Religion & the Future

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
~ Albert Einstein

History is littered with dead gods, yet a few religions have proven resilient. Long after Greek and Romans gods died, long after a thousand others met similar fates, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and a few others survive as today’s mega-cults. And new religions—like new varieties of breakfast cereals—are constantly invented to fill gaps in the religious market. Religions are so patently absurd, that you feel sorry for people so desirous of meaning, a social life, and a reprieve from everlasting torment that they are willing to pay in money or blood to belong to their clubs. Yet, their survival is hardly surprising, given the deep biological and cultural roots of religious belief. Even the compelling evolutionary explanation of ethical behaviors has failed to put a dent in religious fervor. Could it thus be that humankind’s contemporary religions really are impervious to future threats? Will these same beliefs be held eons from now? I think not.

I predict that by the end of the 21st century virtually no educated person will be able to believe in supernatural gods in the same way as no educated person can nowadays doubt the heliocentric nature of our expanding solar system or the biological evolution of our species. Even now, when people still pray to the gods; they likely consult the doctor too. They may petition the gods to kill the infidels, but building weapons is also advised. Science has already produced the miracles of healing and power that the preachers promised but could not deliver. The faith in science has infiltrated the modern mind despite its nostalgic longings. Though religion has survived the onslaught of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, and though it has weathered the storms created by Darwin, Freud, Hubble, and Einstein—greater revolutions are coming. And so I ask again. When death and pain have been defeated, who will die hoping for the god’s reprieve?

New technologies on the horizon—artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering—will continue to probe and reveal the mysteries of matter, life, and mind. We will increasingly unravel the secrets of the brain, reverse engineer it, as well as augment and enhance its functioning. We will master the intricacies of matter at the atomic level, building whatever we want in quantity and quality heretofore unimaginable. We will decipher the mysteries of the human genome, giving us the ability to modify that blueprint in whatever manner we desire. What then will be the place for gods that fashion minds when we can build them better? What then will be the need to believe in the legends of miracles past, when we achieve the miraculous daily? Why worship the gods for building our bodies when we can do the same thing much better? Why would our descendents petition invisible gods when they possess greater power and knowledge than that supposedly displayed by the Gods? When science finally conquers death—which it surely will if neo-Luddites or religious fanatics don’t get in the way—the end of religion as we know it will be near. For who will die, hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers the real thing? Without pain, suffering and death, which together form the foundation upon which religion is built, religion will die. Conquering death will be science’s ultimate coup d’etat over religion.

Surprisingly it is hard to contest these claims. There is the science will never be able to do that defense, but it is risky for the religious to rest their hopes on what science cannot do. We may unlock the key to aging, stopping or reversing it in our lifetimes. We may even learn to transfer our consciousness into other substrates to achieve immortality. The religious ought to be careful of positing a “god of the gaps,” as those gaps are continually filled. Then there is the religion will survive the onslaught of science as it has done before defense, but this is untenable. In the first place, religion has not really survived that well. The decline of the influence of religion in the Western world since the 17th century is surely one of the most fundamental changes of its civilization. Already religion is much less attractive to the intelligentsia than to the masses in America, and in Europe and much of the Far East supernaturalism is all but dead. Religion thrives best where there is ignorance and poverty and a weak social safety net, as in the third world, or where there is cultural jealousy of the West, as in the Middle East; but as the causes of belief are uncovered, our longing for the gods will wither.

Religion provided the traditional answers to the problems of life—and they may have been necessary at one time—but today religious superstition impedes progress. And the end of religion, at least as traditionally conceived, is fast approaching. Religion as we know it will end when death is conquered, since religion is primarily based on fear of death. Religious philosophies will then be replaced by a philosophy that was always buried within religion, a philosophy compatible with future technologies, the philosophy of transhumanism.

4 thoughts on “Religion & the Future

  1. Your commentary is a bold and provocative view of the future. While your arguments about conquering death could come to fruition after many hundreds or thousands of years, I think that we can safely assume that death will not be conquered by the end of this century, at which time you predict that “virtually no educated person will be able to believe in supernatural gods”. In regard to that near term date, the questions that come to mind are: Will the proportion of “educated” persons be increased or decreased from what we have now? Will “education” still be considered important for a large portion of the general population? The answers to these questions portend whether the future beyond the end of this century will be increasingly utopian or dystopian.

    The new technologies that you discuss will have the near term effect of putting many people who have ordinary jobs out of work and eliminating the hope of getting jobs for masses of poorly educated individuals. By the end of the 21st century, relatively few highly skilled roboticists and computer programmers, combined with increasingly sophisticated artificially intelligent computers, will be able to produce machines capable of doing most of the manual labor and service jobs needed for society. Subsistence food, clothing and shelter will be provided to masses of jobless people by a nearly automated social safety net. With relatively few meaningful jobs to accomplish, what will the majority of people do with their time? Will they value education? I suspect most of these jobless individuals will fill their hours with entertainment, drugs and religion and will be susceptible to extremist ideologies. The disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” will continue to widen. The meaning of “have” will increasingly refer to having a job, not just having money.

    In an ideal world, individuals who do not need to work to survive would be free to pursue intellectually-stimulating hobbies, philosophy, volunteer activities, etc. that enrich and add meaning to their lives. However, the meaning of life for most of our ancestors, and for many of us currently alive now, has been dominated by the struggle provide for themselves and their families in the hope that their children will have better lives. There is enormous social inertia to that meaning. If it is suddenly taken away (and one century can be considered sudden as compared to thousands of years of civilization), something needs to replace it or the social upheaval could be monumental. What will motivate individuals to become educated if they do not need to work? What will motivate individuals to be creative if a machine with advanced AI can always create something superior? Will the meaning of life for most individuals simply become endless entertainment? I have no answers to these questions. But in the near term at least, I suspect that religion has a secure future since it provides solace to the increasing portion of the have nots of the world.

  2. The defeat of death is probably much sooner than you suggest. Many good futurists think the singularity will come in the next century. If we become cyberbeings, uploaded minds, etc. it is hard to see how traditional religion survives. As for robots doing all the work, I welcome that possibility and don’t believe our descendents will all be drug addicts or whatever. I’ve written about that in other posts about the future of work. But of course the future is unknown, and we might have none at all if we destroy ourselves. Thanks for the perceptive comments. JGM

  3. Thanks for your comments, John. I think I’m out of my depth, but you spurred me to think about this subject further. After further investigation, I learned that my comment about the effect of technology on jobs has been articulated by Martin Ford in at least two books and several articles. Also, after re-reading my comment, I can see that the tone was probably overly pessimistic. Humans have proven to be adaptable in the face of change and I suspect that we will adjust to robots increasingly displacing us from repetitive, meaningless tasks in the near future. AI is another matter, but I suspect that we will adjust there as well. But simply adjusting to the presence of robots and AI doesn’t mean that future humans will think any more critically than they do today. As you discussed in your recent post on fear of thought, there are many seemingly intelligent individuals today that continue to believe irrational narratives.

    Your point “If we become cyberbeings, uploaded minds, etc. it is hard to see how traditional religion survives” is well taken only if you assume that the minds of the far future to be uploaded are all benevolent and can generally think critically and rationally. “Cyberdeath”, caused by a malevolent cyberbeing or by substrate failure with coincident loss of backups, could create substantial fear in cyberbeings, analogous to the fear that we biological creatures have of biological death. The longer a cyberbeing has to exist, the more time it has to dwell on such fear and consequently look for solace through a supernatural explanation. Traditional religions could evolve into “cyberreligions”, but nonetheless retain their basic strategies of appealing to the supernatural. Unless the norm of the critical-thinking bell curve is shifted toward increased rationality before the time when minds are uploaded, there will be plenty of irrational cyberbeings floating around to enable cyberreligions to thrive.

    Now I know I’m out of my depth!

  4. My point is that sophisticated, augmented minds won’t be comforted by irrational, religious mythology. They will be too advanced.

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