What Is The Future Of Religion?
Paid Program Sponsored by John Templeton Foundation

What is the future
of religion?

Quote Page

“What does it mean
to say that we live
in a secular age?”

Charles Taylor,
Winner of the Kyoto and Templeton Prizes


What Is The Future Of Religion?

Humanity has rarely lacked for confident predictions about the future of religion. Prophets and poets throughout history have proclaimed the dawning of a new spiritual age. More recently, writers and thinkers have proposed that the future will be increasingly secular, as the findings of the natural sciences render the explanatory power of religion obsolete.

Today, the world appears at once more religious and less religious than ever. In much of Western Europe and East Asia, traditional religious groups seem to be in decline—occasionally steep decline—while personal accounts of religious belief and behavior appear to be at historic lows. Even in the United States, the fastest-growing religious demographic are the self-identified “Nones,” individuals who do not associate themselves with any particular religious tradition.

Elsewhere, however, religious enthusiasm appears to be growing. Pentecostal groups are flourishing in Latin America, while Islam and Christianity are finding millions of converts in Africa. Powerful renewal movements can likewise be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Of course, these developments will almost certainly wane over time. Will they be replaced by newer movements? Or are they the final movements of a phenomenon that is on a long, arcing downward trajectory? Evidence from fields as diverse as the cognitive sciences and economics suggest that the religious impulse is unlikely to change—but in the coming centuries the social forms in which it finds expression could look quite different.

What is the future of religion? Only time will tell. Predictions are hard, the great physicist Neils Bohr reportedly said, especially about the future. 

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James K. A. Smith

Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College

That religion has a future would be news to the confident secularization theorists of generations past. Once expected to wither on the vine, religion will most assuredly persist into the future.

That, however, should not be grounds for smugness on the part of religious believers. That people believe remains the same; how people believe has changed. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor discusses this in his book, A Secular Age. He argues that though people continue to have faith in our “secular” age, that faith has become “fragilized.” Intimately aware that our neighbors may be secular, we have to come to grips with the fact that what we believe is kind of unbelievable. Thus, our faith becomes fragile and dubitable. At the very least, we cannot assume our belief is axiomatic. It is contestable and contested. In a secular age, doubt is faith’s constant companion.

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Alister McGrath

Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford

I read voraciously, often to the amusement of my colleagues at Oxford University. I get more than my share of bemused comments, such as, “Why on earth were you reading that?” My reply is simple: it keeps my mind alive, and I never know when I’ll come across something that is interesting, provocative, and even stimulating to the shaping of my own mind. Sure, most of the time it doesn’t work, and the book finds its way into the charity shop pile. But every now and then, you strike gold.

That’s what happened when I read a recent book by two young humanists. Lex Bayer and John Figdor have just brought out a rather nice work entitled Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart. After I finished reading this book, I concluded that there might actually be hope for atheism—or at least this kind of atheism. Let me tell you why.

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Donald Miller

Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion and Professor of Religion and Sociology at the University of Southern California.

Religion will still be with us 100 years from now, but most likely in forms that we would hardly recognize.

The evolutionary process has endowed humans with large brains that enable us to think in complex ways, including about the meaning and purpose of our lives. This quest for meaning, whether primitive or postmodern, is the foundation of all religion. It is from this quest that religious rituals, institutions, and personal practice evolve. Religious forms that do not adapt to changes in culture cease to exist.

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Michael Shermer

Publisher of Skeptic magazine

For a quarter century, I have investigated and attempted to explain anomalous events that people report experiencing. I have written about a few of my own, such as being abducted by aliens (caused by extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation), hallucinating inside a sensory deprivation tank, and having an out-of-body experience while my temporal lobes were stimulated with electromagnetic fields. Most people interpret such experiences as evidence for the supernatural, the afterlife, or even God, but since mine all had clear and obvious natural explanations, few readers took them to be evidentiary.

In my October 2014 column in Scientific American titled “Infrequencies,” however, I wrote about an anomalous experience for which I have no explanation.

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Rodney Stark

Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University.

It is a very religious world, far more religious than it was 50 years ago. Gallup World Poll Surveys [link?] of more than a million people living in 163 nations show that:

-- 81 percent claim to belong to an organized religious faith, and most of the rest report engaging in religious activities such as prayer or making offerings to the gods in various “folk religion” temples.

-- 74 percent say religion is an important part of their daily lives.

-- 50 percent report they have attended a place of worship or religious service in the past seven days.

In very few nations do as many as five percent claim to be atheists, and only in China, Vietnam, and South Korea do they exceed 20 percent.

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David Sloan Wilson

is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University.

In 2002, I published a book with the bold title Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. My aim was to explain the nature of religion as a human construction from a modern evolutionary perspective. I was not alone in my ambition. Two other books with the same aim were published within the same year: Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer and In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran.

A few years later, our scholarly books were overrun by the four horsemen of the New Atheism movement: Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). The four horsemen wanted everyone to know that God doesn’t exist, but they also had opinions on the nature of religion as a human construction. Dawkins and Dennett are iconic interpreters of evolution for the general public. Harris and Hitchens were not trained in evolution, per se, but framed their arguments in terms of science and rationality, which includes evolutionary theory.

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Fenggang Yang

Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

China was once the most secular country in the world, but in the last three and a half decades, while undergoing rapid modernization, many religions have been thriving. From 1966 to 1979, driven by an atheistic ideology, the Communist Party-State closed down all churches, temples, and mosques. The only other country that eradicated all religion was Albania. (In fact, the Albanian Communist leadership was inspired by the Chinese Communists and rushed to implement its eradication policy.) Even the Soviet Union kept at least a few hundred churches open for religious worship, including during the harshest periods of anti-religious campaigns. Not so China.

After the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set a new course for economic reforms and began opening up to the outside world. In order to rally people of all walks for the central task of economic development, beginning in 1979, five religions—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity (Protestantism)—were allowed to reopen a limited number of venues for religious services so long as they were under the control of “patriotic” associations. The CCP leaders appeared to believe that religion would die out along with the passing away of pre-1949 generations. They were confident that the Communist-educated younger generations would not need religion at all.

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Justin Barrett

Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development

Let’s suppose that some account of religion from the cognitive and evolutionary perspective is right. A representative (but not uncontroversial) explanation for the widespread recurrence of religious thought and action would go something like this.

By virtue of being human beings living in ordinary human environments, from early childhood most of us develop with minds that find the idea of supernatural agents (i.e., gods) largely intuitive and a sensible way to understand various features of the world around us. This tendency toward religious thought is not a product of some special “god module” or brain injury or anything peculiar. Rather, it emerges from the natural functioning of human minds that are eager to comprehend the world in terms of intentional actions bringing about effects.


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