Religion's Impending Death
Most forms of religion will be completely dead within a hundred years
Religion serves three purposes in my opinion and these purposes can be summarized simply as past, present and future. If these are three things are the questions, religion is the answer. In other words, religion provides answers to many questions about the past, such as where did we come from and how did the universe come into existence. Religion provides answers to the future most importantly in the form of what will happen after death and secondarily in the form of predictive prophecies that provide a sense of comfort about an unknown future. Finally, religion provides answers to the present by prescribing moral rules for governing behavior, in other by providing answers to the question of how to behave. I believe the next century will entirely resolve the issue of the future by eradicating death. I believe the issue of the past will remain an eternal question but scientific approaches will finally become widely accepted after centuries of being the underdog. The issue of the present may become moot if people begin to accept that religion doesn't have a very good history of determining moral behavior. More importantly, without the original religious motivations of past and future, the motivation of moral behavior won't have much strength.
Here's an idea I've been working on for a long time. I am sure many (most) people will harshly disagree with me for several reasons. They will say that religion won't die because it serves an important purpose. They will say that their particular religion won't die because it is an indomitable truth that must eventually emerge victorious over all adversarial viewpoints. Fine. Here's my take on things however.
I believe religion answers three questions: past, present, and future. These aren't questions. They're just words. However, they raise tremendous questions. Entire philosophies of thought are dedicated to these three words. I will discuss each and then argue that the religious need to account for them will soon come to an end.
Why is religion so popular? It has existed for thousands of years and has generally encompassed a vast majority of the population. Why? I believe that most anthropologists would agree that the origins of religion lay in deriving answers to new questions that our evolving intellect allowed us to ask. To become an introspective species meant that we must place ourselves in the universe. It was no longer sufficient to simply eat ants and berries and avoid leopards and asps. We had become aware of the passage of time, not only within our lives, but surrounding our lives as it stretched into the past and future. These ideas begged questions that demanded answers. Where did all this "existence" come from? What could account for the strange patterns of light in the nighttime sky? If I came from my mother and she came from her mother, how far back did it go?
I believe the origin of religion lay in this initial need to comprehend an explanation for existence. I label this the "past" facet of religion. Clearly, the religious answer to this issue and all the related questions it raises is simply that God or a polytheistic multitude of Gods, usually through sheer will, breathed ether from nothingness, space from ether, matter from space, life from matter, and most importantly, humans from life, and there is was, a neat little package that answered the question with no loose ends and left no room for doubt or flaws. The goal was to alleviate the sense of wonderment and replace it with some solid answers. People don't like to not understand something. If they can't learn a solution to an unresolved issue they would rather create one than admit they don't know. Religion provides the comfort of not having to admit that one doesn't know the answer to certain questions. My other mind ramblings topic, God's existence, discusses the psychology of this phenomenon further.
Time stretches in both directions, into the past and into the future. Evolution granted us a terrifying existence in which we must inevitably die. Once again, I argue that as our mental prowess improved, we saw our family and friends die one by one around us, and wondered what this alluded to in the grander scheme of things. It is even argued that many animals understand the concept of death. Elephants, primates, even our pet cats and dogs seem to be aware of these things. We could not simply accept that death occurred. If we were discovering that time was endless in both directions, we must determine how we fit into that. If there was a time before us, and there is a time after us, then was does it mean to be alive for only a little while? What is it that exists temporarily? It isn't the body because it could clearly be observed that after death the body persisted for some time while something else was clearly gone. What was this missing thing and where did it go? I am obviously referring to the concept of a soul.
It seems strange to me that the simple explanation that the soul, whatever that may be, couldn't have been theorized to exist for a while and then vanish. This would be a much simpler and straightforward explanation than religious explanations, which tend to be quite elaborate as a matter of fact. The notion of permanence may be a factor of our psychological evolution. As growing infants, we learn about a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as "object permanence", the notion that if one object disappears behind another object, it still exists even though we can't see it. Perhaps this idea is so ingrained into our mental processes, that early humans assumed the same must be true of this soul thing that had mysteriously vanished at the time of death.
Religions have gone off in many different directions to explain this soul permanence. Hinduism prescribes a continual recycling right here on Earth called reincarnation. Many other religions however share the concept of afterlife, which is often divided into heaven and hell, two places where souls go after death and reside for the rest of eternity. It only makes sense that this ephemeral place be tied in with God(s) because perhaps that is where the invisible God(s) is/are also. Not only had religion provided an answer to the question of death, it provided comfort. Death is terrifying. This soul has vanished into the void. The person no longer "is". The prediction that the same thing will happen to oneself, the anticipation of one's own future nonexistence, is frightening to say the least. Therefore, afterlife is dressed up so as to be very nice indeed. In fact, it is basically described as paradise, and there it is. Religion has alleviated all the discomfort and fear of death by providing us with a utopian existence when it occurs. What of hell? It certainly isn't paradise. I believe quite strongly that hell is closely tied to organized religion and is generally used to control people's behavior. Where does behavior fit into all of this? I haven't said anything about behavior yet. That is the next section, which concerns not the past or the future, but the present.
This brings me to the third and final major facet of religion, the present. The present requires no religious explanation. It is simply occurring around us as we live. However, there are major questions about the present. For one thing, once one has created something as powerful as a God, it becomes extremely important to determine (decide) how God wishes for you to behave toward it. Does it wish to be worshipped? Feared? Hated? Loved? Honored with sacrifices? Recognized with huge elaborate churches? Protected from rival gods through warfare with and slavery of members of rivaling religions? Maybe it just wants to be ignored for heaven's sake. Who knows? These questions concern the present because they concern how one must act right now, not in the past, and not in the future. This spawns side questions, such as how should one person treat another person. Clearly, it matters not how the other person wishes to be treated. The ultimate question is how does God want one to treat other people, and thus religion prescribes not only behavior toward God, but behavior toward other people, and when it all comes down to it, the issue of how people behave around and toward one another is the basis for any given society's rules, for its particular culture. How does one interpret God, much less enforce God's rules? Remember that I said hell didn't fit too well into the notion of making death more comfortable? It does however, form an excellent basis for controlling people's behavior in the present. Do what God wants, and you will be rewarded with heaven and not be punished with hell. Don't do what God wants, and you will be punished with hell, and not be rewarded with heaven.
So there it is. My take on religion: past, present, and future, each phrased as a question with the religion the inevitable answer.
Religion's time has come
Why do I believe religion's time has come? If one accepts that religion is based on these three facets, then as each issue goes away, the need for religion should lessen. There's a catch to the approach of dissolving religion piece by piece however, and that is that these three facets strengthen one another (note that present is strengthened by past in the form that once God has been granted existence to explain the past its desire for one's behavior must dictate the present. Likewise, once the present becomes Godly, the issue of future is used to control one's present and the issue of present is used to explain what will happen in the future, right?). This argument works both ways however. While the three facets strengthen each other, they are also interdependent. As one facet weakens, its ability to strengthen the other facets will weaken with it. Notice that if God wasn't necessary to explain the past then determining what God wants wouldn't be so pressing because God may not be such a big deal after all. Or a better example, if one has no need to worry about the future (by not having the worry about dying), then the future's ability to control the present weakens and if God can't control the present, then maybe God couldn't control the past and may not have started the clock ticking in the first place. Religion will not crumble in a sudden instant. It will dissolve. In fact, this dissolving is well under way. While the world seems very religious today, it really isn't very religious compared to the past. Religion is already losing its vice-grip on our lives and this pattern will continue.
Despite my statement that religion will slowly wither away, there are a few major nails that I believe will be driven into the coffin in the next century. These larger blows to religion will be the final death blows in a very long death that has seemed almost eternal in coming. I will begin with the easiest of the three facets, and the one most likely to be the first to fall, the future. Everyone, priests, scientists, and everyone in between, seems to agree that death is some sort of unstoppable force. Seems to make sense. Living things have been dying without exception for 4 billion years (or at least for 6000 years depending on your take on things. Creationism is really good for a laugh). How could the table be about to turn? While I believe that theoretically it is possible to live forever in a human body, I am far more convinced of the inevitability of near-immortality in robotic form. Huh? I thought we were talking about people here. What does this have to do with robots? Bare with me.
Living forever: destroying the future argument
First, let me illustrate how we could live forever as good old fashioned fleshy humans. Quite simply, we need to be able to prevent and repair bodily damage. Not just large damage like heart attacks, but microscopic damage such as telemeres breaking down in our chromosomes to the point that cells can no longer divide. There are many different ways in which our bodies crumble and every single form of damage must be dealt with. I will quickly list just a few. The whole telemere issue can be resolved by simply rebuilding the telemeres between cell divisions. Sounds difficult to a circa-2001 molecular biologist, but it would be naive to suggest it can't be done in the future. Oxidation is another sniper in our midst. Oxygen, when incorporated into certain molecules called oxidants, almost literally slashes our innards to pieces while simultaneously providing us with life, a short term gain (not dying in five minutes) for a long term loss (death). The solution is to build nanobots or to engineer microscopic lifeforms (viruses and bacteria) that can repair the damage being done. Cancer is a serious problem that must be dealt with. We must either detect a cell that is about to become cancerous or we must improve our methods for healing cancer. The likelyhood of both of these approaches succeeding in the future seems strong. What about damage at a larger level? This is also easy. Grow a replacement organ in a jar and then transplant it? Does the idea of a spleen growing in a jar just sound too ridiculous for reality to you? To bad, it's already happening in labs around the world and will be common-place in the near future. The brain is not only the most important part of our body (being the part that houses our mind), it is also one of the most difficult to repair. However, difficult is not synonymous with impossible. We are already learning how to repair injuries to the spinal cord and how to treat and prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, etc. Our ability to keep the brain healthy will continue to improve. It should be possible to keep a body healthy indefinitely by repairing and replacing parts that are going bad. You can't replace your brain because it is "you", but you can repair it on a microscopic level.
In truth, this is not exactly what I believe will happen. I believe it is far more likely that we will slowly integrate technology (machines and computers) into our biology and that we will dispense with biological body parts until there isn't any biology left. We will have become robots in physicality while retaining our mental and emotional minds with no break in our sense of continuity. For further explanation of this process, I refer you to my other mind ramblings topic, Robots and mind uploading.
Bottom line, we won't die. If you are still concerned about the possibility of dying by accident, don't be. Once the mind is free of any physical dependency, it can be protected from damage to its physical compartments in a variety of ways. A constant "backup" that retains a continual connection to the living mind will experience no break in its sense of continuity (its sense of self-consciousness) when activated after the death of the running mind's computer-brain because it will have full knowledge of its existence and death right up to the moment of losing consciousness. To wake up after such an experience will feel like waking up in the morning, or perhaps more like waking up in a hospital after surgery. Another way to protect one's mind is to distribute it over many physical nodes covering a large area. Each node would contain only a fraction of the mind in living operating form. The entire node-network would run collectively to produce a single mind. Each node would contain ready backups of many (ideally all) other nodes. In this way, if some nodes are knocked out by a cataclysm, their up-to-date state can reinstated from backups in neighboring nodes. If such a system truly contained full backups of all nodes in each node, then such a network could perform a 100% recovery even if all but one node were destroyed. Personally, I like to imagine this distributed node-network as a system of very small space-ships spread out over several thousand cubic miles that travel travel through the universe as a nebulous cloud of mind energy, fully equipped with all the physical aptitude necessary to set up base on a quiet asteroid whenever a short respite is desired.
With the fear of death behind us, we will be free from God's wrath for good. Few people take the idea of God striking his infidels down with lightning bolts seriously anymore. God's retribution has been relegated to the afterlife, and there is no need to fear an afterlife that will never come. Strike one of three to religion has been fully dealt. I believe this will occur within the next century. Many people alive today may benefit from this coming near-immortality. Congratulations.
Respecting science: destroying the past argument
What about the past? That is a much hairier subject. No matter how much science explains, it will leave another layer of questions unanswered. God will always provide an easy explanation. God used to be used to explain earthquakes and floods. Now we understand global geology, tectonics, and weather enough to know that God can't take too much credit for a bad crop anymore. God used to be used to explain the apparent rotation of the celestial bodies around the Earth. First it was discovered that this was not the case at all, that only one body orbited the Earth. Then, with a little math and a little physics, it was discovered that regular motions resulting from predictable forces caused the patterns we saw in the night sky. It used to be necessary for God to spin the Earth into existence in his very palm. Now we have accurate models of galactic and solar system formation that show the coalescence of matter in rotating disks of dusts into stars, asteroids, comets, planets, and moons. God used to be used to explain the origin of the universe. Now we have the Big Bang. Any one of these things pushes God back one step, but no more. For example, while the Big Bang accounts for the universe God can still be used to explain the Big Bang.
Why would this cycle of a retreating but never surrendering God ever end? I can't be certain that it will. However, history has shown that, despite a tremendous amount of resistance, humanity as a whole is slowly accepting science as a sufficient explanatory method for understanding the physical nature of the universe. There is no sign that this trend will slow down, stop, or reverse. God is on the retreat, no doubt, and while God may never fully vanish, it will probably become asymptotically remote.
Becoming a god: destroying the present argument
And the present? Humans are simple. We are weak, vulnerable, slow-minded (by comparison to our inevitable future), and we have a short life-span. The universe is a big scary place, with plenty of room for all-powerful gods that may wish to dictate our actions and carve out our morality for us. It seems much less likely to me that nearly omnipotent, nearly immortal cyber-robotic-minds such as our future holds will find as much comfort in receiving their morality from on high. For one thing, it only takes a small amount of objective observation to notice that religion's track record when it comes to prescribing morality has been nothing short of a dismal failure. We have our heads stuck in the sand it seems, convinced that while all other religious codes of ethics have failed, our own religion will prevail. Such a pattern of ignorance cannot go on forever, especially with the awareness and intelligence that our future selves will possess. For another thing, it seems pretty clear that we will practically be gods ourselves in the future, which seems to, by the human definition of a god, give us the right to derive morality outright instead of being handed such morality from elsewhere.
I will make one final other point that should act seriously to the detriment of religion, organized religion in particular. People seem to have a need to be controlled, if not by God, then at least by a religious leader. That is why we voluntarily subscribe to religious "leadership". It's kind of pathetic actually, the degree of independence that we simply toss away in search of the simplicity of not having the think for ourselves. It guess we're just plain lazy when it comes down to it. It is doubtful that beings of such wisdom, independence, and intellect as our future selves will be nearly as happy to subject themselves to the will of others. We will recognize that we are so powerful and self-actualized ourselves, that we have no need to be told how to behave by someone else. If you thought you possessed near-infinite knowledge, would you have much interest in being told what to do by someone else? Think about it. Does it make much sense to consider God him or herself volunteering for subjugation to another? Not really.
So that's it. Powered primarily by our coming victory over death, I believe a domino effect will be set in motion that will drive out the fear of God forever. Amen.
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