No, science has not made religion useless. Religion has managed to make itself useless, without needing any help from science.
It has for me, at least. What I have never, never understood and never will is why there is so little interest, within religion, in good-faith, objective investigation of whether the claims made by religion are actually true. Reference to old texts obviously doesn’t cut it, when what we are talking about is the question of the existence of some very large forces which ought, at least, to be detectable in their actions in some way.
And while people always seem to think “religion” means “Christianity,” my remark is not limited to that. An old friend who used to perform with my band, back before Seattle had a grunge scene, apparently has become a massively wealthy and famous Yoga instructor, and she’s of the hard-core religious type who really does believe that all of the spirits, essences and forces she talks about actually exist. Does anybody ever LOOK, though, and see if these forces act in the world? Of course not.
So much of religious philosophy seems to be addressed not at answering any question anyone really needs to know like “does this god exist, or does that god exist,” but to constructing armor-plating to deal with the fact that none of the gods ever seem to actually do anything. Arguments about how gods actually getting up off the couch and changing the channel themselves or taking the trash out now and then would reduce them to something that was not a god, and that sort of thing. Philosophers hold forth upon the apparent absence of gods and what it means, without apparently opening themselves to the one hypothesis which best explains it.
When you’ve got to study a big mysterious force, empiricism is all you’ve got. And if the philosophical excuses add up to “empiricism will avail you nothing,” then, well, nothing can be known, and therefore I cannot be moved to care. But I suspect that those philosophical excuses are all mistaken; I think they are ad hoc covers for a yawning lack of evidence; and so I simply regard those who advance them as having nothing useful to say on the subject at all.
As the old adage goes, “don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.”
I think it’s interesting how different people addressed different aspects of religion. Penn Jillette and Bill Nye focused on morality and how we don’t need religion to keep us from killing each other, while Francis Collins and Rob Bell focused on how religion can help us answer the big questions.
That is interesting, indeed, and it does show that people see different things in it. I cannot imagine religion having much to do with “the big questions,” so am mostly interested in gods as a natural phenomenon: are there any in existence, and what are they like, and what can we know about them? The “big questions” are more personal than cosmological and so the existence of large spiritual powers in the universe really seems like it would be neither here nor there in relation to them.
@stlyankeefan’s point is salient. We can’t really say if science made religious useless without first defining its use. I suspect that for some uses it was useless long before science anyway, but for others its usefulness endures.
Just reading the Bible always left me very much with the impression that it had a “use” for some segments of society: it kept the priestly caste employed and gave them influence. But “useful” in the sense of having utility for someone and “useful” in the sense of actually doing some good for humanity are very different things, and while there’s a lot of evidence for the former, the latter is a bit of a tougher one.
That’s one way to look at it, but I (and I suspect others) see it differently. I find religion incredibly helpful for addressing questions about the purpose of life, the problem of pain, etc. I know philosophy addresses those questions and well, but I haven’t found a philosophy that works as well for me and my religious tradition.
The overwhelming majority of people in the world are still religious, and the world is actually expected to become more religious by 2050. Clearly the vast majority of humanity find religion to be “useful” in some way, and it seems likely that will still be the case, several decades from now.
If religion was rendered useless by science, one might expect that modern secular societies would be filled with people who just treated each other decently, brightened the corner where they were, and were content to make a contribution with their life. And many are just that. What I observe however, is that there is always a sizable lot of people just cannot abide being without a “cause”. Misguided or worthwhile objectives are distorted into the only thing that matters. Anything short of an exclusive obsession is reactionary. Fury is focused on those who bring any nuance to the discussion. Politics becomes convulsion and counter revolution. Maybe in some generations, this will lead to a better world and everyone will indeed be a picture of contentment, but I doubt it. It seems to me that where one use for religion was to provide the “bigger than myself” meaning for life, people are adopting replacements that may or may not be any more successful in filling that drive for significance.
I think this is way too much of a generalization. Whether a society is filled with “decent” people or not is likely more of a product of local culture, economic status, political history, and other factors than just religion or irreligion.
What I was trying to put across is not that religion makes people decent or indecent, but that religion supplies a cause, and where religion is absent as such, a proportion of people will adopt another for the sense of mission and purpose.
I’m not even sure what the “problem of pain” is apart from the fact that I find pain to be a problem from time to time. I certainly wouldn’t think of it as a “big question.” But the former bit, the “purpose of life,” is something where I’m curious about understanding what you mean.
You see, I just don’t get that one. Never have. I have purposes in life. None of them depend on views about the paranormal, and I can’t easily see how they could. How would the existence of supernatural beings affect one’s purpose in life? I suppose that if, say, one discovered that there were supernatural beings that were responsible for some type of harm to people, and against which some sort of countermeasure might be developed, one might then devote one’s life to studying the phenomena in question and developing those countermeasures. But other than some highly specific example like that, I can’t imagine how the discovery of a supernatural being’s existence could have any effect upon my purposes.
Now, I do know people who find a “purpose in life” through religion but I am sure nobody who’s thought about it much would endorse those purposes. My Mormon brother, for example, has very much bought in to the notion that earthly life is a kind of audition/test for the afterlife, and that the “purpose” of life is to pass the test. The contempt I have for this point of view is almost inexpressible. The best expression of that contempt is perhaps something along the lines of the peasant Dennis, condemning the whole bit with the Lady of the Lake as a “farcical aquatic ceremony.” It seems to me that this is a conception which, far from imbuing life with meaning and purpose, absolutely robs it of all meaning and purpose. It renders life a farce, albeit one which is only occasionally aquatic.
I know others who conceive their purpose as “worship.” And that seems to me to still be very much in the “farcical aquatic ceremony” line of things. If I met a supernatural being and it asked me to worship it, I’d politely refuse and I’d give it the phone numbers of some friends of mine who are active participants in the BDSM scene and who would probably get up to that sort of thing. I just don’t swing that way.
So, that said, what is it about the paranormal that you think actually DOES bear on your “purpose in life”? I confess that I cannot imagine how that works, at all. I never have been able to, and I find this aspect of religion, which others seem to just take for granted, utterly strange.
It could be that religious people have essentially the same sort of purposes as yourself, but feel that their faith provides a grounding and larger significance for them.
This is a very western question…
I would very much agree with you @Ashwin_s .
Maybe “problem of pain” isn’t the correct term. What I mean is the age old question of “why do bad things happen.”. When I discuss this in my classes I use the example of my husband, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 56. At the time, I was doing cancer research at WUSTL and had access to cancer experts around the world. I had my scientific based covered. But when he asked me “why did I get cancer?” he wasn’t looking for information about proto-oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, the two hit hypothesis, etc. He was looking for a religious/philosophical reason - I think Aristotle called that the teleological reason.
My faith tells me that I am more than an accident of evolution, a lucky break if you will.
Understood. I think that it has never really seemed reasonable to me to suppose that bad things would not happen, ergo, it has never seemed like much of a question. Most of us have endured suffering which served no evident greater purpose, and when we look at how it is inflicted, e.g., by the agency of other people, there’s no reason to think that any greater purpose was involved in forming that suffering in the first place. So, for me, at least, the “why do bad things happen” thing has never been one of those “big questions.”
But then, my sense of causality is relatively oriented toward the proximate. While some things may have ultimate causes, many things have only proximate ones. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s song about the death of Medgar Evers recently and thinking about that. The song tells us that larger forces which profit from racism are at work, and that the shooter of Medgar Evers was “only a pawn in their game.” But increasingly I am inclined toward a mosquito-fleet view of social phenomena in which, while people may occasionally be marionettes, more often they are just acting the way people do: harboring racial hatreds, for example, because this is something people always have done and are somewhat prone to doing.
I never thought of things that happened for no “ultimate” purpose as accidental, or lucky. It just seems to me that, as the geologists say, schist happens. I sort of think that we betray our tendency towards teleological thinking when we use words like “accident,” which imply the existence of some ordinary and expected and proper course of things, and some deviation therefrom. It’s as though we think stasis or non-development would somehow be normal and change and development and life are somehow abnormal. They may be statistically rare, in the sense that very little of the universe’s matter is tied up in things we would term “living,” but they are, nonetheless, rather ordinary to us and so the word “accident” never seems to me like the right word to apply to the ordinary and accustomed course of things as we know them.