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The End Of Dumb
On Edge, John Brockman asks his annual question to a bunch of the world's thinkers:

WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? WHY?

As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.

What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!

Daniel Dennett is optimistic that we'll see "the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion," as he more politely puts it (more politely than "The End Of Dumb") in the next 25 years:

Recall that only fifty years ago smoking was a high status activity and it was considered rude to ask somebody to stop smoking in one’s presence. Today we’ve learned that we shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to prohibit smoking altogether, and so we still have plenty of cigarettes and smokers, but we have certainly contained the noxious aspects within quite acceptable boundaries. Smoking is no longer cool, and the day will come when religion is, first, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, and later: no longer cool–except in its socially valuable forms, where it will be one type of allegiance among many. Will those descendant institutions still be religions? Or will religions have thereby morphed themselves into extinction? It all depends on what you think the key or defining elements of religion are. Are dinosaurs extinct, or do their lineages live on as birds?

Why am I confident that this will happen? Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion. With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working. For every well-publicized victory–the inundation of the Bush administration with evangelicals, the growing number of home schoolers in the USA, the rise of radical Islam, the much exaggerated “rebound” of religion in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to take the most obvious cases–there are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents. That trend will continue, especially when young people come to know how many of their peers are making this low-profile choice. Around the world, the category of “not religious” is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.

Those who are secular can encourage their own children to drink from the well of knowledge wherever it leads them, confident that only a small percentage will rebel against their secular upbringing and turn to one religion or another. Cults will rise and fall, as they do today and have done for millennia, but only those that can metamorphose into socially benign organizations will be able to flourish. Many religions have already made the transition, quietly de-emphasizing the irrational elements in their heritages, abandoning the xenophobic and sexist prohibitions of their quite recent past, and turning their attention from doctrinal purity to moral effectiveness. The fact that these adapting religions are scorned as former religions by the diehard purists shows how brittle the objects of their desperate allegiance have become.

I don't entirely share his optimism, but it doesn't stop me from railing against the non-think of religion. Perhaps that is the beginning of dumb, but I'm aspiring to optimism. Or, as I sometimes put it, "I'm not a pessimist, just a disappointed optimist."

What are you optimistic about for 2007 and beyond?

Posted by aalkon at January 1, 2007 5:35 AM

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Comments

"Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put."

What kind of gee-whiz fantasy world is Wally living in?

I am somewhat optimistic about the new Congress.

Posted by: Lena at January 1, 2007 9:18 AM

GREAT POSTING AMY! I came across this link to edge.org before visiting The Goddess, and one of my resolutions will be to read each submission. In particular I enjoyed John Gottman's observation that in societies where men are more involved with the caring of their children the societies do not make war.

On a personal basis, I am very optimistic, because all aspects of my life seem to be running on all 8 SUV cylinders. I do think things are going to get much worse in Iraq and the Middle East in general before they get better, and we'll see that region begin to boil over by summer.

Posted by: eric at January 1, 2007 9:23 AM

Boil over = ?

Posted by: Crid at January 1, 2007 9:38 AM

Iran and Israel, in particular. Iraq will begin to see more violence in the regions outside Bagdhad and Al Anbar.

Posted by: eric at January 1, 2007 9:58 AM

... particularly in the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk in the north and Jalibah in the south. (See the map on page 100 of the Iraq Study Group report). My assessment? Bad news bears, man.

Posted by: Lena at January 1, 2007 10:06 AM

Wait... smoking isn't cool anymore?

Posted by: gary at January 2, 2007 10:31 PM

Thanks for quoting one of the listings, Amy -- I'd read about this same question on PZ's site, but reading a specific, detailed entry helps me to see why people may hold this hope.

As a non-scientific study of N=1, my life fits with this pattern. I came out as atheist (agnostic, at the very least) on New Years Day. More on that at my new blog...going through the holidays for the first time as a non-Christian has been eye-opening to me, to say the least.

Posted by: Allison at January 3, 2007 9:48 PM

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