The future of religion is intimately connected with the development of society itself, its beliefs and customs, its values and traditions. Religions express long-standing cultural beliefs about our origins and the world we live in and the meaning of our lives. But they have also sought to provide explanations of natural events and a way of thinking about our future.
Meaning and continuity
Historically, religions have provided a guide to the traditions and values of past society and have been seen as source of morality and ethical behaviour. By connecting us to our ancestors and their believes, we get a sense of social continuity and common values. Every religion has exemplars of proper and correct behaviour, stories of the judgement of those who break the rules, and exhortations to the followers to observe the accepted rituals. We define ourselves in terms of society and the continuous connection with the past and religion has played a major role.
Two millenia ago, when the state and civil society was unorganised, with small shifting populations being the norm, such an embodiment of collective values served an important purpose in binding together the people, keeping the traditions alive, and preserving the behaviour between different peoples. Fear of a deity, of damnation, of the displeasure of a god, served as a corrective against antisocial behaviour.
Modern religions maintain the role of social control in ensuring behaviour consistent with morality and ethical standards. There are common standards between religions as well as differences, but all share a sense of controlling behaviour in the interests of the public good. And their anchor in the traditions of the past exerts a conservative influence on rapid social change, tending to preserve customs and seeking to maintain continuity.
Once religious organisation are well-funded and established, they exert political power, sometimes even to the extent of representing a parallel government. In some states in the Middle East, the religious authorities are integrated into the very structure of government and indeed Islam is a political religion, designating appropriate forms of social governance.
Explanations of the Natural World
In addition to aspects of religious devotion, religions also offered an explanation of physical events and phenomena which were otherwise inexplicable and often frightening. Thunder and lightning, earthquakes, plagues, floods, even eclipses, were seen as controlled by hidden deities whose actions needed appeasing by appropriate social rites.
The explanations of history and the way the world functioned provided by religions served to reduce the anxiety and fear of the unknown. Not only were these powerful events explained, but they were controllable by appropriate devotions.
All of these ideas now sound quite anachronistic. We understand very well how volcanoes function, the cause of floods, eclipses, and epidemics. We have antibiotics and drugs to treat illnesses and we can cure many otherwise fatal afflictions. Science has provided a route to curing many diseases and explaining many otherwise mysterious phenomena. Religion is no longer able to provide a satisfactory explanation and placing a deity as the cause is no longer seen as rational.
Similarly our studies of paleontology and anthropology have enabled us to understand the origin of human society, its history and development, and the theory of evolution provides a rich source of evidence-based explanation of how our species evolved. In this area too, religion has lost its explanatory purpose. Even those who support the creationist case have great difficulty reconciling the immense body of evidence with their own theory of human development. So religion is no longer seen as an explanation of human development either.
Morality and Ethics
But in the area of moral values and ethical behaviour, religion still seems to retain its importance. Very many people around the world look to their religious traditions for an understanding of proper and correct behaviour. Of course, the books themselves, whether the Talmud, the Bible, the Qur'an, or the Hindu books such as the Bhagavad Gita, talk about ancient societies and the examples sound outdated. But every religion employs theologians whose job is to translate the message into modern relevance.
Many people compare their behaviour to the ethical standards presented in religious texts and draw support for their own charity, generosity, consideration, and fair treatment of others. They feel support for the principles of mutual support and solidarity from within their religion. But there are others who can read the same texts and draw a very different message.
Those who read the Bible book of Leviticus will find a very mixed message for modern Christians. And the orthodox Jews will avoid the use of electricity on the Sabbath, following an ancient rule of the Talmud. It is clear that the application of the standards from religious works to modern society is far from simple.
And so the importance of religion largely comes down to the moral teachings and their relevance to modern society. Here, the water is muddier. Many ethical questions simply did not arise in ancient societies because the social context was so very different. Stem cell research, transplantation, cloning, DNA profiling, and many other technologies all raise ethical questions for which there are no precedents in the major religious books.
Theologians then, not only interpret the teachings of the religious texts, but in the modern world they are extrapolating to produce new moral precepts. And to do so, although taking religion into account, they necessarily have to base their judgements on secular values as well.
And this produces something of a conundrum. For theological judgements to be relevant, they must relate to secular ethical positions as well. And if it is possible to do this at all, then secular moral arguments must also be relevant. How then can we assume that moral values derived from religion are in any way superior to those arrived at by secular argument and discussion?
It is certainly clear that many religious moral judgements seem highly questionable. For example, the Pope's declaration that using condoms in the fight against AIDS should be banned for all catholics, seems to place lives at risk for the sake of observance of religious dogma. This position seems incomprehensible to many religious people, even catholics themselves.
The Future of Religion
So what is the future of religion? Certainly, there will always be some who look to deities for the types of explanations provided in the past. Fundamentalists will turn away from the knowledge provided by science, and will dogmatically observe the strictures provided two millenia ago. But for others, science and rational thinking will supersede religious belief.
As there is less and less need for religious explanations about the natural world, science will replace the origin myths. On the moral plane, secular ethics is already providing far better and sophisticated arguments than those offered by theology so we can expect that theology, although it will be maintained for many years, will lose its appeal for the average person.
But one aspect of religion which will cause it to persist much longer is the link with political power. Where a state annexes a religion to its political positions, then the state itself has a vested interest in controlling popular beliefs. Islamic fundamentalism ensures that Islam not only persists, but becomes more dogmatic rather than less. Christian fundamentalism in the US motivates a similar range of political behaviours.
Politics and religion feed of each in these states and so until there are significant social changes underneath this layer of ideological control, religions will persist, not so much as a personal moral and ethical system, but as powerful quasi-political institutions that exercise control through ideological pressure.
We can hope that rationality will prevail and less and less people will see the need for religion. But it won't be happening any time soon.