Successful religions have historically been appealing to both the educated and the uneducated. They have appealed to the greatest minds and “experts” (the most distinguished philosophers and scientists) and people who aren’t especially interested in fully understanding life’s greatest mysteries. First, I will argue that the success of religions partially depends on appealing to both of these groups because (a) the religion needs educated people to join and persuade others that the religion is probably true (b) sometimes only the greatest minds can convince educated people that the religion is probably true. Second, I will argue that religions have lost the support from the experts that they need. This doesn’t mean that all religion will die off forever, but it does mean that truly successful religions of the future will probably have to regain support from the experts. These will probably be either revised versions of current religions or entirely new religions.
1. Why religions need the world’s greatest minds.
Religions need the world’s greatest minds for at least two main reasons. First, they need educated people to join to convince others that the religion is probably true. Second, the world’s greatest minds are often needed to convince educated people that the religion is probably true.
(a) They need educated people to join to be persuasive.
Religions need educated people to join because educated people are good at convincing the general public that the religion is probably true. The educated know the arts of persuasion, argumentation, and evidence. The educated can be able to answer the various questions and objections given against the religion to help convince others that the religion is probably true (or at least not probably false). The educated have to be a step above the general public or the religious advocate will be unable to answer certain questions and objections. That will immediately put the religion into question.
(b) The greatest minds are often needed to persuade educated people.
The educated often use poor reasoning and are ignorant of the world’s most sophisticated arguments and evidence. Educated people can often spot this poor reasoning and ignorance of others and many educated people will become smarter than the religious advocates. At that point religious advocates will no longer be persuasive. We aren’t usually going to trust someone who claims to know something incredibly ambitious about the universe that we don’t personally know about—especially when we realize that the religious advocate doesn’t actually know anything we don’t know. They often claim to know more than they really do. It’s this point that the educated will need “experts” to persuade them of the religious truths. The experts can stay one step ahead of the vast majority of educated people concerning the evidence and arguments for a religion.
Additionally, people often love to appeal to expert opinion and sophisticated arguments. Everyone values rationality including religious people. If we can trust the most informed experts among us, then many of us will trust in our religion when it is supported by the most informed experts. If the most informed experts offer the best arguments and they favor our religion, then we will have a good reason to believe in our religion. These facts help us predict when religions will be successful. The most successful religions throughout history appealed to both the uneducated and the experts. The most successful religions were endorsed by the experts of their time and they were supported by the best arguments available at the time. They were “scientific” and “rational” insofar as the most rational worldview available was based on the opinions and arguments of the experts.
2. Religions have greatly lost the support of expert opinion
The problem is that our current experts—our philosophers and scientists—have a diverse set of beliefs concerning religion. They don’t agree that any one religion is probably true. In fact, many of our experts reject all religions. That makes it too difficult for informed people to decide which religion we should agree with. If the experts aren’t sure, then we can’t hope to be sure either. It’s impossible to rationally appeal to an authority when the best authority available is in radical disagreement.
Additionally, even the greatest theistic minds of our time tend not to fully endorse popular religious beliefs. Their beliefs are greatly ignored by the religious community and the so-called “authority” found in most religions aren’t particularly qualified or scientific. Their expertise is no longer based on rigorous educational requirements and their opinions are not subject to a peer-review process.
The fact that the success of religions depends partially on having the experts endorse them is bad news for our religions right now. Religions tend to rise and fall, so this might simply be the time for them to fall and new ones to take their place. If any religion is going to be successful again, there’s going to have to be a greater connection between religious philosophers and everyone else who follows the religion. There’s going to have to be great philosophers who can show why their religion is highly plausible through argumentation and many philosophers will have to support the religion. This is likely to either require a new religion or a great deal of change in an existing one.
When Nietzsche declared that, “God is dead,” I think this is part of what he was referring to. The philosophers and scientists of his time were already starting to doubt their religions and he knew that this doubt was going to eventually spread to everyone else. The reason God is dead rather than simply non-existent is because the thousands of years of religious tradition still has a hold on people. You can say that God “died” when the religion no longer had the greatest minds any longer, but just like a death, not everyone knows about it yet.
Many people do trust the experts and they are religious. They trust the “religious authority” endorsed by their church. However, I suspect that these people tend to be ignorant about the religious opinions of the greatest minds of our time. If we trust the experts, then we should trust the best experts rather than unqualified people pretending to be experts. It’s hard to continually have faith in a religion based on your trust of religious authority figures after we realize that they aren’t particularly qualified. The most educated people tend to realize that they are more qualified than the religious authority, but not everyone knows the difference between a true expert and a pretender.
Right now none of the arguments for God are particularly convincing to atheist philosophers or even atheists in general. That isn’t a good sign for the belief in God. The best philosophical arguments should be rational to the point of being convincing to rational people. Additionally, the belief in God tends to violate a rule of reason—don’t require us to accept ambitious claims unless absolutely necessary. Supernatural claims are particularly ambitious, and the three major monotheistic religions claim God is supernatural. We could simply decide that there is only a natural world rather than a supernatural one. We already know about the natural world, so there’s nothing ambitious about believing in it. We don’t know for sure that there is a supernatural realm, so it’s existence is quite an ambitious claim.
Of course, even religious people know about this rational requirement. They often think their religion’s supernatural claims are exceptions to the rule, but they still generally reject all other supernatural entities from other “false” religions.
Atheist philosophers have been doing quite well making sense out of reality without the need for God or the supernatural. If there is no God, they can make sense of reality pretty well. It’s possible that the universe ultimately needs to be explained by God if God exists, but not if God doesn’t exist. It seems overly ambitious to require people to believe in God at this point in time given that a naturalistic worldview offers such a rich understanding of the universe while simultaneously doing such a good job at being modest rather than ambitious.
I can’t say that theism won’t become plausible through some future evidence, argumentation, and expert agreement. In fact, I think that’s what’s necessary for theistic religions to continue to be successful in the future. Something new is needed in our intellectual communities or the theistic religions might die out just like other religions have died out throughout history.
There is nothing about any religion that makes it exempt from the same rational requirements as all the rest are. Every religion must compete for plausibility and it’s not clear that any religion in particular is plausible. If you have a religion and think there are 1,000 religions that are implausible, then you should ask yourself what makes your religion so different from the rest. Can you come up with arguments to explain why you’re probably right? If not, no one has any reason to trust you and your religion is in danger.
The most successful religions have appealed to both the educated and uneducated, and I think I understand why. The religions with the support of the educated and experts are often needed to make the religion plausible. Without that support the religion loses its plausibility. That is what we are seeing happen now. Our current religions could die out unless things change.
I don’t think that the requirement for religions to be rational and endorsed by experts is an offensive one. I have nothing against rational religions or rational theism. Whatever religions are proven to be probably true through argumentation and endorsed by the world’s greatest minds deserves to thrive. However, that sort of religion requires a great deal of support from the experts within science and philosophy. No religion has the necessary support from experts needed at this moment in time.