Assuming a society where backwards time-travel is possible and a fixed-time universe (you can't change anything that happened in the past), would our modern concept of religion continue to exist? My thinking is that at least Judaism and Christianity would have problems since:

  • Traveling 10000 years ago would show the world still existed, negating the Torah

  • Traveling to the year of the supposed crucifixion would show Jesus didn't perform anything supernatural

Islam might have problems as well, since it's based on the two Abrahamic religions. My thinking is that new religions will arise instead, which are independant on past events.

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    $\begingroup$ You make the assumption (prior to time travel that everything is a hoax). If you already believe that...what is the point? Wouldn't the impact of such travel be dictated by what you actually find? Can everyone travel back in time? $\endgroup$ – James May 26 '15 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ I am having trouble identifying what the actual question is here, can you clarify? It seems you have posited an idea and want us to validate your thinking? $\endgroup$ – James May 26 '15 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ So would a more concise version of your question read: If traveling back in time (with all your limitations mentioned) revealed that religions x, y, and z never demonstrated supernatural powers/happenings/beings, what would be the impact to the modern day religions? $\endgroup$ – James May 26 '15 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ There's always the God of the Gaps, even if you plug a bunch of gaps. We already know for certain that the world existed 10000 years ago, so time travel wouldn't change much. I think you might be focusing too much on "it would disprove X religion" and not enough on "it would prove X religion is totally different than it was before." For example, the bible has been heavily edited and re-translated. An indisputably authentic collection of writings which eventually became the bible could be disruptive. $\endgroup$ – user5083 May 26 '15 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ Moses? The text says he lived to 120. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 26 '15 at 18:46

There is a lot of evidence that says that early Jesus followers didn't believe Jesus was the literal son of God ('son of God' was more of a title, for instance it was used to refer to Caesar), and didn't believe he rose from the dead (a lot of early texts don't talk about his death, since it was so shameful). Instead, the early communities focused on Jesus's message about how the world was wrong, but a better one was on the horizon, and we could all do our part to bring it about.

Thus, I would say that although a lot of religion would be different, it would not be altogether missing. People believe in God not because people tell them to, but because God tells them to; if you're assuming that God doesn't exist, then no amount of backwards time travel is ever going to help us learn more about him.

That said, I would assume religion would be a lot less dogmatic (not sure if that's the right word), and a lot more spiritual. Meditation works, as does a lifestyle free from worldly pleasures. These things have demonstrable effects, and some people attribute them to the divine; on the other hand, there's no real evidence to support hating gay people, so that probably won't make the cut.

The only other option I can think of is that backwards time travel isn't something everyone will do. Poor people won't have the ability to, and people firmly fixed to their beliefs may be too afraid to be proven wrong to try it. So, in that case, a lot of modern religion will persist.

EDIT: Come to think of it, I would love it if this happened, and I think a lot of intelligent religious people would too. People who don't take the Bible literally really want to know what actually happened; to be able to hear Jesus speak would be like hearing Socrates speak, an absolutely priceless experience that could help fill in the gaps of history, and end the debates once and for all. With the ability to hear the prophets and founders of every religion, I think believers would become closer to one another, as they no longer would have to fight over what they think is right.

  • $\begingroup$ In regard to your edit: I think people would still argue about what they think is right, since everyone interprets messages differently and to different extremes. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 26 '15 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre I agree, I was just thinking there would be less arguments. For instance, we'd know which parts of the New Testament were actually from Jesus, and which parts were made up later. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 26 '15 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ We'd also know what material excluded from the Bible by the first Council of Nicaea should actually have been included. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 26 '15 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Sure, but I'd think after backwards time travel, we'd have to write a whole new Bible. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh May 26 '15 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ Not only is your rep a round number, but it also counts! $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 26 '15 at 18:21

Yes it could.

Your question assumes that all religions depend on false historical claims. Religions could definitely exist which either do not depend on historical claims, or else depend on historical claims which are true.

No Historical Claims

As other answers have noted, many religions (or varieties of religions) do not depend on historical claims. This is especially true in eastern religions which can tend more towards being philosophies of life than dogmatic religions like Judaism. Of course, many believers in relatively dogmatic religions modify their beliefs to fit facts, often by reinterpreting seemingly historical passages as being "only" stories for communicating a certain lesson.

In addition to "philosophy" oriented beliefs, animistic beliefs also do not depend on historical claims. Nobody can use any machine to demonstrate that the earth (or trees) has no soul.

No False Historical Claims

On the other hand, why not suppose that some religions are based on true events which are (or at least appear to be) supernatural. Maybe the earth is only 10,000 years old. Maybe The Resurrection is genuine. We may have good reason to believe that this isn't the case, but then we also have good reason to believe that time travel to the past is impossible.

If some historical miracles appear to be genuine, then time-traveling witnesses would tend to strengthen the status of the religions associated with those miracles. Religions would begin to shift to using the same set of miracles, only with different interpretations. This happens even without modern confirmation of miracles: both Christianity and Islam assert that Jesus performed miracles, they just have different opinions on precisely what miracles, and set different levels of importance on Jesus himself.

Edit because I thought of some comparable fiction:

It's also possible that some highly-important coordinates might be difficult or impossible to access through a handwave timeline protection law of physics. Connie Willis' Doomsday Book (and other books in the Oxford Time Travel series) employs something like this to prevent time traveling historians from messing up the past. Since the early stages of a major world religion might be incredibly sensitive to tampering or accidents, they might just be impossible to access.

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    $\begingroup$ Related to "no false claims", there's also the possibility that totally natural events (such as a localized rise in sea level) could have been passed down as supernatural ("the world got flooded") without actually being so. Also, I remember a story where so many people looked back in time to see the crucifixion that their viewing portals interfered with each other and no one could see the critical moment. $\endgroup$ – Bobson May 26 '15 at 19:01

Depends on what you mean with "modern conception of religion." For example different groups of Christians have widely divergent interpretations of what religion means. Similar diversity exists inside most religions. There isn't really a single correct way to be religious. Or to see religion.

Generally, only some religious conservatives and fundamentalists see using scripture as a science textbook to be meaningful. Most religious people would be just fine, and are just fine, in thinking that a book that was not intended to teach science has gaps and even inaccuracies when it comes to science.

And even the fundamentalists would be just fine. They already ignore any scientific evidence contrary to their believes. Having time machines add some extra data to ignore would not change anything. Fundamentalists do not really believe religion is about studying science either, the only difference is that they for theological reasons draw the line between the two at a different place. Or in other words assume the gaps and inaccuracies are at a different place. This works since all human information whether it is read from a sacred book or gained by using a time machine has gaps and inaccuracies.

As for going and observing Jesus and other religious figures... It would be interesting and lots of people would have to change their romanticized or superstitious views about some people, but it is fundamentally not really that important. For example, the important thing about Jesus is not actually performing miracles, being resurrected, or being the son of God, even though those are very important to some people and entire denominations. The important thing was what he taught.

And even there... It is fairly obvious that what Jesus taught and what modern Christianity teaches are quite different in fairly important ways. Despite what people may wish even religious teachings supported by a sacred text are context sensitive. That is the way it is supposed to be, really. So even finding large contradictions with what we believe would have limited impact long term.

In short term lots of religious people have fairly silly views of their own religion and would be greatly upset. Similarly lots of strictly non-religious people have somehow just accepted that religion must be silly and superstitious since so many loudly religious people think so. They would be greatly confused and even upset by the failure of religion to fold up and die after being proven wrong.

So no, it wouldn't change much. Religion is about your beliefs, values, and identity, who you are, not about the stories and the supernatural, what happened millennia ago.

  • $\begingroup$ My experience is that a lot of religions share beliefs and values (be nice to people, help those in need, have moments of silence and gratitude daily), but religious people identify strongly with only a single religion - they're Christian not Jewish, or Jewish not Mulsim, or.... So I don't think it's true that religion is about your beliefs and values. $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA May 26 '15 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @BrettFromLA You are right that they identify strongly with a specific religious group. I probably should have mentioned that in the answer. The reason I didn't was that the time machine has no real impact with your group identity. Thanks for pointing out the omission, I'll probably edit it in. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 26 '15 at 23:17

Religion doesn't only make impossible claims about things far before our own lifespan, or far in the future.

You can't time-travel to the afterlife, for instance... Or anywhere outside of physical space (and thusly, any location outside of the creation of physical spacetime). So it is likely that religions would still exist on these topics.

That's really the problem with most religious claims. Once we discover something with absolute scientific certainty, the goalposts are moved.

  • $\begingroup$ " Once we discover something with absolute scientific certainty..." we know that we're no longer doing science? Consider every scientific truth you know, then consider which could be disproved by time travel. Then consider how that could impact your world view. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Jun 16 '15 at 4:57
  • $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 You seem to have disconnected your railcar from my train of thought; Zealots used to claim that God was responsible for everything. Science found out that for a great many of these things, that's simply not true. God didn't give us Smallpox 'because we're sinners'. We know this because we've cured Smallpox and completely eradicated it from our species. If our "sinful nature" caused Smallpox, we would not have been able to do that. But of course, "the goalposts are moved", meaning God is everywhere else, until science disproves it. Can time travel prove that 'sin causes Smallpox'? No. $\endgroup$ – Ayelis Jun 16 '15 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ "God didn't give us Smallpox 'because we're sinners'. We know this because we've cured Smallpox and completely eradicated it from our species." That's one viewpoint but not necessarily true. One could just as easily argue that it's only because of God/Gods that we allowed/enabled/permitted to cure smallpox. Or worse, we did it against Gods will and have a worse punishment awaiting us. Science does not and cannot give us any 'truth' in these matters, it can only observe the world and test hypothesis. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Jun 16 '15 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ And yet, has anyone ever SEEN a God? Any God? Any single God, ever? Can I just travel down to the corner store and see a God there? One could just as easily argue that it's only because of a sentient invisible pink teapot that we allowed/enabled/permitted to cure smallpox. One would be no more or less wrong than anyone arguing in favor of gods. And neither of them would pass scientific scrutiny. $\endgroup$ – Ayelis Jun 16 '15 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ Sure people have, and their experiences have been documented. Scientific scrutiny does not give one truth, it simply tells you what (according to peer review, and the limits of science) what is the best story to believe. The opponents of Ignaz Semmelweis knew that he was scientifically and mentally wrong, imagine their horror if they could travel to the future and see how many people died due to their ignorance? $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Jun 17 '15 at 0:12

New holy wars could be started over this: followers of one religion trying to disprove other religions, while simultaneously trying to suppress examination of the miracles claimed within their own religion.

(That's not really an answer to your question, just a religious ramification of time-travel-related fact-checking.)


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