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This question arose after I watched the movie Dune and made some interesting finds regarding the religious and sociopolitical environment of this masterpiece.

So the question arose, when I realized that when the setting the author used was a distant future (approx. 20,000 years in the future in the year 10191), a future that is technologically different than ours and also religiously ambiguous than ours. The religions of this period were inspired from religions in the current day like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, these new religions were a blend between religions. For example, there would be religions such as Buddhislam or Mahayana Christianity. This made me ask would this then mean Islam or Christianity were lost or even dead? So are these religions new making the old ones obsolete or are the old religions still there because the principles are being applied? Is it like syncretism? But then when syncretism happens in our everyday world it doesn't get labeled as a new religion? Why is this?

Do we say a religion exists because it has followers? Is it a temporal thing as in if it once were it will always be, for example in the past it is known that people of Ancient Greek had the polytheistic religion in which they worshipped Zeus, Athena and many other Gods it doesn't seem like it is a religion nowadays but categorized solely under mythology and myths. So my question is if a religion does not have followers from that point on is it not existent i.e., passes over to the realm of mythology?

Same thing when dealing with existence of a language, without someone to speak it would it considered to dead/not exist?

Say what if, at some point in time historians speculated what such and such language and religion must have been like and decide to follow or use it, would this then mean that language/religion now exists? Did it just get resurrected? Or was it always 'existing' in the metaphorical sense.

P.S. Die = not exist (in a metaphorical sense)

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    There are languages and cultures and religions that disappeared: Etruscan civilization and his language, Manichaeism. Commented Apr 8 at 12:20
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    "a language, without someone to speak it would it considered to dead/not exist?" yes it is a dead language but this does not mean that "it does not exist". See Extinct languages Commented Apr 8 at 12:21
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    A dead man existed (in the past), for sure. A dead man does not exist now (in the common usage of the word "exist") but we can have a car and a banck account belonging to a dead man... Thus, you have to decide if you are speaking of a dead language/religion form a metaphysical pow vs an historical one vs the "common sense" one. Commented Apr 8 at 12:41
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    I’m voting to close this question because it's too subject to shifting definitions of the words.
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 9 at 16:34
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    If we manage to destroy all life on Earth, certainly all religions die with us.
    – Florian F
    Commented Apr 11 at 20:07

15 Answers 15

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From an analytical position, the question itself is somewhat inadequate.

First, religions aren't alive, so saying they die would be literally nonsensical. From a metaphorical position, we could easily say yes, since when there are no adherents of a religion, then in our metaphor, the religion isn't being practiced, which is what we generally mean when we are talking about what it means for a religion to be alive and vibrant. But what exactly are sufficient and necessary conditions for a religion to be alive?

So technically speaking, we have to pin down what a religion is. Such an effort is what comes from the philosophy of religion (SEP). From the article:

Philosophy of religion is the philosophical examination of the themes and concepts involved in religious traditions as well as the broader philosophical task of reflecting on matters of religious significance including the nature of religion itself, alternative concepts of God or ultimate reality, and the religious significance of general features of the cosmos (e.g., the laws of nature, the emergence of consciousness) and of historical events (e.g., the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, the Holocaust). Philosophy of religion also includes the investigation and assessment of worldviews (such as secular naturalism) that are alternatives to religious worldviews.

It is tempting to say that religion is a collection of beliefs, for instance, recognizing that religions have doctrines. But having grown up in a mainstream Protestant denomination, I am rather confident that religious doctrine has very little importance to participants. There is something above and beyond the complex reasoning of priests and pastors and bishops. There is a strong psychological and social component to religious practice that has little to do with a religious belief system, per se.

This reinforces the question, what exactly is a religion to begin with? This is a major focus of the philosophy of religion, and if one does one's homework, it turns out that the concept of religion (SEP) itself has shifted over time. From the article:

It is common today to take the concept religion as a taxon for sets of social practices, a category-concept whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called “world” religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism... The concept religion did not originally refer to a social genus, however. Its earliest references were not to social kinds and, over time, the extension of the concept has evolved in different directions, to the point that it threatens incoherence.

That makes it tough to answer your question. Which religion? Which time? What place? Which people? For instance, there's an new religious movement called neo-paganism that attempts to rekindle pre-Christian religious practice in Europe. Should these be seen as a "resurrection of a dead religion"? Should someone who carves the futhark into a stone outside of Trondheim and offers devotionals to Freya be seen as continuous or identical to a Norse raider from 800 CE? The last of the Runemasters died a few hundred years ago taking with them their traditions to the grave. Does it make sense to see the belief system as identical if the adherent to the new pagan ways owns and uses a cell phone?

So, here, if we take the broadest most contemporary condition, it would seem fair to say that religions indeed die. No one will ever observe the Roman gods authentically as the Romans did in practice, for instance. Attempts to "rehydrate" a religion seem shallow and historically oblvious, and yet belief is a powerful thing, and so resurrecting a belief system obviously have some value to some people so that it makes sense to some people.

Ultimately, the details make a difference, and a more focused question would have a more certain answer. Your question is the broad philosophical sort that triggers the pursuit of philosophical clarification. The best way to move forward would seem to be studying what a religion is in the first place, and creating a more stringent definition than can found in a dictionary.

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    @Howwhye I know, but one of the points I try to make over and over on this site is that "X as a concept" is the heart of what philosophers do. Even a "general" concept can be hard to pin down using a regular, soft dictionary. :D For instance, would you consider atheism a religion? There's some argument to be made that some types of atheism are indeed religious belief systems though they focus on the rejection of a deity as opposed to an exaltation of one (or many). I've read this...
    – J D
    Commented Apr 8 at 18:07
  • but I suspect you and I could dicker over quite a few points of what makes a religion a religion generally speaking. (Which is why philosophy is so fun!!!)
    – J D
    Commented Apr 8 at 18:08
  • Alive: "the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change". Religions (or Religious Belief) seems to qualify.
    – Yakk
    Commented Apr 9 at 13:53
  • @Howwhye Well, I've become a quietist over the last year, but denying God stems out of tempered physicalism, particularly in the form of the By-Product of the Origins of Religion. To get some insight about contemporary forms of that discussion you could attack this as a first start: journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1093/bjps/axr035
    – J D
    Commented Apr 9 at 16:55
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    @Howwhye Judging by how a lot of people, when leaving organized religion, just go on to things like astrology etc. to satisfy their spiritual needs, it seems unlikely that religion in general, as a concept can ever die. People simply have spiritual needs and desires, the breeding ground for new religions (organized or not, theistic or not) in the absence of a previous one.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Apr 10 at 7:03
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Your P.S. may be a starting point for understanding why your question is not objectively answerable. The notion of existence is tied to the notion of identity. Ultimately, identity is in the eye of the beholder. Identity is hard to define in the case of non-physical entities such as languages, countries, cultures, or religions.

To say a religion still exists 2000 years after its initial appearance (to use Christianity as an example) requires an understanding whether the religion that exists now is the same as the one that originally came into being. Certainly, modern Christianity with its numerous denominations and sects plus some syncretistic forms isn't the same as the beliefs and practices that originated with Jesus' followers about 2000 years ago. Current adherents of some branches would likely claim that adherents of other branches aren't Christians anymore, and vice versa. Who then is to judge which branch is the "true" current Christianity, the one identical to Christianity as originally understood? Still, all of them share a good amount of common beliefs, and some beliefs with other religions in the Abrahamitic tradition such as Judaism or Islam.

To come back to the question whether a religion can die, sure it can. If there are no more followers of a belief system who know and practice its rites and follow its rules, you can rightfully claim that it is dead, even up to the point that nobody now alive even knows that it existed at some time. That's the easy case.

If a religion undergoes evolution and transformations which affect core parts (such as sacrificing animals in the temple which was a central part of Judaism but has not been practiced for almost 2000 years due to the destruction of the only place were this was mandated and allowed) can you say it is still the same religion? If a religion integrates beliefs from other religions, is it still the same religion? Those are the hard cases, and they are the ones that show that your question cannot be answered with a simple yes/no.

Frank Herbert's Dune contains a number of thought experiments about religions, including the concept of planting helpful details into the belief system of people all over the galaxy by the Bene Gesserit to support their own "breeding program". His naming of the existing religions implies some sort of syncretism, but of course he couldn't foresee the future, and whether that's the natural course of events remains to be seen.

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  • I know and understand that this is not the direction religions (with certainty) are headed, it just helped me poise my questions, that is all.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 8 at 22:28
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The picture of religion in the Dune books is really fascinating, do read at least the first book it's much deeper than the films. Frank Herbert brought the kind of depth to thinking about religion that Tolkien brought to imagining fictional linguistics. Each chapter begins with quoting passages from fictional religious texts, like the Orange Catholic Bible, which according to the Dune Encyclopedia is a corruption of Koran-jiyana, the title of the Zenchristian Scriptures (speculatively could be a portmanteau of koran and Vajrayana, the initiate-teachings branch of Mahayana Buddhism), also called the Zenchristian Navakoran (neo-koran), and is using Catholic in it's literal sense of all-encompassing or open to all.

Synchretism is often misrepresented as the fusion of religions. It would be better to understand it as a religion developing in new ways to have a response to another religious culture. An example is the shift of Buddhist monasticism in the Confucianist dominated sphere, away from mendicacy and begging, towards being formally adopted into a monastery as a new family, which would be expected to be self-reliant and at least somewhat self-sufficient. Synchretism is very often about have answers to challenges or criticisms from outside a religion, particularly in order to spread the teaching into new communities.

Defining what is a religion, a sect, a cult, is contentious and partisan, especially how it is done from within religious groups where it's often meshed into a discourse that elevates their own practice and denigrates others. For a long time in the monotheistic/Abrahamic dominated world, scholars saw that template and the accumulation of religious texts as being the inevitable culmination of religious practice, with anything else as 'more primitive' steps on the way there. The transition from this Western-chauvenist thinking is really pretty recent even among scholars, being led by Emile Durkheim who founded the academic discipline if sociology. He was responding to the vast texts of the Hindu Vedas, Buddhism and of Confucianism, their complex philosophical and theological discourses, and their non-monotheism - plus the challenges of Shintoism Wuism Bonpo and other ascetic and hermitic traditions which provide parallel religious practices often without displacing or challenging the main cultural religious paradigm. Durkheim defined religion like this:

"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices, which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."

— Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

One of the things Durkheim really drives home, is that religion is not just sets of statements about what is held to be true (eg catechisms), but is about participating in enacting shared attitudes to sacred things. That is, rituals and festivals are far more important to lived religioys culture than Western discourse, especially most philosophy discourse, has tended towards assuming. And Durkheim also identifies the key role of religion as about helping sustain community cohesion, which he identifies as crucial to mitigating anomie, which he saw as the major driver of despair and suicide in his book Suicide: A Study in Sociology.

It's notable that the Christian term ecclesiastical comes from the Ancient Athenian ekklesia, the assembly of the citizens, as supreme decision maker. The New Testament was written in Koin Greek, and the term ekklesia in it is translated into English as church. A community of adherents cohering or bound together by enacting shared attitudes towards what is forbidden and what is raised up as being beyond question, doesn't just describe what we conventionally call religions. It applies in most of the developed world to habeus corpus or no detention without trial by a jury of citizens. It applies for most of the world to to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And it applies for the scientific community, to the culture of good scientific method, even as it is constantly developing in the face of new fields and emerging ethical and political challenges - note how individuals like disgraced cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk can be effectively excommunicated, or entire regions like Lamarkian-dominated agriculture of the Soviet Union can be isolated from the wider scientific community and the benefits of participating in it like conferences collaborations and funding.

We can identify some cases of lost religious practices. No one knows what the initiate-tradition of the Eleusinian Mystery-cult involved, although we know Socrates and Plato took part in it. Baldr in the Norse tradition, seems to have been a synchretism with an earlier tradition of human sacrifice of someone 'unblemished' who would be treated well for a period then expected to voluntarily submit to being sacrificed - but we have almost no clear records of these practices. The decipherment of Linear B script, allowed new understanding of the Cthonic deities in Ancient Greek religion, which also seem to have been synchretised survivors of earlier religious practices, like Persephone who was related to winter not ending, and Hekate who governed curses and childbirth - these cthonic dieties seem to have needed to be placated rather than won over like Olympian deities, with buried offering in underground shrines rather than sending smoke of burned offerings up from altars. The spoken language of Linear B died out, but now it's influence lives on. With Latin we have only records of formal not spoken Latin which we know was quite different and went on to become Italian. Cornish, and Norn, are other examples of languages where there are no surviving native speakers, but we have texts and other records.

So, religious practices have truly dissappeared, which surely we have to describe as them dying. We also get revivals of ideas that didn't have continuous practice, often taking up a semblance of an old tradition without much connection to it, like neo-Tantra, neo-Platonism, neo-Paganism eg modern druidry, or neo-Cofucianism. Taking up words and forms of old ideas is going to be interpreted as 'keeping them alive' by the people doing it. Scholars will likely be sceptical there's any meaningful continuity.

A lot more information survives about more modern religions. But, Christians now quite often express views like doubting the literalness of the transubstantiation during Communion, that could have got them excommunicated or even executed in former times, and certainly have prevented them being regarded as Christians. If people still read and respond to the books, and identify themselves and their communuties with them, we generally say that religion is still alive. But there may be very little continuity, and even direct contradiction of ideas.

The 'prosperity gospel' theology traditions of some US Protestants, has been declared to be formally heretical by the Catholic Church. Similarly Mormanism considers itself as the 'true Christianity' supplimented with the words of 'latter day saints', but are considered a seperate religion by nearly all Christians. Islam accepts Jesus as a prophet, it just says Muhammed gets the last word. Christianity began as Judaism for non-Jews, synchretised with Hellenic ideas like elaborating Gehenna with Tartarus, but because of the Trinity it is not even considered monotheistic by Jewish scholars and theological courts. Hindus consider Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, all as branches of their Sanatam Dharma or perennial philosophy, with elaborations of which deities their holy people are avatars of. You can't get into who is 'correct' without picking sides, scholars must simply attend to how people describe themselves, and looking at the historical and ideological discourse. Stoicism and Ancient Greek philosophy in general was mostly wiped out in Christendom during the Dark Ages, before it's recovery from primary texts and exegesis in the Islamic world, and works like Boethius' 'The Consolations of Philosophy' which allowed Stoicism to be recapitulated for Christians, and so it's legacy to continue. Perseus and Noah are both thought to be synchretic incorpirations if the world's oldest surviving story to be written down, the Epic of Gilgamesh - but the stories serve different ends, with Perseus as an underdog, and Noah as humble but given the dominion of the area, unlike Gilgamesh who was like an ancient very arrogant superhero (akin to how Beowulf is described) and the flood is involved in describing how he cannot become an immortal.

In summary, we can't expect to have easy or simple categories for human behaviours and groups. Scholars aim to be dispassionate and non-partisan, and provide frameworks that can grapple with the full diversity of what humans do. Arguing about identity and continuity is a major part of religious discourse and human culture. While a narrow focus on religions as epistemologies and cosmologies has led many thinkers in the West to declare religiosity in general as headed for the dustbin of history, a wider picture of lived religious practice suggests it is alive and well in new forms, and that there is a vast library of historical ideas which people will reach for as they please in service of binding together new communities - and if those communities thrive and their ideas spread, then even if they have not been practiced continuously we will have to say their legacy is alive. As long as the books exist and can be accessed, they are in the 'memesphere'. Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 are stories that consider what it would take to excise ideas and books from human culture though, so that at least seems possible.

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    Wow, this is really extensive and well written. Thank you so much, I appreciate your efforts.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 8 at 15:49
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    +1 for thoroughness. "Baldr in the Norse tradition, seems to have been a synchretism with an earlier tradition of human sacrifice of someone 'unblemished' who would be treated well for a period then expected to voluntarily submit to being sacrificed - but we have almost no clear records of these practices." The entire blending of the Aesir and Vanir as well as the Titans and Olympians are likely systemic synchretisms. Heck, Iu Pater and Zeus Pater are originally the same sky-god *Dyḗws Ph₂tḗr!
    – J D
    Commented Apr 9 at 15:59
  • @JD: Figuring out Proto-Indo-European culture and religion is a really interesting topic. The parallels between Norse & Hindu ideas is I think a lot more striking than between Norse & Greek, & it really seems to be from a shared root in ancient Iran/Mesopotamia. Was listening to some of youtube.com/playlist?list=PLru2Z4KGjAVIOyMEKaYcgIUrdOBHhuoBe It seems like a wider culture would meet the cults of specific places, like of Python & the Omphalos in Greece, or say of Juggernaut/Jagganath in India, & that would lead to synchretism (eg Pythia using fumes from Python killed by Apollo)
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 9 at 23:07
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Of course. They are no different than algal blooms, coming, sometimes violently, expanding, contracting, ever mutating, and going when the environment is no longer right. But that's just my opinion. Contributing a passage from Chapter 1 of:

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died by John Philip Jenkins

Religions die. Over the course of history, some religions vanish altogether, while others are reduced from great world faiths to a handful of adherents. Manichaeanism, a religion that once claimed adherents from France to China, no longer exists in any organized or functional form; nor do the faiths that dominated Mexico and Central America half a millennium ago. In some cases, religions may survive in some parts of the world but are extinguished in territories that they once regarded as entirely their own. For a thousand years, India was mainly Buddhist, a faith that now enjoys only marginal status in that land. Once Persia was Zoroastrian; most of Spain, Muslim. It is not difficult to find countries or even continents, once viewed as natural homelands of a particular faith, where that creed is now extinct, and such disasters are not confined to primal or “primitive” beliefs. The systems that we think of as great world religions are as vulnerable to destruction as was the faith of the Aztecs or Mayans in their particular gods.

Christianity, too, has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases, the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christians were ever there, so that today any Christian presence whatsoever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West. Yet such a comment about the destruction of churches runs contrary to the story of Christianity as it features in the popular consciousness.

Usually, this history is presented as a tale of steady expansion, from the Middle East to Europe and ultimately onto the global stage. Christianity appears to have spread freely and inexorably, so that we rarely think of major reverses or setbacks. When we do hear of disasters or persecutions, they are usually mentioned as the prelude to still greater advances, an opportunity for heroic resistance to oppression. Protestants know how their faith survived all the persecutions and slaughter of the wars of religion; Catholics recall how the worst atrocities inflicted by Protestant and atheist regimes could not silence true belief. Modern observers witness the survival of the churches under Communism, and the ultimate triumph symbolized by Pope John Paul II. As the hymn teaches, truth will endure, in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword.

Anyone familiar with Christian history has read of the planting, rise, and development of churches, but how many know accounts of the decline or extinction of Christian communities or institutions? Most Christians would find the very concept unsettling. Yet such events have certainly occurred, and much more often than many realize. During the later Middle Ages, mass defections and persecutions across Asia and the Middle East uprooted what were then some of the world’s most numerous Christian communities, churches that possessed a vibrant lineal and cultural connection to the earliest Jesus movement of Syria and Palestine. Seventeenth-century Japan thoroughly eliminated a Christian presence that had come close to becoming a real force in the country, possibly even to achieving a national conversion. Repeatedly through its history, the church’s tree has been pruned and cut back, often savagely.

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    I can't help but think of the book 'The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World' by Catherine Nixey, & how the rise of new religious practices has often involved the purposeful wiping out of history & records & practices of what was there before.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 10 at 13:45
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I think you are conflating different aspects of religion in your question. Let's unpack them. They might be broken down as:

  • The name of the religion
  • The central idea of the religion
  • The set of beliefs associated with the practice of the religion
  • The practicing believers
  • Key artefacts associated with the religion
  • Records of the religion
  • and so on.

In everyday speech, when there are no longer any practitioners of a religion, we might say the religion is dead or extinct (the same terminology is used when there are no practicing speakers of a language). However, the other aspects of the religion can still exist even if it has no followers.

You might find it helps to consider the status of some religion- say Roman Catholicism- in two scenarios, as follows. Firstly, imagine that every one of the followers of Roman Catholicism were to renounce it tomorrow- what might be its status then? Now compare that to the status of Roman Catholicism a thousand years before the birth of Christ- what was its status then? It seems to me that if you use the phrase 'non existent' in both cases, you would be missing an important distinction between the two, so your stated assumption that 'Die=not exist' is perhaps one you might reconsider.

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I don't pretend to know the precise meaning of 'dead' or 'alive' with regard to religion. Informally, I would say that if someone turns a religion's god(s) into comic book superheros and no one complains about it, that religion is dead.

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    Interesting insight, I am assuming you are talking about Marvel's adaptation of Norse, Greek and Egyptian mythological religions.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 9 at 20:47
  • @Howwhye You got it.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Apr 9 at 21:14
  • @Howwhye And I expect that if you the same were done with Greek gods, there would be just as much outrage.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Apr 9 at 21:16
  • I really don't understand your second comment, because it has been done with Greek gods, Zeus and Hercules were adapted into Marvel
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 9 at 21:43
  • @Howwhye Oh, sorry, I'm not really a comic book person. I had no idea.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Apr 10 at 14:25
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Do we say a religion exists because it has followers?

In Buddhism, which definietly has some followers, the standard response to the "life" of the Buddha's teaching has stages. The last stage is called Mappo in Japan.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Ages_of_Buddhism

Nichiren (whom I have read little about) thought he was living in Mappo (the zen monk Dogen did not think it would ever arrive) and that only the Nembutsu could save anyone at this time; so he did think the Nembutsu worked, and the religion is not "dead".

After Mappo, Buddhism is, I think, meant to simply disappear until the next Buddha (Maiterya) arrives from out of the Tusita heaven, but then Honen, another pure land buddhist, explicitly says the nembutsu will continue to work then, after our Buddha's teachings have "died".


That is just one (world) religion, and others will have different ways of thinking about a possible loss of followers (presumably God still exists, even when satan has authority over earth).

Whether a religion "exists" without followers seems to be a purely definitional question, one which says more about what we mean by "exist" and "religion" than anything else.

Its artefacts might do, and what is belief anyway?

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As time passes, (may not be in the near future) no religion can turn the face away from scientific truth. So, even when rituals exit in the society there is a great possibility of death of religions in the mind of the society.

If the following words of Sriramakrishna are true, religions must cease to exist.

https://incarnateword.in/compilations/stories-told-by-ramakrishna-vivekananda-and-nivedita/124-only-that-which-is-eternal-will-endure

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    Theocracies that deny objective facts are still entirely possible, unfortunately.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 8 at 22:37
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Faith is a means to cope with that which we cannot understand or control. it is an antidote to (or perhaps an opiate for) nihilism and despair. Religions capture and codify faith, making it more concrete and specific to the actual existential problems and questions people face in the world.

The sticking point, of course, is that the existential problems and questions people face are constantly evolving. We come to understand things we were ignorant of; we learn to influence what we were previously powerless over; old problems and questions fade and new ones come to light. Religions don't die because they lose their followers; they die because they lose their relevance, and followers drift away. Syncretism is one answer, sectarianism is another, schism a third: people find way to cope with existential issues, and the name attached to the coping mechanism is important more for continuity — to claim ancient roots, or to assert modern independence — than for the essence of the faith.

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  • So you are suggesting, that religious faith will exist until the end of the human race. As long as humans exist there will be religious faith!
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 9 at 1:52
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    @Howwhye: As long as people understand that there are things they cannot understand or control, they will need some appeal to metaphysics. maybe it's what we would call religious, maybe not… Commented Apr 9 at 2:13
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    Your comment above is more significant that the rest of the answer. It should be in the answer. Of course it underscores the important gap: religionS keep dying; Religion never dies
    – Rushi
    Commented Apr 9 at 2:43
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Some religions (notably Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Baltic Paganism and Sikhism) went through significant loss of followers but later recovered. I think in society large and liberal enough it will be possible to find at least partial followers of any belief known. Hellenists still worship Zeus and other ancient Greek gods and Kemetists still worship Egyptian gods. Hence even if it may be tempting to say old religions are dead, may not be the case.

Of course, it may be possible to forget a religion up to degree nobody has a clue what it has been about. Such a religion could probably be seen as dead. We do not even know if any such exists, because, by definition, it is forgotten.

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  • Do such followers really believe in the old gods, or are rather interested in preserving the forgotten cultural heritage (which a noble cause too)?
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Apr 10 at 7:49
  • They often declare they do believe, at least in the case of Baltic Paganism
    – h22
    Commented Apr 10 at 10:38
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Jain Dharma or Jainism is one of the oldest religions alive today. You can read everything you need to know on Wikipedia, but to borrow a succinct summary: "The three main pillars of Jainism are ahiṃsā (non-violence), anekāntavāda (non-absolutism), and aparigraha (asceticism)". I believe it is still attractive today because these basic concepts are intuitive. What makes it a religion and not a philosophy (in my opinion) is the fact that its adherents realize these concepts as literally as possible in their everyday lives, for example, by not wearing clothes (Jains are sort of nudists).

In my opinion, hyper-literalizing concepts and metaphors is what downgrades a belief system to a religion, and it isn't just religious proponents who fall into this trap; it's all too human. Concepts are universal in that they are portable across wide ranges of scenarios, but literal values are temporal and localized. Religions always have a set of literal rules that you must obey in order to qualify- rules which are just literalized ideals. I would say while ideals themselves are timeless, rules expire with the circumstances they were intended to mediate.

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  • +1 Your answer is just awesome. It truly stabs at the heart of the matter, but I want to ask what about the millions of people that accept religion as a fact, Is it not right to accept their beliefs as fact and therefore hyper-literalizing it. I think with enough evidence, it is fair to do so.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 10 at 14:15
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I think a framework of a religion is only that and it needs believers to be an existing religion.

Quetzalcoatl is my favourite god. Quetzalcoatl is dead religion from the Aztec/Mayan civilizations. Another answer mentioned the transform of Greek and Roman gods to myth status. Its the same thing.

I think it fair to conclude "Yes they can die". Or in the case of Heaven's Gate (drank the koolaid, to die while a particular comet was passing Earth that they could journey with out to the stars)... commit self-destruct.

In some cases they get debunked. Like when we learned the real cause of thinder and lightning... "Thor did it" went permenantly away.

Evolution put pressure on creationist religions but so far they have rolled with it.

A steady state universe would end creator/designer god claims. But we currently have to debunk the big bang to support steady state. Hard to knock incumbents out of seats. The big bang will take some unweaving.

Bottom line... history shows... yes religions can die.

I do not know how that jibes with the tales in the extended Dune verse. I kinda tuned out after book three. Dont think I made it to book 5 even. And it was 42 years ago.

When seeing Dine as "about religion"... no denial here... BUT... you might consider... global politics at the time. Mid 1960s.

Religion. And a substance found under desert lands that is critical to transportation and trade. Hmmmm.

See... before 1960... oil belonged to whoever paid to suck it from the ground. And you gave the land owners some puny payout for going on their land.

There were 7 companies doing the sucking. Called the 7 sisters.

86% of the worlds oil is under sand/desert ruled by Arab governments.

They decided the oil was theirs, and they should sell the oil themselves. Not sell access to the oil. A very big difference.

In 1960 the Arab-OPEC oil cartel formed. The economic playground of the world changed. New management. Desert power. Within a few years the price they sold oil at was jacked from $3 per barrel up to $10, and within another ten years, up to $42.

In 1963, the Seven Sisters controlled 86% of the oil produced by OPEC countries, but by 1970 the rise of "independent oil companies" had decreased their share.

Not saying Dune is about Earth oil and Earth religion. But that both would have been dominant news at the time of the writing of Dune. The oil crucial for transportation and the presence of the religious Arab/Christian, Imperialism/Nationalism and battles for rule over land... was going on.

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    Wow, what an insight. I didn't even consider spice to be a fictional version of oil. That kind of makes a lot of sense.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 9 at 20:20
  • Also, I want to make an observation regarding your profile picture and your explanation of fundamental reality, it is kind of similar of Newton's Aether which I find extremely fascinating, maybe it is just coincidence. Does your sphere particles also make up vacuum?
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 13 at 5:56
  • @Howwhye If they exist, they permeate all of everything, being the fundamental "fabric". They act in a simple fashion... they move, but they do not individually change (ever), they rotate, and importantly their motions and interactions are frictionless. (thus universal conservation of energy, there is zero opportunity for loss of energy fundamentally). They generate a fluctuating field set. From which all other phenomenon are "emergent". Because they are immutable (do not change)... they are eternal, non-relative to time. What we observe and experience as "energy" is their kinetic motion Commented Apr 13 at 11:48
  • @Howwhye is about the extent of the fundamental basic concept. a "candidate final answer". Yes... I think Newton would have very liked it as an candidate answer. Mathematically it is most related to deBroglie-Bohm's Pilot Wave Field. Commented Apr 13 at 11:52
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    It is very identical to the Quantum Field theory, but it also is consistent with the wave-particle dual nature of atoms. I think it is a really cool theory, but it seems to me to be an attempt at a GUT of sorts which is very respectable.
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 13 at 12:09
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How do you define a religion "dying"? I could think of two definition:

  1. Nobody practices the religion anymore. In that case it is still possible for a religion to be resurrected from death. For example, modern hellenistic paganism. The religion of ancient Greece wasn't practiced for centuries, but recently there is a subculture of people who rediscovered it and started practicing it again. This was possible because the hellenistic religion is well-documented through historic sources. So according to this definition, one could say that the religion was dead, but is now alive again.
  2. All knowledge about the religion was lost to time. No written or mental records or artifacts of the religion exist anymore, making it impossible for anyone to know that it even existed or what its tenets and traditions were. An example would be the religion of any culture that existed but died out without leaving any traces. Which we can infer probably happened a couple times during the over 10,000 years of human civilization and over 100,000 years of human existence as hunter-gatherer communities. In that case the religion would be truly "dead", because it is no longer possible for anyone to reconstruct its believe system in order to practice it.
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An idea (like religion) can certainly cease to exist. Unless there is some unknown mechanism going on which means that information can’t vanish. The particles and energy which were used to store the information (e.g. on a stone tablet, or in a brain) might still exist in some form, but their organization will be random and the original will be irretrievable.

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The idea that new faiths could emerge sounds fine to me. And I also think that a religion can die.

In practice, however, I think that the big faiths (e. g. Christianity, Islam) are simply too big to die. This course of history sounds simply too unrealistic.

However, I think it's very well possible that a handful of smaller Christian denominations could disappear.

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  • Hmm... interesting that brings another question to mind what really are denominations, how far from the central denomination does the denomination have to be before it to be considered a new religion
    – How why e
    Commented Apr 10 at 21:39

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