390,000 people in the UK self-identify as followers of the 'Jedi faith' pixabay.com

In the 2001 UK census over 390,000 respondents self-identified as followers of the Jedi faith. The Office for National Statistics revealed the figure in a press release entitled “390,000 Jedi there are”. Ridiculous as this may seem, it sheds an important light on the gradual degradation of religion in the UK over recent decades. Faith, it seems, has been decentralised in society on a personal and institutional level – it is the subject of mockery and ironic Jedi derision. In a 2016 survey only 41% of the UK population defined themselves as Christian, while 53% indicated ‘no religion’. While this cohesive force that keeps societies unified and anxieties about mortality at bay may be on the decline, it is wrong to predict the future death of religion based on these current trends. The relationship between faith, economics, and our own human psychologies is far too complex for such an assertion.

One clear factor that drives a country such as the UK towards atheism is economic growth and financial security. Existential stability follows on from wealth creation, a strong welfare net, and good educational services. As Phil Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, argues: “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief.” This theory goes both ways, however. Existential stability is by no means infallible and Western economic success in the future is far from certain. To therefore boldly predict the ‘death of God’ is to trust in a continuous upward trend in growth and happiness, something that 2017 has depressingly demonstrated to be unlikely.

“Suffering can rekindle religious belief in an instant”

Suffering can rekindle religious belief in an instant. The devastating 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand demonstrated this phenomenon clearly, with religious faith increasing among the earthquake-affected, despite an overall decline in religious faith elsewhere in the country. Taking into account the increasing effects of global warming and economic uncertainties in the ‘developed’ nations, the last nail in the spiritual coffin is clearly yet to be hammered down.

However, even if we lived in a utopia without earthquakes, disease, or poverty, religion would still retain some sort of presence in society, thanks to the ‘god-shaped hole’ that exists in our species’ neuropsychology. ‘Dual process theory’ helps us to explain how this psychological ‘need’ for the spiritual develops. Described in simplified terms, it argues that humans have two basic forms of thought: system one and system two. System two is the narrative in our head, the rational and logical voice that enables us to plan and think. System one, on the other hand, is innate and intuitive. It is this system that makes us repelled by gore and allows us to speak a native language without ‘thinking’.

Crucially, system one also lends itself to religious belief and worship. It makes us instinctively primed to perceive life forces everywhere we go, whether or not they actually exist. This phenomenon, known as ‘hypersensitive agency detection’, had its uses in our more primal stages of evolution, when the sensing of concealed danger was of utmost importance. However, aside from the detection of snakes, sharks, and honey badgers, this ‘agency detection’ process also makes us vulnerable to inferring the existence of invisible beings – be them ghosts, fairies, or omniscient, benevolent deities.

In turn, this instinctive and primal system of thought encourages us to think dualistically, separating mind and body in a way that creates fertile ground for the development of religious frameworks of explanation. As Robert McCauley, director of the Centre for Mind, Brain and Culture, explains, religions are “by-products of our cognitive disposition… cultural arrangements that evolved to engage and exploit these natural capacities in humans.”

“Science is a difficult cognitive pill to swallow”

Scientific progress is the opposition to system one and the non-rational ways of thinking it involves. However, science is a difficult cognitive pill to swallow, exposing harsh realities and claiming hypotheses that are often hard to demonstrate without a confusing cloud of jargon and statistics. We can, for instance, never fully comprehend the extent of the universe without stating large values and figures that, paradoxically, only work to emphasise the unknowability of the cosmos. Religion is, for many, an easier path to embrace – one which will provide comfort in its explanations and one which fits infinitely better with humans’ evolutionary makeup. “Religion is something we don’t even have to learn, because we already know it,” McCauley argues.


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While I do not personally believe in a god, I am not surprised or downhearted that existing evidence points towards the perpetuity of faith. Of course, the structures that we associate with faith – places of worship, faith schools, organised religions themselves – may die out with the onset of secularist humanism, yet spiritualism and superstition as modes of perceiving the world will endure long after these institutions of faith have dissipated, thanks to their grounding in human psychology

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