Can we disillusion them?

Can we hope to replace religion with reason?

No. That is my conclusion, anyway.

In his book The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins sets out what some others,[1] have tried before, namely a programme for a rational future in which all educated adults share a common empirical scientific cosmology, a set of what (I suppose) might be called neo-humanistic ethics*, and a rejection of religion and all traditional religion-based bigotries, divisions, rivalries, enmities, wars, strife.

* By neo-humanistic I mean humanitarian and totally non-religious, but without the human species supremacy traditionally implied in humanism. That is, recognizing that maybe chimpanzees and dolphins have the same rights to “life, liberty and the pusuit of happiness” as the rest of us, and so forth, rather than borrowing from the monotheistic religions the assumption that “god put man in charge on earth, to do whatever he wished with the beasts”.

Anyway, back to the rational plan. A devoutly religious friend of mine, asked why he believes in his God, replied roughly as do the ID people. He cannot see how what he percieves as "design" in the world — not to mention the cosmos — could have come about by accident. However it is not chiefly the cosmos, with its (to most people) unimaginable vastness, that is the problem here; it is the life forms on this planet. They are usually unwilling to read all the books by Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker etc.) and the others which set out the true nature of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and how it can be shown capable of having produced all the variety of life forms that there are and have been. Dawkins naturally goes on to write more, answering the ID critics who have read his books and nit-picked, misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted, and hopes that if he can only write in enough detail, and cover enough variations of the theme (for example, how does altruism evolve? because the sought survival is that of the species, the genes, not necessarily of the individual!) they will eventually be convinced.

I don't think most people will ever be convinced.

Why? Because I think, despite increasing education, that the majority of the population, even of the advanced countries with highly developed education systems, are not intelligent enough to actually grasp — properly understand — the process that is being described to them. If it were captured as a long elaborate animated movie, some of them might get a glimmer. The rest would know they have seen so many "cartoons" that anything is possible but it ain't all true, is it? To grasp that the process of genetic mutation, gradual improvement and change over millions of generations, can and did give rise to the life forms known to us requires either genuine trust in the scientists telling you so — which the ID brigade clearly lack — or the ability to follow the intricate scientific arguments that are set out in the research papers and then the expository books. basically, for all those with IQ not quite high enough to follow the arguments, that is not going to happen. And for those with very high IQs, but emotional attachments to religion (see Santa) or an Attitude when faced with empirical science for any reason, they will simply not be in a mindset able to study the argument dispassionately and to see that it is sound.

Many observers of the world and of society at the beginning of the 21st century have been asking why there is, at the same time as the big western religion has been losing influence, such an increase not in scientific literacy but in resort to fringe religions, sects, witchcraft, superstition, astrology, fortune-telling, and the rest. Most conclude that ordinary people see the adverse results of technological progress and equate them with science; they then increase their suspicion about what scientists tell us (look at all the currently voiced suspicion of warnings about global warming) and turn to non-scientific and especially to anti-scientific (even more especially when anti-establishment) movements and ideas. No amount of rational argument can turn this round, it would seem.

And the situation is not getting better. As decades go by, young people are not growing up ever more ready to live with the clear-thinking scientific-empiricist outlook on the world. On the contrary there seems to be ever more mistrust of “science and technology” (there, that bracketing together again). Why? What governments and industry — big busines and commerce — have made of science, by definition exploiting discoveries through technology in products, gadgets, processes, gimmicks — and what that has caused is clear to people. The fact that it was bureaucrats and salesmen, not scientists and engineers, who are largely to blame for most of the ABuse of science is often neglected.

And the only reason to adopt a non-religious view of the world is for pure scientific reason itself: reason (as in grounds) for reason (as in rationality). But what difference would it make to their lives? People (in the affluent, democratic western world anyway) who don't want to are not made to go to church any more — thankfully. Laws about ordinary behaviour are by and large in place for reasons based in politics, justice, civil liberty, public order and so on; only a few such as the now hotly debated blasphemy law are left over from the era when religion dictated public policy. Therefore for ordinary people understanding the scientific view of cosmology, evolution and the rest of the reality around us does not bring them anything for all the effort. It is easier to shrug and turn back to the soaps, the sport, the reality TV shows. The price of houses or the next interior makeover is far more important to people than how the universe and the grasshoppers came about without a god to make them.

As for the muslim fundamentalists who want to kill everybody who does not share their narrow mediaeval outlook on life and the cosmos, unless they can themselves be expunged from the planet the less upset to their vicious little minds caused by calm rational science and its proponents, probably the better.

[1] others who have suggested this before include John Allegro.