ve found in religion. It’s already true that many doubters remain in their church for fear of ostracism or loneliness. There’s no doubt that religion plays a huge role in the lives of billions of human beings, but how did it get that way? What purpose did religion ever serve, and what purpose does it have now? What will happen when humanity grows up and leaves behind childish things?
Religious thinking–specifically the creation of gods–was originally an attempt to explain and describe natural processes which we couldn’t understand. We may have made the correlation between the appearance of clouds and the occurrence of precipitation, but we still didn’t have a why or how. Since human beings are so capable of affecting change on our environment, it sort of made sense that a person with the power to do so was bringing the clouds and the much-needed rain. This type of thinking is evidenced by the belief that gods like Zeus and Aphrodite were knowable in a physical sense; they could be interacted with and could have children with mortals.
As humanity has continued to grow and develop, our understanding of natural phenomena has greatly improved. So, the functional purpose that gods served stopped being nearly as relevant. One of the stronger beliefs remaining is that a god at least initiated the beginning of the universe, if it isn’t taking a greater part in a number of natural processes.
At some point, there was a shift, and the existence of gods no longer served to explain every single mysterious thing in nature. However, there is still much wonder and things unknown about the nature of human behaviour. Godly thinking has become a more internalized question of why? We want to know why sentient life exists on this planet and hasn’t been discovered elsewhere, or why humans have an ability to deeply contemplate ourselves, or why we have a sense of morality. Our solipsistic tendencies push us to think that there must have been some purpose to our existence, rather than being willing to accept the pure random chance of our coming into being.
A common theme in today’s theological arguments is that religion is where humanity gets its morals. There are loads of ways to debunk this claim, but it’s a virulent one nonetheless. Many people live their lives according to certain sections of their holy books which they believe teach them how to be just and good. Thankfully, most of these people ignore the parts commanding them to kill others and offer blood sacrifice. Despite the mental gymnastics required to pick-and-choose which god-given commandments were the right ones, this is still probably the most common use of religion in the modern world.
Religious people band together under their version of Truth™ with the belief that they’re following the dictated will of a god. This creates some extremely close-knit social groups with a low tolerance for deviation; if you’re deviating from the One Version of Truth™ then you’re deviating from the will of god and must be punished in this life via ostracism by the True Followers™ until the deity receives you in the afterlife to do as they will.
It’s not always bad; if you behave similarly to the others in your religious group, there are tons of advantages. The sense of belonging and close community makes lots of people happy. It helps satiate the human need for companionship. Groups like this often do community outreach and volunteer work, which can make a positive impact on the community at large. If this paragraph seems small compared to the number of negatives I could list, trust that there’s a reason.
Look for part 2 later on, where we’ll be discussing the secular alternatives to religion which still preserve the many positive aspects of religious group-think.