History is littered with dead gods. The Greek and Roman gods, and thousands of others have perished. Yet Allah, Yahweh, Krishna 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 achieve superintelligence, 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 had 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.
Of 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, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com