07 September 2015

Is There Room For Another Great Religious Tradition Or Two?

Razib Khan notes in a comment to one of his posts that:
i think islam is probably the last chance in the oikumene. it looks like once cultural-civilizational identities cohere it can be hard to break them.
He later clarifies in an additional comment that he means that it is:
the last chance to create a new civilization. it seems like once the # is “filled up” it’s hard to move into the space. it’s like cultural oligopolies.
I agree that cultures tend towards oligopolies, along the line of the old Iron Law of Oligarchy from economics. Too many at one time in one place naturally seem to congeal into a smaller number, while a true monopoly tends to fission into sects. Neither highly atomized competition, nor monopoly tend to be stable.

It is also fair to say, I think, that there has not been a new major religious tradition since Islam, at least until lately.

The question is, what is one to make of the rise of secularism?

Is this itself, or a more specific ideology like secular humanism that may be driving it, a major new religious tradition? Or, are we entering a "Great Nap", perhaps akin to the culturally relativist era of no holds barred paganism in the Roman empire not long before Christianity took hold in which all gods in every pantheon were accepted in a theologically relativist ideology that accepted all of them?

Thus, secularism might be a new great religious tradition, which might even be the "end of history" and the actual last chance in the oikumene (something that is the basic premise of science worlds like that of Star Trek and the future Earth of Kate Elliot's Jaran novels).  Arguably, communism was another such great secular religious tradition that bloomed, changed the world, and is rapidly dying.

But perhaps secularism is instead creating the very kind of vacuum that Nature abhors and creating fertile ground for some new major religious tradition to rush into the gap when something crystallizes people at the right moment in time which may be not too distant from now, or even in the recent past but is not yet recognized for what it will become (something that is part of the premise of Rachel Caine's Age of X series of novels)?

Religion exists and has persisted for functional reasons. It provides benefits to the people who practice it that cause them to continue its traditions. There is more than one implementation of religion that can meet people's needs, and not all religions have to meet precisely the same set of needs. One religion might provide patronage for art and music, while another might not serve that function. One religion might establish educational institutions and hospitals, while another might not. But, all of the functions must be met by some sort of institution and a society that fails to prove a solution for all of those functions is ripe for the development of a new religion to fill them.

Some of the functions are to provide accepted answers to questions of metaphysics and morality. Others are to provide scripts for daily life.

There is an emerging decentralized secular humanist tradition that is starting to gel and fill the gap that mainline Christianity once filled in the United States, as a default set of scripts and answers for people who don't necessarily give religion much thought that becomes the mainstream consensus for people in much of the developed world. This secular humanist tradition might even someday evolve into something like Rachel Caine's "Church of Humanity" that she imagines in her Age of X series.

But, people, and more particularly, the "Nones" are sufficiently spiritual, sufficiently theistic and superstitious in their beliefs, and sufficiently not committed to metaphysical naturalism as an ideal, that I can't help but think that there is also room for one or more new religious traditions to emerge right now into the relatively virgin territory created as Evangelical Christianity, conservative Roman Catholicism, modern evolution, cosmology and science, and the rising grass roots movement of "Nones" conspire together to discredit the Christian brand.

I image that something might emerge out of the lowest common denominator version of Judeo-Christianity in which a vague "god" listens to prayers, rewards the moral, punishes sinners, redeems those who have sinned and repent, and provides people of good will with a focal point of common purpose. Call it a creole religion, broken down to its bare essentials and stripped of its historical antecedents.  Ba'hai, the Free Masons, and Unitarian-Universalism have made similar efforts, and the Jedi religion of Star Wars arguably is of the same general character. But, the failure of these efforts to secure large followings despite the fact that they echo the spirit of the age, also suggests that this intuitively obvious path may not actually be the most likely.

Alternately, maybe the gap will be filled not with lowest common denominator platitude, but with a very specific, righteous, and even absurd back story that nonetheless gets the job done - the kind of religion created by the missionaries in the musical The Book of Mormon. Perhaps the leap of faith that comes from embracing something that seems impossible and that you can't personally verify, a living them in a way that forces you to act in some arbitrary manner that sets you apart from non-believers is a key element of the mind hack that makes religion work.

The Islamic world is another place where religious monopoly and the great dysfunction of some aspects of Islam in the modern world may make conditions ripe for some major new religious movement.

I have some axioms that are instructive but not definitive in suggesting what we will see:

* Religion thrives when it protects a threatened culture.
* The more random chance guides people's fate, the more religious and superstitious they are.
* The functional aspects of a religion are often obscured by its trappings and doctrines.
* Religious doctrines are shaped by their formative eras.
* Sacred texts or stories are at the center of all religions even though they may not be important to how their adherents live their lives in predictable ways from the texts or stories alone.
* Religions involve specific practices in daily life, often involving funny hats and/or food taboos.
* New religions are never completely original, they always draw on some past religious thinking.
* New religions grow dramatically, not gradually, once they reach a tipping point.

New religious traditions can suddenly appear. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindusim, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Ba'hai, Jainism, and all of the sects within these faiths all acknowledge founders either within the historic era, or the waning days of prehistory. It seems that all new religions have heroic founders and divine mysteries at their heart. There is no particularly powerful reason to think that the right conditions, while rare, couldn't recur. It could take centuries for the religious movements put in place by a religion founder today to really come together into a stable great religious tradition. But, it could at least start in the near future.

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