Atheist scientist claims religion will be gone in a generation. Is he right?

Atheist scientist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss argues that religion will disappear like slavery did in the US. But a religious history professor replies that Krauss' understanding of religion is way off base. 

(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Typhoon survivors attend a Mass at a Catholic church in Tanauan, Leyte province, central Philippines.

Religion can be eradicated in one generation?

That's according to atheist scientist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, who recently stoked controversy with comments suggesting that religion could disappear in the near future if schools gave students the tools to determine as much.

“What we need to do is present comparative religion as a bunch of interesting historical anecdotes, and show the silly reasons why they did what they did,” Krauss said at an Aug. 29 dinner presentation on cosmology and education at the Victorian Skeptics Cafe in Melbourne, Australia, in response to a question about religion being taught in schools. The video of his response was uploaded on Monday to YouTube.

“People say, ‘Well, religion has been around since the dawn of man. You’ll never change that,’” said Krauss, who the Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. He argued that religion will go the way of slavery and opposition to gay marriage.

“This issue of gay marriage, it is going to go away, because if you’re a child, a 13-year-old, they can’t understand what the issue is,” he continued.  ”It’s gone. One generation is all it takes.”

“So, I can tell you a generation ago people said there is no way people would allow gay marriage, and slavery - essentially - [gone in] a generation; we got rid of it,” Krauss said.

“Change is always one generation away. So if we can plant the seeds of doubt in our children, religion will go away in a generation, or at least largely go away. And that’s what I think we have an obligation to do.”

Krauss is a self-described antitheist, or a person in active opposition to religion. Along with Richard Dawkins, he created the documentary “The Unbelievers,” about the importance of science and reason as opposed to religion and superstition.

Krauss's comments may reflect a general trend of backlash against institutions, including religious institutions, apparent in American culture today.

Some 25 years ago, only 5 percent of Americans identified as non-religious, or not affiliated with a religious group. Today, that figure is around 20 percent or more in the general population, according to Pew Research Center polling. Among the 18-25 age group, the demographic Krauss refers to in his talk, over 30 percent identify as non-religious.

While the numbers represent "a dramatic decline in affiliation with organized religion," a claim as extreme as Krauss's can only come from someone who doesn't understand religion or history, says Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn.

"The idea that you can eradicate religion through an educational program is absurd," he says in a phone interview. "These are the kinds of statements people make when they're talking about a field of study they don’t understand. He's a scientist, a good scientist, but he doesn’t seem to understand what religion is."

He also doesn't seem to know history, Jacobsen adds.

In fact, entire societies have tried to eradicate religion - twice in the 20th century alone - and failed, he said. In China, leaders eradicated virtually all religion and it still didn’t destroy it. Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, all made a resurgence.

The same goes for Russia and Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, the Church was obliterated for generations of people who were forcibly raised to be secular, Jacobsen argues. And yet, today about 80 percent of Russians identify as Christians.

"After years of explicitly trying to eradicate religion, they failed," he says.

As for describing religion as "a bunch of interesting historical anecdotes," Krauss misses the point, says Jacobsen.

"It's not about believing dumb things that are false," he says, "It’s about a quest for human meaning and purpose. A lot of times that quest is expressed in the form of stories."

The examples of gay marriage and slavery, in fact, show the vitality of religion, argues Jacobsen.

For much of Christianity's history, people assumed that slavery was a fact of life, he says. That changed in the 1800s when theologians interpreted the Bible as saying slavery was wrong, and eventually gave rise to abolitionism. The same thing, he adds, is happening with sexuality right now, illustrating how religion changes and develops over time.

"Some people seem to assume that religious people shouldn’t have the option of being able to change their minds," Jacobsen says. "Religion changes all the time just as science changes all the time."

While Krauss was advocating for schools to give students the tools to determine on their own that religion is irrelevant, the opposite appears to be happening.

"Colleges and universities are reengaging in religion in ways they haven’t for decades," says Jacobsen. "Partly because of globalization. You can't understand the world globally unless you understand the world's religions," he explains. "And students say they want to grapple with the big questions – questions about the meaning and purpose of life – religious or spiritual kinds of questions."

Proof, he says, that Krauss doesn't understand the field of study about which he is making dramatic claims.

"When people make blunt statements like Krauss seems to have made, its kind of laughably out of touch with how realities are on the ground right now."

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