Both Heathen Heart and R.L. Culpeper have written a few posts between themselves discussing, and respectfully disagreeing on the endgame of religion. So now I’m turning it into a chain-mail of posts by adding my two cents (and that’s probably all it’s worth) in response to Culpeper’s post, linked here. It’s written as a comment, but I’m adding it here because I needed to insert links as references and it’s also quite long (for a comment at least).
So you’ve made some great points in your post, and I’m inclined to agree with all of them. However, and forgive me for being blunt, I think they are rooted in the application of your considerable intellect only to the short-history humanity has had. The assumptions (or fundamentals) that have thus far, underwritten our societies, are changing and will soon no longer be relevant. To elucidate this, let me use an example of a friend who took a similar position but related to GMO foods.
She said that science (read: genetic engineering) has never produced a healthier food than what we can produce organically. In this, she is not wrong. But what was also implied was scientists will never ever produce a healthier food than nature, and this is false (if we set our minds to it, we’ll do it; history is replete with such examples: flight, telepathy (cellphone), space travel, breaking the sound barrier, and so on). Producing a healthier apple than nature merely requires the requisite knowledge and tools, both of which are coming online ever increasingly in abundance with each passing year. It’s just a matter of time, because if nature can do it, it means that it’s possible, and since evolution never produces perfect organisms, there is always a better way to make it. Ergo, one day, provided that research into GM food continues, then GM food will one day trump nature’s food.
So to relate that back to your example. Religion will never release its hold upon humanity. I’d like to modify your statement if I may. I think it should be written as “religion will never release its hold upon humanity while people remain uneducated, mis-educated, disease-prone, conflict-prone, and death providing the existential threat.”
So let’s tackle them one by one.
Global literacy is on its way down, thanks to the Internet, cell-phones, and increasing wealth (this trend is slow but progressing. Global literacy is 84%, while in 1990, it was 76%). Mis-education is a problem, but again, this is also getting better and you need only look to the western countries to see that as economic growth increases, societal dysfunction goes down, more kids are sent to school as a result, instead of having to help the family get food and income, and religious fervour drops as a result. (There was a recent comprehensive study that showed that religion, social stratification, and societal dysfunction are inherently linked, but which causes which is as yet unknown. Does society-wide religion cause economic inequalities, or does economic inequality increase religious fervor? I think it’s the latter, but there is no way to conclusively show it is one over the other.) This somewhat tackles mis-education indirectly. A prosperous society is more likely to be a freer society. And a freer society is more likely to have criticism, debates, discussions, opposing and dissenting opinions, and this makes its way into the hearts and minds of its citizens.
Disease-prone: This is somewhat self-explanatory. 100 years ago, life expectancy was 47 years. It’s 78.5 today in the west, 89 in Monaco, and 83 in Japan. Chad has the lowest at 48.69, but that is higher than the entire global average of one century ago. More and more diseases are being combatted now (Hans Rosling has an excellent four-minute video of the rising life expectancy as a result of increasing wealth). But medicine, up until now, has been a hit and miss process. As Kurzweil says, we just found stuff that worked and kept doing it with very little understanding of the underlying biological processes at work. With genetic medicine increasing in cost-to-performance ratio ten-fold per year (5 times the pace of Moore’s Law in computers), it is getting cheaper to sequence DNA, understand the information processes that underly biology, and start implementing preventive medicine instead of reactive medicine, which is resulting in Lab on a Chip technology. (Soon, your cellphone will become your doctor and analyze your body on the spot. Pandemics will cease, health will increase, people will have more time to satisfy their own desires and study, and quality of life will increase. This tech is coming online this year. I wrote a post on the future of medicine and health here, and here is a short youtube video to show it in action.) Historically, life expectancy has increased 1-2 years per decade. But because biology is now an information technology, it will (and indeed does) increase exponentially (since 2003 when the genome was mapped), and within 10-20 years, life expectancy will be increased at one year per year. (Note, this requires no new technology, only the technology and understanding we currently have to continue along at a pace equal to, or greater, than Moore’s Law, and this is indeed happening and shows no sign of abating.)
Tackling conflict. According to Steven Pinker (everyone owes it to themselves to watch his 18-min TED talk titled: The Myth of Violence), violence has declined since the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the 20th century was the most peaceful century in existence, even accounting for WW1 and WW2. War is becoming less and less common the more the information about the conflict travels. We need only look at Vietnam here. The first war to bring the reality of death and destruction back to the general population. Needless to say, it was the most unpopular war in history, and look at the conflicts since then, unwaveringly smaller, and more sensitive to collateral damage. (I am not saying it has been roses and happiness since then, but there is a clear downgrade in the severity of conflicts in regions of the world where communication and information are abundant.)
Death is the big one and will undoubtedly remain the biggest motivator, but we must realize that even if no progress is made, progress against religion can be made. Just look at the Scandinavian countries, Australia, several other European nations, China, and Japan which are majority (or close to) agnostic/atheist. But be that as it may, progress towards the dissolution of death is well underway, and even starting to appear in the mainstream press. But for now, we must take it as an assumption that death will be forever removed as the inevitable curse it is. The other examples I have shown are in progress, so is death, but until global death rates hit zero (natural deaths, that is), the jury will be out.
You also mention political and economic inequality. I could write thousands of words on this, but to try to keep it brief. Technology is changing the human landscape and bringing people out of poverty. The book Abundance is a great read to really understand the dynamics. (And Rational Optimist so I’m told, though I haven’t read it yet but I will soon.) But, in the last century: per-capita average income has tripled (adjusted for inflation), food has come down in cost a factor of 10, shelter a factor of 20, transportation a factor of 100, and communication a 1000-fold. And in the last forty years, global poverty has halved while the population has doubled. So we are earning three times more, spending less on the necessities and learning/enjoying more than ever. These trends are actually accelerating (The Law of Accelerating Returns). While we are not out of the woods yet, the trends are clearly in one direction, and short of some calamity, should continue.
Concordantly, global religiosity is on its way down (59% are now religious, 23% are now a-religious, and 13% are atheists, with the none’s being the fastest growing, with the youth leading the way). (Who ever said young people were useless? It is only they that do reliably change the world. Of course, the logical conclusion is that if death is kept at bay, might things never change? The answer, for me, is no, as we tinker with our brains and augment our intelligence becoming in the process more wed to truth than to our cognitive biases as it stands now.)
So in answer to your questions. I do foresee a world of equal economic opportunity. (I think politics is obsolete and will go the way of the Dodo in the age of Big Data we are entering into. It’s even said that the metric system will run out of numbers to quantify the amount of data we will have by 2020.) Equal opportunity for education? Yes, Massively Online Open Courses (MOOC) are ballooning in size. Needing only internet connections to take courses at MIT and Stanford, as well as whole new schools opening up such as udacity.com and coursera that offer the information and teaching content of degrees, and they are starting to become recognized by universities and applicable for course credit. (It’s early days yet, but the trends are there and heading in the right direction. Soon, only an internet connection will be required. Two billion people have internet today; by 2020, it will be five billion, and soon thereafter, close to everyone.) A time when people will want to learn? This one is harder to be so confident on, but my gut realization is yes, and allow me to explain my gut (and subjective) reasoning for such an answer. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. I’m not content in not knowing, and though I have always been like this, I often never had the leisure or time or requisite knowledge to go out there and gather more knowledge. I get better at this every year, and continuously want to continue. Now, with a sample size of just one, I cannot confidently extrapolate this out to anyone else (though I’m sure I can to you), but I do think this is part of human nature; this innate curiosity. It requires we adequately provide for one’s basic needs, then education and wants, then the potential for self-actualization (Nietzsche’s will to power: superman). As we move forward into the future, we are becoming smarter (and the lag-time between the have’s and have-nots is halving every decade [Source: The Singularity is Near]), so it is only a matter of time before inequality becomes insignificant. Here, I’ll use the world ‘believe’. I believe that once the needs of most people have been provided, and they have been educated properly, and become more prosperous, religiosity will decline, and people will want to know more, and thus wed themselves to truth. Big Data will also elucidate the many mysterious workings of the Earth and our societies, as well as making it accessible to the public.
I recently read an article on the explosion of Big Data and the death of the theorist. Historically, when we wanted to find out more about the world; we proposed a theory, computed the results, and went to gather data by experimentation/observation to confirm or falsify that theory. This process is reversing. We are now generating so much data; science and scientific studies, tweets, facebook, blogs and webpages, planes, trains, and automobiles along with everything else that our computers programs can find, and pull out the theories and do science after the fact. This is great for two reasons. Firstly, less and less will get missed as a result. Before, if somebody wasn’t thinking about or trying to find out something, then the theory was missed, lost forever, or delayed, or when found often suppressed (we lost the knowledge to make aluminum for 1800 years because of Tiberius if I recall correctly, the Emperor of Rome). Now, with an army of AI’s whose sole job it is to pull it out the world’s information, we will learn that much more about the world. Pandemics will be a thing a past, resource depletion will be foreseen well in advance, known troublemakers will be spotted beforehand and terrorist attacks possibly stopped. (If you read the article, which I recommend you do, you will see that Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad could have been derived from publicly available information on the internet before hand to within 200km. Imagine the possibilities of stopping future attacks instead, which should do away with the politics of fear, and perhaps, even the CIA and military industrial complex.)
So, I think the future is bright (provided we can move fast enough on climate change and other vexing problems of urgent immediacy), and we can do away with religion, or at least, and perhaps more likely, relegate it to irrelevance, much as flat-earthism is today. There are also other interesting aspects which I do not have time to explore; such as the merging of humanity into a global mind, the technological potential of a universal fact checker (I recently had an idea to create a script that scours what you read on the net and highlights dubious/false claims. We don’t all have time to fact-check every claim we read, we are modified skeptics in that regard, but this is what we use technology for, to alleviate our shortcomings. Kind of like a modified Watson who will soon start informing and helping doctors in their diagnosis’ because the amount of info is expanding exponentially and a doctor can’t hold all that info in his head, so we’ll be using AI to augment their powers of diagnosis, and I see no reason why it will stop at just medicine. It will subsume all fields where knowledge is definitively known, and most likely provide probabilistic answers for other fields). But, I’m in a rush so I’m skimming. (If you watch any YouTube lecture by Kurzweil in the range of 45-60 minutess, you will immediately see where I’m coming from and I recommend that.)
Anyway, I don’t disagree with anything you said. In fact, I learn lots every time I read one of your posts. It’s only that the dynamics of our society, which still allow religious belief to be insulated from facts, truth, reason, and humanism are finite, and now that we are above the knee of the exponential curve, greater change will occur in ever-decreasing amounts of time. Lastly, I do not mean to make it seem so easy or underplay the consequences of any conflicts, local or global, of humanity. Merely, that it is becoming easier to understand, communicate, and tackle them, and this trend is becoming ever more pervasive, understood, and the means of production ever cheaper democratizing them in the process. There is a lot of work still to be done, a lot of people still needlessly die, and many more are unable to enjoy the comforts that many of us now enjoy. However, these problems are being more and more understood, tackled, and it will only become easier in the future.
This is, believe it or not, brief, and I have only explored them rather inadequately and quickly. But I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to write a counter-post; disagreeing or agreeing for whatever reason, and if need be, I can explain in more detail, any point I’ve inadequately expressed. Looking forward to hearing from you.