Will religion survive the 21st century?

In answer to Quora question: "Will religion survive the 21st century?"

An interesting question - thank your for the A2A invite.

To answer this, I think it will be helpful to define the terms I'll be using. To my mind, "religions" are institutions created by people for people - sometimes with constructive intentions, and sometimes not - and usually develop as hierarchical power structures with rigid dogmas that often undermine or contradict the foundational ideas of the religion itself. Thus, at different times, religious institutions have ended up having both an important positive impact on human civilization...and an extraordinarily negative or destructive impact. So, for example, while we almost certainly owe the blossoming of scientific thought in the Renaissance to the shepherding and preservation of ancient knowledge through medieval times by Christian monks and Islamic scholars, the world also experienced violent suppression of that very scientific revolution by those same traditions later on. This is one of the many ironies that crop up when weighing the benefits and antagonisms of religious institutions. In any case, whenever I refer to religion, I mainly mean the flawed, dogmatic hierarchies of power that reside in these irony-laden institutions.

With the advent and eventual dominance of scientific thought, the Western world began to shift away from the authority of one type of knowledge - revealed or "inspirational" knowledge - to another type of knowledge: a priori empirical knowledge. When that happened, a power shift occurred as well...away from religious institutions who had been the traditional "keepers of knowledge" to the scientific community. For knowledge is power, right? And although an academic or scientist might tend to dispute the observation, the relationship between the general populace and the scientific community began to emulate the dynamic between the general populace and religious institutions that had endured through earlier centuries. It was a gravitational shift of "faith" as it were, and, understandably, this resulted in a lot of tension between religious institutions and scientific ones. So although the average person did not really comprehend all the empirical evidence for, say, their doctor's medical approach, they trusted that doctor just as much as they had trusted the priests, miracle-workers and shamans before faith-in-science usurped faith-in-religion.

Now this is the heart of the point I am trying to make: religion endures in all human institutions that expect (or demand) obedience to a dogmatic expression of knowledge or authority - however that knowledge and authority is formulated. This is, for example, how we differentiate an informal community meditation group from a secretive and controlling cult. But it is also how we can differentiate feelings of love and loyalty around one's cultural identity from lockstep nationalism or tribal groupthink, or separate the pragmatic participation in a consumer economy from a worshipful devotion to greed and wealth-accumulation. One's "religion," as it were, is expressed in such attitudes of conformance and devotion, of a compulsory adherence to dogmatic systems. So of course there are those for whom "scientism" has become their religion, and others who worship "materialism," and others who are blindly devoted to "neoliberalism," or any number of other ideologies that have spawned, in essence, new religious institutions that are identical in structure and function to the more traditional, formally recognized religious institutions.

This is why I would say that religion tends to persist in human society, because this desire to belong to rigid, dogmatic hierarchies is part of us; I would go so far as to say it is a stage in our moral development. In yet another irony, the sacred texts of many religious traditions actually speak out against this kind of blind conformance to dogma. But when you consider that, for example, Jesus was one of the most outspoken advocates against "religiosity" in this sense, you couldn't paint a more extreme picture of these very institutional failings than the modern Christian Church (taken as a whole) that grew out of his teachings. So the early spiritual traditions themselves, even as they deliberately and passionately set out to destroy "religion," ended up creating new religious institutions that were the antithesis of their goals! And of course something very similar has occurred with science; for what set out to be a simple process of proposing hypotheses and carefully designing techniques and metrics to empirically test those hypotheses (and thus circumvent dogmatic rigidity), has now become (for many people) a rigidly dogmatic ideology that aggressively condemns non-rational felt experience, spiritual intuition, a priori induction, nuanced insights, intersubjective consensus, or anything else that cannot be empirically validated in black-and-white.

Again, therefore, this is a human failing that will repeat itself over and over again until our species matures past this stage of moral development. We just have to grow up a bit, and then religion as I have defined it can pass away more and more from our cultural landscape. But since you confined your question to the 21st Century, I think I would have to say that religion will endure and perhaps even expand for that period. As cultural and technological change continues to accelerate, folks will undoubtedly continue to want to feel secure in their hierarchical communities of like-mindedness. It may very well be that Scientism will become that expanding religion. Or, as the South Park folks proposed, Atheism may take on that mantle. Or perhaps one of the older religious institutions will have a resurgence. I don't know. But I do hope that, as individuals and increasingly as a collective, human beings will begin to seek out community and authority in different ways, ways that tap into our multiple dimensions of innate wisdom and intelligence, so that we can leave the conflicting ironies of religious institutions behind us for good.

I hope this was a helpful contribution to the conversation.


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