Opinion | The future of faith and why its appeal is no longer what it was

Despite the overbearing influence of religion in the world today, there are more people leaving than embracing it

For millennia, religion had a significant impact on human life, from birth to death. All this while, almost all members of society, the rich and poor, the weak and strong, the living and the dead, have been adherents of one religion or another. It created a feeling of community among groups of believers. As religious groups became more and more organized, the influence of religion began to reach the highest echelons of power.

No doubt, religious faith has also been used to manipulate people. It is also responsible for several wars and much strife and suffering in the world. Be it the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka or even the current general elections in India, the role of religious belief is hard to deny. The collusion of faith, politics and power is a reality.

But in the midst of this overbearing influence of religion, there are some important counter trends we must take note of. In a recent research paper, The End Of Secularization In Europe?: A Socio-Demographic Perspective published in 2012 in Sociology Of Religion, demographers Vegard Skirbekk, Eric Kaufmann and Anne Goujon have documented what may well be a historic first: there are now more people leaving religions than embracing them.

The book Living The Secular Life by Phil Zuckerman quotes several studies that show the number of those who claim “none" when asked to state their religion is growing significantly. In the past decade, US “nones" have overtaken Catholics, mainline Protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths. Time magazine cited the dramatic increase of Americans claiming “none" as their religion as one of the ten most significant trends changing American society. This trend is even stronger in European countries. The world’s newest major religion is actually “no religion".

Why are individuals walking out of religion? Research by sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer indicates that much of the growth of “nones" in America is largely attributed to a reaction against this increased, overt mixing of Christianity and conservative politics. Lots of people who have weak or limited attachments to religion and are either moderate or liberal politically, find themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and have reacted by severing their already somewhat weak attachments to religion. So even as religion shows off its power in the political arena, that very power show is also contributing to its undoing. This observation is as true of medieval Europe as it is now of the modern world.

Where does religion go from here? There are three developments that could further weaken religion’s hold on society. The first is that the world is becoming a better place to live in. We are living in one of the most peaceful periods of history. Most communicable diseases have been conquered. There has been a dramatic increase in life expectancy. The number of people who live below the poverty line has drastically reduced. All these developments are making people happier. Studies show that as the happiness level in a country increases, the level of religiosity, or the need for God, goes down.

According to the latest WIN/Gallup International polls, some of the least religious countries in the world are countries like Japan, Sweden and Norway, where economic conditions are good and lifestyles are enviable. The most religious countries are Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, where economic and political instability are the order of the day. For many, religion has a role in the midst of suffering. But how will religion make itself relevant in a world that is becoming happier? This is a crucial question that will determine the survival of religion in the future.

The second factor that could threaten the future of religion is the rising power of women. Most religions are bastions of male domination and have always treated women as second class citizens. British historian Callum Brown rightly argues that it has been women who have historically kept their children and husbands interested and involved in religion. Brown was the first to recognize an interesting correlation: when more and more women work outside the home, their religious involvement—as well as that of their families—tends to diminish. Denmark and Sweden have the lowest levels of church attendance in the world, while Danish and Swedish women have among the highest rate of outside-the-home employment of any women in the world.

Women across the world are becoming economically and politically more empowered and are demanding equal rights in all spheres of life. How will organized religions manage the ever increasing demands of women for an equal say in all religious matters? Religions can ignore this question only at their own peril.

Most organized religions in the world acknowledge the existence of only men and women and only encourage monogamous relationships between these two genders. Till recently, none of the major religions even acknowledged the existence of the LGBTQ+ community. In the last few years, even in socially conservative societies like India, members of the LGBTQ+ community have started asserting their right to live as any other citizens of the country. Attitudes adopted by organized religions towards the LGBTQ+ community could become a flashpoint that could threaten the future of religion.

Agnosticism, scepticism, atheism, naturalism, secularism and humanism go back thousands of years. They never gathered enough momentum to take on the juggernaut of organized religion. The attack on religion and religious practices by the French revolutionaries or powerful Communists like Lenin and Joseph Stalin could not make much of an impact. But this time, religion faces a challenge from within, one that is philosophical rather than physical. Can religion manage to survive this new onslaught?

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm