Will religion ever disappear?

Dec 19, 2014

Image: Getty Images

By Rachel Nuwer

Atheism is on the rise around the world, so does that mean spirituality will soon be a thing of the past? Rachel Nuwer discovers that the answer is far from simple.

A growing number of people, millions worldwide, say they believe that life definitively ends at death – that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan. And it’s an outlook that could be gaining momentum – despite its lack of cheer. In some countries, openly acknowledged atheism has never been more popular.

“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% – bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.

While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely

It’s impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion – including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it – can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

23 comments on “Will religion ever disappear?

  • I am an atheist and I am not certain that I will die, and I think it unlikely that I will live indefinitely either. I would prefer the certainty of finite life, that most atheists share. The reason for my uncertainty is quite different from any I have ever heard.

    Consider Wheeler’s many world’s hypothesis. Quantum uncertainty allows the universe to split in all possible (to be defined by quantum experts) directions from every point in space time.

    You could classify branches by how quickly they lead to my almost certain demise. Though the probability densities get absurdly thin, even after centuries, there are likely some chains that would keep me alive. I am dead in nearly all universes, but in a few branches I live on, day after day.

    I pity the “me”s in the ones where I linger indefinitely, though it might fun for the “me”s who get a rejunvenated body and mind, with some erasure of memories that haunt me like a sore tooth my tongue cannot stop probing.

    The inspiration for strange ideas like this come from a class in theoretical probability (including Lebesque measure) I took in fourth year university back in the 60s. It is also inspired by people often encountering me alive and being absolutely astounded. They are positive I had died. I speculated some sort of cross-pollination of many worlds, though obviously there are more mundane explanations. Further, I contracted HIV back in 1985. Every year the doctors would say I had at most one more year. I am still here, yet all my friends, who nearly all became HIV+, are dead. This is mildly spooky, and is consistent my paranoid hypothesis. Again, there is no lack of mundane explanations.

    Quantum Mechanics are so flipping weird, I don’t feel all that certain about anything a universe than contains them. The one thing I am sure of is that I am baffled.

    Woo will not go away. I think there will always be things science is not ready to tackle yet, and people will have endless enjoyment speculating. Even if they have nothing, they will make something up — Never let the facts get in the way of a good ghost story.

    Religion however is dead congealed woo. It is boring, institutional, rigid. By far the main reason people get involved in it is that someone brainwashed them as an infant. It is not something you would do for pleasure.
    When people truly have choice in religion, they will abandon it.

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  • In the 1980s I went to a put-your-life back together “Ken Keyes Living Love” workshop of lay people. There was a guy there who was extremely upset because his cat had died and just could not get over it.

    I told roughly him what I had to say above. He found the the notion that his cat might still be alive on one of his other “me”s laps in some other Wheeler world immensely comforting.

    I feel almost as if I have invented a parody of Christianity.

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  • Roedy,

    It has become necessary for me to die like everyone else ever since my dying father sold it to me as the way I was gifted my “best seat in the house”. I gotta go ‘cos I’ll lose my problem finding and fixing mojo, clog things up and devalue my part of the gift passed forward. I gotta go or life becomes valueless banality. There is no precious, else.

    I genuinely believe that politics will find a more effective and rational mode with education and the ability to canvas one and all on the details of their life experiences and hopes. This new capacity for life experience metrics will feed a more pragmatic politics, less able to manipulate. This is the greater and more dangerous part of religion….this political aspect. But religion will also fade as more and more children are brought up without the least expectation of avoiding death. (In my experience, those who were never promised eternality never miss it, and even shudder at its prospect quite before the idea of eternal torment is raised.)

    We’ll get to paint on larger canvases without religion. And for those of us with the expectation of total loss poetry will be the sweeter.

    Buying a lottery ticket for a lottery ticket for a lottery ticket etc. etc. shouldn’t have you consider the what if I don’t die in a particular universe scenario, but the what if I get tentacles instead of nipples one night or wake up a bug struggling on my back, a whale falling from the sky or become a little handful of perovskite orbiting Saturn. If you need a worry, concentrate on the infinitely more varieties of the ignominious and hilarious scenarious that exist rather than the singular Methuselah Green one.

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  • Am I the only one who spent… a considerable amountof time reading the full source? Because it’s erally massive. And it has references, which, for honesty, one should read as well.

    Now, I don’t want to produce a respones to the full article, because it would be really torture (and my days aren’t likely to grow a 25th hour any time soon). Let’s just say: it’s worth the time reading, but I think it suffers of a very well disguised bias… Which is: non-belief is somewhat non-natural. Sources supporting this are… well… they do not seem to be really well quoted. As usual, though, the “original sin” is a lack of a clear definition of what “religious behiavior” is, what is meant by “spirituality” and how much that can be considered religious behavior. It looks like “spiritualiy” covers just about anything that is neither Mathematics nor institutionalized behavior. That’s a bit too comfortable.

    Anyway, I leave the discussion on the full content of the article when someone else decides to invest half an hour (at least) to investigate her/himself. As for now: will religion eventually disappear?

    a) Institutionalized religion, like the big three monotheistic ones, will go extinct for sure. If anything else, because they lost whatever use they could have -and what will hunt them extinct will be the spread of high quality mass education. Bossy religions will be a thing of the past as much as slavery is now, because of the moral refinement and progress of humankind.

    b) Religious behavior, defined as holding beliefs that unworldly entities can affect the world and acting according to these beliefs, may take longer to disappear. One thing the article notes and I agree with is: Homo S. Sapiens wants explanations as much as oxigen, and where explanations based on facts, experiments and quantitative measurements aren’t available, the realm of educated -and ineducated- guesses begins. I think there will always be plenty of space for religious behavior, because I don’t think we will ever come to a point where everything is known and everything is done.

    And even if we came to that point, if Roddenberry is to be believed, we’ll go around annoying starship capitains with the weirdest jokes in the galaxy, just to evade boredom…

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  • I’m not so concerned about religion going away, I think it is very, very unlikely any-time in the next few hundred years. However I am very interested in how much religion can be tamed and pacified particularly the fundamentalists. I’m sure the amount the number of atheists or non-believers rise the more this will happen.

    The other thing that occurs is how much you you prefer a vague spirituality to a definite religion. You can lobby against say the Catholic position on condom use for example and give it 20 years and another Pope and they may be ready to change that doctrine (shortly after that the Vatican tourist will sell Vatican brand condoms blesses by his holiness) . But the sort of spirituality that many of the nons have is like a giant squishy marshmallow you push it there and it just sproings back into shape again. This generally spirituality thing is causing massive harms, homeopathy, anti-vaccers, and many of the other non-critical thinking comes from many in this group. Many of the conventionally religious people I know are quite sane about vaccination, many of the Catholics I know are quite sane about social equality issues (except where their particular dogmas impinge). So I worry that we might untangle many from their specific faiths (to whatever extent we influence the big picture) only to have many of these people slip into other woo.

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  • 8
    Light Wave says:

    I dont think so…tooo many people are attached to their rituals…..in an obsessive compulsive way and associate them with their religious practice…..so will justify keeping the religion to maintain some meaning in their boring fearful lives…although world consensus may turn against corruption and wealth inequality at the hands of religious leaders…that would be a good move….accountability….the possibility that god doesn’t actually exist seems to be irrelevant to religious people ?? They just shut their ears and whistle loudly…not listening ….like a child who is eventually told Santa doesnt actually exist….

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  • 10
    Lorenzo says:

    Well… the trend, at least in the western world, has generally been toward a redistribution of power among all the citizens. There have been, recently, attempts to do so in some Maghreb countries -but they have been all hijacked by religious fundamentalists, which is a very, very sad thing. On the whole, though, I think they will grow out of it, in time. And we will complete the process.

    Of course, it will take time. And a lot of work.

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  • I am certain it will never disappear.

    There are too many people who allow heuristic thinking to dominate their cognition. They see patterns and causality where non exist. We are all prone to it but only the truly ignorant can’t think beyond it and there are a lot of nutters out there.
    It’s in the interests of governments to keep religions because they enable the justification of inequality. That’s why religions get away with so much government support. A trick of politicians (at least in the UK) is to conceal any radical religious clap trap and affiliations in case the voters think they’re cracked but to make sure you are not distant from the ideologies to appear hostile to them.

    Cameron for example recently condemned some islamist atrocity and then went on to say “while we continue to recognise islam as a major religion of world peace.” That is a politician annihilating his dignity and intellect by kissing the arse of utter nonsense

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  • OP:

    Will religion ever disappear?

    Well my crystal ball is as cloudy as most others’, but just take a wee look at history over the last few hundred years. Certainly in western and northern Europe, science has advanced and religion has been, and is, in retreat. True there are other diversions for the workers, like TV, football, celebrities, pop music etc, than there were in say Queen Victoria’s time, when most were Christian. IMO in Britain, religion has become something of an irrelevance. People are just too busy doing other things.

    Even in the USA, it appears, religious nonsense is on its way out. Yet it seems a good while yet.

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  • Mr DArcy Dec 20, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    IMO in Britain, religion has become something of an irrelevance. People are just too busy doing other things.

    We need to remember that religious groups and their political stooges, fought tooth and nail against any social activities which competed with kill-joy church attendance. – Sunday shopping, Sunday football, Sunday radio and TV entertainment, and of course cinema which did not show deference to religion. (the Pythons’: Meaning of Life – Life of Brian etc)

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  • True enough, but the Sunday ferries now run to the Western Isles in Scotland, whether Jesus likes it or not ! Unfortunately for those reactionary* Christians involved, reality interfered with their world view. It seems many modern Jews don’t actually believe in God, just the cultural brotherhood of belonging to a group, whether or not it involves the biting / slicing off of a male baby’s foreskin.

    The rejection of Islam, and its taming, might take a bit longer, but as Richard Feynman said words to the effect that “reality cannot be fooled,” I would just have to agree with him.

    *All Christians are reactionary, along with all the other purveyors of ignorance and woo woo

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  • We need to look no farther then Scientology for the answer. You really have to wonder how modern day humans could fall for something we know is a fake as you can get. Mormonism is no better

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  • The BBC article attached is one of the most lucid explanations of how our mind creates gods that I have ever read. Bookmarked for future Jehovah’s Witness door knockers.

    Understanding this requires a delve into “dual process theory”. This psychological staple states that we have two very basic forms of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 2 evolved relatively recently. It’s the voice in our head – the narrator who never seems to shut up – that enables us to plan and think logically.

    System 1, on the other hand, is intuitive, instinctual and automatic. These capabilities regularly develop in humans, regardless of where they are born. They are survival mechanisms. System 1 bestows us with an innate revulsion of rotting meat, allows us to speak our native language without thinking about it and gives babies the ability to recognise parents and distinguish between living and nonliving objects. It makes us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events like natural disasters or the death of loved ones.

    The article goes on to clarify and expand on our brains processes that result in the creation of gods, and how it takes a great act of intellectual will to overturn the tyranny of religious shackles. The fact that it is so hard to see through the religious veil our brain pulls over our eyes, says to me that religion will always be with us. It’s in our genes. If that is a given, then the task of secularism is to limit the harm of religion, by confining it to consenting adults in private. It should no longer have a privileged places on the town council. It will be a constant in human society.

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  • David R Allen:

    The fact that it is so hard to see through the religious veil our brain pulls over our eyes, says to me that religion will always be with us.

    My crystal ball shows a different future.

    Should we stick to tea leaves or tarot cards ? We all know that astrology is “rubbish” as Brian Cox describes it, so that’s no way of predicting the future.

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  • My crystal ball shows a different future.

    I hope your right and I am wrong. But as I interact with the great unwashed masses, I see little sign that anymore than say 10% have much happening upstairs. I think evolution has dealt us this lot, this brain that is great at surviving till the next meal, but rarely much further. In a random 100 people, how many would have the intellectual rigour to reason away god, or even the motivation when there is important things like who’s going to win Your Countries Got No Talent or the next Food Porn Show recipe. I think we’re stuck with religion. I am encouraged by the list of countries which appear to have neutralized the influence of religion in their society, but am appalled at America, which is verging on a theocracy. I hope I live long enough to know the final outcome.

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  • 19
    Lorenzo says:

    The fact that it is so hard to see through the religious veil our brain pulls over our eyes, says to me that religion will always be with us. It’s in our genes.

    One of the few points on which I agree with the article is that, as humans, we prefer any cockamamie explanation to no explanation at all. I think that has a good chance to be true because, to an animal that depends vitally on its skill to plan and build tools, it sounds like having a very wrong explanation is a better starting point than having none at all. You then change it until you get your spear right.

    What I am not sure is connaturate to us is that veil you talk about: to stick to a preposterous explanation despite the facts. That looks really like something that would hurt survival -and, indeed, I’m not sure that arcaic religions are as inflexible as the institutionalized big three which, more than a veil, pull a slab of concrete over our eyes. Those three are great tools to get unconditionate obedience, though…

    It all depends on what you mean by religion: if it’s just the need for explanations from someone who’s in awe of the universe, then we all are and taking that away would be chipping at humanity. If it is the need to knock at your door way too early on a sunday morning to convince you that god exists and forbids blood transfusions, it’s the sort of thing humanity will probably grow out of.

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  • I created an account to reply to this because to me THIS is what true atheism is.

    We do not have all the answers, but we have an idea, based on what science has shown us thus far and we are looking at that idea and applying it to ourselves.

    Well written!

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  • Religion will never die completely. There are some who are flat earth believers. There are some who really believe the “devil” is real.
    Stupidity and ignorance will never leave us………..Goggle Carl Sagans video on Religion anhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBCFQtDLPA0d Arrogance.

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