God in Time or the Lifetime of Religion
The Copernican principle—the idea that our location is not special—is one of the most famous and successful scientific hypotheses in the history of science. According to Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott, author of Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, it can be applied to time as well as space. Gott has predicted the longevity of everything from the Berlin Wall to Broadway musicals.
How does it work? You begin with a random moment: the moment when you wonder about how long something might last. You assume that moment is NOT special (a wedding ceremony would not count, since it is a special moment). It probably doesn’t come at the very beginning or the very end of that something. Most likely, that moment comes somewhere in the middle. Gott takes that insight and applies some simple math: start with your random and nonspecial date (now), find out how long the thing you’re examining has been in existence, and use that length to calculate how long it will probably last. Gott decided to use a wide range—so that he could calculate longevity with a 95% accuracy. That wide range won’t win you any horse races, but it could impact the big picture. For instance, Nikita Krushchev might have thought twice before he boasted to the U.S. that he would outlast us, that “We will bury you.” At that time the Soviet Union was only 39 years old, and the United States was 180 years old. Today, the Soviet Union is gone, and we’re still percolating along.
I asked Gott to apply his mathematical formula to religion—both the great world religions, and some newer offshoots. Religions that have been around for a long time are likely to stick around. In fact, some of the great world religions look like they could last as long as 150,000 years or more, while younger offshoots (like the controversial falun gong) probably won’t last more than another 350 years. Newer religions are clearly, according to Copernican principle, far more vulnerable. It’s interesting to note that the Hare Krishna sect could last as little as another year, while Confucianism might go on for nearly 100,000.
One final point: the Copernican principle never predicts why something might end. It has no moral undertone. Notes Gott: “A religion could end because people forget it, even if it’s true. Or it might end because the human race ended: after all, the upper limits for the great world religions are larger than the lower limits for the human species. In other words, some of these religions could well last until the end of the human race. I have great respect for the world religions, and I’m not making any judgments about them.” In addition, these dates could be debated. Does a religion begin when the ideas first form, or when it is crystallized? If the former, some of these religions are far older than the dates given here; but dates were chosen that coincide with leaders’ visions, formal naming of movements, or written texts. The religious impulse is far more ancient than any listed here: we have religious artifacts from at least 31,000 B.C.E. The likely conclusion: as long as homo sapiens is around, religion will be, too.
STARTING DATE FUTURE LONGEVITY
MORE THAN BUT LESS THAN
Humans (Homo Sapiens) 5,100 years 7.8 million years
2 00,000 years old now
Hinduism (2,500 B.C.E.) 115 years 175,500 years
Judaism (2,000 B.C.E.) 103 years 156,000 years
Christianity (30 C.E.) 51 years 76,869 years
Islamic (610 C.E.) 36 years 52,249 years
Buddhism (538 B.C.E.) 65 years 98,982 years
Daoism (500 B.C.E.) 64 years 97,500 years
Confucianism (500 B.C.E.) 64 years 97,500 years
NaraBuddhism (710 C.E.) 33 years 50,349 years
Bahai (1850 C.E.) 3.9 years 5,889 years
Lutheran (1530 C.E.) 12 years 18,369 years
Sikhism (1500 C.E.) 13 years 19,539 years
Anthroposophy (1912 C.E.) 2.3 years 3,471 years
American Unitarian (1825 C.E.) 4.5 years 6,864 years
Ifa religion (1100 C.E.) 23 years 35,139 years
Hare Krishna (1966 C.E.) 0.9 years 1,365 years
Wicca (1939 C.E.) 1.6 years 2,418 years
Christian Science (1879 C.E.) 3 years 4,758 years
Falun Gong (1992 C.E.) 0.2 years 351 years
Agnosticism 59 years 89,700 years
(Sextus Empericus: 300 B.C.E.)