While some in the western world reject traditional religion, they reorient their faith – don’t lose it


The language of traditional religion is as ingrained in hierarchy as it is in history.

According to most doctrines, God is the Shepherd – and we are the flock. Humans are controlled from the heavens by the deity or deities we serve.

But advancements in neuroscience and psychology present a very different story, one in which the human brain is hardwired for spiritual thought and where religious beliefs and practices come and go over time, depending on our needs and circumstances. our fears of the real world.

This could help explain many of the fundamental changes in religious observance and belief, from the return of European paganism to a growing interest in individualistic forms of spirituality.

Pagans and Druids, celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge here, could be more and more numerous.(Getty: Chris J Ratcliffe)

Reassessing the rise of atheism

When people assess the future of religion, a first observation is that Western societies are becoming less religious, but religious scholar Linda Woodhead disputes this popular idea.

When people tick “no religion” on a census form, it doesn’t mean they have turned away from all beliefs, she told ABC RN’s Future Tense.

Instead, it often just indicates that they no longer want to be identified with an established faith.

“In many cases people are still spiritual, they still want a lot of good that religion can offer, but in a way that makes more sense to them,” she says.

And in a consumerist world where personal choice comes first, Professor Woodhead argues that more and more people are choosing to create their own form of religious belief.

Young people are very concerned about their identity. They want to find a spiritual, moral and community life that is meaningful to them personally, and they want to have much more authority in their quest and in their spiritual development, ”she says.

Professor Woodhead points to a revival of pre-Christian traditions, including the pagan Rodnovery faith in modern Russia, and official state recognition of Germanic paganism in Norway.

She says such developments are in part an aspiration to culture, meaning and symbolism, and are more than mere appropriation.

“The religions which do not offer this, [where] people have the impression that they are not getting this kind of spiritual nourishment, it is religions that fall and die. I think that’s what happened to [traditional] churches, ”she said.

Close-up of hands clasped as if in prayer over an old book with blurred text, which could be a religious text.
Formal religion may be losing ground in the Western world, but spirituality is getting nowhere, experts say.(Unsplash: Patrick Foré)

Nothing is written in stone

Connor Wood, associate researcher at the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston, agrees that formalized religion is giving way to more individualistic, even “idiosyncratic” spiritual beliefs.

But, he says, it’s important to remember that religions have always come and gone – this faith is dynamic.

He says that even enduring religions like Christianity have reinvented themselves several times over the centuries, and argues that the belief structures that survive are those that best meet individual or societal needs, or both.

Islam, for example, quickly spread along the trade routes of the Middle East and North Africa, as it offered a system of verifying the trust of traders.

“[The traders] you might never have seen each other before, but you see this guy is doing the Salat prayer, the noon prayer to Allah, and you say, okay I know this guy … he’s in the same kind of world that me and I can trust him, ”says Dr. Wood.

Likewise, Roman Emperor Constantine’s membership in the relatively minor cult of Christianity served Rome’s rulers well, as it brought a sense of cohesion to their distant empire.

“If you have a religion that gets people to cooperate on a very large scale and in a fairly predictable way over the long term, you might have a guardian,” says Dr. Wood.

Everything in the mind

According to psychologist Justin Barrett, spiritual belief has evolved because it meets a particular human need, and people are “hypersensitive” to the idea of ​​a human agency when they search for meaning and purpose in the world. .

“It seems the conceptual path of least resistance for us is to think in terms of the thriller as opposed to the mechanisms by which it happened,” he says.

Professor Barrett, former head of the Cognition, Religion and Theology project at the University of Oxford, says concepts of God and ancestor spirits are therefore meaningful to us because they fit neatly into this “cognitive divide” .

“We quickly understood from early childhood that humans won’t do the job for a lot of these thriller issues, and so we seem to find something a little bigger and more powerful, more competent and more powerful than human beings. humans, much more satisfying, “he says.

A conspiratorial alignment

Professor Barrett argues that our instinctive desire to attribute human-like agency to external sources also helps explain why people join celebrity cults, populist political causes, and even conspiracy groups like QAnon.

He says that what we generally recognize as the tenets of religion, such as belief in a higher order and acceptance of unchallenged faith, are similar to those shared by many social and political movements.

“It’s kind of a mix and match of different types of psychological triggers, if you will,” says Professor Barrett.

“What he lays bare is that the types of psychological dynamics that underlie religious systems can show up in other types of” almost “religious behavior.”

He says it demonstrates that religious thought is not unique and that it is part of human culture and the way we try to make sense of what is going on around us.

Professor Barrett also argues that whether it is centered in the brain or in the heavens, spirituality is here to stay.

He says the demise of religion has been regularly predicted for at least 150 years, and despite their best efforts, Stalin and Mao failed to eradicate it.

“We can see religions changing in their form. We can see them serving [or] meaningful roles, but they certainly don’t seem to be going away any time soon. “

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