In Mind, Language and Society, John R. Searle writes:
In earlier generations, books like this one would have had to contain either an atheistic attack on or a theistic defense of traditional religion. [. . .] Nowadays nobody bothers, and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the question of God's existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: they are not to be discussed in public, and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores.
What has happened? [. . .] I believe that something much more radical than a decline in religious belief has taken place. For us, the educated members of society, the world has become demystified. . . . we no longer take the mysteries we see in the world as expressions of supernatural meaning. We no longer think of odd occurrences as cases of God performing speech acts in the language of miracles. Odd occurrences are just occurrences we do not understand. The result of this demystification is that we have gone beyond atheism to the point where the issue no longer matters in the way it did to earlier generations. (pp. 34-35)
This fascinating passage is emblematic of a widespread form of contemporary atheism according to which the existence/nonexistence of God is not even an issue, or can no longer be an issue for those who are en rapport with the deliverances of contemporary science. Traditional atheists — to give them a name — take the God question seriously and go to great lengths to refute theistic belief. They consider theistic belief at least worthy of refutation. But for Searle, Dennett, Dawkins, and many others, theistic belief is beneath refutation: the question has been decided by the progress of science so much so that the "educated members of society" no longer raise a question that is "in slightly bad taste."
As Searle puts it in his earlier Rediscovery of the Mind,
Given what we know about the details of the world — about such things as the position of the elements in the periodic table, the number of chromosomes in the cells of different species, and the nature of the chemical bond — this world view [naturalism] is not an option. It is not simply up for grabs along with a lot of competing world views. Our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously. (90)
In other words, our scientific knowledge excludes theism, mind-body substance dualism and anti-naturalism so decisively that God and the soul are now simply non-issues. Some remarks are in order.
1. One wonders what Searle would say about Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, two theists who one would hesitate to call uneducated. Are these two simply in the grip of an irrational faith? That is hard to swallow if one actually reads their rigorous and well-informed writings. Can the arguments of Plantinga et al. be simply dismissed? Wouldn't that be on a par with the Strong AI crowd simply dismissing Searle's Chinese Room and the rest of his arguments?
2. Searle seems to be assuming something false, namely, that the theist's God must be a God of the gaps, a being postulated to account for phenomena which at the moment do not have a scientific explanation, a God who intervenes miraculously in nature at those places where scientific explanations either fail or do not exist. This assumption is betrayed by Searle's mention of odd occurrences and miracles in the first passage quoted. He seems to think that for the theist, God can only be an explanatory posit invoked to explain odd occurrences in nature that have no scientific explanation. Naturally, such a God is increasingly put out of business the more science comes to explain. As more and more succumbs to natural explanation, there is less and less in need supernatural explanation. The naturalist, "pinning his hopes on future science" looks forwards to the glorious day when everything (consciousness, life, the very existence of the universe) will have a naturalist explanation. From this utopian perspective, the theist is fighting a rearguard action, trying to make some small bit of terrain safe from naturalist occupation.
On this way of thinking, the naturalist and the theist are competitors in the same line of work: both are trying to explain the natural world. But why must there be competition? Why can't science and religion/theology (these are not the same, but let's not worry about the difference) be assigned different tasks? Suppose we give the whole of the objective realm of what were traditionally called 'secondary causes' over to the scientists to explore using naturalistically acceptable methods. We say to them: try to explain as much as you can invoking nothing occult and nothing supernatural. That will still leave plenty for philosophers and theologians to explain, things that cannot be explained by scientific methods.
For one thing, there is the sheer existence of the physical universe. It exists and it might not have existed. So why does it exist? There is no scientific explanation -- no explanation in terms of natural laws and initial physical conditions -- of why everything physical exists. Here it makes sense to invoke God. Note that this God is not a God of the gaps, for the simply reason that there need be no gaps in scientific explanation of physical events. Suppose every physical event has a naturalistic explanation in terms of laws and other physical events. There remains the question of why the entire system of space-time-matter exists in the first place. The theist who says that God creates/sustains it at each moment of its existence is not positing a God of the gaps who is in competition with natural explanantia. This God is acting 'vertically' as it were on the entire system and not 'horizontally' within the system. Accordingly, God is the causa prima who explains why there is a physical universe in which secondary causes bring about secondary effects. In this way the job of the primary cause and the jobs of the secondary causes are cleanly segregated. The progress of science does not threaten theism, and there need be no miraculous divine interventions in nature.
But it is not only the existence of the physical universe that needs explanation but cannot receive it from science; there are also all the presuppositions of scientific theorizing. They too need explanation but cannot receive it from science. For example, science presupposes that there are individuals and properties, and that individuals have properties. But science is in no position to explain property-possession. That is an ontological topic, and if I am right an onto-theological topic. I would argue that God is the ultimate ground of property-possession. Causation, truth, laws, dispositions, abtracta --these are all presupposed by scientific activity but not scientifically explainable.
3. To exclude God, Searle cannot merely invoke natural science. He must move beyond science to scientism, the philosophical and thus nonscientific claim that all knowledge is scientific knowledge, a thesis which appears to be self-vitiating: if all knowledge is scientific knowledge, then that very thesis, not being a piece of science, cannot count as knowledge. So are we supposed to take it on faith? And note that naturalism, the thesis that only the space-time system and its contents exists, is not itself a scientific thesis or a presupposition of scientific work but a philosophical thesis. Clearly, naturalism excludes God. But science by itself does nothing to support naturalism. So why does Searle think that the progress of science has shown that theism is no longer credible among educated people?