Will Religion Die Out? What Will Happen To Atheism If It Does?

Unquestionably, the world is more atheist now than it used to be. Some of the most developed countries in the world have incredibly high percentages of atheists among their population. Some studies have estimated that countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland have atheist or agnostic majorities. Atheism is gaining momentum.

Let’s envisage some possible futures. Imagine atheism continues to gain momentum among the developed world, by using its cool rationale and precise logic in widely publicised debates and so forth. Let’s say that it becomes the dominant viewpoint in the population. There will be a brief period of history, possibly a decade or so, in which this surge of rationality might take place. Many people will be excited by the new thinking during this hypothetical atheist revolution. But since atheism has no intrinsic beliefs, this tidal wave of logic probably won’t last very long. Afterwards there may be a number of minority religions, and perhaps the major ones will survive better. But once the major religious presence has gone, there will be a “belief vacuum”. As time goes on new generations will rediscover religion and start believing in it again, or even inventing new religions.

With a world that is learning about religion again, with all of the major proponents of atheism now ageing or long gone. Religion will have no predator. It could easily become dominant again and then atheism would be rediscovered, and the entire cycle would repeat itself, moving into an oscillatory mode. As atheism is a response to religion, if religion goes, then so will atheism.

Of course, this speculation neglects changes in society or education. It is entirely possible to see that if religious education continues in schools, then atheism will always exist as a counterpart.

Also, less economically developed countries tend to have more religious populations. If atheism does experience a revolution, it won’t be a global phenomenon. It would have to wait for other nations to catch up. In which case there could be a continuous stand-off between largely atheist and largely religious countries.

Then there is the mark that religion has left upon the world in terms of architecture. No architectural preservationist will ever allow the Vatican City to be destroyed. The same goes for other religious buildings around the world.

There is also the question of whether human beings need religion in some way. It has often been remarked that as so many societies have religion, it must provide some sort of advantage either socially or evolutionarily. This is probably true. Religion certainly gives human beings emotional comfort. This could give religion the necessary fuel to keep going in spite of atheism.

And dare we even imagine that which is, to a religious person, heresy. Religion could evolve. It could develop in some way; this would be quite in contrast to its traditional stagnancy. Religion would become a public relations phenomenon, simply trying to grab the most popular ideas that are out there and gain momentum through them.

Unfortunately all of this leads to an annoying conclusion. Religion probably won’t ever disappear from humanity, and so atheism and its proponents will have to keep on arguing, forever.

Can Science Give Us Answers?

You would not believe how many times I have seen this question written around the internet. Although actually, you might well believe it, but I certainly couldn’t. So I thought I’d answer it.

The first and most fundamental point that I must make is that this question is very badly worded. Though this is the precise wording of the question that I see everywhere. The problem is with the last word: answers. What exactly is meant by this word in this sentence? Answers to what? Science can certainly give you answers to scientific questions, by definition. But I’m sure that’s not what is meant. There is inherent ambiguity in that final word which makes the question very difficult to understand, because it does not suggest the manner in which science should go about finding these answers, and it does suggest that science can do more than it is widely held capable of doing.

Perhaps a better way of writing this question comes from a previous article on this website, called “Can Science Give Us Answers To Moral Questions”. Aha, now that’s a lot easier to understand. I’m sure that this phrasing is what is meant by our initial question.

There answer is quite simply, no. That’s not what science is for. Science can never tell us what we should do. Certainly, science could study the human brain and the workings of societies and find out which behavioural rules are optimum for a society, in other words, a moral code. This would take a very long time to do, but let’s ignore that. There are several problems with this system.

Firstly the problem of feedback. If you tell a society how to behave, they may then behave differently to how they did when you were studying them, and you’ll have to modify your moral code. This could potentially lead to an endless cycle.

Secondly it involves taking an average view of humanity. It ignores any differences in how individual people think and tells them to all behave the same. This would increase the amount of work required to design a scientific moral code.

Thirdly it ignores large numbers of variable factors which change the optimum behaviour of a society. Society responds to technology as it develops for example, this over time will change the way people behave.

There are more arguments, but they all bring you to the same conclusion. The work required diverges to infinity. You’ll never be able to find an optimum because there are two many variable factors. An optimum is an expression of perfection. Science prefers working in approximations.

I think the problem with this initial question is that many people who ask it do not understand the nature of science. They see science as another religion. They see science as something that people believe in. But when they ask scientists for answers to monumentally difficult questions such as “did the universe have a creator” all scientists can say is “we have absolutely no idea”, and so it looks like they are incapable of providing “answers”. Science does not provide emotional support, so when people think about whether it can provide a sense of morality they cannot, because they use emotions to think about it.

It is important not to expect to much from science. It can tell you interesting, and maybe even useful, facts about the natural world. It can’t tell you how to behave.