Even the bitterest hater of religion would concede it is exceedingly unlikely to vanish–not least because antireligious ideologues end up behaving like a religious community, with group-forming behavior (and group hates), preachers and wise men (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens), and a sense of possessing the One Truth about such manifestly unverifiable matters as the Nature of Existence.
The best endpoint for religion—which is, when looked at level-headedly, not a superfluity that can be sloughed as we move on into the future, but an element of human identity that is here to stay—is for it go the way of race. That is, it would define groups as it has done throughout history, but it would not be allowed to incite group violence or twist scientific study. Today, we acknowledge our various races, and people have a varying sense of group solidarity based on it–but we don’t engage in outright race wars anymore. This marks a drastic change from the past, admittedly incomplete as yet. Still, consider: The major current in the history of the world from 1492 to 1945, if you asked a transcendent alien intelligence to judge it, is that of a single, worldwide Race War. The clearing (both arboreal and demographic) and settlement of the Americas and Australia, the subjugation of Asia, and the enslavement of Africa are the dominant trends of that period in time; all three are united by one factor. What ended the white empire was an internal European race war instigated by the Germans, who developed last among the white powers, and whose lack of colonies and subject regions caused envy and bitterness in both Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. They wanted what Britain had in India; Hitler in particular wanted to do to the Slavic East what English-speaking settlers had done to North America (“The Volga will be our Mississippi”). This sense of racial destiny was not limited to whites, by the way; Hirohito’s Japanese thought they were a master race as well. Today the idea of race-based warfare seems justly atrocious to us—and yet white people remain white, Japanese people remain Japanese, and so on down the list. We do not long for the eradication of race but for the eradication of racism, which is a different thing.
The same dream could dreamed of religions: To dream, not of the impossibility of eradicating religion from the species, but to dream of eradicating group conflict and scientific data-fudging based on religion. It seems that a great deal of progress has been made; Catholics and Protestants are no longer slaughtering each other, heresies are no longer put to the question, the Christian nations of Europe do not unite to repulse the Turk from anything but the E.U., and subcontinental Hindus and Muslims have been quiescent for some time (except for the rare, politically-stoked riot). There are a few places where this religion remains a division along which group warfare takes place: The Arab world in particular, where the Sunni-versus-Shia division remains a source of conflict, and where global jihadi Islam has originated. Strong secular government, supposedly a panacea for such things, only exacerbated them, for example in Egypt under Nasser–it was in an Egyptian prison that Sayyid Qutb formulated the central tenets of modern-day jihadism. (The persecution of Tibetan Buddhism by what is basically a Chinese pseudoreligion of state-worship, and the Christian-versus-Muslim violence in Ethiopia, are smaller scale, localized examples.)
In an earlier essay, “The Endgame and the Spin,” I made the case that simply professing a religion has never motivated or forced anyone into violence; that religion serves to justify, or is exploited to incite, group aggression. Historically, race was used in an identical way: Hence the “white man’s burden,” the duty of the white races to bring Civilization the benighted (read: dark-skinned) heathen. Hence also the Nazi conception of “Aryan” manifest destiny in the Slavic East. It is hard to believe that such ideas were widely held by any society. (There are likely ideas we hold that will seem just as atrocious someday, like the widespread acceptance of how we grow and harvest the flesh of animals.) Today those once-common race-based justifications for group aggression are unacceptable to almost everyone; in large parts of the world, certainly in the United States, it is a taboo. Similarly, the baseless “racial science” of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Alfred Rosenberg is no longer taught today; that is, preconceived racist ideas are no longer allowed to be presented as scientific fact.
Our utopian ideal, as far as religions are concerned, ought to be a world in which the same taboo has extended to religious justifications for group violence and religious pressures on scientific inquiry. In the West–even in America, in spite of its large populations of “believers”–this is almost a reality; our most “fanatical” televangelists stop short of inciting holy war, and scriptural narratives of creation are currently exiled from classrooms in most American public schools (a still-contentious issue when it comes to the Biblical creation story, but certainly not for the Koranic, Zoroastrian, or Vedic ones). The impossibility of imposing such restrictions on foreign societies is one reason why regime change, democratic process, and secular nation-building have not altered this feature of the religious landscape in the Middle East. For everyone on earth to treat religion as Americans treat race—pride in your own is acceptable, hating another’s is not, and don’t let it interfere with your sciences—seems the only attainable solution to this age-old problem. It allows for the non-negotiable fact—that people are going to believe something or another—but limits the damage that results from it.