I have stated my opposition to religion many times on this blog. (My essay in Salon, “Religion’s Smart-People Problem,” generated much hate mail.) However, let me add that religion—while I believe it to be generally as harmful and untrue—is not the only cause of the world’s problems. Any fervently held ideology—social, political, moral, economic—that is immune to rational critique and the scientific method is inherently dangerous. Those who believe they possess the truth invariably want to force their beliefs on others.
Furthermore, there are other causes of our difficulties as well—we have reptilian brains, medieval institutions, and 21st-century technologies. Give human animals easy access to powerful firearms, much less nuclear weapons, and the results will surely be disastrous with or without religious belief. Clearly, we need moral and intellectual enhancement to assure our survival and flourishing. Supernaturalism holds us back, but so do our ideologies, our institutions, and our evolved human nature.
But can we say anything good about religion? Yes. Believers have done some good things in addition to all the harm they caused—the creation of schools and hospitals is a primary example. Moreover, for some people, religious beliefs provide great comfort, and if it does who am I to try to convince them to think otherwise?
But seen in its best light religion is transhumanism at a childlike stage. Lacking a germ theory of disease, clean water, sewer systems, vaccines, and antibiotics, what else could we do but pray when we fell ill? In a world deficient in truth, beauty, goodness, and justice, what else to do but hope that a supernatural being ensures their triumph in an imaginary heaven? Arising before science, technology, and transhumanism, religions had to advise their followers to accept death and hope for the best.
So religion and transhumanism emanate from similar sources. Religious people want to overcome the limitations of the body and mind and live forever, as do transhumanists. The religious want infinite being, consciousness, and bliss as do transhumanists. The problem is that religion originated before science, and thus it can only offer promises and not the real thing.
Finally, let me say that longings for truth, beauty, joy, justice, meaning, and immortality are praiseworthy. These are good things. Now if you want to call such values religious, fine. Personally, I wouldn’t do that because the desire for these good things has natural origins. But even if you call these desires, religious, John Dewey told us precisely why the distinction between “religious” and “religion” is important,
If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with which I have employed the adjective “religious” to conceive of what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.