Has religion passed its sell-by date?

Photo of Quran, the holy book of Islam, reading station. By Anis Coquelet on Unsplash

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“God is dead”. Thus spoke Nietzsche and many, especially in the Western world, believe so. But is it actually the case? What is religiosity? Is it in decline or ascent? And how and why can it go wrong? What is the role of religion and is it accurate to think that it is “for-sale”? Can one be religious without explicit belief in the divine?

In this article we will touch on those questions and by the end of reading you will:

1. Get an understanding of what religion is

2. Using Islam as a model, you’ll learn about two main human responses to religion

3. You’ll see how religion can go wrong and whether, indeed, it passed its sell-by date

Religion gives meaning to inherently meaningless life by creating “scaffolds of safety” through hope

If you were to ask, “what is religion”, you’ll find that there is no universal consensus among the academics on any definition. So instead let’s talk about an actual outrageous story.

In 1950s there was a scientist called Curl Richer that has done some experiments on rats that many today, to say the least, would consider ethically questionable. He put the rodents in box of circulating water, such that poor creatures were unable to escape, forcing them to swim indefinitely. He timed how long it took them to drown and found that the average was about 15 minutes.

After that he did a second iteration of the experiment, only this time, just as the rats were giving up, he saved them and allowed them to recover, then threw them into the water again.

Guess what happened. Instead of giving up after 15 minutes, those rodents that were saved, powered on for two and a half days before finally, and sadly, drowning.


What does this have to do with religion? This experiment shows that even in very primitive animals, faith, which is closely linked to hope, can have a tremendous impact on being and survival. It demonstrates the power of belief in something that we can argue is the underlying cause for the historically clear power of religion. When you have a belief in something, not only this strengthens your resolve and perhaps makes you patient in the face of adversity, but also provides direction and therefore meaning to life. We can see this idea reflected in Muslim theology. For example, in Islam the word for faith is imaan which comes from an Arabic root nouns amn or amaan that mean safety, security or protection.

I am not an existentialist per excellence but I do think that on a very fundamental level, life is meaningless. And I think most prophets would agree and here is why.

When you read the religious texts of Abrahamic religions, speaking algorithmically, there seems to be this process in place:

1. The prophet realizes that our life is meaningless and full of suffering. Nothing is certain and who lives, who dies and for how long is haphazard

2. Prophet receives a divine revelation which says that there is nothing for us to worry about as long as we have a belief in almighty God that will save us, like Curl Richer saved his rats, from pain and sorrow of this and next life

3. The prophet goes out of his cave to tell this tender news to the people. Some accept them, some pretend to accept them whilst others declare an outright war against the prophet

It is for this reason that I say religion gives meaning to inherently meaningless life by creating “scaffolds of safety” through hope. You can effectively use any deep belief to accelerate your productivity. You do it because of hope, direction-in-life, meaning and, potentially illusionist, sense of safety. This last point is very important. Notice that those rats that (presumably) had a belief have survived drowning for far longer than rats without belief, but at the end died anyway because Richer hasn’t saved them. So they had a mis-placed faith that resulted in their ultimate demise — demise in the sense that they exacerbated, unnecessary swimming energy that although prolonged survival, didn’t prevent the ultimate death. When sticking to all tenets of revealed religion, aren’t we like those rats a little bit? I’m not sure, but here we go with something to ponder.

The Sufi vs. Sharia religion

As a matter of fact religion has been around since the dawn of earliest known human civilization. It is an inherent and inseparable part of cultural milieu that reflected our fears and aspirations. Nowadays we can observe two main trends:

· Firstly, geography is a strong predictor of your religion. If you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia you’re very unlikely to be Catholic but likely to be a Sunni Muslim. Likewise if you were born and raised in Amazon jungle you’re unlikely to be Shia Muslim

· Although it appears that most people remain within the realm of geographically predominant religion, conversions happen all the time. This can be conversions from a religion to religion, or conversions from religious denomination to another religious denomination, or conversions from religion to atheism/agnosticism, or conversions from atheism/agnosticism to religion

These changes in peoples’ belief systems have happened, are occurring now and will take place in the future — there is no doubt about it. Moreover, not only 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group, but also if current population growth and switching trends continue, people who do not affiliate with any religion will make up a declining share of the world’s total population. So it doesn’t really make sense to say that religion is something of the past or that it passed its sell-by date. Religion, on average, seems to be still forming an important part of individual identity.

In this context and using Islam as an example, I’d like to argue that there are two main responses that individuals make towards religion. First is the mystical or Sufi response. In Muslim Sufism the emphasis is put on individual connection with God. One can say love for God and unity with God. We can clearly imagine that such epiphany will yield us strength and feeling of (humble) greatness. Rumi nicely summarises this idea in his poem:

Love is the Water of Life

Everything other than love for the most beautiful God

though it be sugar- eating.

What is agony of the spirit?

To advance toward death without seizing

hold of the Water of Life.

Rumi in Masnawi I 3686–87

Another kind of religion one could call Sharia­-law-limited. The reason I say ‘limited’ is because in this kind of religiosity, it doesn’t matter what kind of relationship you have with divine. In fact you might be an outright hypocrite, disbelieving in God, but outwardly sticking and obeying the law rules of religion. Although I used term Islamic Sharia here to represent the legal system of religion, this fact is true for any organised religion with specific institutions or organisations. An institutional response is rather shallow and doesn’t tap to the spiritual craving (if any) of an individual. It’s important to note here that by Sharia response to religion I not only mean specific institutions or general rules of engagement but also coerced warship behaviours such as praying in specific way, or at specific time that are either wholly or partially automated. It seems that such behaviours are unlikely to fulfil the desired security of imaan.

It goes wrong when we restrict religion to rules

The question of this article was whether religion has passed its sell-by date. I have suggested a spiritual and institutional response to religion and I think that when we see religion only though Sharia lens things can go wrong, because then we’re not dealing with system of personal faith that gives people what they desire on spiritual level but rather a fixed and abuse-susceptible structure that can be used for political or social advantage.

I already said that it doesn’t make sense to say that religion passed its sell-by date and my argument was based on fact that, internationally, still most people adhere to some religion and it is predicted that fraction of unaffiliated individuals will be going down (on global average level, locally we may see increases in to-atheism conversions). Let me wrap-up by saying that, although attempts can be made to sell a Sharia-type religion it doesn’t have to be the case. You can still choose from a repertoire of Sufi-type religions or interpretations to help you swim for a little longer.