Last night I took a walk to Cabot Auditorium at Tufts University to see a presentation by philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is one of the "four horsemen" of new atheism.

He listed three of his potential futures for religion, and mostly discussed the third possibility:

1. Religion will sweep the planet.
2. Religion is in its death throes.
3. Religion transform into creedless moral teams (ceremony and tradition, but no doctrine).

Which do you think is most likely, and why?  What could we do to help steer to that path?

Dennett made compelling arguments for number 3, and some possible projects atheist groups could do to help that path.  For instance, many preachers (just like many politicians) are pretending to be religious, but they don't believe the doctrine, the magic, the hocus pocus bullshit.  (Dennett's paper on non-believing preachers.)

There is the possibility for atheist or secular groups to compete with churches, which accelerates #3, e.g. to maintain numbers the churches have to offer what the competitors offer.  But will religion die out completely that way, or will it still be resident, just in weaker forms?  Can competition happen in the schools for children, so that more people put their children in secular schools instead of being brainwashed from day 1?

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I really think we're currently headed for #3. In fact, I feel like many, many people who claim to follow a religion are actually already at the point where they're just following tradition and don't really believe in a lot of the doctrine or "hocus pocus bullshit." If religious moderates truly believed in the doctrine then they wouldn't be moderates.

Intellectually, I'm always hoping for #2. I believe that to move forward as a species, we're going to have to stop giving so much power to superstition and start behaving positively because it's the productive thing to do, not because we're afraid of eternal punishment.

But as a species, we like our hocus pocus, even if we really don't think it's real. Tradition makes us feel connected. We're a part of a larger group. Its extremely difficult to approach a person of any faith because the faithful have been taught that any comment on religion is an attack on their faith rather than a discussion. Non-belief is evil, and non-believers are simply trying to get them to stray from The Path. Change is going to take generations.

What I hope for is a time when we feel connected simply because we are part of the human whole. Unfortunately, that takes a bit more selfless thinking and less of a "HAH! We're the ones with the answers! Neener, neener!" mentality. I think we're a long way from that.

Option #1 would probably become much more likely in the event of a global disaster. Any widespread crisis would leave people feeling afraid and lost, and in those situations its easy to go along with anything that makes us feel less alone and less like the world is out of control.

Number three seems to be a stride towards or perhaps even a symptom of religion being in its death throes, not its own separate category, which is where I think all modern evidence is heading. New Age spirituality advanced by books like The Secret or Deepak Chopra's "quantum theory" woo-woo proves that people are looking for a way to make sense of the crap that's been fed to them for so many years, and are not capable of shedding superstitions just yet, but realize there's something wrong. The idea of being alone with each other is very sobering and scary for a lot of people, but with the information explosion of the internet it is just so much harder to buy the lie. The more debates and videos that flood the internet, the more people are realizing that the straw man arguments do not hold water any longer. The war of ideas, for which the religious have controlled the market up until now, has reached a turning point. As I say in my comedy act on stage: You can't have God AND Google. The religious continue to get louder and louder, and they behave like petulant children that they're being oppressed because they're not getting the same advantages that they used to receive on a silver platter. And the louder they get, the weaker they look to their own flock, who go looking for something else.

Religion is in its death throes. There is no doubt about it.
simple answer...common sense, logical thinking and lack of fear. in other words...damn, I guess nothing will replace religion.
Something just struck me while reading this post. #3 is certainly possible and we should not under-estimate the impact of the the past atheists found it very troublesome to discuss their views as they were spatially as well as socially isolated. The internet is busy changing all that and atheists on forums like these are able to debate, argue, promote etc ideas on religions, non-religion and mysticism.

To achieve Dennet's #3 scenario will be difficult though...I foresee that #1 is going to be a big wave which will try to obliterate atheism through the deployment of the massive resources religions have at their disposal...this is atheism's Achilles heel. We are not organised or able to muster the resources they can.

Our strategies (and they have to be formulated by people like Dennet, Dawkins etc) will require political will (might be the death knell for many politicians though), and use of the Internet to really publicise the dangers of religion. For example: some Xtian groups are touting the second coming of JC next year some time. This may be a great opportunity to use that as a platform to ridicule the notion through clever publicity which advertises his coming and when he fails to materialise, we can highlight the stupidity of these beliefs and grow support from especially marginal believers.

Atheism cannot compete with churches in a head-on confrontational approach. It needs clever strategies almost a guerilla-type of approach which is able to think like the enemy (SunTzu). At the same time atheism should be wary of being exploited by politicians such as totalitarians and communist states. Our hands as atheists are clean; let's keep them that way.
Brian you make several good points. Perhaps atheists and those friendly to atheists will have to use guerilla and Sun Tzu strategies. Perhaps we don't have to be active against churches specifically, but active on making people aware. And advertising might not be enough--how do you get uneducated people to be aware of what's out there? What about children that have already been brainwashed?

It's not necessarily a matter of a clandestine operation knocking down the supports and then watching the churches and temples crumble (metaphorically). There is also the positive and most likely completely public and transparent projects and teams that atheists can do. There are a few secular organizations that give aid and stuff like that. But there could be millions started up to do all kinds of educations, good will, etc. projects.

So you can compete with religion on the education and good will front. And you can compete with them as far as moral teams and tribes/families. This sociocultural tribe aspect is the tricky one. But if we can create and enlarge these atheist tribes, then people will no longer have any reason for the religious tribes.

Of course, I have no idea how it will play out. Maybe I'm underestimating the resistance.

I suspect with just the idea of trying to be proactive for good projects, we can utilize the Internet to get things going. There are 1000s (probably millions) of groups (in fact I've met some great friends through some of those). Meetups are organized on the web but extend out into the real world.
I agree. The charitable work that atheists do is little known, except for high profile one's like Bill Gates (but then his atheism is very low key) and requires more exposure. Maybe we should list all secular charitable funds and movements and publicise these as much as possible. The recent floods in Pakistan is a case in point...religious movements scurried around trying to get as much mileage out of their efforts as possible. The Pentecostal movements do the same.

On the education side the battle is far from over and it is indeed a fight for the minds of the youth. Studies seem to indicate that a liberal education which promotes not only sciences but social studies, languages and communication etc. are very effective in creating the critical consciousness needed by the generations of the future.

One of the dangers I believe is the confrontational approach which merely entrenches opposite views, flame wars as well as real wars! Coupled to that is the grey morality preached in some quarters which promote unity among religions even those which are totally incompatible with each other.
Interesting, I in no way believe that Bill Gates is charitable... IMO he's pulling a hood over people's heads, lulling us into forgetting what an animal he really his. He knows exactly where his next millions are coming from... Monsanto and seed banks and more humans to fill the wheels of profit...

Why do we think people can change. IME people don't change.
BTW, here is a photo I took at the presentation (this was Dennett's last slide).

But who defines what's good? Good is different for everyone...
Human technical progress has vastly outstripped human evolution. In 500 years we've zoomed from the darkest depths to the most dazzling heights . . . yet we're physically and neurologically indistinguishable from our neolithic ancestors. It's going to take a long, long, time before natural selection can reverse the inherent religiosity that once provided us with a survival advantage.

To me, the outlook is grim. Given the time-scales of evolutionary change, there will be a significant section of the population choosing religion for at least centuries to come. In the nuclear age, with religious fundamentalism stronger than ever, I don't know if we will survive long enough to relegate religion to the fringe.
Evolutionarily speaking, ... I don't think humans are made for religion at all... Animals aren't religious, apes aren't. So in evolutionary terms, the question becomes WHEN did humans become religious. This is a contentious subject to say the least, but from my readings and understanding of evolutionary biology, I think it's safe to assume that religion happened a few 10,000 years after art became a part of the human experience. I think art is actually quite close to religion, to the ire of many I'm sure :) In the sense of a duality between our actions and our thoughts.

Which means that the self loathing self fearing that is the essence of religion came about when our brains started to be introspective. When our brains started fabulating about reasons for this, reasons for that...

I think the only way to shut that self loathing and self fearing off is for humans to regain a connnection to nature and the place of Homo sapiens in nature. By a profound understanding of among other species and lifeforms, we remove the constant need for questioning and enlightenment... Life, death, balance, upsets, all which are the daily reality in nature. As a race, the more technological we become, the more religious we become, even tho I see it as godless religiosity, the cult to human adulation and eternal life, once the domain of the church, is simply transfering to other methods/institutions, but that eternal quest remains the same... fear, power, envy, lazyness.


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