Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

'GOD IS dead', wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. Sigmund Freud agreed - "The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men, the more widespread is the decline of religious belief."

Some say he was right. In most advanced industrial societies ­Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan - religious attendance is at a record low, and church teachings on matters like birth control, abortion and pre-marital sex are largely ignored. Even the United States (U.S.) is becoming perceptibly more secular, particularly that segment of European descent. Yet rich secularising societies contain a dwindling share of the world's population. So the proportion of the earth's inhabitants with traditional religious views is actually growing. This might be a temporary situation. Perhaps as they become richer and more educated 'underdeveloped' countries will follow the West and also turn away from organised religion.

But over the past 40 years, birth rates in the West have fallen as dramatically as its church going rates. Only one sixth of humanity is of European descent today, down from one quarter in 1960. Of the 22 countries with the world's lowest birth rates, 20 are in Europe ­ the others being 'westernised' Japan and Singapore. Though the American birth rate is relatively high among strongly religious blacks and Latinos, that among 'European' Americans is also well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

So while more wealth and education may mean less religion, less religion may mean fewer children. This may be good to a certain extent, since the earth cannot support an unlimited number of humans. But Western Europe's pronounced fertility drop raises the question of whether a loss of religious faith also means the loss of the will to propagate. Maybe Dostoevsky was right ­ "If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once."


The non-religious physicist Stephen Hawking says "One has to live on the basis that life will continue." But this is a decidedly unscientific assumption. For science says the material universe was created in an accidental big bang, and will one day either collapse back to nothingness in a big crunch or expand infinitely into a lifeless deep freeze. So life, which in human terms means consciousness, can continue indefinitely only if some imperishable non-material force exists. Of course believing does not make it so. The idea of immaterial immortality of any kind may be a fiction. But if so, it's a concept not even self-proclaimed atheists like Hawking seem able to do without.

A bewildering variety of creeds have claimed to explain from whence we came and whence we are going, proof to some that no religion is true. Where, they sneer, are the gods of Rameses and Gilgamesh and Homer and Zoroaster now? Others view all religions as but stumbling attempts of man's feeble intellect to comprehend infinity, each containing some grain of truth amidst many errors. As one great teacher said "In My Father's house are many mansions".

Virtually all great spiritual schools of thought followed today had their genesis around the fifth and sixth century BC. This period saw the birth of Lao Zi, the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and the writing down of the Upanishads and the Hebrew Old Testament. To Bede Griffiths this was "the axial period in human history when the eternal plunged into the temporal". Nearly all the 86 per cent of the earth's population who are religious can trace their beliefs to books written during this time. And even the 14 per cent who are agnostic or atheist find the seeds of their views in the Socratic Greek philosophic tradition. Man's attempts to comprehend his existence are still but variations of themes created 2,500 years ago. Just as strikingly, all living world faiths ­ Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam ­ are of eastern origin.


Christianity, with 33 per cent of the world's population, is the largest religion. Yet it's changing. Once 'Christendom' was a synonym for 'Europe' and its diaspora. But these places increasingly contain less of the earth's Christians. Indeed based on its minimal church attendance levels many now refer to the 'post-Christian West'. Yet the World Values Surveys indicate that between 1981 and 2001 the percentage of people in the West who thought often about the meaning and purpose of life actually increased. At the same time 'new-age' religions are proliferating in the 'developed world' and western celebrities increasingly espouse non-Christian spiritual beliefs.

Even Prince Charles, heir apparent Anglican Church head, speaks of wanting to become not 'defender of the faith' but 'defender of faiths'. Some dismiss famous 'alternative religionists' as laughable eccentrics. But the highly privileged are often early adopters of habits and beliefs later embraced by the masses. While many 'new age' beliefs are noticeably influenced by eastern beliefs like Hinduism and Buddhism. Two decades ago few had heard of Dalai Llama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. Now he's probably the world's second most famous religious leader after the Pope. Far from disappearing, religion in the west may ­ as so often before ­ be adapting to a transformed ethos.

It's not inconceivable that the present 'post-Christian' industrialised world may be come a quasi-Buddhist one. Despite the industrial and military 'triumph of the west' over the past millennium, perhaps the ancient wisdom of the east is again having the last smile.

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