Another 1, years later — today — Zoroastrianism is a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.
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We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die — but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires. Tales of the Egyptian, Greek and Norse pantheons are now considered legends, not holy writ. It took three centuries for the Christian church to consolidate around a canon of scriptures — and then in it split into the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches.
Since then, Christianity has continued both to grow and to splinter into ever more disparate groups, from silent Quakers to snake-handling Pentecostalists. If you believe your faith has arrived at ultimate truth, you might reject the idea that it will change at all. But if history is any guide, no matter how deeply held our beliefs may be today, they are likely in time to be transformed or transferred as they pass to our descendants — or simply to fade away.
If religions have changed so dramatically in the past, how might they change in the future? Is there any substance to the claim that belief in gods and deities will die out altogether? And as our civilisation and its technologies become increasingly complex, could entirely new forms of worship emerge?
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900)
To answer these questions, a good starting point is to ask: why do we have religion in the first place? But in fact, he was being perfectly sincere. Many modern students of religion agree. The broad idea that a shared faith serves the needs of a society is known as the functionalist view of religion. One recurring theme is social cohesion: religion brings together a community, who might then form a hunting party, raise a temple or support a political party. They must compete with other faiths for followers and survive potentially hostile social and political environments.
Under this argument, any religion that does endure has to offer its adherents tangible benefits. Christianity, for example, was just one of many religious movements that came and mostly went during the course of the Roman Empire. According to Wood, it was set apart by its ethos of caring for the sick — meaning more Christians survived outbreaks of disease than pagan Romans. Islam, too, initially attracted followers by emphasising honour, humility and charity — qualities which were not endemic in turbulent 7th-Century Arabia.
Given this, we might expect the form that religion takes to follow the function it plays in a particular society — or as Voltaire might have put it, that different societies will invent the particular gods they need. Conversely, we might expect similar societies to have similar religions, even if they have developed in isolation. And there is some evidence for that — although when it comes to religion, there are always exceptions to any rule.
Hunter-gatherers, for example, tend to believe that all objects — whether animal, vegetable or mineral — have supernatural aspects animism and that the world is imbued with supernatural forces animatism. This worldview makes sense for groups too small to need abstract codes of conduct, but who must know their environment intimately. An exception: Shinto, an ancient animist religion, is still widely practised in hyper-modern Japan.
At the other end of the spectrum, the teeming societies of the West are at least nominally faithful to religions in which a single watchful, all-powerful god lays down, and sometimes enforces, moral instructions: Yahweh, Christ and Allah. Whether that belief constitutes cause or effect has recently been disputed , but the upshot is that sharing a faith allows people to co-exist relatively peacefully.
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The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves. Or at least, it did. Today, many of our societies are huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths co-exist with each other — and with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Powerful intellectual and political currents have driven this proposition since the early 20th Century. Communist states like Soviet Russia and China adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression.
His successors are emboldened by surveys showing that in many countries, increasing numbers of people are saying they have no religion. Despite this, religion is not disappearing on a global scale — at least in terms of numbers. Muslims would grow in number to match Christians, while the number unaffiliated with any religion would decline slightly.
Modern societies are multicultural where followers of many different faiths live side by side Credit: Getty Images. Religion will continue to grow in economically and socially insecure places like much of sub-Saharan Africa — and to decline where they are stable.
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That chimes with what we know about the deep-seated psychological and neurological drivers of belief. When life is tough or disaster strikes, religion seems to provide a bulwark of psychological and sometimes practical support.
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In a landmark study, people directly affected by the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand became significantly more religious than other New Zealanders, who became marginally less religious. The traditionally religious both belonged and believed; hardcore atheists did neither. The research suggests that the last two groups are significant.
In interim results released in May , the researchers found that few unbelievers actually identify themselves by these labels, with significant minorities opting for a religious identity. But what does it actually mean? In , Linda Woodhead wrote The Spiritual Revolution , in which she described an intensive study of belief in the British town of Kendal. Today, Woodhead says that revolution has taken place — and not just in Kendal. There is no other way to peace but this, and if you refuse to walk it, your much praying and your strict adherence to ritual will be fruitless and unavailing, and neither gods nor angels can help you.
Only to him that overcometh is given the white stone of the regenerate life, on which is written the New and Ineffable Name. Come away, for awhile, from external things, from the pleasures of the senses, from the arguments of the intellect, from the noise and the excitements of the world, and withdraw yourself into the inmost chamber of your heart, and there, free from the sacrilegious intrusion of all selfish desires, you will find a deep silence, a holy calm, a blissful repose, and if you will rest awhile in that holy place, and will meditate there, the faultless eye of Truth will open within you, and you will see things as they really are.
This holy place within you is your real and eternal self; it is the divine within you; and only when you identify yourself with it can you be said to be "clothed and in your right mind. Apart from this inward resting-place, this Mount of Vision, there can be no true peace, no knowledge of the Divine, and if you can remain there for one minute, one hour, or one day, it is possible for you to remain there always.
All your sins and sorrows, your fears and anxieties are your own, and you can cling to them or you can give them up. Of your own accord you cling to your unrest; of your own accord you can come to abiding peace. No one else can give up sin for you; you must give it up yourself.
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The greatest teacher can do no more than walk the way of Truth for himself, and point it out to you; you yourself must walk it for yourself. You can obtain freedom and peace alone by your own efforts, by yielding up that which binds the soul, and which is destructive of peace. The angels of divine peace and joy are always at hand, and if you do not see them, and hear them, and dwell with them, it is because you shut yourself out from them, and prefer the company of the spirits of evil within you.
You are what you will to be, what you wish to be, what you prefer to be. You can commence to purify yourself, and by so doing can arrive at peace, or you can refuse to purify yourself, and so remain with suffering. Step aside, then; come out of the fret and the fever of life; away from the scorching heat of self, and enter the inward resting-place where the cooling airs of peace will calm, renew, and restore you. Initially, in an hour, you get a few seconds, or a few minutes of not reacting.
But eventually, by practice, you reach a stage where throughout the hour you do not react at all. At the deepest level you do not react at all. A deep change is coming in the old habit pattern.
The vicious cycle is broken: your mind was reacting to the chemical process which was manifesting itself as a sensation, and as a result, for hours together, your mind was flooded with a particular impurity, a particular defilement. Now it gets a break for a few moments, a few seconds, a few minutes. As the old habit of blind reaction becomes weaker, your behavior pattern is changing. You are coming out of your misery. Again, this is not to be believed because the Buddha said so.