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An Extinction Event For Religion? March 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Full disclosure:  In case you couldn’t tell from this blog I am an atheist and a transhumanist.

I have to admit that when I first saw this article I laughed out loud.  The idea of someone predicting the death of religion in countries across the globe, and calling it extinction no less, struck me as completely absurd.  Now I’ve actually read the article and I have to say…yeah I still think its a pretty stupid premise.

Here’s the thing.  It is true that in much of the Western world there has been a marked trend over the past few decades towards greater secularism and a decreased prevalence of religious activity.  The United States is somewhat of an anamoly in this regard but the trend certainly seems to be clear.  What exactly is causing it is somewhat still up for debate.  Arguments that greater prosperity leads to an abandoning of religion due to less need for what it offers (a feeling of security in the face of a troubling world and etc.) are underminded by the aforementioned continued prevalence of religion in the US and by its strengthening in many developing nations.  More likely is the idea that Europe and Western Europe in particular provides a fertile ground for this sort of thing.  This is after all the culture that gave us the Enlightenment and where the church has often functioned in more of a political role than a spiritual one.  However this is all irrelevant to the question at hand.

Is religion going extinct in certain countries as this article implies?  Maybe, but don’t start jumping for joy all my atheist friends.  There are two reasons why this sort of news should not be met with blind joy.  First is the question of what the study actually measured.  According to the article the researchers looked at the number of people over time who identify themselves as “not affiliated with a religion” and extrapolated a growth of that group in the coming decades.  The problem is that that “not affiliated with a religion” is not the same thing as atheist.  The trend away from organized religion is distinct from the trend away from religion itself.  Even in America, the bastion of religious faith in the developed world, traditional churches are scrambling to prevent there congregations from deserting them for newer, independent groups.  Lack of religion does not mean a lack of spirituality and indeed one of the largest growing groups over recent years has been in the “spiritual but not religious” category.

On that note lets come to the second reason to look askew at this study: a decrease in religion does not mean an increase in logic or rationality.  This is something I see many in the atheist community not really getting.  The idea that religion is the source of all our problems and that its removal will coincide with a renaissance of freethought and reason is a wonderful story that has about as much chance of being true as one guy building a boat to house two of every animal on earth.  Non-religious people can be just as boneheaded and given to leaps of logic and outright blind faith in the ridiculous as religious people.  Need proof?  Look at the prevalence of homeopathy in developed nations or the number of people who believe that astrology is a legitimate science.  Not religious does not equal rational.

Reading this article I’m reminded of a study that supposedly showed that people of higher intelligence tend to be liberal and atheists.  Like that study I have problems with both the sampling and methods of the article today and like that study I expect people to either shout this article from the rooftops or condemn it to the depths of hell depending on which side of the political spectrum they are.  Is religion on its way to extinction?  Maybe but probably not.  The search for meaning is a very powerful force in the human psyche, perhaps the most powerful, and atheism is and always has been a difficult path walked only by a small minority.  Some have said that transhumans or posthumans will likely have no need for religion and disregard with it entirely.  Without going into too much detail, that’s a whole different article, I strongly disagree.  As long as being still strive to understand things beyond their comprehension religion, though it may resemble nothing like what we have today, will find a place in the universe.

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