Andrew Brown, in the Guardian, has been musing about the births and deaths of religions. His musings about births are really quite sensible, and revolve around the idea that religions sometimes have a charismatic founder but sometimes arise through a more diffuse process, “a kind of coalescence of folk beliefs and practices into something more or less organised and more or less useful to the state”. But on deaths, which are what this blog’s more uncompromising readers might prefer to contemplate anyway, Brown wanders down some strange mental pathways indeed. He doesn’t even escape the opening paragraph before dropping this bombshell:
I think we can discount at once the idea that [the death of a religion] happens because people realise that science is better. It’s obvious that the more people try to replace religion with science, the more they reproduce the worst features of organised religion.
This seems so misguided that it’s hard to know where to start criticizing. If science is toxic to religion, it’s not because “people try to replace religion with science” – it’s because scientific conclusions undermine many religious beliefs, such as the notion that Yahweh created the world in a single particularly productive week, and the authority of religion starts to collapse as a result. The question of what, if anything, is going to replace religion remains open. Suppose, though, that people did try to assign that role to science, and ended up chanting the Sacred Laws of Thermodynamics around a reliquary containing Lord Kelvin’s finger bones. A new religion would have been born, with or without a charismatic founder, but an old one would still have died.
After a little tangent about how a “teddy bear at the site of a road crash is recognised as a meaningful symbol of our horror at mortality” (it is?!), Brown suggests a different approach to the issue:
Perhaps it is easier to think in terms of gods dying, rather than religions.
Well, perhaps it is, but easier doesn’t always mean more enlightening. Brown is sufficiently in touch with reality that he isn’t talking about the literal deaths of literal gods, but rather about the sort of figurative death that overcomes a divine being when he or she ceases to be worshipped. A religion, then, would die when the god(s) at the heart of the religion keeled over in a figurative way from lack of sufficient fawning by mortals. However, some gods are shared by more than one religion, and presumably a god shared by N religions could “survive” the deaths of N – 1 of them. It’s harder to imagine a religion surviving the deaths of its gods, but this could also happen in principle. The flock would no longer believe in the gods, or pray to them, but would still read the scriptures, perform the rituals and adhere to the moral precepts.
Religions, then, must live and die on their own terms. The death of a religion occurs not when a god ceases to attract worshippers but rather when the whole complex of beliefs and practices that give shape to the religion in the minds and lives of its followers falls apart, leaving perhaps some vestiges that persist as cultural ornaments and reminders of a vanished faith. Plenty of religions have died out in the course of history, but other religions have always been on hand to take their places. If the major religions of our modern world begin dying out with nothing to replace them but some combination of science, secular tradition, and moral and metaphysical philosophy, we’ll be living in truly interesting times.