The Glued-Components Theorem or ‘Will Religion Become Obsolete?’
It is a very common discussion between any type of people, believers, non-believers, i-don’t-cares. Will religion become obsolete by time? What will happen in next twenty or one hundred years? We will have a different approach to this problem from the classic ones. Rather than trying to find if religion is right by trying to disprove or prove its suggestions, we will rather have a look what kind of needs it was addressing, and how modern society is coping with that. I will introduce you a very different approach.
First of all, let’s start with an analogy. Think that you are hungry. To keep your hunger at ease for a while, you decided to drink some cold water instead of eating a steak. Would this mean water is a beef? Or water is a food? Or water has calories? None of them is correct right? Both beef and water should be addressing some problem in this context, maybe filling some volume so that stomach feels full for some time?
It is a very common mistake to have ideas like “People started deciding morals themselves, therefore they became the god themselves”, or “Science is a religion because it is addressing some problems that some religions had claims about”. Religion is religion, having some components that are addressing some needs in the society. If some of those components are replaced with something else that fulfills the same need, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the replacer is also a religion.
What we will do now is, instead of going after validity/invalidity of religions, we will try to understand what needs were fulfilled by religion, and how they are fulfilled now in modern societies that have less area for religions right now.
When we are a baby, we need to have a long time to start reasoning why something is good or wrong. What we do first is, for each action we take, looking at the parent and trying to understand if we are doing something good or bad, or if our direction is good or bad. That’s why babies tend to look at their parents after completing every action with the objects around, to get an approval. This is the way we perceive what is good or wrong in an environment that we don’t have the ability to understand correctness of something ourselves. It is like asking a mathematician friend if a mathematical equation is correct or wrong. If we had the means of just checking if it is correct or not, we would do it ourselves. Furthermore, if we knew good enough we could also have some conclusions creating new equations. But as a baby, what we only have is a simple approval/disapproval gestures of our family.
Back in the day, masses were more like a baby. People were illiterate, and far away from understanding the ground rules that made the society work, sometimes even the people ruling those societies had this problem. The organizational capacity and culture of humanity was not in a good shape, lots of institutions were missing, technology didn’t allow criminals to be caught, science wasn’t able to explain anything yet, philosophy wasn’t strong enough to give the people motivation to defend the base human rights etc. Some people had some ideas about how to make the society better or good enough as we can say now, but there was no way that these ideas could penetrate their way through disperse population living in socially barely connected settlements with very diverse beliefs.
Religions came to help as emergent systems that evolved from past experiences of people. They were telling how people should treat each other. There was no escape, because some super being(s) was/were watching you over. This is the ethics component of religion. Because being member of a religion would mean people could determine what you will do in which case, and because you have determinable altruistic behaviors people could accept you as part of their same-ideas-community and protect you. This is the community and security component of religion. In the case you got old, crippled, left out with nothing, or even lost your mind, there would be people taking care of you. This is social welfare component of religion. If the king decided that some public opinion is needed to be shaped for an approaching enemy so that the country could be protected, the religious organizations could spread that view very fast, this is “manufacturing the consent” component of religion. If a country needed an identity so that its being or stance has an ideological support, religions and sects were there again. This is identity component of religion. If you had trouble about inheritance, marriage, what is acceptable way of using power over others, religion had consistent enough answers to that. This is justice component of religion. If you were curious why there are lights in the sky, or how the earth is shaped, religion had ideas about that also, which is the science component of religion.
Religion was a glue here and there, coming for help about any issue that a common understanding or consensus was needed in any subject, in which it was actually very hard because there was no strong historical data yet, about what works and what doesn’t work. There were too many answers to things, and people needed to choose one of them and just try to progress. There were no better fact based human centered answers for anything yet, and there were no foundational institutions that fulfill those needs. And also, well… The society was not actively looking for truth anyways, they had much more important issues like security, food, shelter etc.
There was no practical difference between believing that a forest has evil spirit therefore it should be avoided, or the forest was far too dangerous for the equipment that they had back in the time.
Starting from helping daily life in tribes, religions reached their most powerful days in god-king civilizations of the past. Everything was top-down planned, and religion had a very central role in these societies. Institutions were just having their first forms. Sumerians, Babylonians and Ancient Egypt are good examples for these societies.
In Europe, religions reached their climax as organized religions, especially when Rome had Christianity as one central large consensus on everything. It had a success that extended the empire’s life especially for its eastern part, but after some time it collapsed because the system could not handle multiple large religions and their schisms, because religious concerns replaced previous practical reasons, which didn’t let the system to adapt to changing environment. Ottomans tried a different way, they created a “nation” for each religion, which created large “nations” of Orthodox, Jews, Muslims et cetera and they let them organizing their own justice according to their religions and traditions. This let the empire to last 500 years after controlling the huge area that was inherited from East Roman Empire, but well, after sometime it stopped being able to address changing needs of the society because the system with its fundamental concepts, could not progress and find fixes according to changing new world, and at the end it collapsed, leaving a huge mess behind.
Things started to change rapidly after modern states were born, largely caused by the ideas that were spread as a consequence of very memorable French Revolution. States needed their own sovereignty over their populations, and they already started developing necessary institutions and laws that comply with the needs that were previously addressed by religion, this time using common sense.
Religions evolved, religions adapted to changes.
As a famous example that Max Weber pointed out in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with Reformation, Protestant faith appeared and rejected the guidance of the church for salvation. But there was a problem, who was going to tell how success looks like? Who to follow? Calvinism found the answer, you just needed to follow success in your life, this was the way to find salvation. This made people continue working and gathering wealth more than they needed in their daily life, starting capitalist mindset which was needed by the society that was stepping into a capitalist age.
I will not try to show how each component was replaced throughout the history with chronological order. That would be a huge article, or even a book. But what happened at the end, was that the justice system replaced one part, social welfare was taken over by governments, human rights were taken over by different secular humanitarian organizations that formed strong pressure groups and international agreements, security was taken over by modern technological advancements on fingerprints, cameras etc and law enforcement, manufacturing the public consent and forming the public consensus was taken over by media and governments, education was taken over by mass education, science was taken over by modern science. Of course some top down designs were also made without self-fixing mechanisms that evolved by time by testing themselves against reality. Just to replace religion for the change’s own sake didn’t work out, that’s why we have seen big collapses like the Nazis and Soviets.
So now, if you were asking yourself if the religion is to disappear, do you think the religion exists as you knew of even ten years ago? They are all, already largely replaced. They haven’t disappeared, but shrank in the mind of their believers to a place that adapts realities of current society. Like any other human concept, religions are also evolving and becoming “Religion 1.0”, “Religion 2.0”, “Religion 3.0” without being able to admit that they are changing. So yes, previous versions disappeared already according to changing needs of people. Religion left all the areas that there is a better working solution. It is evolving and shrinking to the virtues area. In this sense, we can both conclude that religions already dissolved themselves by time as how they originally were, or they might never disappear because they will take different roles as humanity progress. It really depends on how you define religion and being obsolete. A hundred years later we might start facing the same religions without any extraterrestrial beings, claiming they were just allegories, and a strong philosophical work around virtues that lots of people follow.
All these are products of ability of human society to constantly change and progress and fix its problems, which is best done by democratic societies nowadays.