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The Future According to VICE

The Future of Religion According to VICE

The better the world gets, the less it needs religion.

by Martin Robbins
16 January 2015, 12:24pm

A sign at a Charlie Hebdo solidarity vigil (Photo by Pete Voelker)

If you had to pick one word to sum up religion in 2015, it might be "fear". How else do you describe a situation where sensitive Islamist zealots gun down cartoonists in their offices? The Charlie Hebdo attack and the chaos that followed in Paris has sent ripples out into the wider world. Fox News and Nigel Farage wittered on about Sharia no-go areas in British cities. Jewish people in France and Britain are still expressing serious concerns about anti-semitism. An astonishing YouGov poll just released showed that nearly half of Brits agree with at least one of four anti-semitic statements put to them. For example, 13 percent claimed that, "Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy."

It feels like a dark, bewildering cloud has come down on our heads; as if generations of liberal progress are under threat, angry madmen and narcissists tugging at the loose threads. But is that really the case? Well, probably not.

In Europe at least, the links between terrorism and religion are pretty small. ThinkProgress trawled the European Union's annual "Terrorism and Terror Situation" reports for the last few years and found that only a handful of incidents were religiously motivated – about 2 percent over the last few years. You're more likely to be murdered by a separatist than an Islamist, and you're far more likely to be murdered by a bog-standard murderer than either of them.

As if that weren't boring enough, it turns out that most religious people in the West are cheerful moderates, more Ned Flanders than Abu Hamza. Research by Pew found that Muslim Americans tend to be well-assimilated middle-class patriots. It's pretty much the same in Europe, too. That's not to say there aren't problems in specific communities – the 7/7 bombers and the Charlie Hebdo attackers were home-grown, remember – but we're talking about a minority of a minority here.

In the Western world, at least, religion is going out with a whimper, not a bang. Christianity is in a slow, long-term decline. About 60 percent of Brits say they're not religious at all, and in the US atheism has spread to about a fifth of the population, and a third of people under 30. In other parts of the world, sure, the Muslim and Christian populations are growing, but that's mostly because populations in Asia and Africa are growing much faster than ours, not because they're persuading more people to convert.

And that trend won't continue forever. The truth is, once countries reach a certain point in their development, religion just isn't as important any more. In the more developed West most of us are better educated and far more secure in our lives than our religious ancestors. We have all kinds of social and psychological support mechanisms in place – from therapists to social security to the NHS – that have displaced a lot of the functions the Church used to provide. In some parts of the world, religion is facing extinction already. In poverty-stricken regions it's still on the rise, but progress is the enemy of religion – the stronger nations get, the less they need religion.

Jehovah's Witnesses handing out leaflets at Oxford Circus

That explains why the Church of England is struggling so badly. The ancient institution had a real chance over the last few years to set itself up as a radical force in our politics – the real opposition to austerity. The Archbishops of York and Canterbury launched a ferocious attack on political leaders just this week, slamming inequality, consumerism and the idea that a community's value is in how much money it makes.

The trouble is, the Church of England doesn't seem relevant even when it's being relevant. It's not clear to most people what it actually does to help the poor beyond sending out press releases, and it's so disconnected from young people that most wouldn't even occur to look to it for help. Archbishops campaigning in an election look like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel.

So does that mean religion no longer matters in the UK? Maybe not. In fact, the 2015 General Election may be the last hallelujah for British Christians. To understand why, you have to look at UKIP. There's an interesting new book out, Revolt on the Right, where the authors ignore all the armchair punditry about racists and lost Tories and look at actual, real data on the rise of the UKIP vote. Lurking deep within those numbers they found a huge latent pool of voters. They call them the "Left Behind".

Sally Grant and Philip Foster, members of Christian Soldiers in UKIP – a group who claim to be "Fighting through Christ for deliverance from EU tyranny" (Photo by Cian Oba-Smith)

The Left Behind aren't lapsed Tories. You can't easily classify them as left or right wing. They tend to be old, working class, traditional and quite a few of them are religious. What they have in common is that the world moved on without them. After decades of multiculturalism, liberalism and equality, the ideas and behaviours the Left Behind were brought up with aren't just out-of-date but taboo or even illegal. While the rest of us ride the crest of the wave of history, they're stuck floundering in the trough behind it, lost on the wrong side with no way back.

But in 2015 they've got a rare chance of glory. With public opinion of the mainstream parties at an all-time low, UKIP could find themselves as part of a coalition government this May. At the very least, they could wreak havoc on the main result, disrupting constituency after constituency and making the outcome probably the least predictable in my lifetime. For the religious right, this could be one last shot at relevance.

An American atheist getting his point across very effectively (Photo by Jennifer Boyer via)

Americans aren't quite there yet, with over half of them saying they'd be less likely to vote for someone who doesn't believe in God. That number has dropped by 10 percent in just a few years though, and if the rise of atheism continues then things can only get more secular. The US managed to elect a black president in 2008, and if Hillary Clinton gets her way there's a good chance they'll elect a woman in 2016. Who knows, perhaps in my lifetime they'll break the greatest taboo of them all – an atheist in the White House.

On either side of the pond, there's a clear trend – as moderates drift toward secularism and atheism, the religious folk left tend to be the hardcore, the more extreme. In the United States it's the hardcore religious right, and in the UK it's the rise of evangelical Anglican churches. What we end up with is a loud, angry minority... a lot like UKIP.

A Hebrew Israelite on Oxford Street (Photo by Jake Krushell)

If people are moving away from religion, is anything replacing it? Yes and no. Religion isn't hardwired into our brains – if it were, there wouldn't be atheism – but some of the tropes that made religion so successful still are.

The search for higher meaning and purpose, the need for community, the hope that death can be predictable and meaningful, the desire to see bad people punished somehow for their sins – these are all things that still form the basis of modern life. What this probably means is that even if the established religions disappeared tomorrow, we'd still have some sort of replacement, whether that was atheist "Churches", Queens Park Rangers, or the Gamergate hashtag.

Guests at China's completely illegal World of Warcraft rip-off theme park (Photo by Esperino Hangie via)

In fact, you can find one replacement on a computer near you. Anthropologist Ryan Hornbeck wrote a thesis in which he investigated World of Warcraft gaming communities in China and found that a number of them were basically "religious". Kids raised in grossly unfair and unequal communities found a kind of meritocratic certainty and meaning in WoW's guilds that was absent from their real lives. Another plane of existence in which good deeds are rewarded in a consistent way. "Here it is, my spiritual homeland..." one of his subjects told him. "I think I will stay here forever to see the end of the world."

You can laugh at these guys, but is this really such a bad direction for religion in 2015? Prayers to God may not be answered, but you can always find some kind of help in the in-game chat channel. Killing monsters to increase your character's level is no more a futile waste of your life than giving alms. And I'd rather gangs of players were raiding dungeons than the Holy Land.

Follow Martin Robbins on Twitter @mjrobbins

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