Religious groups have been great community-builders through the years. So why, when we need community more than ever, are they in decline?

For most of recorded history, religious institutions have been one of the ways in which people made up for the loss of natural communities. But the religions that have been most prevalent over the past thousand years were birthed by a society that had much less scientific knowledge than we do now, and so it’s not necessarily surprising that they’re not serving modern populations as well as they served people in the middle ages, or even a hundred years ago.

Religions evolve to answer unanswerable questions. If you’re a hunter/gatherer, you can’t explain why the sun rises every morning and sets every night. So you might tell stories about a sun god, controlling a ball of fire in the sky. You can’t explain the changing seasons, so you might tell stories about a god of fertility controlling the growth of plants. These might be the most rational stories you can tell, given your level of knowledge.

The number of unanswerable questions has dropped precipitously with modern scientific understanding, so the explanatory scope of religion has changed, and many of the assertions of the existing religions appear to be plainly wrong or entirely arbitrary, reducing the religions’ respectability.

Plus, some of the moral restrictions of these religions, especially those restricting sex, go plainly against human nature, and thus require a rigid social structure to enforce. After the turn towards agriculture, but before contraceptive advances like the pill, educated women’s understanding of the potentially lifelong consequences of promiscuity helped to keep things tame until marriage. (And this was, in many ways, the correct response to the environment- without the community support that a tribe gives, having a child out of wedlock can be disastrous. But that doesn’t mean that it’s female nature to be coy and reticent; only that it’s a behavioral response that can be expected in certain environments. And then again, having a child in wedlock can be disastrous as well.)

But now we have great contraception, and the rigid social structure needed to maintain the moral opprobrium has disintegrated. But religions are still heavily focused on prohibiting certain forms of sexual behavior, because, well, that's what they said in the past, and they have a vested interest in never going back on their word - it's hard to explain why God might change his/her mind. This makes religions seem pettily and unnecessarily focused on sex, instead of addressing the real moral needs of modern populations, and this has further damaged their authority. Authority has to be seen to be legitimate by those subjected to it, and when the churches’ authority is put in the service of outdated sexual mores and untenable scientific propositions, it either loses the respect that it needs to be seen as legitimate and/or it encourages its believers to turn a blind eye to legitimate scientific discoveries and moral realities.

All of which is not to say that there’s no longer a need for religion. There are some questions that may never be scientifically determinable. The existence of a god and life after death, for instance, may fall into that realm. So, religious thinking about those questions can help us to deal psychologically with what’s unknown and encourage better responses to the fears that they engender. Plus, religions provide a great cultural tie that is one of the few community ties that we still have. Many religious believers are still believers just for that reason- if you asked them to soberly consider the precepts of their religion, they would probably admit that many of them don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but they maintain the traditions because they’re comforting and they connect them to a community of believers.


The Decline of Religion

by Douglas Payn

August 6, 2014

You would think pastors, with the fate of the world on their minds, would have bigger things to worry about.

At one point, this was a rational thing to do. It might still be, actually, given what we don't know about the placebo effect.