Is religion headed for extinction? Some experts think so. But if you ask me, the funeral planning is premature.
In his classic tale, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain tells of Tom and Huckleberry Finn’s brief career as pirates. When the boys get bored with life on the Mississippi and hang up their hooks and return home, they find the whole town has gathered for a funeral—their funeral. Concealed at the back of the church, Tom and Huck are so moved by the minister’s eulogy they join in weeping. That is, until someone catches sight of the drowned boys, miraculously back from the dead.
Well, that feeling of attending your own funeral is one that Christians are getting pretty familiar with these days. But to borrow a phrase from Twain himself, “Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.” And that’s not only true of Christianity, but of religion in general, which prognosticators from the secular press and academics continually warn have one foot in the grave.
But they are late to the party. Experts have been prophesying the demise of religion for at least 150 years. Karl Marx, way back in the 1860’s, predicted that religion would vanish once the working class no longer needed the “opiate” of the life to come. Sigmund Freud wrote in 1927, “in the future science will go beyond religion, and reason will replace faith in God.”
In the 21st century, the predictions of religion’s extinction continue, despite the stubborn existence of believers. In 2013, biopsychologist Nigel Barber wrote a book predicting that within thirty years, religion would effectively disappear in 137 countries. And an article last month in the U.K.’s Independent reported on yet another team of scientists who expect faith to die out worldwide.
Dr. Nicholas Baumard, who works in the infamously imaginative field of evolutionary psychology, recently co-authored a study claiming to explain the origins of religion, and why we can expect it to vanish as the world develops economically.
Thousands of years ago, explains Baumard, society’s elite needed to assert their dominance over the underclass, so they invented religion as a means of forcing their values on the less privileged. But as poor countries improve the lot of their populations, he predicts we’ll see a corresponding loss of religiosity.
“If this is true,” he writes, “then like the Greco-Roman religions before them, Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish.”
But not so fast. These kinds of “studies” with their predictions are built on what we at BreakPoint like to call “sabertooth psychology,” the assumption that all of our thoughts, actions, and beliefs were determined by evolutionary pressures on our remote ancestors. It’s kind of an ideological hammer looking for nails, but in reality amounts to little more than storytelling. Baumard’s idea about religion enforcing bourgeois morality isn’t new. It’s just warmed-over Marxist social theory.
And more importantly, all the predictions of religion’s downfall don’t jibe with reality, at least not on a global scale. A Pew Research study last year found that the “religiously unaffiliated,” meaning atheists, agnostics, and others who claim no faith, are declining as a share of the global population. Six years ago, unbelievers—who’ve always been a tiny minority—made up just sixteen percent of people in the world. By 2050, due especially to higher birth rates in the global south, that number is projected to fall to thirteen percent.
So while it’s true that religious belief is declining steeply in Europe, and also in the United States, where many self-report as “none” on religious surveys, the worldwide picture could not be clearer: Religion is alive and well, 5.9 billion strong and climbing. Those holding a funeral for faith are in for as big of a shock as the folks in Tom and Huck’s hometown.
Humans are, as Christianity teaches, inherently religious creatures, born with a sense of the supernatural. The tiny handful of mankind that denies this, not the religious, are those who need to worry about impending extinction.
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2016 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
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