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.)


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