About 21st Century Faith

In case you haven’t heard, religion is on the decline.  Non-religious humans are growing faster than religious ones, and a mathematical think-tank has predicted a Rubicon will be reached.  Essentially, once a critical mass of non-believers occurs, believers become odd balls, and it’s all downhill from there.  The mathematicians listed nine countries where religion will shrink to near-extinction.[i]

If we’re honest, the slide has been going on for a while.  Religion stopped being the source of all truth centuries ago.  Modern societies no longer rely on mythology, temples, and ancestral traditions.  They rely, instead, on science, markets, and a strong sense of individuality.  We figure things out for ourselves, rather than accept what we’re told.  For modern folk, the final arbiter of what you believe is you.

Unfortunately, science, markets, and the primacy of individual opinion are not conducive to the practice of religion, in any organized fashion.  They’re a form of anti-religion.  As their influence grows, the influence of religion continues to wane.

It can be hard to believe something so pervasive and deeply rooted as religion could ever disappear, or be relegated to a dwindling lunatic fringe.  There’s evidence of religiousness since the time of the Neanderthals.  But then you think of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian God of The Underworld.  No one worships the poor guy anymore.  He was a rock star in his day, but his Cult only exists now as pictures on eroding temple walls, and there’s no reason to believe the same can’t happen to all religions.  In another four thousand years, our beliefs may look as antiquated to future starship children as the Egyptians look to us.

Simply consider medicine.  Exorcisms are no longer the treatment for epilepsy.  Antibiotics are superior to prayer if you have pneumonia.  A physician is more likely to cure you than a medicine man, and that’s what matters to people.  Priests and shaman used to be the healers in town, with the associated prestige, but not anymore.  Today, doctors have the mystique once accorded to shaman and priests.  Health has increased since medical science took over, and medicine is simply one of many ways that religious belief has been rendered nearly obsolete.

If you’re paying attention, the aspects of life that remain the exclusive purview of religion are quickly diminishing.  People are more likely to talk to a therapist than confess to a priest.  The future is forecast by mathematical models, not astrology or the I Ching.  The origins of the universe are discovered by scientists, rather than revealed by myths.  A ruler’s legitimacy no longer depends upon divine approval.

When promising a pleasant after-death experience becomes the only venue left for faith, the prognosis will be poor.  It’s like selling a car to be delivered after you die.  I used to sell Oldsmobiles, so I can speak as an authority.  That is not a good long-term plan.  Most people will eventually decide they don’t need the car, figuring to hitch a ride when the time comes.

It also raises an interesting question—what will remain of religion if the dying-problem is taken out of the equation, as some scientists think is possible?  Whether we genetically decode and suspend the aging process, augmented by artificially-grown replacement organs, or download a mind into an artificial intelligence machine that controls an android body, the last unanswerable question will be solved.  The concept of faith will be studied as a transitory phase in the evolution of human thought.

Fortunately, if you’re a person of faith, like me, we’re not at that stage yet.  Only two to three percent of the population are atheistic.  Most non-religious people continue to accept the existence of something sacred:  God(s), Goddess(esses), Spirits, Ancestors, Tao, the Essence of the Mushroom, Xenu the Space Lord, or a Cosmic Source of All Illusion.  They simply do it on their own terms, in their own time, and find what works for them.  Sociologists call it autonomous faith.  When it comes to religion, modern people can each make up their own.

I offer as exhibit A the county where I live, which has over eighty Baptist churches.  There are American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Free-Will Baptists, Bible Baptists, Missionary Baptists, and all kinds of independent Baptists, most of whom don’t get along very well.  They’re a fractious bunch, and the erosion culminates in churches of one, especially since you can sit home and watch TV.  Robert Schuller began The Hour of Power at a drive-in theater, where worshipers can just as easily drive out.

The danger is not that any particular religion will disappear.  Humanity survived the loss of Osiris and Isis.  There’s only a hundred and fifty thousand Zoroastrians left in the world, and few will notice when they’re no longer with us.  Most people don’t even know who they are.  If Christ, Muhammad, and Buddha join the pantheon of the forgotten, the processes of life will continue.

The threat is that, in our autonomy, the communal element found in all great religions will be lost, the sense that we are similarly beholden to something greater than ourselves, and find our common humanity in that mutual admission.  The sun shining on everyone alike is a very different perspective from the sun shining on me and mine.  Without the spiritual, we easily lose sight of what is blessing or hurting us all.

The only reason people may decide to keep faith into the future, to keep a place for the unseen in their lives, is if the personal and social benefits are significant.  And those benefits are found in the values unique to spiritual belief.  Peace, generosity, harmony, humility—in deference to our commonality as created beings—these are the essentials of religion that are not replicated in the sciences, and markets, and individualism of modern cultures.  They are what faith has to offer, in a world where such things are in short supply.

I don’t know where else these values will come from in the twenty-first century.  I also believe they are essential to our identity as humans.  If markets and governments are all that transcend us, we’re in trouble, because we’ll have forgotten who we are.

Humanity does not stand still, however.  A spirituality that survives into the future must bring those singular values into the altered social landscapes, as the Creator keeps contact with the ongoing flowering of life.

This blog is dedicated to that project.  You’re welcome to join in.

2 Responses to “About 21st Century Faith”

  1. Controversial, but very thought-provoking. Keep them coming. El

  2. have you considered that America is not loosing it’s religion but that God is leaving America?
    Just a thought.

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