A philosopher’s view of the future of religion

Jawaid asked:

What is the future of religion?

Answer by Craig Skinner

There’s no sharp distinction as to what counts as religion and what doesn’t.

Commonest is shared belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, eternal Creator, worthy of worship and interested in us, plus rituals affirming allegiance. In short, Theism (as in Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Deism, polytheism, panentheism, and much else also count. And some religions recognize no supernatural entities, although I find this use of the word confusing.

My guess is that religion will be alive and well for the indefinite future.

I have two main reasons for this view:

1. Religion is a deep-seated feature of human nature.

2. Whether God or gods exist is undecidable, and a view either way is reasonable.

To deal with each point:

1. Religion exists in all societies at all times. It appears to be an innate, evolved feature of humans. The front-runner naturalistic explanations are:

(a) it promotes tribal solidarity and moral order, giving the group a survival advantage in inter-group conflict or competition (David Sloan Wilson’s view).

(b) it is an extension of the brain’s agent-detector device, a hyperactive agent detector device (HADD) as Dennett terms it. The idea here is that overdiagnosis of agency is a naturally selected, safe default option: better to think the stripey pattern in the long grass is a tiger and to run off, than to think the more likely option that it is just a trick of the light; we hear a creak at night and instantly suspect an intruder etc. By extension, we impute thunder, rain to specialist gods, crop failure to angry gods, ultimately all of creation to an almighty god.

Whether (a) or (b), or both, or some other explanation is correct, we don’t know, but future research may clarify.

Of course, existence of an evolved tendency to religion doesn’t help us with (2) – atheists are happy with the Darwinian explanation, so are theists (evolution is how God has gone about creating us including our capacity for knowing and relating to God).

2. Theism and atheism are both rational views.

Some fundamentalists (e.g. Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society) tell us atheism is the devil’s work, others (e.g. Dawkins) tell us theism is irrational, even delusional.

My view (and I think it is shared by most theist and atheist philosophers) is that, in the light of the evidence, belief either way is a reasonable all-things-considered stance.

The a priori Ontological arguments are unconvincing. But, in the light of accepted science, modern Cosmological and Design arguments make Theism at least as likely as atheism.

I would particularly cite:

* the existence of a universe (as opposed to absolutely nothing).
* the fact that the universe had a beginning (Big Bang). If it were eternal, like God (allegedly), no startup cause need be sought. But science tells us it isn’t.
* the order of the universe (it might have been chaotic with no natural laws)
* the fine-tuning (for emergence of life) of the constants of nature.
* the existence of conscious minds (the ‘hard problem’ for physicalism).

I am well aware of naturalistic suggestions to account for these facts (quantum fluctuations producing universes; multiverses, eternally inflationary or otherwise, coupled with the anthropic principle; ’emergence’ of consciousness to be explained in due course; etc). All speculative. Some may be on the right track. My point is that theism is as plausible a hypothesis as atheism in the light of the findings of modern science. And note that God is central in this theistic view, not a ‘God of the gaps’.

Many theists point to their personal religious experience (feeling God’s presence). I have had no such experience, and that may be why I am less impressed with such evidence.

So, good and bad things will continue, both in the name of religion and without it. Some extremists will enforce views and harm dissenters. Moderates will urge mutual tolerance of differing religious views. Agnostics may agonize or just shrug their shoulders. I see no prospect of religion withering away (it isn’t just primitive superstition as militant New Atheists declare). Nor prospect of any universally-held world religion. God, if existent, may know the ultimate position, but if God really gives us freedom to accept or reject him as we choose, maybe even an omnipotent being can’t then be sure how it will go with humanity.


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