A Thought

I had a post where I speculated on the dominant religion of the next thousand years:

In order to be adaptive to a transhuman world, a heaven or an enlightenment merely for humans will not do; when the line between human and machine is blurred, those who seek transcendence will only find conflict and cognitive dissonance with faiths that preclude sentient machines, because the presence of sentient machines will be unavoidable.

Furthermore, this new religion will also offer a package of morals more suited to an age of advanced technology than older religions.  It must be new, in the moment, free enough to allow people their happiness but thoughtful enough to curtail the worst of human suffering.

I had another thought this evening.  I believe that science and religion, if left as separate institutions within a common culture, neither entirely insular to each other nor forcing the other to conform to their views, will eventually harmonize with each other.

From a myopic present standpoint, this may seem absurd.  After all, consider where Anglo-American culture is at the present.  The church has changed little since the first years of the 20th century in America, and even longer in England.  It has been long enough since the ideological divergence of the scientific and religious milieu that we could be forgiven for assuming that they came from two entirely different places and that this was the condition of the entirety of history.

In truth, they both have their roots culturally speaking, in this nebulous idea of modernity.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, when Calvinism had stripped High Church Protestantism to an austere and literalistic faith, it brought religion up to date with the science of its day.  In doing this, the church lost any remaining flexibility in interpreting doctrine and a long tradition of contemplative and mystical reflection that had arguably given Christianity a measure of humanity.  This initially brought religion in line with science.  However, by the 19th century, the differences had become irreconcilable.  The dominant religion had remained convinced that their doctrine was the primary source of certainty, whereas the scientific community had made decisions that directly contradicted religious doctrine.  

Now here is the problem: modernity’s primary fetish is with certainty; modernity abhors uncertainty because uncertainty, to the modernist, is the abode of superstition.  In theory this means uncertainty will be erased by the relentless urge to know what is objectively true; in practice, it means that often, a pious and dogmatic certainty will replace an earnest uncertainty. 

This is less endemic in science than in the sort of religion common in the West (including imported faiths whose ideas are appropriated and recontextualized to modern Westerners), but ultimately the crux of modernism calls for uncertainty to be removed so relentlessly that often, explanations are simply patched in that don’t entirely fit the facts because they are expedient.

Now, when two competing sources of certainty contradict each other, modern society inevitably comes to conflict because there is room for only one certainty.  Modernity, after all, is a black and white proposition.  The debate becomes a battle for the soul of the civilization where both sides try to cancel each other out decisively.  

And yet, certainty in the universe is rare, and we now have entire branches of science that have essentially proven certain things- among them the given state of a sub-atomic particle at any point in time- to be unknowable.  And while simply sticking God in there to fill the void is a bad idea, it would be just as bad if we were to revert to a neat, rational model of the atom like the Bohr model where each electron has its own distinct and predictable orbit around the nucleus.  As with all areas of uncertainty, a nuanced approach that works is the only solution.

The religion that survives the end of the modern age must therefore be willing to let go of all presumptions and begin its work from the presumption that we do not know what God or the soul or destiny really are or if they exist (unless by some weird chance science actually discovers those things).  It must take up the question again in earnest and it must not treat science as a threat, but as a different way of knowing and a well of ideas that can be useful and helpful to the pursuit of human happiness and self-improvement.  And likewise, science has to be open to the idea that it may not be the only source of useful or helpful ideas, though it should endure as a discipline because its ideas are very important.  And in time, perhaps only a few centuries, science and religion may reach a point of enlightened equilibrium.


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