When someone tries to start a new religion, it is
often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings
and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes
a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek and
Norse pantheons are now considered legends, not holy writ.
Even today’s dominant religions have continually
evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, was a truly broad
church: ancient documents include yarns about Jesus’ family life and testaments
to the nobility of Judas. It took three centuries for the Christian church to
consolidate around a canon of scriptures – and then in 1054 it split into the
Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Since then, Christianity has continued
both to grow and to splinter into ever more disparate groups, from silent
Quakers to snake-handling Pentecostalists.
If you believe your faith has arrived at ultimate
truth, you might reject the idea that it will change at all. But if history is
any guide, no matter how deeply held our beliefs may be today, they are likely
in time to be transformed or transferred as they pass to our descendants – or
simply to fade away.
Throughout history, people’s faith and their
attachments to religious institutions have transformed. So what’s next? We take
it for granted that religions are born, grow then die but rarely – but we are
also oddly blind to that reality.
Before Mohammed, before Jesus, before Buddha, there
was Zoroaster. Some 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, he had a vision of the
one supreme God. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world’s first
great monotheistic religion, was the official faith of the mighty Persian
Empire, its fire temples attended by millions of adherents. A thousand years
after that, the empire collapsed, and the followers of Zoroaster were
persecuted and converted to the new faith of their conquerors, Islam.
Another 1,500 years later – today – Zoroastrianism is
a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.
If religions have changed so dramatically in the past,
how might they change in the future? Is there any substance to the claim that
belief in gods and deities will die out altogether? And as our civilisation and
its technologies become increasingly complex, could entirely new forms of worship
To answer these questions, a good starting point is to
ask: why do we have religion in the first place?
Reason to believe
One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th
Century French polymath, who wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be
necessary to invent him.”Because Voltaire was a trenchant critic of organised
religion, this quip is often quoted cynically. But in fact, he was being
perfectly sincere. He was arguing that belief in God is necessary for society
to function, even if he didn’t approve of the monopoly the church held over
Many modern students of religion agree. The broad idea
that a shared faith serves the needs of a society is known as the functionalist
view of religion. There are many functionalist hypotheses, from the idea that
religion is the “opium of the masses”, used by the powerful to control the
poor, to the proposal that faith supports the abstract intellectualism
required for science and law. One recurring theme is social cohesion: religion
brings together a community, who might then form a hunting party, raise a
temple or support a political party.
One recurring theme is social cohesion: religion
brings together a community
Those faiths that endure are “the long-term products
of extraordinarily complex cultural pressures, selection processes, and
evolution”, writes Connor Wood of the Center for Mind and Culture in
Boston, Massachusetts on the religious reference website Patheos, where he
blogs about the scientific study of religion. New religious movements are born
all the time, but most don’t survive long. They must compete with other faiths
for followers and survive potentially hostile social and political
Under this argument, any religion that does endure has
to offer its adherents tangible benefits. Christianity, for example, was just
one of many religious movements that came and mostly went during the course of
the Roman Empire. According to Wood, it was set apart by its ethos of caring
for the sick – meaning more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan
Romans. Islam, too, initially attracted followers by emphasising honour,
humility and charity – qualities which were not endemic in turbulent 7th-Century
Given this, we might expect the form that religion
takes to follow the function it plays in a particular society – or as Voltaire
might have put it, that different societies will invent the particular gods
they need. Conversely, we might expect similar societies to have similar
religions, even if they have developed in isolation. And there is some evidence
for that – although when it comes to religion, there are always exceptions to
Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that
all objects – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – have supernatural aspects
(animism) and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces (animatism).
These must be understood and respected; human morality generally doesn’t figure
significantly. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract
codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately. (An
exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion, is still widely practised in
At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming
societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a
single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes enforces, moral
instructions: Yahweh, Christ and Allah. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan argues
it was belief in these “Big Gods” that allowed the formation of societies made
up of large numbers of strangers. Whether that belief constitutes cause or
effect has recently been disputed, but the upshot is that sharing a faith
allows people to co-exist (relatively) peacefully. The knowledge that Big God
is watching makes sure we behave ourselves.
Or at least, it did. Today, many of our societies are
huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths co-exist with each other – and
with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey
laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise,
with science providing tools to understand and shape the world.
Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the
future of religion is that it has no future.
Imagine there’s no heaven
Powerful intellectual and political currents have
driven this proposition since the early 20th Century. Sociologists argued that
the march of science was leading to the “disenchantment” of
society: supernatural answers to the big questions were no longer felt to be
needed. Communist states like Soviet Russia and China adopted atheism as state
policy and frowned on even private religious expression. In 1968, the eminent
sociologist Peter Berger told the New York Times that by “the 21st
Century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects,
huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture”.
Now that we’re actually in the 21st Century, Berger’s
view remains an article of faith for many secularists – although
Berger himself recanted in the 1990s. His successors are emboldened by surveys
showing that in many countries, increasing numbers of people are saying they
have no religion. That’s most true in rich, stable countries like Sweden and
Japan, but also, perhaps more surprisingly, in places like Latin America and the
Arab world. Even in the US, long a conspicuous exception to the axiom that
richer countries are more secular, the number of “nones” has been rising
sharply. In the 2018 General Social Survey of US attitudes, “no
religion” became the single largest group, edging out evangelical Christians.
Despite this, religion is not disappearing on a global
scale – at least in terms of numbers. In 2015, the Pew Research Center modelled
the future of the world’s great religions based on demographics, migration
and conversion. Far from a precipitous decline in religiosity, it predicted a
modest increase in believers, from 84% of the world’s population today to 87%
in 2050. Muslims would grow in number to match Christians, while the number
unaffiliated with any religion would decline slightly.
The pattern Pew predicted was of “the
secularising West and the rapidlygrowing rest”. Religion will
continue to grow in economically and socially insecure places like much of
sub-Saharan Africa – and to decline where they are stable. That chimes with
what we know about the deep-seated psychological and neurological drivers of
belief. When life is tough or disaster strikes, religion seems to provide a
bulwark of psychological (and sometimes practical) support. In a landmark
study, people directly affected by the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch,
New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders,
who became marginally less religious.
People affected by the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand
became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders
We also need to be careful when interpreting what
people mean by “no religion”. “Nones” may be disinterested in organised
religion, but that doesn’t mean they are militantly atheist. In 1994, the
sociologist Grace Davie classified peopleaccording to whether they
belonged to a religious group and/or believed in a religious position. The
traditionally religious both belonged and believed; hardcore atheists did
neither. Then there are those who belong but don’t believe – parents attending
church to get a place for their child at a faith school, perhaps. And, finally,
there are those who believe in something, but don’t belong to any
The research suggests that the last two groups are
significant. The Understanding Unbelief project at the University of
Kent in the UK is conducting a three-year, six-nation survey of attitudes among
those who say they don’t believe God exists (“atheists”) and those who don’t
think it’s possible to know if God exists (“agnostics”). In interim results
released in May 2019, the researchers found that few unbelievers actually
identify themselves by these labels, with significant minorities opting for a
What’s more, around three-quarters of atheists and
nine out of 10 agnostics are open to the existence of supernatural phenomena,
including everything from astrology to supernatural beings and life after
death. Unbelievers “exhibit significant diversity both within, and between,
Accordingly, there are very many ways of being an
unbeliever”, the report concluded – including, notably, the dating-website
cliche “spiritual, but not religious”. Like many cliches, it’s rooted in
truth. But what does it actually mean?
The old gods return
In 2005, Linda Woodhead wrote The Spiritual
Revolution, in which she described an intensive study of belief in the British
town of Kendal. Woodhead and her co-author found that people were rapidly
turning away from organised religion, with its emphasis on fitting into an
established order of things, towards practices designed to accentuate and foster
individuals’ own sense of who they are. If the town’s Christian churches did
not embrace this shift, they concluded, congregations would dwindle into
irrelevance while self-guided practices would become the mainstream in a
Today, Woodhead says that revolution has taken place –
and not just in Kendal. Organised religion is waning in the UK, with no real
end in sight. “Religions do well, and always have done, when they are
subjectively convincing – when you have the sense that God is working for you,”
says Woodhead, now professor of sociology of religion at the University of
Lancaster in the UK.
In poorer societies, you might pray for good fortune
or a stable job. The “prosperity gospel” is central to several of
America’s megachurches, whose congregations are often dominated by economically
insecure congregations. But if your basic needs are well catered for, you are
more likely to be seeking fulfilment and meaning. Traditional religion is
failing to deliver on this, particularly where doctrine clashes with moral
convictions that arise from secular society – on gender equality, say.
In response, people have started constructing faiths
of their own.
What do these self-directed religions look like? One
approach is syncretism, the “pick and mix” approach of combining traditions and
practices that often results from the mixing of cultures. Many religions have
syncretistic elements, although over time they are assimilated and become
unremarkable. Festivals like Christmas and Easter, for example, have archaic
pagan elements, while daily practice for many people in China involves a
mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The joins are easier to
see in relatively young religions, such as Vodoun or Rastafarianism.
Syncretism is the “pick and mix” approach of combining
religious traditions and practices
An alternative is to streamline. New religious
movements often seek to preserve the central tenets of an older religion while
stripping it of trappings that may have become stifling or old-fashioned. In
the West, one form this takes is for humanists to rework religious motifs:
there have been attempts to rewrite the Bible without any supernatural
elements, calls for the construction of “atheist temples” dedicated
to contemplation. And the “Sunday Assembly” aims to recreate the atmosphere of
a lively church service without reference to God. But without the deep roots of
traditional religions, these can struggle: the Sunday Assembly, after initial
rapid expansion, is now reportedly struggling to keep up its momentum.
But Woodhead thinks the religions that might emerge
from the current turmoil will have much deeper roots. The first generation of
spiritual revolutionaries, coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, were
optimistic and universalist in outlook, happy to take inspiration from faiths
around the world. Their grandchildren, however, are growing up in a world of
geopolitical stresses and socioeconomic angst; they are more likely to hark
back to supposedly simpler times. “There is a pull away from global
universality to local identities,” says Woodhead. “It’s really important that
they’re your gods, they weren’t just made up.”
In the European context, this sets the stage for a
resurgence of interest in paganism. Reinventing half-forgotten “native”
traditions allows the expression of modern concerns while retaining the patina
of age. Paganism also often features divinities that are more like diffuse
forces than anthropomorphic gods; that allows people to focus on issues they
feel sympathetic towards without having to make a leap of faith to supernatural
In Iceland, for example, the small but
fast-growing Ásatrú faith has no particular doctrine beyond somewhat arch
celebrations of Old Norse customs and mythology, but has been active on social
and ecological issues. Similar movements exist across Europe, such as Druidry
in the UK. Not all are liberally inclined. Some are motivated by a desire to
return to what they see as conservative “traditional” values – leading in some
cases to clashes over the validity of opposing beliefs.
These are niche activities at the moment, and might
sometimes be more about playing with symbolism than heartfelt spiritual
practice. But over time, they canevolve into more heartfelt and coherent belief
systems: Woodhead points to the robust adoption of Rodnovery– an often
conservative and patriarchal pagan faith based around the reconstructed beliefs
and traditions of the ancient Slavs – in the former Soviet Union as a potential
exemplar of things to come.
So the nones mostly represent not atheists, nor even
secularists, but a mixture of “apatheists” – people who simply don’t care about
religion – and practitioners of what you might call “disorganised religion”.
While the world religions are likely to persist and evolve for the foreseeable
future, we might for the rest of this century see an efflorescence of
relatively small religions jostling to break out among these groups. But if Big
Gods and shared faiths are key to social cohesion, what happens without them?
One nation under Mammon
One answer, of course, is that we simply get on with
our lives. Munificent economies, good government, solid education and effective
rule of law can ensure that we rub along happily without any kind of religious
framework. And indeed, some of the societies with the highest proportions of
non-believers are among the most secure and harmonious on Earth.
The ‘invisible hand’ of the market almost seems like a
supernatural entity – Connor Wood
What remains debatable, however, is whether they can
afford to be irreligious because they have strong secular institutions – or
whether being secular has helped them achieve social stability. Religionists
say even secular institutions have religious roots: civil legal systems, for
example, codify ideas about justice based on social norms established by
religions. The likes of the New Atheists, on the other hand, argue that
religion amounts to little more than superstition, and abandoning it will
enable societies to improve their lot more effectively.
Modern society is suffering from “temporal
exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out
of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left
for imagining the future,” she wrote.
That’s why the Deep Civilisation season is exploring
what really matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for
us and our descendants.
Connor Wood is not so sure. He contends that a strong,
stable society like Sweden’s is both extremely complex and very expensive to
run in terms of labour, money and energy – and that might not be
sustainable even in the short term. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’re
entering into a period of non-linear change in social systems,” he says. “The
Western consensus on a combination of market capitalism and democracy can’t be
taken for granted.”
That’s a problem, since that combination has radically
transformed the social environment from the one in which the world religions
evolved – and has to some extent supplanted them.
“I’d be careful about calling capitalism a religion,
but a lot of its institutions have religious elements, as in all spheres of
human institutional life,” says Wood. “The ‘invisible hand’ of the market
almost seems like a supernatural entity.”
Financial exchanges, where people meet to conduct
highly ritualised trading activity, seem quite like temples to Mammon, too. In
fact, religions, even the defunct ones, can provide uncannily appropriate
metaphors for many of the more intractable features of modern life.
The pseudo-religious social order might work well when
times are good. But when the social contract becomes stressed – through
identity politics, culture wars or economic instability – Wood suggests the
consequence is what we see today: the rise of authoritarians in country after
country. He cites research showing that people ignore authoritarian
pitches until they sense a deterioration of social norms.
“This is the human animal looking around and saying we
don’t agree how we should behave,” Wood says. “And we need authority to tell
us.” It’s suggestive that political strongmen are often hand in glove with
religious fundamentalists: Hindu nationalists in India, say, or Christian
evangelicals in the US. That’s a potent combination for believers and an
unsettling one for secularists: can anything bridge the gap between them?
Mind the gap
Perhaps one of the major religions might change its
form enough to win back non-believers in significant numbers. There is
precedent for this: in the 1700s, Christianity was ailing in the US, having
become dull and formal even as the Age of Reason saw secular rationalism in the
ascendant. A new guard of travelling fire-and-brimstone preachers successfully
reinvigorated the faith, setting the tone for centuries to come – an event
called the “Great Awakenings”.
The parallels with today are easy to draw, but
Woodhead is sceptical that Christianity or other world religions can make up
the ground they have lost, in the long term. Once the founders of libraries and
universities, they are no longer the key sponsors of intellectual thought.
Social change undermines religions which don’t accommodate it: earlier this
year, Pope Francis warned that if the Catholic Church didn’t
acknowledge its history of male domination and sexual abuse it risked becoming
“a museum”. And their tendency to claim we sit at the pinnacle of creation is
undermined by a growing sense that humans are not so very significant in the
grand scheme of things.
Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is
political support – Linda Woodhead
Perhaps a new religion will emerge to fill the void?
Again, Woodhead is sceptical. “Historically, what makes religions rise or fall
is political support,” she says, “and all religions are transient unless they
get imperial support.” Zoroastrianism benefited from its adoption by the
successive Persian dynasties; the turning point for Christianity came when it
was adopted by the Roman Empire. In the secular West, such support is
unlikely to be forthcoming, with the possible exception of the US. In Russia,
by contrast, the nationalistic overtones of both Rodnovery and the Orthodox
church wins them tacit political backing.
But today, there’s another possible source of support:
Online movements gain followers at rates unimaginable
in the past. The Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” has
become a self-evident truth for many technologists and plutocrats. #MeToo
started out as a hashtag expressing anger and solidarity but now stands for
real changes to long-standing social norms. And Extinction Rebellion has
striven, with considerable success, to trigger a radical shift in attitudes to
the crises in climate change and biodiversity.
None of these are religions, of course, but they do
share parallels with nascent belief systems – particularly that key
functionalist objective of fostering a sense of community and shared purpose.
Some have confessional and sacrificial elements, too. So, given time and
motivation, could something more explicitly religious grow out of an online
community? What new forms of religion might these online “congregations” come
We already have some idea.
Deus ex machina
A few years ago, members of the self-declared
“Rationalist” community website LessWrong began discussing a thought experiment
about an omnipotent, super-intelligent machine – with many of the qualities of
a deity and something of the Old Testament God’s vengeful nature.
It was called Roko’s Basilisk. The full
proposition is a complicated logic puzzle, but crudely put, it goes that
when a benevolent super-intelligence emerges, it will want to do as much good
as possible – and the earlier it comes into existence, the more good it will be
able to do. So to encourage everyone to do everything possible to help to bring
into existence, it will perpetually and retroactively torture those who don’t –
including anyone who so much as learns of its potential existence. (If this is
the first you’ve heard of it: sorry!)
Outlandish though it might seem, Roko’s Basilisk
caused quite a stir when it was first suggested on LessWrong – enough for
discussion of it to be banned by the site’s creator. Predictably, that only
made the idea explode across the internet – or at least the geekier parts of it
– with references to the Basilisk popping up everywhere from news sites to Doctor
Who, despite protestations from some Rationalists that no-one really took it
seriously. Their case was not helped by the fact that many Rationalists are
strongly committed to other startling ideas about artificial intelligence,
ranging from AIs that destroy the world by accident to human-machine hybrids
that would transcend all mortal limitations.
Such esoteric beliefs have arisen throughout history,
but the ease with which we can now build a community around them is new. “We’ve
always had new forms of religiosity, but we haven’t always had enabling spaces
for them,” says Beth Singler, who studies the social, philosophical and
religious implications of AI at the University of Cambridge. “Going out into a
medieval town square and shouting out your unorthodox beliefs was going to get
you labelled a heretic, not win converts to your cause.”
The mechanism may be new, but the message isn’t. The
Basilisk argument is in much the same spirit as Pascal’s Wager. The
17th-Century French mathematician suggested non-believers should nonetheless go
through the motions of religious observance, just in case a vengeful God does
turn out to exist. The idea of punishment as an imperative to cooperate is
reminiscent of Norenzayan’s “Big Gods”. And arguments over ways to evade the
Basilisk’s gaze are every bit as convoluted as the medieval Scholastics’
attempts to square human freedom with divine oversight.
A supercomputer is turned on and asked: is there a
God? Now there is, comes the reply
Even the technological trappings aren’t new. In 1954,
Fredric Brown wrote a (very) short story called “Answer”, in which a
galaxy-spanning supercomputer is turned on and asked: is there a God? Nowthere
is, comes the reply.
And some people, like AI entrepreneur Anthony
Levandowski, think their holy objective is to build a super-machine that will
one day answer just as Brown’s fictional machine did. Levandowski, who made a
fortune through self-driving cars, hit the headlines in 2017 when it became
public knowledge that he had founded a church, Way of the Future,
dedicated to bringing about a peaceful transition to a world mostly run by
super-intelligent machines. While his vision sounds more benevolent than Roko’s
Basilisk, the church’s creed still includes the ominous lines: “We believe it
may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is
not. We plan on doing so by keeping track of who has done what (and for how
long) to help the peaceful and respectful transition.”
“There are many ways people think of God, and
thousands of flavours of Christianity, Judaism, Islam,” Levandowski told
Wired. “But they’re always looking at something that’s not measurable or you
can’t really see or control. This time it’s different. This time you will be
able to talk to God, literally, and know that it’s listening.”
Levandowski is not alone. In his bestselling
book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the foundations of
modern civilisation are eroding in the face of an emergent religion he calls
“dataism”, which holds that by giving ourselves over to information flows, we
can transcend our earthly concerns and ties. Other fledgling transhumanist religious
movements focus on immortality – a new spin on the promise of eternal life.
Still others ally themselves with older faiths, notably Mormonism.
Are these movements for real? Some groups are
performing or “hacking” religion to win support for transhumanist ideas, says
Singler. “Unreligions” seek to dispense with the supposedly unpopular
strictures or irrational doctrines of conventional religion, and so might
appeal to the irreligious. The Turing Church, founded in 2011, has a range
of cosmic tenets – “We will go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods,
and resurrect the dead” – but no hierarchy, rituals or proscribed activities
and only one ethical maxim: “Try to act with love and compassion toward other
But as missionary religions know, what begins as a
mere flirtation or idle curiosity – perhaps piqued by a resonant statement or
appealing ceremony – can end in a sincere search for truth.
The 2001 UK census found that Jediism, the
fictional faith observed by the good guys in Star Wars, was the fourth largest
religion: nearly 400,000 people had been inspired to claim it, initially by a
tongue-in-cheek online campaign. Ten years later, it had dropped to seventh
place, leading many to dismiss it as a prank. But as Singler notes, that is
still an awful lot of people – and a lot longer than most viral campaigns
Some branches of Jediism remain jokey, but others take
themselves more seriously: the Temple of the Jedi Order claims its
members are “real people that live or lived their lives according to the
principles of Jediism” – inspired by the fiction, but based on the real-life
philosophies that informed it.
With those sorts of numbers, Jediism “should” have been
recognised as a religion in the UK. But officials who apparently assumed it was
not a genuine census answer did not record it as such. “A lot is measured
against the Western Anglophone tradition of religion,” says Singler.
Scientology was barred from recognition as a religion for many years in the UK
because it did not have a Supreme Being – something that could also be said of
In fact, recognition is a complex issue worldwide,
particularly since that there is no widely accepted definition of religion even
in academic circles. Communist Vietnam, for example, is officially atheist and
often cited as one of the world’s most irreligious countries – but sceptics
say this is really because official surveys don’t capture the huge
proportion of the population who practice folk religion. On the other hand,
official recognition of Ásatrú, the Icelandic pagan faith, meant it was entitled
to its share of a “faith tax”; as a result, it is building the country’s first
pagan temple for nearly 1,000 years.
Scepticism about practitioners’ motives impedes many
new movements from being recognised as genuine religions, whether by
officialdom or by the public at large. But ultimately the question of sincerity
is a red herring, Singler says: “Whenever someone tells you their worldview,
you have to take them at face value”. The acid test, as true for neopagans as
for transhumanists, is whether people make significant changes to their lives
consistent with their stated faith.
And such changes are exactly what the founders of some
new religious movements want. Official status is irrelevant if you can win
thousands or even millions of followers to your cause.
Consider the “Witnesses of Climatology”, a fledgling
“religion” invented to foster greater commitment to action on climate change.
After a decade spent working on engineering solutions to climate change, its
founder Olya Irzak came to the conclusion that the real problem lay not some
much in finding technical solutions, but in winning social support for them.
“What’s a multi-generational social construct that organises people around
shared morals?” she asks. “The stickiest is religion.”
So three years ago, Irzak and some friends set about
building one. They didn’t see any need to bring God into it – Irzak was brought
up an atheist – but did start running regular “services”, including
introductions, a sermon eulogising the awesomeness of nature and education on
aspects of environmentalism. Periodically they include rituals, particularly at
traditional holidays. At Reverse Christmas, the Witnesses plant a tree rather
than cutting one down; on Glacier Memorial Day, they watch blocks of ice melt
in the California sun.
As these examples suggest, Witnesses of Climatology
has a parodic feel to it – light-heartedness helps novices get over any initial
awkwardness – but Irzak’s underlying intent is quite serious.
“We hope people get real value from this and are
encouraged to work on climate change,” she says, rather than despairing about
the state of the world. The congregation numbers a few hundred, but Irzak, as a
good engineer, is committed to testing out ways to grow that number. Among
other things, she is considering a Sunday School to teach children ways of
thinking about how complex systems work.
Recently, the Witnesses have been looking further
afield, including to a ceremony conducted across the Middle East and
central Asia just before the spring equinox: purification by throwing something
unwanted into a fire – a written wish, or an actual object – and then jumping
over it. Recast as an effort to rid the world of environmental ills, it proved
a popular addition to the liturgy. This might have been expected, because it’s
been practised for thousands of years as part of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year –
whose origins lie in part with the Zoroastrians.
Transhumanism, Jediism, the Witnesses of Climatology
and the myriad of other new religious movements may never amount to much. But
perhaps the same could have been said for the small groups of believers who
gathered around a sacred flame in ancient Iran, three millennia ago, and whose
fledgling belief grew into one of the largest, most powerful and enduring
religions the world has ever seen – and which is still inspiring people today.
Perhaps religions never do really die. Perhaps the
religions that span the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps
the next great faith is just getting started.