What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.
Today’s religions come in four flavours, according to Harvey Whitehouse, also at Oxford. First, the “sacred party”, such as incense burning, bell ringing and celestial choral music in Catholicism. Second, “therapy”: for example, the practices of healing and casting out devils among some evangelical Christians. Third, “mystical quest”, such as the Buddhist quest for nirvana. And finally, “school”: detailed study of the Koran in Islam or reading the Torah in Judaism.
While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.
Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.
The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.
With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.
Now, what shall we call it? Utopianity?