The world’s most prominent meme-smiths, such as Steven Pinker, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, and others were asked by the John Templeton Foundation “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” Their answers were published in Scientific American‘s June 2008 issue, page 20-21. I found the answers on first reading to be interesting, because of their different points of view, on second reading to be slipping off the fundamental question, on third reading to be subtly wrong-headed and on fourth reading to be laden with cant. So I feel I have to stand on the shoulders of these giants of the current intellect, and answer that question properly.
To begin with, the terms have notoriously woolly definitions so there must be some clarification. By science is meant a collection of knowledge based on reproducible examinations which are conducted by outside observers, even hostile non-believers, and still found to be valid. It is a process of trying to guarantee the trustworthiness, and reliability of every aspect of the methods as well as of the data itself, and the conclusions. Science sets as a goal to achieve Trustworthiness TST~14. That is, good scientific conclusions are presented in such a way that they are transparent in every way, and can be easily disproved if they are wrong in any way. Because of the transparency of the language of science it tends to be seen as one boringly obvious step after another boringly obvious step which provides no absolute certainty at the end. Nothing but a sequence of inescapably obvious methods, tedious observations and boring conclusions. What is presented in science textbooks is the findings of the scientific method, but good textbooks will show you how to do the known experiments yourself. A really good textbook would challenge you to find new experiments which would disprove the conclusions presented in the textbook.
Religion’s exoteric teachings, on the other hand, are presented in the opposite way. The source of ideas are remote prophets, and the accuracy of their reports is unknown, and unknowable. Furthermore, the current providers of this remote information are set upon sacred podiums, and the religious community is unwilling to tolerate any criticism. They strive to present their information in such an absolute way that it cannot be disproved or even challenged. The controllers of the various traditions make it a part of their method to give unchallengeable answers to all questions. Over time, and repetition the statements of religions tend to become rigid, formulaic, and stylized. It attempts to emphasize beauty of expression, and clarity of statement, and appeal to deeply personal, and sentimental human emotions of value, self worth and fear. It tries to create an in-group of followers who are willing to suspend disbelief, and set up any nonbelievers as an hostile enemy. Often there have been severe penalties for not believing all of the stated arbitrary answers to difficult questions, and thus anyone short of a true believer becomes easily identified, and defined as a heretic, or an enemy to be attacked. On the Trustworthiness Scale this type of presentation strives to be TST~1 or even off the chart at TST~0, absolute unknowability stated with absolute conviction. God, with all of the powers attributed to him, is defined as unknowable, and untestable, and that is the way the esoteric controllers want it to remain because that gives them their exclusive power over their followers. This system of belief works well for organizing people into cohesive combative groups which are successful at accomplishing unified military like actions. It doesn’t matter whether the ideas are true, or testable, or obvious lies — what matters is the purposeful unified control, and behavior of the people.
The belief in an absolute entity that gives purpose and blessing to a group, makes it more powerful, and more likely to be successful in the short run. Sometimes, that additional cohesion is essential to the physical survival of some particular group. It is necessary to postulate this God concept to get some people to act effectively in a social group action, and therefore God will never become obsolete. This doesn’t imply that there is an objective entity of any sort which can be called God; it just observes that sometimes the belief in the concept helps people survive. Approached in this way, the protean term God doesn’t need to be defined. Thus, in a Darwinian survival of the fittest situation this belief sometimes gives a useful edge to those people with that belief, and sometimes a little edge is all that is needed for them to survive. It is only those who do survive who get to reproduce. Those people who are perfectly right in some academic or even absolute sense who get killed don’t get to reproduce, are winnowed out of the gene pool. Under most everyday situations being in perfect harmony with objective fact has the most survival value, but not always. Sometimes being right just gets you killed. Go to my blog on occasional events called Black Swans, and how to survive them. Sometimes, a rarely needed advantage is critical in the long run.
There is another component to this belief in God, and why we seem so inclined to believe in something which isn’t observable. Some women seem to prefer men who are capable of these kinds of mental, and emotional states, and choose them for partners for reproduction. Thus, over thousands of generations our species has bred itself into a condition of having an easy time learning those things which bring about this sort of belief. It is rather like the acquisition of language; it is bred into humans to come naturally when a person is exposed to it at a proper age. Probably most of this type of belief is acquired while young, and final decisions about religion are firm by reproductive age, when mates are chosen, and change little after that.
So, my answer to the question, “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” — No, God isn’t obsolete, and never will be because even though a scientifically observable God does not exist, the belief that one does occasionally gives the believers a survival advantage. Usually, belief in untestable things is costly, so the common persons strategy of pretending to believe gives them the benefits group cohesion without the expense. It’s called Pascal’s wager.