As I said last week, there has never been conclusive proof of a god. We have no evidence of an external being wielding supernatural powers over mankind and the rest of the universe. In all of recorded history over billions of human lifetimes combing through billions of years of evidence in the historical record, we have never found proof of anything to back up this belief in god. All offerings of evidence (and there have been many) have consistently been debunked. Some of us are noticing a pattern here. And with the rise of the information age, the world is becoming more and more skeptical, empirical, and demanding of facts. I believe the convergence of these trends accounts for the steep rise in "nones" when surveys ask people what religion they belong to.
Of course it would be nice to have something out there in the unknown looking down upon us and protecting us from the existential fears we all share. Something to love us and all of our efforts to rage against the death and decay that is an integral part of the constitution of our universe. As living beings, we are compelled to look for ways to stay alive. We seek knowledge and patterns that will help us survive. We rely on an optimistic bias to get up every morning and continue on with the struggle even though we all know the end we are headed towards if 14 billion years of history are to be acknowledged. In a sense, those of us that have been brought to life in this environment have been programmed to feel that the world holds love and meaning for us. If it didn't feel that way to our ancestors, would so many of them have bothered to continue?
And so, we race along in life, pushing the brutal facts of life aside, desperately coming up with argument after argument to prove to our fragile psyches that this world does have meaning, that it is guided by the mysterious hand of a god, that good things happen to us for a reason, and nothing too horrible will ever befall us. Throughout our religious history, we have chiefly constructed 36 rational arguments for the belief in just such a world. Unfortunately for the theologians who have dedicated their lives to this pursuit, better logic has taken all of these rational arguments apart. If you want to take the time to go through all of these arguments, here is a list of them in one of the sections I wrote about for the topic of God and Religion:
Religion has no basis for proof, but the god idea fills a gaping existential void in humanity. It is hard to accept that there is no reason or purpose in the universe. Due to this “will to believe,” religion has endured for centuries. Nothing concrete has been able to fill this amorphous void as well as the amorphous beliefs of religions. Theologians have desperately sought ideas to strengthen the arguments of their flock, but throughout history these arguments for the existence of god have all been knocked down by logic and reasoning. For further details, see the 36 chief arguments for the existence of god as collected by novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein: 1) cosmological argument, 2) ontological argument, 3) argument from design, 4) argument from the big bang, 5) argument from the fine tuning of physical constants, 6) argument from the beauty of physical laws, 7) argument from cosmic coincidences, 8) argument from personal coincidences, 9) argument from answered prayers, 10) argument from a wonderful life, 11) argument from miracles, 12) argument from the hard problem of consciousness, 13) argument from the improbable self, 14) argument from survival after death, 15) argument from the inconceivability of personal annihilation, 16) argument from moral truth, 17) argument from altruism, 18) argument from free will, 19) argument from personal purpose, 20) argument from intolerability of insignificance, 21) argument from the consensus of humanity, 22) argument from the consensus of mystics, 23) argument from holy books, 24) argument from perfect justice, 25) argument from suffering, 26) argument from survival of the Jews, 27) argument from the upward curve of history, 28) argument from prodigious genius, 29) argument from human knowledge of infinity, 30) argument from mathematical reality, 31) argument from decision theory, 32) argument from pragmatism, 33) argument from the unreasonableness of reason, 34) argument from sublimity, 35) argument from the intelligibility of the universe, 36) argument of the abundance of arguments. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, William James, Spinoza. Many have tried. All have failed. Turning the 36th argument on its head, the abundance of arguments proves merely the need for humanity to have an explanation. The fact that a religious one cannot be found explains the proliferation of attempts. If there were a valid argument to be made for a god, evolution would have produced it by now.
So much for all of the rational arguments for god. The rest of the arguments then are merely the irrational ones that all essentially boil down to: "god exists, because I feel it to be true." But anyone who has ever had a parent or child or boss or politician tell them, "because I said so," knows that this kind of argument never persuades or holds up over time. Regarding these irrational arguments, and examining them through the lens of evolutionary systems, I wrote the following:
Another way to examine the issue of atheism vs. religion is through the idea that rational thought is a societal system for decision-making. Irrational thought cheats this system. Faith, by definition, is irrational, and as soon as one irrational belief is permitted, all irrational beliefs are allowed. If irrational thought is allowed to win arguments, then the system of rational thought is no longer evolutionarily stable. But clearly, we cannot allow irrational thought to become the norm - that leads to ignorance and the destruction of the species. Irrational thought must not be allowed to win. And yet, irrational thought does win, because it isn't playing the same game. By its own declaration, irrational thought cannot rationally lose an argument. In this way, irrational thought can never be entirely defeated through reason. Perhaps the best we can do in the short term is to stop societal decisions based on irrational beliefs. In the long term, the teaching of rational thought and the benefits of rational thought must be shown to be more attractive to individuals. The tangible, emotional benefits to shedding irrational beliefs must be improved and made better known. Control over one’s emotions, membership in beneficial social groups, better job opportunities, cooperative grants, happiness with life, lasting love - these are all areas where rational thinkers can and must outcompete irrational believers.
This is why I believe the evolution of religion is headed not towards a single surviving composite idea, but is instead heading towards extinction. Rational views are gaining strength to explain more and more of our world in a unified manner. Irrational arguments of religion on the other hand, stop progressing on purpose and stay rooted in their dogmatic texts and beliefs. The irrational views of religions are unable to adapt to the changing environment and become marooned on their own little islands of thought, unable to reach across to other religions and fuse the best of their ideas into a strategy that survives. Eventually and inevitably, sticking points are reached (the primacy of Jesus or Mohammed, the traditions of Hebrews or Hindus, the path to enlightenment from Buddha or L Ron Hubbard) and the members of competing irrational belief systems stay dissuaded and stubbornly hold on to their current irrational beliefs. But like any species or idea that is unable to adapt, it will eventually become unable to survive.
The conditions for knowledge, information, proof, authority, and belief are all changing drastically right before our eyes. After the first Enlightenment, when the invention of the scientific method also changed these conditions, religions that had been entrenched for a thousand years during the medieval middle ages from the 5th to the 15th century all splintered, competed, and adapted. But in the 15th century, the pace of change in society was slow enough that religions managed to survive - partly because early scientific attempts to replace them were too weak. Now though, after several hundred years of strengthening, the rational worldview that I call Evolutionary Philosophy is ready to outcompete religions in this new information environment.
What do you think? Are we seeing another extinction event? Not one of genes, but of memes - an extinction of a piece of our gene-culture co-evolution. If not, why not? But if so, is that ok? Is it finally time for religion to be replaced?