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Can religion be considered obsolete and in practice an obstacle to the rise of science and reason? I think that religion is the outdated mode of existence, governance, and education of social organization. I regard secularization, a very important step in the development of the modern civil society and thought, a step absolutely necessary for the development of advanced technology. I think that religion still exists because of social "inertia". For me development of the modern means of communication, starting with typography around 1450 and followed by modern inventions of radio, television, the computers and the internet (a continuous depreciation of the market value of communication and education) put "the last nails in this coffin" and provide to me a true evidence to the notion of society progress.

  • I think your question can stand as is. However, it may get washed out in the problems of defining religion. You seem to imply "religious practice," and I assume this is not mere ritual or the upkeep of cathedrals and textual hermeneutics, but is coupled with belief in a God. And this God is in some sense in "communication" with human beings and has power to intervene in the material realm. Any other necessary qualifiers? – Nelson Alexander Oct 24 '15 at 18:10
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    @john am: well, then aren't you simply asking us to agree with you? That is people who are going to stand up and say - me, too; I'm an athiest. It does seem as the athiest orientation simply assumes science is somehow their own private property - rather than property common to men in their variety. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 24 '15 at 19:04
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    I'm not grasping how this is a question related to philosophy and answerable in a SE format. The OP, several comments, and several answerers seem to think it is. The core question seems to be about whether a category of outlooks "religion" can be a barrier to "the rise of science and reason", but I'm not grasping how we can provide an objective answer to that nor how how it is a question about philosophy in the way a question about say reading a Bertrand Russell or Plato text is. – virmaior Oct 25 '15 at 2:42
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    It seems clear that religion is not "obsolete" in almost any societal sense. That's especially in most of the world. But there are indications of trending more in that direction in the U.S.A. at least. It'll be a couple decades before it's clear how permanent the trends are. – user2338816 Oct 25 '15 at 4:41
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    The srlf-evident answer is "yes, it can, because some do and if it happens it must be possible." I presume what you really wanted to ask is "should" -- which is unanswerable. – keshlam Oct 25 '15 at 17:02

11 Answers 11

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History has shown that religion is an obstacle to the rise of science.

Many claims from religious Holy Books – Jewish Testament, Gospel, Koran, Vedas - contradict scientific knowledge. Herefrom a problem arises, because claims from religious texts are considered sacrosanct by their believers. The are often defended by immunisation, but they are not corrected or withdrawn.

Secondly, many religions build an organization like the Roman Catholic Church which employ their power to suppress the persons and their theses which propagate contradictory scientific insights (Girodano Bruno, Galilei, Darwin, Teilhard de Chardin)

The best analysis of the psychological role of religion I know is by Freud, Sigmund: The future of an illusion. 1927. According to Freud, religion is a kind of early phase like childhood in the personal development of a human person. Of course, Freud develops this idea in more details than I can recall in this short answer.

I consider religion obsolete in its demand to explain the world. E.g. in comparison to a naturalistic worldview the religious worldview is outdated by science. And science is the cultural means which provides the most reliable and deepest reaching knowledge about the world.

As far as religion is practised as a private hobby, which people develop to find strenght, support and consolation, also religion has its place on the market. Like magic and esotericism, but all three are difficult to sepate from each other.

Note. I know that the subject will be disputed controversially and I apologize, if anyone feels offended by my answer.

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    As an advocate of science, I would have to say that your first sentence is not very...scientific. Historically, science arose alongside and within Christianity, and the majority of its greatest thinkers were actively religious. The cases of scientific martyrdom are well known. What is less well known is the frequent advocacy for science within the churches and the frequent stunting of science by secular domination in military or corporate form. I only suggest that science itself would not demonstrate some historical, positive correlation between atheism and scientific advances. – Nelson Alexander Oct 24 '15 at 19:52
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    @jo wehler: 'they are religous in their person but not in their science'; I don't understand this: I mean I don't invoke religion to stir sugar in my tea, the empirical sense; and quite a few of these scientific greats were explicit in acknowledging religion within their science - look at Descarte or Pascal; and it's not neccessarily an antique phenomenon. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 24 '15 at 20:15
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    I mean to take a different analogue or tack; consider the building of the great cathedrals and mosques - were their methods (and one can assume Ibthink that most involved were sincerely religous) were not invoking religous methods of architecture and building. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 24 '15 at 20:17
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    I just think this seperation is an idiom or an artifact of our times and not neccessarily then; I'm not sure, for example whether Descarte would see it these terms for example. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 24 '15 at 20:34
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    Re: Darwin, I don't object, it just appears contrary to the truth, and you stated it without citation. Reading, eg: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_evolution summarizes a complicated issue, but makes it clear that at best such a statement is misleading. Re: Freud, if he has compelling arguments you ought to produce them. From what I've heard (and not specifically about the work that you mention), is that he offers many theories, but offers very little data to back them up - he is rejected because he isn't scientific enough. – James Kingsbery Oct 26 '15 at 2:58
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Not being religious, I'll focus on the argument that religion is inherently inimical to science and an obstruction to technological development. I would say science and religion are not necessarily opposed to one another, but are and must remain simply incommensurable.

Historically, your case is doubtful. Religion was not an obvious impediment to the rise of modern science and technology. Scientific method arose within the cultural milieux of Christianity. It was nurtured within the church universities and the preparatory grounds of Aristotelianism. Most of the great figures in the rise of science were quite devout, though certainly not all. Some, such as Faraday, appear to have explicitly benefitted from "religious intuitions," as opposed to mechanical models. Certainly the practice of science requires leaving God at the doorstep. But one could hardly make an argument, on the cultural, historical, or personal level, that atheism is a prerequisite to the advance of science.

The many instances of suppression of science by religion, and vice versa, may say more about political power and authority in general than some inherent conflict. Even today, I doubt that a "scientific study" among cultures and practitioners would demonstrate some clear positive correlation between atheism and scientific aptitude. It is the political and epistemological separation of powers that matters.

There is one broader case to consider. In Marxist societies we do have an explicit attempt to suppress religion while accelerating science and technology. These great experiments were more successful than many care to admit. Yet even as a Marxist of sorts, I would not say the experiment was entirely successful, even for science per se. The problem with "eradicating religion" for social ends is akin to one of ecological hubris. One eradicates one "pest" only to find it returning in another guise. Slicing into the whole complex of values, customs, and beliefs may give rise to other totalizing beliefs and scientific Lysenkoism. The "God that Failed" was not an inapt description of the Soviet experiment.

Again, it is the separation of epistemological powers that matters, not the absolute purity of secularization. Even in the notoriously "religious" United States, the most serious threat to "scientific advance" comes not so much from Bible thumpers as from "research capture" by the purely utilitarian ends of corporations. Science is a method and a means. It is only a meaningful end in itself "for scientists." Nonscientists participate only as passive consumers. Thus "ends-in-themselves" get generated elsewhere. Sometimes as harmless "culture" sometimes as disastrous "nationalism."

I would say that since the Enlightenment, there has been a crisis of purpose, fueling new powers to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the universal church. Nationalism, marxism, capitalism, art... all of these secularizations can also generate their own "obstacles to science," simply because science cannot generate its own "end-in-itself" or meaningful ends for most individuals. Its method works not by subsuming "obsolete" values, but by limiting and separating its methods from other values. It must always survive in some environment of "irrational, groundless values" by epistemologically disentangling itself.

  • "suppression of science by religion, and vice versa" - can you name a single instance of suppression of religion by science (as opposed to simply politics, such as the French revolution/communism)? – l0b0 Oct 25 '15 at 6:03
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    Glad someone called me on that. It is a tricky. I could argue that the "suppression of science" was likewise political. I don't know why you dismiss French revolution or communism, since they fancied themselves "scientific" and literally killed priests. But better examples are so embedded in liberalism we just see them as "reasonable." Forced medical care for groups that prefer "miracle healing" or the mandated teaching of Darwin. Child welfare is a common delivery system for mandated "science." I am not defending religion. But I dispute the assumed "non-coercive neutrality" of science. – Nelson Alexander Oct 25 '15 at 6:21
  • Good point about liberalism, but still - I challenge you to find a single instance of the suppression of religion by a scientific organisation (or at least an organisation which is currently considered to have been actually scientific, unlike, again, the French revolutionaries/communism). – l0b0 Oct 25 '15 at 6:56
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    If you grant that being a member of the National Academy of Sciences (in the U.S.) is an indication of scentific aptitude, then the ratio of atheists in that body to the population as a whole should be evidence of correlation (or not) between atheism and scientific aptitude. Correlation is not causation, but the correlation is very strong. (On the order of 100x enrichment!) – Rex Kerr Oct 25 '15 at 14:56
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    As to "vice versa" provocation. These are valid objections. But, as I say, science and religion are not commensurable. So there are not simple inversion cases. Before Protestantism, science, markets, etc., religions tended to concentrate power. The Catholic Church had a "top-down" power structure we associate with "oppression." The modern divisions of power operate differently, as Weber, Adorno, Foucault, and others have argued. So you won't have tribunals of scientists. But neither, today, do you have scientists censored by tribunals of priests. The "martyred scientist" gets way overplayed. – Nelson Alexander Oct 25 '15 at 16:15
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Sure, you can consider anything you want.

Oh, did you mean would I consider an argument that it is obsolete valid? Well for that, we are going to have to discuss what viewpoint we are using to explore the effect of religion.

Personally, I have found religion effective at helping instill characteristics of "humanity" which I value and secular life has so far been ineffective at instilling. If you're interested in exploring what those characteristics are, I'm happy to chat on the topic (they're things that are markedly hard to put in a Q&A format like Stack Exchange).

Also, consider, if religion was gone, do you truly believe something with similar behaviors would not emerge? I see little fragments of religion everywhere I go, from the way people look at eachother to how they style their hair. Is it a surprise that such fragments may coalesce?

Finally, consider that every generation has declared the end of their parent's old ways, because the new ways have completely supplanted them and are superior in every way. It is the way it has always been.

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What is faith in reason if not a religion?

  1. You believe it, and it does not need to be proved
  2. It is, at root, abstract nonsense that does not really matter, and
  3. You intend to pass it on to your children.

This is just bigotry.

No one should consider such a question until they can actually debunk both Berkely and Hume with something that holds water. Until then, it is religion fervor that holds this approach together, even while competing religions try to tear it down.

The fact this is the competition at hand should tell you something.

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The idea, faithfully parroted by a few answerers on here, that religion is about primitive people coming up with myths to explain away scary, unexplainable things, has been quite thoroughly debunked over and over by actual scholars and historians, and including on one of our sister sites, but unfortunately it's a stubborn notion that just won't die. And even more unfortunately, it obscures the true value of religion throughout history, whether one is a believer or not: religion comprises the mechanism for long-term storage and preservation of the collective lab notes of the science of human behavior throughout history!

People have understood the basic idea of cause and effect for as long as there were any people capable of understanding anything. When cause and effect are so close together in time that the relationship is obvious, it's no big deal to understand it. But the longer the time gap between the cause and the manifestation of a visible effect, the harder it is to figure out. In some cases, years or decades may even go by. For example, on an intuitive level it sounds kind of silly to think that you could do something potentially harmful, and then stop and not do it again for more than thirty years and then it kills you. Unfortunately, that's precisely what happened to Leonard Nimoy: he died of smoking despite having given it up decades ago!

When cause-and-effect occurs over such a long scale, comprising a significant fraction of a human lifetime, it's not possible for individual people to derive optimum guidelines for how to act from first principles. There are really only two ways to go about it: try to blunder through, alone or with the help of others blundering through along with you, and hope you make the right guesses... or learning from the experience of the aggregate wisdom of those who have gone before, who have been able to deduce some of the long-term cause-and-effect principles at work by seeing enough examples to work out the correlations.

In the absence of evidence, because the proof takes so long to appear, such a system of learned best practices for human behavior (aka "morality") provides a solid foundation for faith, to motivate people towards a course of action that is beneficial in the long term. It's surprisingly effective, too.

For example, you may have heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, who came up with the theory that surgeons who dissected cadavers should wash their hands with strong soap before attending to childbirth, to avoid transmitting deadly infections. His principle, when applied, consistently saved lives among new mothers, but unfortunately for Semmelweis and many women of his day, he lived in scientific times and he was called a quack, persecuted, and never taken seriously by his contemporaries, because he could not produce a valid explanation for why his theory should be true. (It worked in practice, but not in theory, so very few people cared enough to actually practice it!) It was not until the work of Louis Pasteur, right at the end of Semmelweis's life, provided a solid scientific foundation (germ theory) that established a theoretical reason for the validity of Semmelweis's work, that his life-saving ideas were taken seriously.

Here's where it gets really interesting, though: this is stuff that had been known (but not proven!) for literally thousands of years. If you go to the Bible and look through the Law of Moses, (or other, older codes, for that matter, but this is one that's well-known and easily accessible to modern audiences,) you'll find directions all over the place for ritual washing after coming in contact with sick people, dead bodies, or other major disease vectors.

Religion is the lab notes of human history, to provide a foundation for faith that leads towards long-term positive consequences. This is a concept that's understood well enough that it's been seriously considered as a solution to the modern problem of nuclear waste storage: invent a religion that encodes principles of staying away from waste burial sites in its morality, because written and spoken languages change, civilizations rise and fall, and data storage media both ancient and modern decays with age, but religion endures through it all. It's the only way we know of to keep important information like that around and relatively intact over the time scales involved!

With that in mind, no, it's not at all reasonable to think that the concept of religion is, or can ever become, obsolete, at least not without such drastic alterations in human nature that what's left would no longer be recognizable to us today as human.

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    While your answer is an interesting perspective, I see it as an argument that religion is obsolete. We live in a world with near-universal access to information, and short of political disaster (which could equally be expected to wipe out all but a few religions), that access is only going to become more ubiquitous. Constructing religious charades as a means of controlling human behavior is only viable when people can't see you doing it. If religion is humanity's "collective lab notes", it's a very primitive form of storage. We have better technology than that. – R.. Oct 25 '15 at 20:14
  • @R: If you think that modern information storage technology is the solution, might I humbly suggest that perhaps you ought to look into very serious problems that we are already experiencing regarding the inability to read digital media that is only a few decades old? Between that problem (which isn't going away anytime soon) and linguistic drift (Shakespeare was only a few centuries ago and his work is barely comprehensible to John Q. Public anymore) it seems a bit odd to expect information storage technology to supplant a system that works on scales measured in millennia! – Mason Wheeler Oct 25 '15 at 21:00
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    Calling someone a quack when they can consistently demonstrate an effect is not an indication of a "scientific" perspective. Indeed, it is exactly this sort of rejection of evidence that the practice of science is supposed to help us avoid. (One could make the follow-up argument that secular approaches aren't effective enough, I suppose.) – Rex Kerr Oct 25 '15 at 23:53
  • @MasonWheeler: I'd like to see a compelling argument that widely disseminated, copyable content (think Wikipedia) available today is somehow going to disappear in the future. There's a difference between individual works being lost and large bodies of knowledge being lost, and encoding the latter in mass deception does not seem to be a plausible solution in any case. – R.. Oct 26 '15 at 22:47
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    There's logic to this answer, but I think it only holds up against historical religion (pre age of enlightenment...). For example, any modern religion (Mormonism, Scientology, etc.) doesn't work as an example for this argument. – DA. Nov 20 '15 at 19:11
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I think there are many important points that the otherwise fine answers have not raised yet. Here are two:

  1. Joseph Ratzinger (more popularly known to the world now as Benedict XVI) wrote both before his papacy and during about the important interplay between science and religion (often phrased as "reason" and "faith"). An important element about science even making sense is that the universe is intelligible. That statement is (1) not a scientific one (cannot be verified by the scientific method) and (2) is nevertheless prerequisite to science making sense.

  2. There are many questions that science is simply not equipped to answer. It can answer questions about what the world is; it cannot answer about what the world should be. It cannot say anything about ethics or morality.

  3. For many believers (myself included), religion doesn't work the way non-believers think. I don't hold my religious beliefs out of superstition, I hold them because I have considered the evidence of the different claims and found one claim in particular to be compelling.

To flesh out what Mason Wheeler says: the idea that religion is no longer needed because now we have science largely came about in the Enlightenment due to an ignorance of the important things that happened between the Carolingian Renaissance and "The Renaissance," a time period of about 700 years. During this time, there were advances in architecture, medicine, academia, and trade. However, this is often dismissed by those with an axe to grind against the religious (especially Catholic) nature of the time.

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well, both religion and science question, search, and make claims about "Truth" and/or "Realtity", whatever the heck those things are. for the most part they are involved in non-intersecting domains. what Stephen Jay Gould called non-overlapping magisteria.

but not always.

someone might believe in a transcendent God and that such a transcendent God has interacted in the reality experienced by human beings. for example, Christians normally believe that God has acted in history in the person of Jesus. they may believe that Jesus died while being crucified and within 72 hours was resurrected.

none of us were around back then which makes it pretty difficult to decisively disprove this belief, but even so this claim does not belong in a physiology textbook unless there are repeated instances of this phenomenon which might indicate something like this happening again, when we can measure and document such an event. in this manner, both religion and science are making a fact claim in an overlapping portion of their respective magisteria and the fact claims are incompatible.

other religions may claim their own miracles and "science" (whatever the hell that is) has something definite to say about the miracles.

if a person who is a believer and also is a scientist or dabbles in science and requires that their observations and scientific method be subjected to their religious belief and possibly the scripture of their religious belief, it is my opinion that they practice both poor science and poor religion.

and, except if one's faith or belief system is materialism or physicalism, it does not seem to me to be totally schitz to hold beliefs in both realities. perhaps even for a materialist, there is plenty in our observed reality that seems contradictory to other observation of reality. we just don't know what the hell it all is about. a little bit of humility coming from the devoutly theistic or devoutly atheistic is, in my opinion, healthy.

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It's important I think first to acknowledge a certain typology of Secularisms; it has at least two positions - as negative and positive capability. In its negative form it has no content of its own but is a neutral point by which different creeds can tolerate each other, andvitvxan adjudicate between their claims.

In its positive form it identifies itself explicitly with one or other forms of materialism; and by that mode it allies itself with a creed - somewhat unconsciously or invisibly - as materialism, in its empirical content is objective knowledge.

But when it does this it loses it's adjudicating capability and like every other creed it denies the claims of others.

Empirically, religion has been seen in all cultures and societies in many varied forms; and this over the whole length of human time; given this it's hardly 'scientific' to see it become obsolete as such as a dimension of human experience; what is more likely is that we will see new and hybridised forms.

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No religion is not obsolete as far as the rise of science is concerned.

Throughout human history there have only been two fundamental questions. What is life (or death) and where do we come from?

As far as the first question is concerned, science hasn't provided any definitive answers and we don't know any better than our ancestors.

As far as the second question goes, a millennia ago we wondered where did the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains came from. Today, e.g., (to quote this article) we wonder about the super string hypothesis and the multiverse in which universes, through quantum fluctuations, pop in and out of existence where each universe takes on a different form with a different kinds of physics that we can never experience because we are forever cocooned inside our universal bubble and can therefore never experience what is going on outside - if, indeed, there is an outside.

In some ways the ratio of what we know to what we do not know has remained rather constant through out human history.

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Quite to the contrary... "Science" itself seems to head toward getting obsolete, if its current executives and followers fail to fix some of their attitudes. The word "science", I use it in quotation marks, so when I use it, I mean it in modern context. I dont' mean it in the sense "knowledge".

Via science (knowledge), we, in fact, seek two things: 1) Truth (inter alia rules, not just the rules) behind what we see, and 2) Power (which rather refers to "technology" (knowledge of technics) rather than the "science"). But let's, for the sake of argument, include it.

As far as I am concerned, science gives us "some of" the rules in our search for the truth (yes, only "some" of them leaving the rest to future exploration). Yet it doesn't give us "who" the actual force behind the rules is. It explains the rifle (partially) yet avoids the hunter that uses it, and the manufacturer that produces it, which human mind and soul, by creation, always keep looks for an answer, even at subconscious level. By not just failing to answer, but also being so bold an ignorant as it is in claiming "there is no answer", it just leaves an irreplacable empty space in human mind and soul, which leads to a desperate attempt to ignore that need (for the answer). This which in turn reveals itself as an "unending struggle to forget the questions themselves". That struggle we observe everyday.

And that, in my opinion, is the explanation of the weight of "entertainment sector" in today's world. A desparate effort to "forget" until you actually die, or get terminally ill.

I mean, science fails to give us "all the truth", but rather portions thereof, rendering it obsolete. It just says "take this what I give you. And ignore the rest, in fact there is no rest". That's a fertile ground for all psychological diseases, which religion (of course not all, but the true one), successfully cured throughout the history. Today you have to pay psychologists to just "delay" the problem.

The second function of science, which gives us "power", stands absolutely valid. Which I think is the primary explanation behind why it - despite making us all unsatisfied and thus unhappy - did not just collapse yet.

So I think I just proved that religion is not "obsolete", but science is going in that direction if it fails to change some of its "arrogant" attitudes. Humans have delicate needs beyond what this patronizing behavior can offer. And stalling people with entertainment is just not enough.

  • I don't understand the logic here. A saw is good for some but not all tasks in building a table. Does this mean that saws are obsolete? – Rex Kerr Oct 25 '15 at 23:48
  • Yes, if you have the technology and reason to build a better one, to meet all of your table building needs in a workshop (like an electrical saw). Otherwise either you will have to shut down your workplace or replace it with a better one. Your example is good and describes the situation exactly. – mutercim Oct 26 '15 at 9:34
  • That wasn't what you were arguing. What do you suggest does as well or better than science at what science does best? – Rex Kerr Oct 26 '15 at 12:48
  • The word "science", I use it in quotation marks, so when I use it, I mean it in modern context. I dont' mean it in the sense "knowledge". – mutercim Oct 27 '15 at 2:43
  • Just ignore my comment up there... New one coming up. – mutercim Oct 27 '15 at 3:04
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Religion and faith in God (Jesus, Allah, etc.) is spread among most of people, and the faith still fulfills important needs of most people.

Even if a person does not go to church on weekends, he considers faith in God as very important foundation of his life. Also, there is no better alternative. Some are trying to replace faith in God with faith in money and greed.

In general religion is not an obstacle to science and technology, since there are many scientists and engineers who believe in God and go to church. "Wisdom of this world is madness to God".

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    What are the sources for these controversial claims? – user2953 Oct 25 '15 at 8:42
  • I, personally, do not believe in anything like "God" and I think this to be an alternative. Responsibility for ourselves, not of a divine instance for us. In Kantian terms: I do not believe that I am free, I am free in declining immidiate needs. The alternatives are fatalism and religion (not as a social institution, as actual deep belief). They stand on the same level for me. What you just did there is the dogmatism that lets institutions (not religion) become not reliable ...religion is, in its very heart, choice. You have to choose to believe or it isn't religious belief, but crap. – Philip Klöcking Oct 25 '15 at 14:16
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    Agree with Keelan - while I sympathetic to these claims, they are not obvious so should have some more backing than this. – James Kingsbery Oct 26 '15 at 3:36

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