“ Theology ... is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything. ”
Robert A Heinlein
There are religious people alive today who will still be alive and religious at the end of the century. Religions will be around for centuries.
This page explores the consequences and proposes attitudes and actions.
The future of religion will be different from the past
On this web site
I am using "Religion" in a broad sense of "things to do with religions in general". The sub-headings below are used on my page "Dimensions of enlightenment".
Future generations will grow up exposed to global information sources which will challenge the beliefs of their parents and local communities. This process has already begun, with the rise of services on the web starting in the 1990s. A recent example is YouTube Atheism.
Evidence about the nature of religion in general, the origins of specific religions, and the nature of the universe continues to be made available globally.
It becomes harder each decade to sustain ideas about "the one true religion", with consequential assumptions about the characters (eg. morality) of people (religious or not) who refute that religion. This is because of increased contact with other people, and increased exposure to global information sources.
Science continues to reveal the similarity and continuity of human beings through history and across the world. Global communications shows how many of the problems people face are the same across the world.
There is a slow, uncertain, trend towards secularism in non-Islamic countries (although there may be a trend towards Islamicism in Islamic countries):
- separation of religion from government;
- separation of religion from other important processes such as education.
The problems with holy books
The typical holy book (Bible, Koran, etc) was written many centuries ago when people knew vastly less about the true nature of the universe and were vastly less advanced in the Dimensions of enlightenment. These books became frozen, while many aspects of mankind develop century by century. These books become increasingly incompatible with the latest century, for (at least) 2 main reasons:
- Many aspects of the books were always wrong, but mankind didn't have the knowledge to realise this. Science (especially) is increasingly revealing the errors in these books. Evolution versus creationism is an obvious example, out of many.
- Other aspects of these books identify principles and injunctions and restrictions about morality. Mankind slowly evolves its morality century by century - what Richard Dawkins calls "the changing moral zeitgeist". Modern morality cannot plausibly be dismissed as regressive - the end of various types of discrimination, horror at genocide, end of slavery, equality for women, etc, are advances. So whether or not the morality in these books was ever right, it becomes increasingly wrong.
Religions are faced with hard choices: stick with the old text and live in a manner incompatible with the current century; update their holy books; or gradually cease to stick to their holy books. Different religions (and denominations) try different approaches:
- Islam has little choice but to stick with the old text. Muslims hold that it is the final and eternal word of Allah, and attempting to revised it is a form of apostasy, sometimes punishable by death! In its natural state, Islam has become increasingly incompatible with the state of the world; it was thoroughly incompatible with the 20th century, and even more incompatible with the 21st century. Without a papacy which might have offered the hope of comprehensive change, the outlook is bleak.
- The Roman Catholic Church has a Papacy which doesn't appear to worry much about what their holy book says. The Church doesn't appear to resemble anything Jesus said in the New Testament! In reasonably enlightened hands this could force modernity on the Church. In practice, the Papacy is entrenched in an unenlightened world view, and in any century it tries to anchor the Church to past centuries.
- The Church of England also doesn't appear to fully committed to their holy book, although there is broad disagreement, with some branches almost enlightened (and virtually atheist!) while others hold to pre-enlightenment values and discrimination.
Individual religions typically don't manage to update their holy books. Instead, new religions begin with different holy books. (Mormonism/LDS; Scientology). Perhaps all holy books, hence all religions, should have a "Use Before" date indelibly written! All major religions passed their "Use Before" date long ago.
My concerns about religion
On this web site
When I became an atheist as above, I still thought that religion was something benign that I could safely ignore. My "wake up call" was the Keep Sunday Special campaign, which I became aware of during the discussions leading up to the Sunday Trading Act 1994. I suddenly realised that people whose beliefs I didn't share were trying to make me conform to their rules. I signed a petition requesting Sunday trading!
Since then I have been alert to religion's attempts to encroach on my life. At first I adopted an attitude that "religions are OK when practised by consenting adults in private". Now my model is "Religions are hobbies".
In 2003 I began examining Islam, initially for my Child Support Analysis web site, and published 5 pages there. (I now maintain them on this site). The topic of "child support" (etc) led me to criticise Islamic attitudes towards women and towards science and technology. My development of that web site also led me to criticise the Catholic Church's attitude to birth control and abortion. (I believe that the Catholic Church will be indirectly responsible for millions of deaths by AIDS in this century). I also came across hypocrisy about priests fathering children then not paying. The Behzti affair in Birmingham made me realise than even Sikhs could behave badly in the name of their religion. The attempt to censor Jerry Springer: The Opera on the BBC was yet another encroachment. (And this list doesn't mention Islamic terrorism or the Muhammad cartoon affair!)
On this web site
I've proposed roles and rules for religions in society to allow us all to coexist without conflict. Hobbies can coexist. Religious practices are hobbies.
Hobbies are demonstrably a case where people with different passions, sometimes bordering on obsessions, have achieved (reasonable) coexistence and continuity. It is rare for fights to break out between the photography society and the flower arranging society, except over the booking of the meeting hall! Sometimes different hobby-groups can cooperate with mutual benefit. The reasons include the expectations that hobbyists have of their roles towards society as a whole and towards other hobbyists in particular.
By realising that religious practices (customs and rituals) are hobbies, we have the means to analyse where the boundaries of religions' roles should be, using existing well-understood examples that successfully allow lots of disparate communities to coexist. It is a model for coexistence that can't be criticised as totalitarian or untried or contrary to human rights.
If all religious practices were treated like other hobbies by the state, by religious organisations, by religious people themselves, and by atheists, much of the conflict in the world would dissipate, without depriving adults of their human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Research proposals and projects
The nature of religion is being investigated by scientific methods, taking some of the mystery away. ("Breaking the Spell").
This is not concerned with the question of whether or not gods exist. If that question were to be treated as important, it would be necessary to resolve it with a degree of confidence that matched the impact of the consequences. Until that happens, we have to ignore that question when discussing the nature of religions.
The investigations will cover: why people believe, what people wish for; the effects of prayer; memes and meme-plexes; etc.
The war between science and religion
Is there a war?
Yes. This is a "war" of enlightenment being fought across generations, with several different "battles": "god versus no god"; "religion - good or bad"; "science - right or wrong"; "where should we find our ethics/morals"? For each battle, we need to advance where we can, and at least hold ground where we can't advance.
Creationism and ID
During debates between evolution (or science in general) and Creationism, there are often two totally different arguments going on at the same time.
One side is trying to show that science (especially evolution) is correct. The other side is trying to show that there must be a religious flavour to education, science, and government. I have suspected that some of the ID "theorists" don't really care a lot about whether evolution is correct. (The "Wedge" document didn't worry about the issue. It was concerned about the "materialistic worldview"). If evolution is correct, that is an inconvenience to be overcome. What matters is whether they can give the impression that it is wrong so that religious politicians and teachers have a platform.
The religious reaction to science
"There was a time when the creeds of most religions could be accepted as unvarnished truth - "taken on faith" - by most of the flock without much cognitive dissonance, simply because humankind didn't yet have a wealth of well-evidenced alternatives to the traditional answers.
"However, since the birth of modern science in the 17th century, it has been downhill for literalism. After Copernicus and the collapse of the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth, the idea that Heaven was Up There and Hell was Down Below had to be turned into metaphor. It is still potent imagery after several centuries, but it is treated as literally true by, well, hardly anybody.
"The age of the Earth, the existence of billions of galaxies, the detailed confirmation of evolutionary biology, including our demonstrated close kinship to chimpanzees and indeed all other mammals - all these discoveries and many more have taken their toll on any literal understanding of the holy texts. Scholarship about the history of those texts has also made it more and more obvious that they are imperfect human artifacts with a long history of revision and adjustment, not eternal and unchanging gifts from God.
"So what's a religion to do? There are two main tactics:
- Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.
- Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone's creed - not even your own."
There has been a lot of talk about "new atheism", as though this is something that they can try to understand and learn how to combat.
Here is a hypothesis that could be a topic for study:
There is no such thing as "new atheism". Instead there is a "new context" ("new audience" and "new media") which has changed the perception of "existing atheism".
Examination of Jack Huberman's "The Quotable Atheist" shows that nearly all the themes in the latest set of books were present in earlier works. Also, the language of many of those earlier expressions were at least as disrespectful of religion.
Here is a thought experiment:
Suppose that Richard Dawkins had had an outline of "The God Delusion" in earlier decades - 1996, 1986, 1976, .... Would there have been sufficient incentives for Richard to expand that outline to its current comprehensive version, rather than release it in more limited form? Would there have been sufficient incentives for a publisher to publish it as widely and as well-translated? What would the reception have been?
For example: 1996. The web existed, but was not widely used. There were no web forums, no video-viewing such as YouTube or video downloads, little or no on-line publication of news articles, etc. There were fewer TV stations available to most people in the UK, probably less need to find material to fill the air-time, and perhaps less need for controversial material to attract viewers.
Another factor in 1996 was "this was pre-9/11". That influenced some of the content of the book and surely changed the audience.
Given all of this, how far would people have taken an interest in even the comprehensive version? Surely far fewer people would have been aware of it, and there would have been fewer opportunities to debate it? Would people even have been talking about "new atheism"?
This sort of analysis could be extended to earlier decades, and to all of the current set of books.
Rather more speculative, how will the current books be viewed in 2016, 2026, ...? And what will new books about atheism, perhaps written by a new and less restrained generation, be like in those years? Will the "conversational climate" have changed so that the current books will be seen as quite mild, with new books being more aggressive?
Challenging religious people
Scientifically-literate people tend to challenge religious beliefs using science (and related concepts such as evidence). When dealing with people who are scientifically-illiterate, or who refute major areas of science, this is probably futile. It is probably as futile as a religious person quoting their sacred texts (such as the Bible or Koran) to someone who believes that religions are man-made with no divine input. Both sides accept their own evidence. Neither side accepts that the other side has relevant or genuine evidence.
I believe it is more powerful to use religious arguments against religious beliefs. By avoiding science, there are fewer diversions and distractions available to the religious person. Here are examples.
Against Creationism / Intelligent Design
Creationists and ID-proponents do not have a consistent belief. Indeed, they have several completely incompatible beliefs. Ask which version of Creationsim or ID they believe in.
(Probably) the majority of religious people in the world disagree with them. They do not represent even their nominal religion (such as Christianity or Islam), and even less do they represent religion as a whole.
Against more moderate religious people
Religious people often argue from the naive (and probably unconscious) stance that their religion is the only one worth discussing. In fact, worldwide in the 21st Century, 1000s of gods are worshipped, and about 10,000 religions are practised. Whatever a person's religion, most religious people in the world deny that person's fundamental beliefs.