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?)