As I first mentioned in a previous Science 2.0 post, a month ago I took a walk to Cabot Auditorium at Tufts University to see a presentation by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who is also one of the "four horsemen" of New Atheism.

Dennett discussed three of his potential futures for religion, mostly the third possibility:
  1. Religion will sweep the planet.
  2. Religion is in its death throes.
  3. Religion transforms into creedless moral teams (ceremony and tradition, but no doctrine).
Dennett made compelling arguments for #3, and some possible projects atheist groups could do to help that path.  For instance, some preachers are pretending to be religious, but they don't believe the doctrine.  I would assume that many politicians also pretend to be religious to attract (or at least not scare away) voters.

In March 2010, Dennett and Linda LaScola released a report of five interviews of Protestant pastors who are not believers.  Here's a few excerpts:
Our sample is small and self-selected, and it is not surprising that all of our pastors think that they are the tip of an iceberg, but they are also utterly unable to confirm this belief.  They might be deluding themselves, but in any case their isolation from others whom they suspect are in the same boat is a feature they all share, in spite of striking differences in their stories and attitudes.  While we couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, the very variety of their stories, as well as the patterns discernible in them, suggest fascinating avenues for further research on this all but invisible phenomenon.
This constant spin doctoring takes its toll, apparently, but it also subverts a mission that the liberal pastors claim for themselves: staying in the church in order to liberalize it, in order to make it a saner, wiser, more tolerant institution. “My goal is to become obsolete,” says Wes. And according to Rick,   
 
“One of my strategies to stay in the church, is to change the church.  I mean, I
want the church to hear this stuff!  I want the church to deal with me.  I want the church to know that there’s a progressive way of thinking out there.  I want the church to know that there are people who are thinking really radical stuff about theology.”  
 
Bit by bit, day by day, they would like to lift their parishioners closer to their own way of seeing the world, but by not speaking their minds, their sincere minds, they squander most of the opportunities to lead their congregations to new ways of thinking. In fact, there is a sort of Hippocratic Oath that all five seem to follow: In the first place, do no damage to any parishioner’s beliefs.  Sometimes this is obviously the right thing to do, what anyone would do:  
 
“But he’s still dying of cancer; [his faith is] not changing the situation.  It’s changing his acceptance of things; it’s allowing him to cope with it.  And I’m certainly not going to pull that rug out from under him.” (Darryl)   
 
And sometimes concern for others is arguably the dominant motive:

“I say I never try to take away from somebody something they believe unless I
can put something better in its place, as opposed to just attacking.” (Rick)  But other times this policy seems more self-protective than altruistic:   “So it’s like you want to build their faith, not tear down their faith.  So you do your work carefully.” (Adam)   
 
Do they ever volunteer their radical ideas to parishioners?  One tactic they have discovered is the book club or study group, where self-selected parishioners get to read one of the controversial books...Those who participate are alerted to the nature of the materials in advance and are then gently encouraged to discuss the ideas, in an unusually tolerant atmosphere, a sort of holiday from the constraints of dogma. Here the pastors can demonstrate their open-mindedness and willingness to take these shocking ideas seriously, and let the authors be the mouthpieces for what is in their hearts. Again, they need to have plausible deniability: they aren’t preaching these ideas, just acquainting their parishioners—those who are interested—with them. Not surprisingly, they draw a sharp distinction between what they can say from the pulpit, and what
they can say in these less official circumstances.
Some of these atheist clergy are planning to leave their church jobs.  But if some exploit their insider positions to successful transform their churches--albeit not easy tasks--it could contribute to possible future #3.

There is the possibility for atheist or secular groups to compete with churches, which accelerates #3, e.g. to maintain numbers the churches have to offer what the competitors offer.  But will religion die out completely that way, or will it still be resident, just in weaker forms?  Can competition happen in the schools for children, so that more people put their children in secular schools instead of being brainwashed from day one?

On an atheist forum, I asked (in reference to Dennett's three potential futures): Which do you think is most likely, and why?  What could we do to help steer to that path?

One commenter said:
To achieve Dennet's #3 scenario will be difficult though...I foresee that #1 is going to be a big wave which will try to obliterate atheism through the deployment of the massive resources religions have at their disposal...this is atheism's Achilles heel. We are not organised or able to muster the resources they can.
Atheism cannot compete with churches in a head-on confrontational approach. It needs clever strategies almost a guerilla-type of approach which is able to think like the enemy (SunTzu).
My reply to that is that it's not necessarily a matter of a clandestine operation knocking down the supports and then watching the churches and temples crumble (metaphorically). There is also the positive and most likely completely public and transparent projects and teams that atheists can do. There are a few secular organizations that give aid and stuff like that. But there could be millions started up to do all kinds of educations, good will, etc. projects.

So atheist groups might compete with religion on the education and good will front. And non-religious groups could compete with religious organizations as far as moral teams and tribes/families. This sociocultural tribe aspect is the tricky one.  I suspect with just the idea of trying to be proactive for good projects, non-religious people can utilize the Internet to get things going.  For example, Meetup.com has 7.2 million members and 79,000 local groups (according to their about page)[http://www.meetup.com/about/].  Meetups are organized on the web but extend out into the real world.

Of course, as Science 2.0 writer Rycharde Manne commented in my previous blog post about the future of religion:
To attempt to create an ersatz religion by aping the propagandist elements of established religions looks like a million steps backwards.
I agree.  So any attempts to compete with religion have to avoid ending up being religious-like shells themselves with unethical practices and centralized authorities dictating doctrine.

Some atheists who responded to my questions think that humans in general are still holding on to tradition and superstition, but they are starting to become non-believers and are just going through the motions of various traditions.  One commenter said:
Number three seems to be a stride towards or perhaps even a symptom of religion being in its death throes, not its own separate category, which is where I think all modern evidence is heading. New Age spirituality advanced by books like The Secret or Deepak Chopra's "quantum theory" woo-woo proves that people are looking for a way to make sense of the crap that's been fed to them for so many years, and are not capable of shedding superstitions just yet, but realize there's something wrong. The idea of being alone with each other is very sobering and scary for a lot of people, but with the information explosion of the internet it is just so much harder to buy the lie.