For you science types, may I recommend ‘the Edge‘–the home of the ‘World Question Center.’ It’s a group I’ve very recently become aware of. It’s like a newsletter–a large hypertext document that chronicles social/scientific trends. Each year a topic is presented, and scientists and thinkers are encouraged to respond to the topic in an essay. This year, the question was ‘What are you optimistic about.’ The first writer is Daniel C. Dennett who is optimistic for ‘The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion.’
Why and how will it evaporate?
Recall that only fifty years ago smoking was a high status activity and it was considered rude to ask somebody to stop smoking in one‚Äôs presence. Today we‚Äôve learned that we shouldn‚Äôt make the mistake of trying to prohibit smoking altogether, and so we still have plenty of cigarettes and smokers, but we have certainly contained the noxious aspects within quite acceptable boundaries. Smoking is no longer cool, and the day will come when religion is, first, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, and later: no longer cool‚Äìexcept in its socially valuable forms, where it will be one type of allegiance among many. Will those descendant institutions still be religions? Or will religions have thereby morphed themselves into extinction? It all depends on what you think the key or defining elements of religion are. Are dinosaurs extinct, or do their lineages live on as birds?
Why am I confident that this will happen? Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion. With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn‚Äôt working. For every well-publicized victory‚Äìthe inundation of the Bush administration with evangelicals, the growing number of home schoolers in the USA, the rise of radical Islam, the much exaggerated ‚Äúrebound‚Äù of religion in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to take the most obvious cases‚Äìthere are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents. That trend will continue, especially when young people come to know how many of their peers are making this low-profile choice. Around the world, the category of ‚Äúnot religious‚Äù is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.