In Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” passage from The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor’s plan to “correct” the work of God (in a sense, to establish the Church) was based on Miracle, Mystery, and Authority.
Authority, as it turns out, depends on Miracle and Mystery. And the priesthood possessed a monopoly on these latter two elements for centuries; its Authority stemmed from that.
Its control of Miracle had to do with the alleviation of suffering and disease. If you look at transcripts of old witchcraft trials, about 90% of it has to do with the “witch” inflicting disease on some unsuspected villager with the use of spells; people had no clue about microbiology or the pathogenesis of various diseases. Miracle-working, similarly, dealt often directly with the healing or curing of disease or suffering. To say that these faith-healers, holy relics, sacred sites, healing waters and so on were fraudulent or useless is actually false; and I say this as a physician. The placebo effect is real and documented universally; the whole point of double-blinded clinical trials for new drugs, in which the control group gets a sugar pill, is to prove that your new drug’s effect is greater than placebo. Religion traded on the powerful placebo. Its success rate wasn’t 100%, but then, neither is modern medicine’s. The sciences, through modern medicine, usurped Miracle by developing a massive array of drugs and treatments whose effect is demonstrably greater than placebo.
The question of Mystery is another one. Science is supposedly concerned with the dispelling of mystery, while Religion is concerned with the “unknowable”—but this emphasis on the unknowable, irrational, and “Beyond” is a very recent shift, in response to religion’s near-total loss of Mystery. Organized religion, traditionally, set itself to dispelling mystery, also: This is the Will of God; this is what God wants you to do; this is how a godly person behaves; this is what a godly person believes. Religion squandered Mystery because of the rise of near-universal literacy and the ubiquity of scriptural texts in translation. Hard as it is to imagine now, in the old days, the priest was one of the few people who could actually read; books were so scarce that he himself might possess the only copy of a scripture for miles. Even if the congregation could be shown the markings on the pages, the majority of them simply would not be able to decipher them, whether Latin or vernacular. The language of Mystery was written language, often (Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin) a dead language—a Mystery twice removed from the mass of people.
Today, the language of Mystery is higher mathematics (and, to a lesser extent, the varieties of scientific jargon). These will never pass into universal circulation because the majority of us are incapable of mastering the higher forms of mathematics (I include myself in this). Even some very basic, language- or symbol-based ideas in the biological sciences are closed off to the mass of people. A diagram of the Krebs Cycle, to the 99% of the human population untrained in Biochemistry, is as Mystifying as a page of the Bible used to be to an illiterate European peasant.
The Mystery and Miracle that used to be religion’s have shifted to the sciences, and with them, the Authority. At least in some parts of the world. If what I am saying is correct, the prevalence of traditional organized religion should have an inverse relationship to 1.) literacy rate and 2.) access to modern health care. The “most religious country in the world,” according to WIN-Gallup International, is Ghana—which ranks 178th out of 194 in literacy according to the U.N. Similarly, Ghana’s “universal health care system” mostly serves its major cities, with the countryside nearly totally underserved (according to Wikipedia, there were, in 2010, 15 physicians per 100,000 Ghanaians—compare our own 240 physicians per 100,000 Americans). Not necessarily a causal relationship, but an association worth pondering: