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Will religion just fade away?

Updated 31 March 2019 (c) 2019


One common theme of the "New Atheist" literature is that religion is both unnecessary and harmful to modern society. For instance, Richard Dawkins, in his recent book The God Delusion, characterizes religion as an aberrant "meme" that somehow took hold in human society, and suggests that as people become better educated and informed, that it will totally disappear from society [Dawkins2006, pg. 191]. Similarly, Daniel Dennett fears that we may "pass on a legacy of ever-more toxic forms of religion to our descendants" unless society rejects religion, and he then outlines a program of how this can be done [Dennett2006, pg. 56].

The arguments of Dawkins, Dennett and others against modern religion have been criticized by numerous scholars, even by several scholars who definitely do not hail from the devoutly religious camp -- see Atheists. But even setting aside these debates for the moment, is it clear that religion is fading away? Or that it will completely fade away in the near future?

Andrew Brown recently commented on this question, in the context of Dawkins' book, in these terms [Brown2006]:

Dawkins gets miffed when [his writings] are called "19th-century" atheism, since, as he says, the period of their first discovery does not affect the truth of these propositions. But to call it "19th-century" is to draw attention to the important truth added in the 20th century: that religious belief persists in the face of these facts and arguments. ... This persistence is what any scientific attack on religion must explain -- and [Dawkins' The God Delusion] doesn't. Dawkins mentions lots of modern atheist scientists who have tried to explain the puzzle. ... But he cannot accept the obvious conclusion to draw from their works, which is that thoroughgoing atheism is unnatural and will never be popular.

Similarly, British scholar Alister McGrath, in his recent book, Why God Won't Go Away, concludes that [McGrath2010a, pg. 146]:

Religious beliefs and practices work with the grain of human nature. No account of human nature or aspirations can ignore this point -- not even the New Atheism, who so clearly fails to address the obvious fact that most people experience religion as liberating and supportive.

The rise of the "nones": Is fundamental religiosity changing?

In recent years, news media have highlighted what appears the decline of traditional religion, as exemplified by the rise of the "nones" -- persons who decline to be identified by any particular religious denomination. Their fraction of the U.S. population has risen from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014. Among younger adults, those born 1981-1989, the unaffiliated have increased from 25% to 34% in this time frame [Pew2015a]. This increase has come at the expense, predominately, of Catholic and mainline Protestant faiths.

But even among the unaffiliated, according to a 2012 poll, 27% attend worship services at least occasionally; 68% affirm some belief in God; 33% say that religion is very or somewhat important in their personal life; and 41% pray on a daily, weekly or monthly basis [Pew2012]. Young adults are less convinced of the existence of God than older people are today, but their belief in God and religious practice closely resembles the levels seen among the older groups when the older groups were similarly young. For example, in 2008, 53% of those Americans born in 1981 or later say they have no doubt that God exists, which is very similar to the 53% reported in the late 1990s by those born between 1965 and 1980. Also, more aged 18-29 reported engaging in daily prayer in this study than the similar age group did 20 years earlier [Pew2010].

What's more, 39% of Americans (including 37% of self-described atheists and 48% of agnostics -- more than the population at large) say that they experience a "deep sense of wonder about the universe" on at least a weekly basis [Pew2008]. Shouldn't we describe such persons as "religious," in a broader sense of the term?

Even among professional scientists, there is little indication of significant decline in religious belief or spirituality. In a 2010 study of approximately 1700 natural and social scientists in the U.S., nearly 50% identify with a religious label; roughly 18% attend weekly religious services; 15% consider themselves "very religious;" 13.5% read some religious text weekly; and 19% pray at least once per day [Ecklund2010].

Another study found that although 30% of the scientists surveyed considered themselves atheists, many of these consider themselves "spiritual atheists," meaning that although they do not subscribe to a traditional Judeo-Christian notion of God, nonetheless they have a deep sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of nature. Many report a deep craving for "something beyond themselves" [Ruth2014]. A scientific colleague of the present author recently declared that in spite of the fact that he hasn't practiced conventional religion for many years, with regards to the magnificence of the universe and the elegance of scientific laws, he is a "devoted worshipper." Such scientists (and others with similar worldviews) defy simplistic categorization into pigeonholes such as "religious," "nonreligious," "agnostic" or "atheist."

Religion in moral life

Even allowing for lapses such as the numerous religious wars and persecutions in the historical record (not to mention the intolerance exhibited by some religious groups even today), religion has indisputably played an enormous role throughout history as a governor of moral conduct and a promoter of civilized society. For example, historians Will and Ariel Durant (neither of whom were particularly religious) wrote in their 1968 work Lessons of History that "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51]. Along this line, well-known skeptic Michael Shermer wrote [Shermer2000, pg. 71]:
However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.

A recent U.S. study found a very strong correlation between religious participation and charitable giving. The most charitable states (in terms of the percentage of discretionary income paid to charitable causes), namely Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina, are among the highest in religious participation, while the least charitable states, namely New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, are among the lowest in religious participation [Lindsay2012].

It is also interesting to note the prediction, by the Durants, in their volume Lessons of History (published in 1968), that if communism in the former Soviet Union would some day fall, then it is likely that there would be a resurgence of religion, long repressed, in that region [Durant1968, pg. 51]. Indeed, this appears to be happening. In fact, a 2008 law in Russia allows theological academies to offer degrees recognized by the state. A editorial comment in the western press noted that healthy traditions such as this are "badly needed" as bulwarks against totalitarianism [Economist2013b].

Religion in classical art, literature and music

Even if one takes a completely traditional definition of Judeo-Christian religion, and even if one adopts a completely secular point of view, it is indisputable that religion has inspired some of the world's greatest art and literature. This is abundantly clear from a stroll through any of Europe's great art galleries. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings, for instance, are among the most revered works in all the world of art. Indeed, it is not possible to seriously study the great works of European art without first gaining a reasonable familiarity with the biblical narrative and Judeo-Christian theology.

The same is true for much of the treasure trove of western literature. The works of Shakespeare are filled with religion, particularly well-known plays such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear. King and Lady Macbeth are ravaged with guilt over their murder of Duncan, and indeed this guilt leads Lady Macbeth in particular to hallucinatory mania by the end of the work. Hamlet wrestles with whether he should avenge his father and kill Claudius, or leave vengeance to God as his religious beliefs would require him to do. There are overtones of the doctrine of predestination in the the play. In Othello, Iago plays the role of the archetypal villain, the personification of evil, as he manipulates other characters at will. King Lear can be seen as a study of the interplay of the natural and the unnatural, as well as good and evil.

Johann Sebastian Bach is widely regarded as the greatest composer of history, in addition to being the most prolific [Tommasini2011]. The catalog of Bach's works lists over 1000 items, most of which are explicitly devoted to religious themes and intended for religious liturgy. Over 200 of these works were cantatas, roughly 30-minute works of choral-instrumental music, intended to accompany a traditional Lutheran worship service, and thought by many to be the centerpiece of Bach's musical genius. Bach's Mass in B-Minor and St. Matthew Passion are among the single greatest works of all classical music. Not all of Bach's works were on religious themes. Some, like the Well-Tempered Clavier collection and A Musical Offering, have considerable merit in spite of having no clear religious theme or text. But, as Fran de Waal among others have noted, other secular works, such as Bach's secular cantatas, "are so obviously inferior" to Bach's religious works that one wonders why Bach even wrote them [deWaal2013, pg. 84].

Religion in modern-day architecture

Even in our own time, religion in general and the Judeo-Christian religion in particular, continues to inspire great art, literature and music. In the city of Barcelona, Spain, a massive new cathedral named "La Sagrada Familia" ("the Holy Family") is rising from the ground, scheduled to be completed in 2026. Designed with a striking neo-modern look by famed architect Antoni Gaudi, the edifice is already a renowned world landmark. Among other things, the structure features numerous intriguing connections between religion and mathematics, such as the 4x4 pseudo-magic square, every row and column of which sum to 33, the age of Jesus at his death. These and many other mathematical aspects of the structure are described in a recent article by Lorenzi and Francaviglia [Lorenzi2010]. Additional details can be found in the Wikipedia article on La Sagrada Familia [LaSagradaFamilia2011]. Here are some photos, taken by the present author:

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Religion in modern-day musical theatre

One good example is Phantom of the Opera, which is the all-time most popular musical in terms of the total number who have seen live performances (and second only to Les Miserables in the number of years of continuous stage performances). The musical version, like the book, explores at length the remarkable phenomenon of how human nature (sometimes in the same person!) can simultaneously be both extraordinarily good and extraordinarily evil. Indeed, the musical's lyrics repeatedly play on this theme: "Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams," "The darkness of the music of the night," "Let your darker side give in," "My spirit and my voice in one combined," "the Phantom of the Opera is there inside your mind," and numerous others [Phantom2012].

Another excellent example is Les Miserables, which is now the longest-running musical theatre production in history, having been seen by over 60 million persons worldwide [LesMiserables2011b]. The musical Les Miserables, like the great Victor Hugo novel on which the musical was based, is chock-full of religious themes. The plot turns on how the desperate escaped convict Jean Valjean, overwhelmed by a consummate act of charity by a local bishop on his behalf, decides to turn over a new leaf and redeem his misdeeds. He is relentlessly pursued by the police officer Javert, who is determined to bring him to justice since, as Javert sings, "And so it has been and so it is written, on the doorway to paradise, that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price!" [LesMiserables2011a, 2:00:10]. One of the most memorable numbers from Les Miserables is, quite literally, a prayer by Jean Valjean that begins, "God on high, hear my prayer. In my need, you have always been there." [LesMiserables2011a, 2:16:40]. This is followed, soon afterward, by the moving and deeply religious passage, "Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God!" [LesMiserables2011a, 2:21:20]. The grand finale echoes in unmistakable terms the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven: "They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. They will walk behind the plough-share; they will put away the sword. The chain will be broken, and all men will have their reward!" [LesMiserables2011a, 2:22:20].

Religion in modern cinema

In other modern cinema, religious themes are not typically as overt as they are with Les Miserables, but they are often unmistakably present. One good example is the Star Wars movies, which weave spiritual, moralistic and supernatural themes into their plot lines. Luke Skywalker continually struggles to not convert to the "dark side"; Obi wan Kenobi returns from the dead as a spiritual entity; and the lead characters chant "let the Force be with you." These spiritual themes were in fact sketched into the Star Wars by none other than Joseph Campbell, the famed authority on myth. The first Star Wars movie appeared in 1977. Six have now been produced, and, with worldwide box office revenues now totaling some $4.41 billion, there is no sign of flagging interest.

Other, more recent movies continue this fascination with religion, at least in a general, high-level spiritual sense akin to the Star Wars movies. This can be seen in the highly successful Matrix movies of 1999 and 2003, in which the lead character Neo is cast as a savior with supernatural powers sent to redeem Zion. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies reprised the fantasy world of J. R. R. Tolkien, wherein the characters seek the supernatural power of the ring as a defense against evil. And, more recently, the Harry Potter movies, which are replete with supernatural effects and struggles between good and evil, garnered a total of $7.7 billion dollars in box office revenues, second only to the long-running James Bond series. In 2009, James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar portrayed the Na'vi natives of Pandora as possessing supernatural powers of connection between each other and the rest of living things on the planet. Much of the action occurs in the "Hallelujah Mountains." Avatar set an all-time box-office record for a single movie, with over $2.78 billion in worldwide revenues.

Even movies targeted more to cinematic critics and less to the popular culture frequently feature spiritual themes. This can be seen most clearly in the Woody Allen movies, many of which are replete with religious and philosophical questions: the existence of God, the nature of God, life after death, morality, punishment for crimes, redemption from sin and free will. As a single example, the movie Crimes and Misdemeanors explores at length the religious and psychological struggles of a New York City opthamalogist who considers murder in the wake of his mistress' threat to expose their affair. The pervasive religious themes in Allen's movies are all the more remarkable given that Allen himself is not a serious religious believer.


Even from a completely secular viewpoint, there is little indication that religion is becoming significantly less important to modern people, particularly in terms of basic religious beliefs. The latest statistics do show some increase in atheism, and some decline in membership among certain traditional denominations. But these numbers are offset by increases in other denominations and a trend to more independent, nondenominational belief systems. In the larger sense of a deeply-held reverence for magnificence of the universe and the elegant laws that it, there is little if any sign of decline in fundamental religiosity and spirituality.

The "New Atheists" and others who argue that religion is irrelevant, harmful and fading from modern society have much to explain. They are left to explain the persistence of religious belief, at least in a more general spiritual sense, even among professional scientists. They are left to explain the continuing popularity of the great works of religion-inspired European art. They are left to explain the pervasive religious motifs in the works of Shakespeare. They are left to explain what inspired Bach to write over 1000 mostly religious works, several of which even today are counted among the greatest musical works of all time. They are left to explain why, even in the 21st century, the supposedly highly secular citizens of Spain are so passionate about a new cathedral. They are left to explain the extraordinary success of musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, with their overtly religious themes. They are left to explain the worldwide popularity of modern movies with quasi-religious themes such as Star Wars, The Matrix and Avatar. And they are left to explain why religious ethics continue to form the basis of secular laws and governmental institutions worldwide (even if such laws and institutions are properly framed in entirely secular terms, and enacted by secular, democratic governments).

For additional details, see Atheists, Dawkins.


[See Bibliography].