There was a time when it was virtually impossible not to believe in God. That made sense; life had (and certainly still has) many mysteries and a divine hand made sense of an irrational world, at least in the sense that you could believe in one supernatural thing rather than many.
But over time two important things happened that should have killed religion; the world got 'smaller' in the sense that a lot more information about people and cultures became available and science was able to explain a much larger, very fundamental and far-reaching set of things about the world in terms of natural laws.
Yet religion die not die, as it was predicted it must. Nietzsche could metaphor like nobody's business but he is most certainly dead and religion is most certainly not and every time I hear one of his descendants, like postmodernists, speak I want to reach for a pistol - but even Nietzsche in the beginning was downright optimistic about religion's future compared to other European philosophers of his day and since.
Yet it's still here. With knowledge of multiple faiths, which would certainly seem to cast doubt on the supremacy, and thus the value, of any particular one, and the encroachment of science in explaining the natural world, religon should have become a quaint anachronism, yet it has not.
The "Secular Thesis" has failed, as phrased by McGill University professor emeritus of political science and philosophy Charles Taylor. The encroachment of the 'secular' age did not stamp out belief as a source of meaning and morality and instead it simply (the wrong word, I know, since the whole thing is quite complicated) changed the conditions of that belief.
It isn't moral at all, argues cultural luminaries such as Elton John, who said, "I would ban religion completely. It turns people into hateful lemmings, and it's not really compassionate."
How can the same thing have such different meanings to people who consider themselves truly compassionate and concerned about others?
Perhaps it is because religion in society is a lot more nuanced and much less shallow than the fringes of the science vs. religion or intelligent vs.immature camps want to believe. Certainly religion brings on its own public relations problems. Catholics forgiving pederasts, for example, and giving them multiple opportunities for atonement has led to serious credibility issues and no small amount of financial impact but an inclusive church that believes in spiritual rehabilitation is expected to try and heal its own - it's still a bad idea to send them off to other areas of the country or attempt to cover up the problem.
It isn't just Christianity suffering from bad public image. Muslims who circle the wagons around terrorists, imprison homosexuals or publicly stone rape victims aren't adding any credibility to their denomination either.
Anti-religious zealots have their own credibility gaps. They tend to slap some gnostic fanaticism label on everyone religious, which is in denial of the obvious benefits of a liturgical culture. There's a great deal of post-modern rationalization that goes on to explain the beneficial aspects of religion in a way that denies religion any credit. That framing by the atheist contingent is no different than ministers who can find no wrong in religion and they paint overwhelming denial of evolution by evangelicals as a religious ignorance problem, which is hardly the case.
Yet outside the fringes of the culture war, science has gained a lot of ground but religion has held its own. In AAAS surveys, 40% of scientists believed in God in 1933. 70 years later, the result was basically identical, a somewhat surprising statistic given the empirical nature of science. How is that possible if science is the enemy of religion?
It remains that religion does have some positive benefits, despite what Elton John thinks. If there's a problem in a third world country, it is primarily religious groups who put feet on the ground trying to help - and they do so even when there are no headlines. I don't recall the last time an organized atheist group went into a prison to try and rehabilitate people, though they are quite good about protesting if someone innocent is in jail whereas religious people tend to be in favor of more jails. Protesting doesn't involve having to step foot inside prisons, though. Atheists do a great deal for their fellow man indirectly, through awareness and policy efforts, but religious people do more for non-political causes in extremely dangerous conditions and it rarely gets covered by the New York Times.
Religion also partly maintains a place in society because even for non-believers, religion is fascinating. Recently academic researchers have tackled issues like 'do prayers get answered?', religious disparities in prostate cancer, chicken versus egg debates like did religion codify morality or did morality create religion? and even do religious people do more for charity?
They have researched the neuropsychological core of selflessness which, oddly, is at the core of every major religion in the world. Religion in medical care had been pushed to the back for some time but recent studies suggest that the brain's healing power, including when religiously motivated, can work 'miracles', if we can use that term.
Obviously there is some bad correlation that occurs too. Are religious people more likely to be faithful? Yes, it turns out, though religion may not be the reason. Other studies tackle how religion is ironically a product of evolution.
So why does religion still exist at all today, much less remain vibrant and active in a scientifically astute society? After 1,000 words I am no closer to an answer because it's too big an issue - and I know that's sort of a copout. But I know what isn't an answer; religious people are not just stupid across the board any more than atheists are immoral bigots. There are complex issues involved and over time we will converge on answers about biological processes but, like any equation with multiple variables, there won't be a solution that satisfies everyone. The nature of faith will always be in defiance of what we can understand today.
However, evolutionary biologists can take comfort that neuroscientists will soon be ground zero in the science versus religion culture wars because they are trying to close in on how the brain responds to belief and then eventually 'the soul' - something people of faith might think should be left alone.
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