(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 12, 2015)
I have written multiple times about the paucity of religious belief among professional philosopher and scientists. A perceptive reader mused that modern science was primarily responsible for the decline. As he suggested since the 17th-century scientific explanations have come, for the educated at least, to replace supernatural explanations. Or, as a reader put it, “At no point has the bearded-dude-in-space explanation been helpful in explaining anything.”
I think my reader has it about right—the rise of modern science has been a primary reason for the decline of the influence of religion in western culture since the 17th century. Yes, there probably are other factors—capitalism, modernism, and more—but with the rise of modern science in the last 400 years, naturalistic explanations have come to replace supernaturalism ones.
But my perceptive reader was also puzzled by the desire of the more educated and the sophisticated religious to defend their beliefs with more obtuse and abstract notions of gods. Of course, their god is not a father in the sky they say, but rather the ground of being or fine tuner of the universe or something even more esoteric. What my reader wondered was what such theoretical deities have to do with the beliefs of typical religious believers? In other words, how does a proof of an abstract god square with the god most of the faithful profess to believe?
Little did my reader know that he has stumbled upon a problem that had baffled Christian thinkers from Pascal to Kierkegaard right up to the present time. How do we know “the god of the philosophers” is the Christian or any other God? For all we know this ultimate explanation or reason for everything—what the faithful call god—could be a ball of energy, a quantum flux, an unstable nothingness, a computer simulation, or something else.
Believers can always use faith as their trump card like Kierkegaard did. Or they can appeal to personal experience, pragmatism, emotion or intuition. People generally believe what they want to believe and reason comes along for the ride, as Hume noted long ago.
But in the end, we don’t really have to respond to all the subterfuges by which people deceive themselves. As human beings make the transition from human to posthumanity, when suffering and death have been defeated by science and technology, religion, at least in its current form, will be irrelevant. Superintelligences won’t find their answers in Jesus or Mohammed or ancient legends. And then our descendants will have a better chance to answer the questions that now perplex us.