Jeremy Cliffe writes in his Economist column about post-religious Britain. He takes it for granted that the future has a post-religious society for us in store. I suppose he, like many others, believes that Europe’s atheism or post-religiosity will eventually “colonize” the globe.
He’s of course right: Europe is quickly losing its religious convictions. While this trend has started sometime after the Second World War, many had in the past remained nominal Christians. Baby boomers and even Gen Xers did still call themselves “Christian, somehow”, even if not believing in the doctrines anymore (or only selectively subscribing to the “not so crazy stuff” like being nice to each other, etc.). This is changing now, as more and more Europeans become officially irreligious.
Post-religiousness is clearly restricted to “advanced societies”. Non-Western countries and minorities within the West, mainly of non-Western origins, are still practising their religion in large numbers and with conviction.
And of course, something seems to be missing now. Many are painfully aware that consumerism cannot replace faith. “New prophets” like Alain de Botton come to the rescue: He, and others like him, are proposing to close the religion-shaped gap with rational philosophies (including some cherry-picked elements from Church, such as a sense of beauty and even liturgy).
Many accept this development as the logical path of an “advanced society”. We’ve moved on from the “primitive” Old Testament, to the New Testament, which got rid of the man-like angry God and replaced him with do-good philosophy which can still stand its ground today (bare the “crazy elements”, which are now by many seen as later additions to the Wise Man’s teachings), to a fully rational philosophy, based on today’s humanistic and social values of liberty and equality and science.
This all makes sense, probably even for an open-minded believer, who recognizes that his or her believes are faith, not knowledge.
Nevertheless, the jury is still out on one question: Is there such a thing as a stable post-religious society? Can a society (a tribe) survive without a metaphysical foundation as its raison d’être?
This raison d’être, of course, has in the past only partly been composed of a tribe’s religion; it also consisted of its culture and history, including the mythical pre-history. (It’s noteworthy that the dawn of the post-religious society is also the dawn of the past-mythological society, or the dawn of the “society of a million myths”, where every subgroup believes in their own myths (understanding of the truth).
Wasn’t Nietzsche, when he declared God dead, worried about exactly this: the strength (the will to survive) of future societies without a mythical and metaphysical foundation?
I’m of course not suggesting that we need to stop the godless and bring back a Franco-style religion. Maybe a world tribe based on rational philosophies, as propagated by the optimistic mainstream, is possible. Or even better, a rational world tribe where religions have their place as non-violent, private endeavours. It will only be possible, I believe, if Western Civilisation survives the economic, political, and social challenges of the coming decades. Which it may, or may not.