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The future of God in human history
What is the future of religious belief? Of religious unbelief? We know something about their past, but not everything. As long as humans have been humans, we seem to have been drawn to the idea of supernatural forces to explain aspects of our existence. In the many thousands of years before the scientific revolution of the early modern era, resort to the supernatural was inescapable. How else to explain the motion of the sun and moon? How to explain the tides and the seasons? How to explain birth and death?
We humans want explanations; curiosity is in our DNA. Questioning is part of what has produced our success in multiplying and gaining dominion over the earth. When we can’t find explanations within ourselves, we find or invent them elsewhere. Those many things we couldn't explain with our pre-scientific knowledge we attributed to the gods.
Science has eroded the job description of the gods. We don't need gods anymore to explain the workings of the physical world. We still need help with the metaphysical world, and so there we continue to look to the divine. Science is quite good at explaining how the world works, but it hasn't yet revealed why there is a world at all. Maybe it never will.
Yet the trend line is not in the favor of the gods. No thinking person could have been an atheist or even an agnostic before about 1500. An unbeliever would have been left with no explanation for much that happens in daily life. Today there are plenty of atheists and agnostics, and they get through life day by day just fine. Will their number continue to grow? Five hundred years from now, will anyone believe in God?
One conceivable answer is an emphatic yes, because God will have appeared in undeniable and dramatic fashion. Various sects have foretold the end of the world amid the second coming of Jesus, when all doubts as to God's existence will be removed. The forecasts have not panned out so far, but that doesn’t mean they never will. If they do, the doubters will have their comeuppance, perhaps in hellfire and damnation.
Barring this eventuality, the proportion of unbelievers will likely continue to grow. Copernicus and Kepler and Newton retired God has the agent who kept the cosmos spinning in orderly fashion. Darwin relieved God of the responsibility for creating the living species one by one. Heisenberg and Planck accounted for seemingly random events.
In time, scientific investigation of human consciousness might reveal it to be as mundane as those other once-mysterious realms. Love and wonder might be reduced to quantum states in the brain. The soul will shrink as an explanatory requirement for the internal life.
Will God still be leaned on for comfort in the face of approaching death? Quite possibly. But like many other aspects of living, looking to the heavens is a habit. Before science, humans looked to the heavens to explain nearly everything. If the gods sent or withheld the rains, they apparently were paying attention to humans. From this inference it was a short step to believing that the gods cared about humans.
Today we don't invoke the gods for quotidian matters, and many of us have lost our species' habit of looking heavenward. Yet habits die hard, and some groups are as devout as ever, even militantly so. Such people will probably be with us for a long time.
But it’s significant that the major religions are thousands of years old, with roots firmly in the pre-scientific era. We invent lots of things in the modern age, but we don't invent religions anymore.