The Future of Religion

History is littered with dead gods. The Greek and Roman gods, and thousands of others have perished, yet AllahYahweh and a few more still survive. But will belief in these remaining gods endure? It will not. Our descendants will be too advanced to share such primitive beliefs.

If we survive and science progresses, we will manipulate the genome, rearrange the atom, and augment the mind. When science defeats suffering and death, religion as we know it will die—religion will have lost its raison d’être. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? With the defeat of death, science and technology will finally have triumphed over ignorance and superstition. Our descendants will know that they are stronger than imaginary gods.

As they continue to evolve, our post-human progeny will become increasingly godlike, eventually achieving superintellgence, either by modifying their brains or interfacing with computers. From our perspective, our offspring will come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang.

As our descendants distance themselves from their past, they will lose interest in the gods. Today the gods are impotent, tomorrow they’ll be irrelevant. You may doubt this. But do you really think that in a thousand or a million years your descendants, traveling through an infinite cosmos with augmented minds, will find their answers in ancient scriptures? Do you really think that powerful superintelligence will cling to the primitive mythologies that once satisfied ape-like brains? Only the credulous can believe such things. In the future, the gods will exist … only if we become them.

Still, the future is unknown. Asteroids, nuclear war, environmental degradation, climate change or deadly microbes may destroy us. Perhaps the machine intelligence we create will replace us, or we might survive but create a dystopia. None of these prospects is inviting, but they all entail the end of religion.

Alternatively, in order to maintain the status quo, some combination of neo-Luddites, political conservatives or religious fanatics could destroy past knowledge, persecute the scientists, censor novel ideas, and usher in a new Dark Ages of minimal technology, political repression, and antiquated religion. But even if they were successful, this would not save them or their archaic ideas. For the killer asteroids, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or some other threat will inevitably emerge. And when it does only science and technology will save us—prayer or ideology will not help. Either we evolve, or we will die.

But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science defeats death before we become godlike? We may eventually outgrow religious beliefs, but why not allow them to comfort those who still need them? If parents lose a child or children lose a parent, what’s wrong with telling them they’ll be reunited in heaven? I am sympathetic with noble lies; if a belief helps you and doesn’t hurt others, it is hard to gainsay.

Still, religious consolation has a price. Religion, and conservative philosophies in general, typically opposes intellectual, moral, and technological progress. Religion has fought against free speech, democracy, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It has been aligned with inquisitions, war, human sacrifice, torture, despotism, child abuse, intolerance, fascism, and genocide. It displays a fondness for the supernatural, authoritarian, misogynistic, hierarchical, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-progressive. (Consider just the role that evangelical Christians played in the recent American elections.) As any honest student of history knows, religion has caused and continues to cause, an untold amount of misery.

One could even argue that religious beliefs are the most damaging beliefs possible. Consider that Christianity rose to power as the Roman Empire declined, resulting in the marginalization of the Greek science that the Romans had inherited. If the scientific achievements of the Greeks had been built upon throughout the Middle Ages, if science had continued to advance expeditiously for those thousand years, we might live in an unimaginably better world today. Who knows how many diseases would be cured by now, or how advanced our intellectual and moral natures might be? Maybe we would have already overcome death. Maybe we still die today because of religion.

The cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions known in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places. And if religion causes less harm in some places today than it once did, that’s because it has less power than it used to. Were that power regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm. Put simply, religion is an enemy of the future. If we are to survive and progress, ideas compatible with brains forged in the Pleistocene must be replaced. We shouldn’t direct our gaze toward the heavens but to the earth, where the real work of making a better world takes place.

Of course, religion is not the only anti-progressive force in the world—there are other enemies of the future. Some oppose progressive ideas even if they are advanced by the religious. Consider how political conservatives, virtually all of whom profess to be Christians, denounced Pope Francis’ role in re-establishing Cuban-American relations, his criticism of unfettered capitalism and vast income inequality, his warnings about the dangers of climate change, and his recent call for a  nuclear-free world. Plutocrats and despots hate change too, especially if it affects their wallets. The beneficiaries of the status quo don’t want a better world—they like the one they have.

How then do we make a better world? What will guide us in this quest? For there to be a worthwhile future we need at least three things: 1) knowledge of ourselves and the world; 2) ethical values that promote the flourishing of conscious beings; and 3) a narrative to give life meaning. But where do we find such things?

Knowledge comes from science, which is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science explains forces that were once dark and mysterious; it reveals the vast immensity, history, and future of the cosmos; it explains our evolutionary origins and the legacy that leaves upon our thoughts and behaviors, and it tells us how the world works independently of ideology or prejudice. And applied science is technology, which gives us the power to overcome limitations and make a better future. If you want to see miracles, don’t go to Lourdes, look inside your cell phone.

Ethical values do not depend on religion, as can easily be demonstrated, and the idea that people can’t be moral without religion is false, no matter how many think otherwise. Instead, ethical values and behaviors arose in our evolutionary history, where they may also find their justification. Yes, some moral-like behaviors sometimes favored by evolution have also been prescribed by religion—cooperation and altruism come to mind—but the justification of these values is biological and social, not supernatural. We are moral to the extent that we are because, for the most part, it’s in our self-interest; we all do better if we all cooperate. And everyone can endorse values that aid our survival and flourishing—even our godlike descendants.

Finally, to truly give our lives meaning, we need scientific narratives to replace outdated religious ones. We need stories that appeal to the educated, not ones based on superstition, mythology or obscurantism. With the death of religion imminent, we need to look elsewhere for meaning and purpose.

And one such narrative already exists. It is the story of cosmic evolution, of the cosmos becoming self-conscious. Nature gave birth to consciousness, and consciousness comes to know nature. Through this interaction of the universe and consciousness reality comes to know itself. Surely this story is profound enough to satisfy our metaphysical longings. And, it has an added benefit over supernatural accounts of being based in a scientific account of the world.

What is our role in this story? We are the protagonists of the evolutionary epic, and determining its course should be our destiny. We ought to willingly embrace our role as agents of evolutionary change, helping evolution to realize new possibilities. We are not an end, but a beginning. We are as links in a chain leading upward to higher forms of being and consciousness. This is our hope, this gives our lives meaning.

I don’t know if we can make a better future, but I know that no help will come from the gods. Turning our backs on them is the first step on our journey. It is time to put the childhood of the species behind.

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7 thoughts on “The Future of Religion

  1. For now, religious/spiritual diversity. The near future (50 years hence) will include designer religion. Republicans worshipping Reagan; black lesbian god worshippers; satanists (small case ‘s’); Sufis; white heterosexual churchgoers who watch the Andy Griffith show and get high on alcohol; marijuana ashrams listening to Bob Marley music…

    If one wants to glimpse into the distant future (the 22nd century), religion/spirituality can be dispensed with. However– to state it tactlessly– unintelligent people do need unintelligent religion: they feel too insecure otherwise. This includes secular religionists such as communists and fascists, and all sorts of extreme collectivists who need others to think for them.

    If I had several children, I would take them to a church or ashram for the security as well as convenience of it. Even the worst church [excluding something like David Koresh’s] is more civilized than the larger world. But I’ve never understood why intelligent single people would want attend a house of worship to be, with few exceptions, manipulated by both clergy and congregations.

    And realistically, the main function of houses of worship is passing the offering basket around. Modern houses of worship are less aggressive than in the past yet as predatory as ever: robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  2. Here’s a consideration, though, John: From my quick search online I’d say there are about 450 to 500 million atheists and agnostics in the world. That’s about 7% of the world’s population. While this group may be growing in the wealthier more educated parts of the world, the growth rate is anything but staggering. Contrast this with the number of new births per year — mostly in the poorer and less educated parts of the world, which are generally very religious. Estimates are that there are about 130 million people born each year. The vast majority of these births are in places where religions are thriving. (The worldwide deathrate is a bit over 8 per 1000.) This means, though, that in a five year period about as many new people will be born who will be raised religious as there are agnostics and atheists in the entire world. Maybe you are right that this will one day change. But the next century looks to be marked by religion.

  3. According to Wikipedia, “Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values. The term scientism is generally used critically, implying a cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations considered not amenable to application of the scientific method or similar scientific standards.”

    Unfortunately, this essay is an example of “Scientism” at its worst. But at its core, this essay betrays an irrational hatred of religion by the author, who cherry-picks every bad thing ever done by humans and blames religion for those acts.

  4. The thesis is predicated on the assumption that humankind will evolve into something much smarter than it currently is. I don’t think that this assumption is justified. What we know of human evolution is that it proceeds very slowly. Homo Sapiens reached its current form about 100,000 years ago. We haven’t changed much in 100,000 years. There are indications of genetic changes, the most striking of which is an adaptation for digesting milk. This is done with a protein called lactase, which is produced in infants, but the production of lactase stops soon after childhood. However, this evolutionary change continued the production of lactase, enabling some humans (mostly in northern Europe) to digest milk. This genetic change took about 20,000 years to flood the gene pool in Europe and the Fertile Crescent, and indications are that this genetic change took place under very strong selective pressures. So we’ll need, say, 10,000 years to carry out a significant genetic change.
    But there is little selection pressure. We don’t shoot stupid people. In fact, in modern societies, stupid people seem to be reproducing at a greater rate than smart people: reverse eugenics.
    But perhaps we could use gene-modification techniques to enhance our intelligence? I’m dubious. The generation of lactase involves a single change in our DNA. But intelligence comes from thousands of different pieces of the genome. Think of it this way: you’re piloting an experimental jet aircraft. Instead of the usual controls, it has millions of switches that you can turn on or off. You want the plane to go faster. You have to find the right switches among those millions to switch one way or the other. If you get something wrong, you could crash. In fact, it’s more likely that you’ll crash than that you’ll end up going faster. Crashing is analogous to genetic catastrophe.

    In response to Mr. JL, I’ll report that I’ve been reading entries on this blog for years, and I have never observed any “irrational hatred of religion”.

  5. Chris – You are correct that biological evolution is very, very, slow. But the key is cultural and particularly technological evolution which is very, very, fast. Or think of it this way. Spreading genes is very time consuming and can only be done with one person at a time but spreading memes can be happen almost instantly and spread from one to millions of brains. You might be right about the risk versus reward of genetic engineering but given that I think humans are doomed unless they quickly enhance their moral and intellectual functioning, I think most risks are worth the chance. I could be wrong though.

  6. Chris – You are correct that biological evolution is very, very, slow. But the key is cultural and particularly technological evolution which is very, very, fast. Or think of it this way. Spreading genes is very time consuming and can only be done with one person at a time but spreading memes can happen almost instantly and spread from one to millions of brains. You might be right about the risk versus reward of genetic engineering but given that I think humans are doomed unless they quickly enhance their moral and intellectual functioning, I think most risks are worth the chance. I could be wrong though.

  7. John: As you know, I have various questions about your views on these issues. But here’s one issue: One of your assumptions seems to be that enhancing human well-being will be the fundamental driver of our technologies. (Maybe I’m overstating this.) In any case, some technologies are developed with this view in mind. But many are developed merely to support the perceived well-being of a small subset of individuals. For example, many of our technological developments are motivated by some individuals’ desires to make money, even if they do so while harming others. Technologies are (now) servants to human desires. If those harnessing and developing technologies are led by greed and a desire to control others, then unless there are political interventions to ensure otherwise, these technologies will be developed for those purposes. Looking at the world right now (especially the US), I see little reason to be particularly hopeful that our technologies will be developed with broader concerns of human well-being as the fundamental driving force. That of course depends on us! But here I see little reason to be particularly hopeful that we will manage this, that we will have either (a) effective democratic control over technology developments that bend them to universalizable (or general) human needs, or (b) an enlightened core of leaders who develop them in these ways. Our big tech companies, more than anything, seem driven by figuring out ways to market stuff to us that we don’t need.

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