What is the future of religion? Does it even have a future?

What is the future of religion? Does it even have a future? September 13, 2019


This cosmic theme is raised by a British Broadcasting Corporation article under the headline “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the Future of Religion?”


In its early history the BBC (born in 1927, the year of the U.S. Radio Act) was nicknamed “Auntie” for its comforting, old-style tone. But The Beeb goes futuristic in a current online series that takes “the long view of humanity.” An August article offered the forecast about  religion: www.bbc.com/future/story/20190801-tomorrows-gods-what-is-the-future-of-religion

Writer Sumit Paul-Choudhury, former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist magazine, notes that religions ebb and flow across eons. The Parsees’ religion originated with Zarathustra (a.k.a. Zoroaster) in roughly the era of the ancient Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The faith  had millions of followers in the Persian Empire’s heyday but today counts only 60,000. Christians began as a tiny Jewish sect, spread through the Roman Empire, and today are found  most everywhere and practice the world’s largest religion.

Rather than seeing religions as providing spiritual truths and essential morality, Paul-Choudhury leans toward the “functionalist” theory by which creeds evolved to provide social cohesion. Think Karl Marx, who deemed religion the “opium of the masses.” As clans and tribes gave way to large and diverse nations, people were able to coexist through devotion to “Big Gods,” and so forth.

Importantly, this BBC writer foresees a bleak future. Growing numbers “say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.”

Thinkers have been promoting that same consensus since the 17th and 18th Century “Enlightenment.”

A special problem hampered religions during the past century, he briefly acknowledges. Nations like Soviet Russia and China “adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression.” Frowned? That’s an odd verb to depict Communist regimes’ mass-scale murder, torture, imprisonment, persecution, petty harassment, propaganda, property theft and destruction of institutions. But I digress.

Paul-Choudbury seems enthused by trends like syncretism (combining elements of separate religions), stripping faiths of ancient tenets, efforts to revive old paganism in Europe, and the invention of new sects like Way of the Future,  Homo Deus, The Turing Church, Temple of the Jedi Order, or Witnesses of Climatology.

Modern disbelief is complicated, he notes, as shown in research on the U.S., U.K., and four other nations that University of Kent scholars presented to a May confab at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. For the full report, see https://research.kent.ac.uk/understandingunbelief/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/2019/05/UUReportRome.pdf Turns out atheists and agnostics are surprisingly open to supernatural phenomena, favor objective moral values, and generally seek to find “meaning in the world and your own life.”

The BBC article contrasts with the estimates for 2050 in the Pew Research Center report “The Future of World Religions.” See https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050 Pew advises us that any projections beyond a few decades ahead are worthless, and underscores the all-important hedge that its data are credible “if current trends continue.”

In contrast with the BBC, Pew predicts that the religiously unaffiliated “nones,” currently 16.4 percent of the world population, will slip to 13.2 percent by 2050. Perhaps that reflects effects from Communism’s decline in Europe. However, as oft noted, in the U.S. the unaffiliated are expected to be 25.6 percent of the population by 2050, compared with only 16.4 percent as of 2010. The slide of belief in North America and Western Europe will be more than counterbalanced by a predicted boom elsewhere, especially in Africa south of the Sahara Desert.

Buddhists are gradually declining as a percentage of the world population.  Christianity has been remarkably stable over the decades, encompassing just under a third of the world’s people. Pew says Muslims continually expand and by 2050 will number 2.76 billion, nearly matching Christians’ 2.92 billion and, Pew figures, will eventually achieve first place.

There’s a second standard source of data on religions, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Here is its current summary: https://gordonconwell.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2019/04/StatusofGlobalChristianity20191.pdf  In this accounting, the 2050 total for Muslims is a similar 2.8 billion, but Christians will swell to 3.47 billion. The categories of traditional folk religions, and of new religions that so intrigue the BBC author, will remain minor aspects of the big picture and experience slow decline.

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