On the "Right Side of Futurology": Atheism and Human Extinction

Dan Barker, echoing an idea expressed by many atheists, describes theology as “a subject without an object.” Since there's little reason for thinking a God exists – much less the God of the Bible – the entire field is ultimately vacuous, despite the grandiloquent rigamarole of, as Jerry Coyne puts it, Sophisticated Theologians(TM). Theology studies nothing. Its heart and soul is a phenomenon that almost certainly doesn't exist.

Here's a problem: from the religious perspective, the exact same can be said about the study of existential risks, in particular the study of human extinction scenarios. Why? Because according to religion, there is no such thing as human extinction. We aren't like the rest of the Animal Kingdom. We aren't like the Dodo. We aren't merely material beings, but possess a unique dual nature consisting of mortal flesh and immortal souls. On a personal level, all humans will survive the entropic demise of our physical selves when death finally kicks down the door. On a cosmic level, Christianity and Islam promise a new, gloriously remade world – heaven – once time reads aloud the final chapter of history. A select group of “true believers” will then be granted access to a lush paradise world, while those who rejected the revealed veracities of religion will endure endless torture in an eternally fiery perdition.

From the religious perspective, therefore, the field of Existential Risk Studies is a nonstarter. There's no point in studying how humanity could, through error or terror, natural or anthropogenic misfortune, terminate our evolutionary lineage. Such a scenario violates the metaphysics of religion. It contradicts the eschatological narratives prewritten by God himself. Could a Seed AI suddenly snap into a history-rupturing positive feedback loop of exponential self-amplification, thus leading to our destruction? It's unclear how this could possibly fit into the apocalyptic stories of the Bible or Koran (as well as hadith). Could ecophagic nanobots cause the entire biosphere to be gobbled up in a matter of weeks, thus resulting in the permanent disappearance of our species? Nope, because this would contravene the prophesied conclusion of the universe according to infallible scripture.

Even biodiversity loss and global warming are of no concern to religious dogmatists. On the one hand, natural catastrophes are often identified by holy texts as harbingers of the end. As a result, bad news about droughts, crop failures, extreme weather, infectious diseases, and so on, is actually the exact opposite: good news to celebrate, since it means this weary world soaked in sin and suffering is, finally, almost over. On the other hand, worst case scenarios of environmental degradation and ecological collapse are precluded by books like the Bible. As the Republican congressman John Shimkus noted in a 2009 hearing before the House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, global warming ain't nothing to fret because God promised Noah after the great deluge that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). Ergo, sea level rise, if it's even happening, won't be the catastrophe predicted by secular climatologists.

The task before Existential Risk Studies is not only to better understand the big picture hazards haunting us this century, but to convince a large portion of humanity that it is, so to speak, a subject with an object. This is a gargantuan task, and it will likely become increasingly difficult as the clock keeps ticking. Why? Because, while the West is becoming more and more secular – a study from 2011, for example, suggests that religion is headed for “extinction” in nine Western countries – the world as a whole is becoming more superstitious. According to a recent Pew poll, more than 60% of humanity will be either Christian or Muslim five years after Kurzweil's prophesied Singularity (yes, I'm talking about 2050). The number of Muslims will roughly equal the number of Christians: 2.8 billion to 2.9 billion, respectively.

Furthermore, as of 2010 some 41% of Americans believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return in the next few decades. Among evangelical leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, 82% believe in an imminent Rapture – an event, according to dispensationalism, during which Jesus half-returns to the earth, resurrects all the dead Christians since his crucifixion, and carries away all the living Christians to heaven. (Jesus then returns once and for all some 7 years later to fight the Antichrist in the battle of Armageddon, after which his Millennial Kingdom begins.) Thus, a significant percentage of Christians – about half in the US, and even more in other parts of the world – exhibit strong apocalypticist tendencies.

One finds no dearth of eschatological fervor in the Muslim world either. In fact, an even higher percentage of Muslims in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, and Turkey, believe in the imminent appearance of the Mahdi, a messianic figure expected to usher in the final events of the Muslim calendar, or the return of Jesus, which will occur over the white minaret in east Damascus (seriously). A recent Pew poll found, for example, that 83% of people in Afghanistan and 72% of people in Iraq anticipate the Mahdi to appear within their lifetimes.

As one can see, there's a huge mismatch between what large swaths of humanity are fixated on – including many highly influential political and religious leaders – and what Existential Risk Studies warns could happen to our species. From the secular perspective, a considerable portion of people around the globe are preoccupied with the wrong apocalypses. This is a terrifying observation, given the estimated probability of danger proposed by the most qualified riskologists, such as Sir Martin Rees and Nick Bostrom. (Indeed, the former suggests that our chances of surviving the current century are 50% – a mere coin toss! And he's not alone in such glaring pessimism.)

Consider briefly a phenomenon that I call, in my forthcoming book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse, the “clash of eschatologies.” Perhaps the best contemporary example of this comes from the plot of real estate called the Middle East, where all three Abrahamic religions geographically overlap. On one side of the fight is the Islamic State, a barbaric death cult that's explicitly motivated by an apocalyptic narrative in which they see themselves as active participants. On the other side are numerous Shia militias, such as the Mahdi Army and its offspring, the Promised Day Brigades, that are politically and financially linked with Iran, a country that was, historically speaking, founded on apocalyptic expectations, as the noted scholar David Cook explains here.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Republican party is, to a consternating degree, animated by premillennial dogmas about the imminent return of Christ and the battle of Armageddon in the Middle East. (See this gem, for a good start.) In fact, one of the biggest lobbies in the entire US, called Christians United for Israel, is run by an eschatological enthusiast named John Hagee who believes, with the unshakable firmness of dogmatic faith, that a nuclear showdown with Iran is inevitable (here). In his timeless book Jerusalem Countdown, Hagee argues that we're living in the end times, and that Israel must be defended no matter what because, in part, everything about God's plan for humanity depends on the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine. Hagee has had close ties with a large number of Republican politicians, including some currently hoping to be the next POTUS, such as Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, and a certain Mr. Rafael Edward Cruz.

The ultimate point is this: we're entering into a genuinely new phase of human history, one in which claims that “The end is near!” need not be founded on the soggy morass of faith and revelation. Rather, the annihilation scenarios put forth by existential riskologists are based on evidence and reason, observation and logical inference. And according to the best estimates, there's a very real chance that our species will skip from this side of the grave to the other – an irreversible transition from extant to extinct – in the near future. Yet human extinction is a futurological impossibility from the vantage point of religion. It can't be studied because it doesn't exist in the space of possible futures.

While the only acceptable outlook for those of us on the “right side of futurology,” so to speak, is practical optimism, there's plenty of reason for pessimism about the future of humanity – obsessed as it is with ancient claims about what the world is like and, more significantly, how it ought to be.

[An earlier version of this article appeared on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies' website, here. Many warm thanks to the IEET for its immense support of my work. I welcome feedback on this post!]