If science can eventually provide what religion promises, then science will eventually put religion out of business. But can science provide what religion promises? I will argue that it cannot. My argument will not assume that any religion, or any combination of religions, is true, wholly or in part. Perhaps no actual or possible religion makes contact with reality at any point. Perhaps every actual or possible religion is nothing but an elaborate expression of human neediness, of human wishes, dreams, hopes, and fears. Still, there remains the fact of these fears and hopes, and the question whether anything can assuage the former and fulfill the latter. I will begin by listing the main types of problem that religion addresses, and then ask whether current or future science, or rather, a technology that implements current or future science, can supply the needs that religions cater to.
The Problems Religion Addresses
1. The first category of problems includes the facts that shook young prince Siddartha to his core, moved him to forsake the royal compound with its impressive perquisites and blandishments and set him on the austere path to becoming Buddha, the supremely enlightened one who saw to the bottom of our predicament and saw the way out (as his followers believe), and went on to found Buddhism. What shook Siddartha and shocked him deeply were sickness, old age, death, and everything connected with them, everything that causes them and everything they bring in their train. We can lump all this under the rubric of natural evil: suffering and misery in all its forms that arises from natural causes. For Buddha the fundamental fact and the fundamental problem was that of suffering, which is why the First Noble Truth, which is not only first in the order of presentation but also first in the order of importance, is "All is suffering," sarvam dukkham.
2. The second category is that of moral evil. These are the problems that come into the world via the exercise of free will, from the merest unkindness on up to the horrors of rape, torture, slavery, mass murder, abuse of power by governments and their agents, as well as by private individuals, and all the crimes that fill the history books and the pages of every newspaper in every corner of the globe every day. Here belong all the ills that derive not just from weakness of will, but even more from perversity of will.
3. The third category is that of moral and intellectual blindness, ignorance, and delusion, for example, the delusional thinking of someone who believes that happiness will be his if he succeeds in murdering his wife, collecting on a life insurance policy, and getting away with the crime.
4. Under the fourth rubric I collect all the problems associated with the ontological deficiency of the world of our ordinary experience. All of the deeper heads in the East, the Near East and the West from Buddha and Ecclesiastes to Plato and Plotinus to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have been struck and shocked by the vanity of existence and the transitoriness of life. "I am aggrieved by the transitoriness of things," wrote Nietzsche to his friend Overbeck. A homo religiosus with the bladed intellect of a skeptic, Nietzsche couldn't bring himself to accept any traditional religion. And yet the religious need was alive in him, and it was that need that gave rise to his peculiar scheme of Redemption in the form of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.
Connected with the vanity of existence and the transience of life is the apparent meaninglessness of our lives. Albert Camus famously argued in the The Myth of Sisyphus that the one and only serious philosophical problem is that of suicide. Does the Absurd demand suicide as the only appropriate response? That was his question. He characterized the Absurd as the disproportion between the human craving for meaning and the universe's apparent meaninglessness. What we want it cannot provide. It is not that the universe is indifferent to us -- indifference, after all, is a human attitude which presupposes concern and is a privation thereof -- but beyond indifference and interestedness. The silence of ther universe is not a privation of speech, but something deeper -- and worse.
We suffer from a lack of existential meaning, a meaning that we cannot supply from our own resources since any subjective acts of meaning-positing are themselves (objectively) meaningless. Connected with this is our deep existential insecurity which erupts into consciousness from time to time in the form of the anxiety, anguish, dread, Angst that Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre described. This is not an anxiety about this or that; its intentional object is global, our very Being-in-the-world in Heideggerian jargon. This is experienced as unheimlich. Anxiety reveals that we are not at home in the world. We feel desolation. I feel fear for an intramundane being, ein innerweltliches Seiende; I feel Angst for my very In-der-Welt-sein, which is precarious desolate and lived in the face of das Nichts. (The connection between original sin and dread/anxiety is explored by Kierkegaard in The Concept of Dread.)
I don't claim that the above catalog is complete or even very well constructed: #4 bleeds back into #1 especially if suffering is taken in the radical Buddhist sense in which all-pervasive dukkha (suffering, ill, unsatisfactoriness) is undepinned by anatta (selflessness, insubstantiality) and anicca (radical, Heraclitean impermanence). For the Buddhist, suffering goes deep, rooted as it is in the very ontological structure of the world of our ordinary experience.
But I have said enough to make clear what sorts of problems religion addresses. It follows that the salvation religion promises is not to be understood in some crass physical sense the way the typical superficial and benighted atheist-materialist would take it but as salvation from meaninglessness, anomie, spiritual desolation, Unheimlichkeit, existential insecurity, Angst, ignorance and delusion, false value-prioritizations, moral corruption irremediable by any human effort, failure to live up to ideals, the vanity and transience of our lives, meaningless sufferings and cravings and attachments, the ultimate pointlessness of all efforts at moral and intellectual improvement in the face of death . . . .
I should add that anyone who doesn't feel these problems to be genuine problems will have no understanding of religion at all. And I remind the reader that I do not assume that any religion can deliver on its promises of salvation from the above litany of problems. My point is that natural science and its resulting technologies are powerless to solve these problems.
This ought to be self-evident to anyone who appreciates the problems. Consider #1. If suffering is rooted as deeply as the Buddhists think, in the very ontological structure of this changeful world, then obviously no mere manipulation of matter will solve the problem of suffering. You can drug people into a stupor, but being rendered insensate is no solution to the problems of sentient suffering. Suppose you don't think suffering is as deeply rooted as the Buddhists think. Sickness, old age, and death remain inevitable despite the welcome alleviations and life-extensions that modern science makes possible.
As for the rest of my categories, it is self-evident that there are no technological solutions to moral evil, moral ignorance, and the apparent absurdity of life. Is a longer life a morally better life? Can mere longevity confer meaning?
The notion that present or future science can solve the problems that religion addresses is utterly chimerical.
So if you reject religion, then you ought to honestly face the problems without evasion and without cultivating 'pie-in-the-future' illusions. Companion post: Can Belief in Man Substitute for Belief in God?