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John G Messerly


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IEET > Security > Rights > Life > Vision > Affiliate Scholar > John G. Messerly

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The End of Religion: Technology and the Future


John G. Messerly
By John G. Messerly
reasonandmeaning.com

Posted: Jan 24, 2015

History is littered with dead gods. The Greek and Roman gods, and thousands of others have perished. Yet AllahYahwehKrishna and a few more survive. But will belief in the gods endure? It will not. Our descendents will be too advanced to share such primitive beliefs.

If we survive and science progresses, we will manipulate the genome, rearrange the atom, and augment the mind. And if science defeats suffering and death, religion as we know it will die. Without suffering and death, religion will have lost its raison d’être. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? With the defeat of death, science and technology will have finally triumphed over superstition. Our descendents will know, once and for all, that they are stronger than imaginary gods.

As they continue to evolve our post-human progeny will become increasingly godlike. They will overcome human physical and psychological limitations, and achievesuperintellgence, either by modifying their brains or interfacing with computers. While we can’t know this for sure, what we do know is that the future will not be like the past. From our perspective, if science and technology continue to progress, our offspring will come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang.

As our descendents distance themselves from their past, they will lose interest in the gods. Such primitive ideas may even be unthinkable for them. Today the gods are impotent, tomorrow they’ll be irrelevant. You may doubt this. But do you really think that in a thousand or a million years your descendents, travelling through an infinite cosmos with augmented minds, will find their answers in ancient scriptures? Do you really think that powerful superintelligence will cling to the primitive mythologies that once satisfied ape-like brains? Only the credulous can believe such things. In the future gods will exist … only if we become them.

Still the future is unknown. Asteroids, nuclear war, environmental degradation, climate change or deadly viruses and bacteria may destroy us. Perhaps the machine intelligences we create will replace us. Or we might survive but create a dystopia. None of these prospects is inviting, but they all entail the end of religion.

Alternatively, in order to maintain the status quo, some combination of neo-Luddites, political conservatives or religious fanatics could destroy past knowledge, persecute the scientists, censor novel ideas, and usher in a new Dark Ages of minimal technology, political repression and antiquated religion. But even if they were successful, this would not save them or their archaic ideas. For killer asteroids, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or some other threat will inevitably emerge. And when it does only science and technology will save us—prayer or ideology will not help. Either we evolve or we will die.

But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science defeats death, before we become godlike? We may eventually outgrow religious beliefs, but why not allow their comforts to those who still need them? If parents lose a child or children lose a parent, what’s wrong with telling them they’ll be reunited in heaven? I am sympathetic with noble lies, sometimes they are justified. If a belief helps you and doesn’t hurt others, it is hard to gainsay.

Still religious consolation has a price. Religion, and conservative philosophies in general, typically opposes intellectual, technological and moral progress. Religion has fought against free speech, democracy, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It has been aligned with inquisitions, war, human sacrifice, torture, despotism, child abuse, intolerance, fascism, and genocide. It displays a fondness for the supernatural, authoritarian, misogynistic, hierarchical, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-progressive. Religion has caused an untold amount of misery.

One could even argue that religious beliefs are the most damaging beliefs possible. Consider that Christianity rose in power as the Roman Empire declined, resulting in the marginalization of the Greek science that the Romans had inherited. If the scientific achievements of the Greeks been built upon throughout the Middle Ages, if science had continued to advance for those thousand years, we might live in an unimaginably better world today. Who knows how many diseases would be cured by now? Who knows how advanced our intellectual and moral natures might be? Maybe we would have already overcome death. Maybe we still die today because of religion.

The cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions known in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places. And if religion causes less harm in some places today than it once did, that’s because it has less power than it used to. Were that power regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm. Put simply, religion is an enemy of the future. If we are to survive and progress, ideas compatible with brains forged in the Pleistocene must yield. We shouldn’t direct our gaze to the heavens but to the earth, where the real work of making a better world takes place.

‚ÄčOf course religion is not the only anti-progressive force in the world—there are other enemies of the future. Some oppose progressive ideas even if they are advanced by the religious. Consider how political conservatives, virtually all of whom profess to be Christians, denounce Pope Francis’ role in re-establishing Cuban-American relations, his criticism of unfettered capitalism and vast income inequality, and his warnings about the dangers of climate change. The plutocrats and despots hate change, especially if it affects their wallets. The beneficiaries of the status quo don’t want a better world—they like the one they have.

How then do we make a better world? What will guide us in this quest? For there to be a worthwhile future we need at least three things: 1) knowledge of ourselves and the world; 2) ethical values that promote the flourishing of conscious beings; and 3) a narrative to give life meaning. But where do we find them?

Knowledge comes from science, which is the only cognitive authority in the world today. Science explains forces that were once dark and mysterious. It reveals the vast immensity, history and future of the cosmos. It explains our biological origins and the legacy that evolutionary history leaves upon our thoughts and behaviors. It tells us how the world works independent of ideology or prejudice. And applied science is technology, which gives us the power to overcome limitations and make a better future. If you want to see miracles, don’t go to Lourdes, look inside your cell phone.

Ethical values do not depend on religion. The idea that people can’t be moral without religion is false, no matter how many think otherwise. The claim that morality is grounded in religion is also false, as can easily be demonstrated. Ethical values and behaviors arose in our evolutionary history, where they may also find their justification. Yes, the moral-like behaviors sometimes favored by evolution have also been prescribed by religion— cooperation and altruism come to mind—but the justification of these values is biological and social, not supernatural. We are moral because, for the most part, it’s in our self-interest. We all do better, if we all cooperate. Everyone can endorse values that aid our survival and flourishing—even our godlike descendents.

Finally we need a new narrative to replace outdated religious ones—a narrative to give our lives meaning and purpose. We need a story that appeals to the educated, not superstition and mythology. With the death of religion imminent, we need to look elsewhere for meaning and purpose.

Fortunately such a narrative already exists. It is the story of cosmic evolution, the story of the cosmos becoming self-conscious. Nature gave birth to consciousness, and consciousness comes to know nature. Through this interaction of the universe and the minds that emerge from it, reality comes to know itself. Surely this story is profound enough to satisfy our metaphysical longings. And it has an added benefit over mythological accounts—it’s based on science.

What is our role in this story? We are the protagonists of the evolutionary epic; determining its course is our destiny. We should willingly embrace our role as agents of evolutionary change, helping evolution to realize new possibilities. We are not an end, but a beginning. We are as links in a chain leading upward to higher forms of being and consciousness. This is our hope, this gives our lives meaning.

I don’t know if we can make a better future, but I know that no help will come from the gods. Turning our backs on them is a first step on our journey.


John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.
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COMMENTS


Hi John. I strongly disagree.  : )

The End of Religion Misrecognized





I agree with much of what you claim science has to offer us, however, I think it’s important to keep in mind that science is a set of pragmatic conventions. It helps us map the features of intersubjective space. Science is based on observations through the sensory organs. These observations can not occur without a consciousness to observe them.

Since consciousness precedes scientific observation, I think there will always be religious ways of thinking about the world that even advanced intellects may find appealing. You may be correct in saying that anthropomorphic conceptions of god are going out of fashion, however, things like Spinoza’s and Einstein’s Pantheism and variations on Agnosticism mixed with some qualified version of Idealism may always be appealing to conscious beings.





@John,

Respectfully your predictions themselves are just religion in a scientific costume rather than science itself. It is always intellectually distorting to conflate these two very different ways of approaching the world.

But more to your point: even should the majority of the advances you predict come to pass religion will most likely just absorb them has it has done every other major technological change in history. I think the problem is you see religion in the way Marx did, as an opiate, if we can get rid of the pain there will be no reason for the drug. But religion is just as much about the search for MEANING and connections between human beings who share a world-view especially around some set of ethical commitments, and in all these senses, and in ways we can’t even predict, religion will likely still be around whatever the technological advances of humanity.





“God is dead!” - Hmm.. where have I heard this before? All in all it’s more of a slogan and less than convincing to those that believe. Yet the danger is that it demands minds to choose, polarizes, and encourages further division?

@ John - to be clear I agree almost entirely with the sentiments of your article, “almost”. So what am I having problems with exactly? There appears some obstacle in my mind, some barrier that is proving difficult to reconcile?

Is it the belief in God/Gods that is the problem, or is it the politics and morality we project onto God to support our own bigotry and bias, and ultimately to preserve culture and tradition, tribes and tongues?

For sure if we eliminate God as the authority for misguided political and cultural division this may remove to “degree” the justification for division between Humans?

Yet still I am asking myself, is it really the confusion and question over belief in God that is the problem, or is it the political division that Religions promote, and the heinous words and actions perpetrated in Gods name?

A belief in God can be “passively” supportive, encouraging and provide ontological meaning for the “miracle” that is creation? A belief in God can still be aspiration to goodness in many? Perhaps “passive” belief is the key?

I personally have no problems with Human minds having belief in God and the comforts some may derive from this. I have no authority to take this belief from anyone. I DO have problems with the hatred, violence, murder and killing perpetrated by Religions and their “books” in the name of God.

again

God = Humanism
Religion = Politics


Addendum: We should by all means challenge the hypocrisy of Religions, and especially the Abrahamic religions, yet the best methodology may well be to leave God out of it, and let individuals seek to reconcile belief for themselves?

 

 





This is just the same old unreaserched athiest doctrine. I’ve seen so many posts like this I am starting to wonder if they are all copy-pasted by the same narrow-minded zealot. Anyone who thinks religion is the root of all evil, as you seem to, needs to present some citations. And no, I don’t mean anacdotes, i mean a peer-reviewed historical study. Gosh, it sure is amazing how bigots like you never seem to have that proof to hand, isn’t it? And it’s amazing how you guys never learn from your utopian fantasies. Seriously, you guys have killed about 150 million people in places like Russia and China. Aren’t you ever going to learn? Aparently not. For a group who love to bleat about facts, you sure hate that one. Hell, you guys pretty-much hate facts generally, unless they confirm your utterly outdated materialist doctrine. Which, by the way, is something that is activly damaging science by preventing lines of enquiry that could lead to God. Why don’t you go look up Dr Rupert Sheldrake’s banned TED talk and find out about the cabal of atheists who had it taken down? While you are at it, go look up the fact that only 2% of terrorist attacks are religious? But of course, you won’t because bigots are terrified of being wrong. See you at your next ‘enlightened’ attempt to exterminate us!

mention all the good religious people do, and what a uniting force for good it is.The laws of the western world were made by Christians. The fact is doesn’t understand even the most basic facts about human nature.





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