The American philosopher Roy Wood Sellars wrote a book I'm currently reading, entitled The Next Step in Religion: An Essay towards the Coming Renaissance. This work was published in 1918. As you might guess from its title, Sellars anticipated great things--the triumph of the scientific view and reason, the dissolution of traditional religions, the disappearance of anthropomorphic deities--which have not and possibly will never take place, at least in our Beloved Republic. That seems to be the case, in any event, a little less than a century after this grandly optimistic book came forth from the Macmillan Company.
It wouldn't be the first time such hopes, and others, were exaggerated. Think of how, in 1968, Kubrick and Clarke came up with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Is it possible that reasonable men and women thought we would have large colonies on the Moon to which we traveled regularly, and could send a manned mission to Jupiter, in 2001? So it seems. What disappointments we are to ourselves.
What would poor Roy think now about his anticipated "Next Step"? We have commercials in which we are told that God is employing a dating service to find spouses for us (you would think that if God truly is a mere matchmaker, he would manage to do that himself). We are told by political and religious leaders that Satan has his sights on us, that God is angry at us and so will allow us to be punished by hurricanes and other things because of homosexuals. The return of Jesus and the Last Judgment are eagerly awaited and the subject of popular novels. The year is 2013, and it is being demanded that evolution not be taught in our schools or that alternatives to evolution in the form of creationism be taught as well. Some of us think that the world was created 6,000 years ago.
It's an interesting book, really, and worth a read despite its optimism. But one wonders what happened. Are we stupider than, or at least as stupid as, we were in 1918? Are we off schedule due to some event, such as the Second World War, which distracted us? The First World War was apparently not enough to convince Sellars that the Next Step would be postponed indefinitely.
I suspect that the good professor simply overestimated us, rather drastically. Perhaps this can happen if an academic is too sheltered from the oppressively real world which lies outside the academy, but I doubt that is the whole answer. There are still those who proclaim the end of the "God Delusion" even now. I prefer Sellars' arguments to theirs, so I anticipate they will prove to be even less insightful than he was regarding our future.
It seems clear that most of us need religion, or in any case feel it necessary and worthwhile to believe in God. If that need will ever dissipate, it is most doubtful that will take place in the foreseeable future. But should it take place?
I don't think a belief in God or spiritual or religious feelings are undesirable in and of themselves. One can believe in a God who is not busily finding ways for us to meet our wives or husbands, not obsessed with our sexual conduct and does not insist that we believe he wrote a certain book through someone and does not proscribe death and eternal damnation if certain rules are not followed. One can, in other words, conceive of and believe in a God who is not a particularly nasty, intrusive, and demanding kind of human being.
Perhaps our intellectual leaders would do better service by seeking to transform and inform our beliefs in God rather than condemning the belief in God and religion generally. These beliefs won't go away, but it is possible to have intelligent, reasonable beliefs in these matters.