Religion will never disappear simply because some have gone hoarse disparaging it. Those who wish to get rid of religion will have to put a bit more effort into the endeavour.
Religion is very useful to many people and will never go away until we give those people adequate substitutes for the aspects of religion that attract and keep them. Simply telling them that religion is bad (which it isn’t, most of the time) or wrong (which it is, most of the time) will have but little effect. If we seriously want to get rid of religion, we will have to take a much more pragmatic and painstaking route, pulling it apart piece by piece. We must first analyse this vague phenomenon and figure out exactly what it is made of. We need to know what it does for people and we also need to know how it manages to perpetuate itself: with respect to the former functions of religion, we must either find substitutes or we must teach people how to do without them; as to the later cohesive forces, we must figure out how to counteract them.
First, i will list the functions and forces of religion i can think of; then i will try to come up with tentative solutions to each of these individual problems.
The functions of religion:
- community: gives a sense of belonging, of not being alone; provides ready friends and help in time of need.
- emotional harmony: humans like to feel emotions together.
- psychological stability: helps you straighten out your mind when the world stops making sense, usually by complaining to god or asking him for help.
- metaphysical closure: provides a sense of completeness and unity to the world after which our brains seem to hanker; answers the questions that cause us to worry (death, etc.)
- identity: provides people with a history and a story.
- ethics: gives strong reasons (both communitarian and metaphysical) for doing good.
The forces of religion:
- tradition: this is the pendant to identity; it is also the pendant to the force of inertia.
- authority: people tend to believe people in authority (parents, pastors) who tell them religion is good, true and necessary.
- many people have a vested interest in keeping religion going (priest and pastors, etc.)
- habit: people are too lazy to not give up being religious or they don’t see any good reason to do so.
And now on to some possible solutions. Note that not all of these elements are per se bad, some are even very good. We do not therefore simply want to get rid of them, but when necessary, find non-religious alternatives. The hope is that if we give people non-religious versions of everything they like about religion, they just might forget about religion – or stop caring.
Community is obviously a good thing. There are already alternatives to religious communities but neither baseball games nor myspace will cut it. Cultural or ethnic communities are obviously not much better than religious ones, all being rather prone to the same problems. One solution might be to work towards creating communities that focus around doing things (like saving the planet). One of the great temptations to violence and intolerance in religious and other communities is that each must justify its existence by confronting the others. If a community brings people together with a specific and clearly useful goal in mind, then much insecurity and hence aggressiveness will vanish.
Emotional harmony: since music is soon going to be free and musicians will have to earn their keep by the sweat of their brow at concerts, i think we should just send people to listen to them. We might need to expand the repertoire, though. Seriously, this will to some extent be addressed by the community solution.
Psychological stability: when things go wrong, people need to complain somehow: it relieves tension in the brain and allows you to then go on acting normal again. Who you complain to, or how you complain isn’t that important: you can complain to your other self, to the universe, to your deceased grandmother, to your best friend, or to god. You can also learn to meditate.
Metaphysical closure: this one requires more of a ‘getting rid of’ than it does alternatives. And this is where dawkinsian rhetoric (carefully shorn of its contempt) might actually be useful. We need to convince people, probably through our good example, that you really don’t need to know when the world started or how it is going to end. Death is more of a problem. Here the only real solution is to reason with people from within their religious traditions, showing them (over and over again) that their core beliefs necessarily imply universal salvation, which in turn implies no worries. Universalism is but a stepping stone that almost necessarily leads to abandoning all positive belief in an afterlife because that belief becomes clearly superfluous.
Identity: the simple solution is to replace identity with (either ‘high’ or ‘low’) culture. This is not without danger, but seems to be drastically less dangerous. Essentially, the goal is to divorce culture from religion so that people can stick to their inbuilt culture without feeling that they need to also keep their religion. Divide an conquer is here the mot d’ordre.
Ethics: replace with ethics.
And as how to deal with the forces the uphold religion, i propose the following:
Tradition: here the good old enlightenment strategy of preaching ‘reason alone’ will not do anymore because it has become clear that tradition is not all bad. However, if a frontal assault on tradition is out of the question, attacking from the side might still work: instead of trying to replace tradition with reason, we can try to use reason to improve tradition. This will have the effect of weakening the overwhelming presence of tradition without leaving an historical hole in people’s lives.
Authority: authority can be combated with better authorities. Smart and sensitive people must demonstrate both how traditional authorities are often wrong and why these smart people are more right. Children learn to trust their maths professor over their parents (in things mathematical); likewise people can learn if you show them why their pastor is wrong and the scientist is right.
Vested interests: get the priests to do other things (like save the planet).
Habit: there is, in this case, no other solution than to make fun of people for being lazy (it works on me).
Do note that all these solutions must be attempted together as no single one will ever work on its own; each individual aspect of religion is protected from assault by the cohesiveness of all the other aspects. We must take religion apart, keeping the good pieces, and either replacing the bad ones or simply throwing them out. Then we’ll set about building something new and better. That’s what humans do.