Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How Important Will Religion be in Twenty Years?

Tyler Cowen:
Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.
But is that true? Not that you or I or anyone else knows, but what are the odds?

One of my fears about parenting was that my children, raised with no religion, might have some kind of crisis and become born again or join cults. But so far as I can tell my children are almost completely indifferent to religion. They have a vague hostility to Christianity, as they do to any entity that makes them feel nagged (the school system, social justice warriors), but this is pathetically weak compared to their feelings about music, video games, and cats.

So I find it hard to see how or why an increasingly non-religious society would reverse course. Obviously some people raised by agnostics do end up returning to faith, but so far they are greatly outnumbered by people moving in the opposite direction.

Sometimes I wonder what will become of a world with no religion, and I imagine more and more people feeling purposeless and escaping into drugs and virtual reality until there is a mass movement back toward faith.

But then I think that a solution via more drugs and more virtual reality is at least as likely.

I believe that compared to past societies, contemporary religion is in a very weak position. There is no good account that reconciles up-to-date science with any religious faith except the weakest deism. We have no particular reverence for old knowledge or for prophetic revelation. There is of course much that we do not know, but our knowledge grows every year, pointing toward a time when we may understand the deep secrets of the cosmos. I am no great optimist about this myself, but I certainly think understanding the universe is more likely through science than by pondering the pronouncements of Iron Age prophets.

We live in a vast and diverse world and are constantly exposed to different sorts of belief, which I believe makes it harder to take any particular form seriously. My kids seem to put Christianity in the same category as Islam, Hinduism, and Norse paganism, with no one any more likely to be true than the others. My eldest son has listened to a bunch of Alan Watts' lectures on eastern spirituality, and he regards the Judeo-Christian conception of God as "primitive."

Powerful religious experiences, it seems to me, happen mainly among small groups of people who shut out the world and focus intensely on their teachings. That still happens for millions of people, but I can't see it remaking our society.

Nor can I see how religious thinkers will offer analyses of our world that will make much deep sense to my children and the rest of their generation.


G. Verloren said...

My personal hope is that we'll move to sorts of syncretic folk religions - closer to myth, storytelling, and legend than to traditional organized religions.

I'm a personal fan of modern Shintoism, where there's very little in the way of formal organization - the larger shrines tend to follow certain collectively accepted traditions, but the vast majority of shrines are much more informal and unregulated. There's no real set way to go about things - no single proscribed view of the world, or way to venerate nature and the spirits. Shrines vary wildly in their rituals and the deities they house. Moreover, people don't really "belong" to one shrine or another.

If you take a trip to the mountains and stumble upon a roadside shrine, you don't even need to know what kind of kami resides there - you just admire the beauty of the site, reflect upon nature and humanity and the world, make a small offering or perform a short reverential ritual, and then go on about your business. Or perhaps you don't do any of those things - after all, there's no real compulsion involved, no obligation or duty to take part in anything. It's an open system, and you can be involved as much or as little as you are comfortable with. Ostensibly, if you take the time to honor the kami, they may repay the kindness with small blessings and good luck. But not taking part is fine too - the kami are indifferent to indifference.

If the Abrahamic religions were to end up like that - with a general societal allowance for different interpretations of beliefs, and for different rituals, and for individuals to choose for themselves when, how, and to what extent they wish to worship or take part - I'd be quite happy with that development. The problem with these religions is that they're so brutally judgemental and try to push their agendas on others. A nonbeliever can visit a Shinto shrine and be accepted openly and without judgement - but a nonbeliever can hardly expect to visit a church, mosque, or temple and manage to avoid the disapproval and scorn of the faithful of that place.

I'm somewhat convinced that if these traditions are to survive meaningfully in the future, they're going to have to shed their judgementality. Otherwise people will simply ignore them and ostracize them.

szopen said...

He could refer to two things

(1) Muslims will conquer Europe! Hahaha!
(2) Religiosity is hereditary, and more religious people have more children, therefore in future people will be more religious.

G. Verloren said...


The second notion is as absurd as the first. If religiosity is hereditary, how did we go from nearly absolute religiosity to substantial percentages of atheists and agnostics? There would have to be some genetic pressure working -againt- religiosity for the minority belief to be able to take hold.

szopen said...

@G. Verloren
Sorry for not answering immedietely, I read the blog only occasionally. I hope you will read this.

First of all, the second notion is not absurd. Every human trait is heritable. We also know that traits related to the psyche cannot be dictated by single gene, but by maybe even hundreds of them, so the trait will be more or less normally distributed. So you would have "predisposition to be religious" to be a trait with different levels of intensity. Depending on the environment, it would express itself in different manner. In a very free society, people would be more free to follow their predispositions than in a society, where everyone would be expected to be religious. Moreover, there is always gene-environment interaction.

Second of all, if height is hereditary, how did we go from society with average height for man below 1.7m to a society where average height is 10cm higher? There would have to be incredible genetic pressure working against short man for rise in height taking place in such a short time... right?