Before Mohammed, before Jesus, before Buddha, there was Zoroaster. Some 3,500 years ago, in Bronze Age Iran, he had a vision of the one supreme God. A thousand years later, Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great monotheistic religion, was the official faith of the mighty Persian Empire, its fire temples attended by millions of adherents. A thousand years after that, the empire collapsed, and the followers of Zoroaster were persecuted and converted to the new faith of their conquerors, Islam.
Another 1,500 years later – today – Zoroastrianism is a dying faith, its sacred flames tended by ever fewer worshippers.
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.
Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history. Early Christianity, for example, was a truly broad church: ancient documents include yarns about Jesus’ family life and testaments to the nobility of Judas. It took three centuries for the Christian church to consolidate around a canon of scriptures – and then in 1054 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?
To answer these questions, a good starting point is to ask: why do we have religion in the first place?
Reason to believe
One notorious answer comes from Voltaire, the 18th Century French polymath, who wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”Because Voltaire was a trenchant critic of organised religion, this quip is often quoted cynically. But in fact, he was being perfectly sincere. He was arguing that belief in God is necessary for society to function, even if he didn’t approve of the monopoly the church held over that belief.