What would happen if every religion in the world were to magically vanish overnight? Never mind just how that could happen. It’s magic, a spell from some meddlesome wizard that causes every church, mosque, temple, or shrine to vanish, every religious text or work of literature or art to disappear, every bit of knowledge that religion ever existed to be plucked from everyone’s brain. No more Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Neopaganism, Baha’i Faith, Mormonism, Shinto — no nothing. What would happen? Would we all become enlightened, secular atheists? Would religion never reappear?
Where did religion come from in the first place? That’s a question with a complicated answer, but at least part of the answer suggests that if religion were to disappear, it would make a swift return — but in completely new forms.
Let’s start from the very beginning. You’re not a religious believer. You have no concept of God, the Void, an intelligent and conscious cosmos, faith, devotion, meditation, enlightenment (in the spiritual rather than the intellectual sense), or anything else that currently goes into the mix of religious ideas.
Then one day, something happens. Perhaps you have a brush with death and a near-death experience. Perhaps you experience a runner’s high, a dose of psychedelic drugs, or an out-of-the-blue shift in your self-image and self-awareness. Your perception of who you are and of your relationship to the universe changes. Your identity dissolves. You feel a connection with, an identification with, all that is.
If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Remember, you have no religious ideas that can explain this experience and what it means. You can’t say that you have experienced a union with God, because you don’t have a concept of God. You can’t say that you have merged with the Cosmic Soul (Brahman), because you don’t have that idea, either. But these experiences keep happening, and it’s your brain’s nature to try to understand every experience you have and incorporate it into a coherent world-view. What do you do?
The obvious answer is that you make something up, some metaphor that you can wrap around the experience to give it form. Some way to talk about it. If you can write, maybe you write a book. If you can speak, perhaps you’ll try to convey your new awareness to others. If you’re an artist or a musician, you’ll create art or music with a religious theme — even though you won’t call it that, because the word “religious” isn’t part of your vocabulary.
Maybe you personalize the greater reality you’ve become part of, and call it God. Maybe you don’t, and call it the cosmos. If you’re especially insightful, you’ll recognize that it doesn’t make much difference whether you personalize it or not. It’s beyond the ability of your mind to comprehend rationally, so any labels you put on it are purely for convenience and not really descriptive, still less definitive.
The religious experience is wonderful, pleasant, and powerfully moving, so you try to recreate it, make it happen more often. Ideally, you want to live in that cosmic consciousness permanently, and eliminate the times when you forget the insights altogether. So you develop rituals, exercises, mental practices, and ways to enter communion with that greater reality. At this point, you have theology or religious philosophy, religious art or music or writing, and religious ritual and practice.
Now you go online and communicate via social media with others who have also had similar experiences, and share your ideas with them, while appreciating theirs. Pretty soon, you’ve got a community of believers going. With that, plus theology or religious philosophy, plus religious ritual and practice, plus religious art, music, and writing — you have a religion.
Minus the Internet, that’s pretty much how the religions of the past emerged. Someone had a powerful sequence of religious experiences, developed ideas around them, communicated them to others who understood to a degree because of similar experiences, and these people together created a body of teaching and practice.
After this happened, typically things went south as the religion started playing the politics game and sought power for its own institutions and the people in charge of them. But the description above is how just about all religions began. And that brings us to some interesting speculation about how, if all religions were to disappear magically and we started all over, things might proceed differently.
New Religion in the Modern Age
We have a very different culture and society than existed in, say, Muhammad’s time. Today’s world has not only the Internet and instant communication, but also a fast-paced, rapidly changing society in which the idea of Truth preserved unchanging for all time is hard to countenance. This, then, is the first and most obvious difference between our do-over religion and anything that has emerged from the agrarian age: it incorporates the idea of change. No commandments written on stone tablets. No Seal of the Prophets — as time goes by, we anticipate more enlightened voices without end. No timeless truths. Maybe timeless truths do exist, but our brains aren’t capable of understanding them perfectly if so, and the evolution of our own understanding amounts to the same thing as changes to truth itself.
Another difference in circumstances, which must inevitably affect religious thought, is the immediacy and global character of communication. Post a religious idea, or any other sort of idea, online and it will draw attention from those who agree, those who disagree, and those who simply have a different take. The religions of the agrarian age emerged in a time when, say, a Medieval peasant might never talk to anyone from outside his own village, and his final authority on spiritual matters rested with the village priest. Today, what would emerge would not be individual and competing religions, but competing religious ideas in a global marketplace of ideas. Rather than many different religions, what would likely emerge would be a single religion with multiple currents of thought in a constant state of evolution.
Finally, we face today a set of material circumstances mandating a radically different moral and ethical environment than obtained in the time of Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad. True, there are many core values expressed by each of these prophets that remain valid today, but the details are often obsolete. Today, we must recognize the value of gender equality, environmental responsibility, peace, and universal compassion in ways that were either outside common awareness altogether in the distant past, or else amounted to an unworkable ideal.
If religion were to magically vanish overnight, we would not all become enlightened atheists. But our culture would change pretty dramatically nonetheless — and much for the better.