Modernity Is Winning

Having long been interested in the probability that cyber-intelligence will soon replace humanity, I could cite frequent news coverage of efforts to produce advanced artificial intelligence as the most important news. But that’s a rather obvious subject, so I won’t.

Instead, I will discuss a much more obscure science news item that has the potential to be of great long-term import. It’s how some privately funded, commercial fusion power projects are being initiated. The intent is to, in the near future, produce the unlimited cheap power that government-backed projects have failed to deliver. The obvious implication is that fusion power could solve the global energy crisis and climate change, but I won’t discuss those items either.

What very few recognize is how the fusion news is tied to a much more prominent story. A major Pew analysis released this year projects a rise in theism in many developing nations in coming decades. This followed a major Pew survey showing a rapid rise of nontheism at the expense of religion in the United States. This has contributed to a common opinion that while religion has been and is continuing to sink in the western democracies, it’s making a comeback in less stable and prosperous nations in a historical rebuff to modernity. The resulting reactionary theism is often adopting a virulent form that afflicts the secular democracies and threatens the future of modern civilization.

What does the news on fusion power have to do with the news of the reactionary religion we’re having to put up with these 21st century days? To begin to see the connection we will start with Arthur C. Clarke.

The SciFi Channel just presented their version of Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End. Written in the early 1950s, CE is like many of Clarke’s futurist fictional works in which he repeatedly predicted that in the late 1900s and into the 2000s the world community would become increasingly secular, progressive, and pacific, forming a modernist planetary demi-utopia. This in turn rested on a science-based hope. The technologist Clarke presumed that, like fission power becoming practical in the mid 1900s, fusion energy was a readily solvable science and engineering problem, and that hydrogen to helium reactors would be providing all peoples on our orb all the power they could use by the coming turn of the century. The resulting universal prosperity would elevate all into, at least, the secure, middle class affluence that studies show result in strongly atheistic, liberal, lower violence societies at the expense of often dysfunctional, tribalistic religion.

That has not happened. Fission is easy to achieve at normal surface conditions—so easy that when uranium was more highly enriched back in the Precambrian, reactors spontaneously formed in uranium ores. Sustained fusion thermonuclear reactions so far occur only in the extreme pressure-temperature conditions at the centers of stars, and getting them to work elsewhere has proven extremely difficult. Lacking fusion reactors, we have had to continue rely mainly on fossil fuels that are largely located in regions of ill repute.

Had fusion power come online decades ago, the Saudis would not have had loads of oil-generated cash to fund the virulent Wahhabist mosques and schools around much of the world that have helped spread hyper violent forms of Islam. Lacking cheap fusion power, much of the world remains mired in the lack of economic opportunity that breeds supernaturalistic extremism. Since the end of the Cold War dramatically reduced mass lethal violence from atheistic communists, a few million have died in war level conflicts that share a strong religious component. Muslims are causing the most trouble. But so are Christians in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Russia, where the Orthodox Church backs Putin. Even the Buddhism Clarke had long seen as peaceful has gone noxious in pasts of Asia, as have many Hindus in India.

But as bad as the situation is, it is not as bad as it may seem. The Pew projections are based on a set of very dubious assumptions, including that the faith people are born into is the most critical factor in predicting future patterns because the pious tend to reproduce more rapidly than the seculars. But the actual trends measured by the World Values Survey and by REDC indicate that religiosity is declining in most of the world. That’s because casual conversion from theism to secularism is trumping reproduction, and that in turn is because the global middle class is on the rise, leading to mass organic conversion away from religion—note that religion is not a big problem in South America or most of eastern Asia because secularism is waxing in those regions.

So why has a portion of modern religion become so venomous? In part, it’s a classic counter reaction to the success of secularization. But as troublesome as they often are, such reactionary movements tend to be temporary—remember how at the turn of the century gay-bashing was a major sociopolitical tool of the American right? Toxic theism is a symptom of a power hungry world.

Clarke may well have been right that fusion power production would have helped produce a much better 21st century world. Where he was way overoptimistic was in thinking that fusion reactors would be up and running decades ago. Clarke lived long enough to be distressed when his power dream was not coming to pass, and the unpleasant social consequences were becoming all too clear. Whether efficient hydrogen fusing plants can be made practical in the near future is very open to question, and even if they can we will have had to put up with decades of brutal strife fueled by too much religion.

That’s big news. But the even more important news that hardly any know is that modernity is winning as theism retracts in the face of the prosperity made possible by modern science and technology.