What is the future of religion? Is it even meaningful to speak of “religion” as an entity with a single future, or can we speak only of individual religions that wax and wane? For generations, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers (along with most sociologists) expected religion-as-a-whole to decline in the wake of expanding education and prosperity. Recent fashion has been to dismiss this “secularization hypothesis” as an empty dream. But even while our attention was elsewhere, has it been coming true? Even in the noisily pious United States, is a mighty underground river of secularization rearranging the foundations of our culture in a way most have failed to recognize?
To a great degree, our prediction for religion’s future will reflect our views about its past and its role today. Critics like Richard Dawkins portray religion as a net detriment, a costly hobble on human development; others view it as an inescapable component of human experience. To thinkers like E.O. Wilson, religion has been a boon that helped early humans to maintain cohesive communities in the teeth of a capricious, often cruel world. Whether we view religion as positive or negative, we must all concede that it is a universal that appears in some form in every human community. Or is that assumption as false as the theory that faith burgeons in America because our churches compete in an invigorating free market for religious allegiance? (What, you didn’t hear that theory had been overturned?)
We’re pleased to present two very different perspectives on religion’s future. In “The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved,” independent scholar Gregory S. Paul presents a sprawling account of faith’s past, present, and possible future. Paul has digested vast quantities of survey data compiled on national and global scales, based on which he argues that religion is not a universal feature of human societies and that the much maligned secularization hypothesis is very much alive. In his new model, popular piety has less to do with metaphysics than with the level of economic and social security middle-class majorities perceive themselves to enjoy. If that is true, then if we bring more members of the human community to the social standards enjoyed by western Europeans, we might expect religion to wither after all.
In “The Great God Debate and the Future of Faith,” historian Alexander Saxton takes a different tack. His analysis begins with the idea Paul rejects, that religion is a human universal. For the tendency toward religious belief and practice to have been conserved during evolution, it must have conferred adaptive benefits upon early humans whether or not those benefits are visible today. Saxton’s intriguing model accepts that religion benefited human communities in the past but ceased to be adaptive quite recently. For him, the defining crises of the twenty-first century will be ecological degradation and weapons proliferation. Effective response to those crises must begin with recognizing that religion, heretofore part of the solution, is now part of the problem.
What do you think religion’s future should be? If you do not believe the question should even be posed in such terms, what other formulations would you recommend? The editors present these two articles in the hope that they will catalyze an enthusiastic dialogue.