As was Time magazine on April 8, 1966, when its front cover was emblazoned with the iconic question “Is God Dead?” printed in blood-red ink.
In fact, in the 84 years between and since, “God”-based monotheistic religions continued to vigorously expand across global landscapes, if not in the West. Indeed, even in America, where in the 21st century a quarter of the population now disclaims more than a fleeting interest in religion (a sharp increase), including atheists and agnostics, more than 70 percent of citizens remain Christian, and another five percent attached to other faiths.
Today, some 6.9 billion religious people exist on the planet, according to a regular Pew Research Center survey on global faiths in 2017, and believers worldwide are still far outpacing nonbelievers. Christians and Muslims, in that order, now lead the pack.
So, it’s fair to say religion is likely not going away anytime soon in the world (if ever), although there are large pockets of majority secularity, primarily in nations already rich and successful, and thus economically and politically stable, like Norway.
Which is not impoverished, politically chaotic and fearful sub-Sahara Africa, one place where faith in gods is surging like a tsunami.
A better question might be, “What is the future of godly religions?”
I ran across two compelling articles that went deep on this topic: a lengthy BBC.com article titled “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the future of religion,” and a post on the Science in Religion blog on Patheos hub titled “The Future of Religion: What Follows the Decline of Big Gods?”
Some writing already seems to be on the wall, Pew data indicates. The center, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan fact tank,” reported in 2015 that by 2050 the global Muslim population is projected to achieve near parity with Christians.
Currently, there are roughly 2.2 billion Christians in the world and 1.6 billion Muslims, but Pew data anticipates those figures in 2050 will be 2.9 billion and 2.8 billion, respectively. Data projects 73 percent growth in the intervening period for Muslims, but only 35 percent for Christians, while growth in the overall number of believers is expected to reach 35 percent.
In fact, virtually every religious group except Buddhists are expected to grow significantly in the next few decades worldwide. Holding back Buddhists, Pew reports, are low fertility rates and aging populations in large chunks of Asia (the young everywhere are generally far less faithful than their parents).
While global faithfulness appears to be on the cusp of serious growth, the trendline for religious disinterest — what Pew terms “apatheism” — is heading in the opposite direction. Although unbelief is expected to grow markedly in the West in coming decades, overall worldwide it is expected to slide from 16.4 percent of all human beings to 13.2 percent.
What’s particularly interesting about the two articles I referenced above is not what they say about how religion may grow globally but how the doctrines and practices of faith will change in a fast-changing world in the not-too-distant future.
In the Americas, for instance, the currently fastest-growing faith is Pentecostal Christianity, which is characterized by charismatic, emotional faith practices, including glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues” (speech interpreted as unfathomable gibberish by the uninitiated but a real language from the “Holy Ghost” by practitioners).
Connor Wood, author of the Science on Religion article, opines that a good number of believers seem to be turning away from the “Big God,” universal religions to very old and brand-new faiths that inhabit the more narrow confines within which they live their day-to-day lives.
“In our (sort of) post-Christian context, an increasing number of people are turning to pre-Christian religious traditions, such as Norse paganism or Druidism,” Connor writes. “In the United States, disaffected African-American activists are taking up reconstituted African faiths derived from the Yoruba tradition.”
He quotes Linda Woodhead, a scholar quoted as well as Wood in the BBC article, as arguing that across the developed West,
“There is a pull away from global universality to local identities. … It’s really important that they’re your gods, they weren’t just made up.”
With more hopefulness than factual underpinning, Wood opines:
“So, while Christianity is still the predominant religion in Europe and the Americas, it’s looking demographically weak. By contrast, the neo-pagan and ethnic folk religions have real momentum in their favor. Paradoxically, the future of religion might be the past.”
Nonetheless, the numbers of exponents of these old-but-new religious interests might very well turn out to be, as most religions, a passing fancy for limited pockets of mankind.
Still, as Sumit Paul-Chaudury writes in his BBC piece this month:
“We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die — but we are also oddly blind to reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult.”
As Christianity and Islam once were, to name two.
To my mind, this tells us that something is hardwired into the human psyche that compels most of us to compulsively seek invisible saviors in the ether — although, try as we may over millennia, we have yet to find one we can actually verify materially to exist.
So, it turns out God is far from dead yet, and that we nonetheists still face a very long wait for vindication, if it ever arrives.
Yet, the question remains: Whither God?