A Proper Scientific Understanding of Irrationality In General, and of Religion In Particular
I'm not actually optimistic about anything very much, but it's clear that if civilisation is to survive, we need a proper scientific understanding of irrationality in general, and of religion in particular. To be optimistic about that is a precondition for optimism about anything else. What might such an understanding look like?
For a start, it would be naturalistic and empirical. It would not start from definitions of religion or faith, but from a careful study, in the spirit of William James, of how it is that religious people actually behave and believe. What would be found, again in a Jamesian spirit, is that there are varieties of religious behaviour, as there are varieties of religious experience. We would need to know how these are related to each other, and to other things that are not described as religious. It may well be that "religion" is a concept no more useful than phlogiston.
It would take seriously Dan Dennett's distinction between beliefs and opinions—more seriously, I think, than he sometimes does himself. A belief, in Dennett's sense, is a kind of behaviour or a propensity to behave as if certain things were true. It need not be conscious at all. The kind of conscious, articulable propositions about the world which most people mean by "belief" he calls an "opinion".
In this sense, an enquiry into religious belief would be distinct from an enquiry into religious opinions: Religious "belief" would involve all of the largely unconscious mechanisms which lead people to behave superstitiously, or reverently, or with a disdain for heretics; religious opinions would be the reasons that they give for this behaviour. We need to understand both. It may be that their opinions would correspond to their beliefs but that is something to be established in every case by empirical enquiry. It's obvious that in most cases they don't. Intellectuals are supposed to be motivated by their opinions; some of them actually are. But everyone is motivated by their beliefs and prejudices as well.
In particular, such an enquiry would be very careful about what counts as evidence. A friend of mine who does consciousness research once said sourly that "The problem with the brain is that if you go looking for something in there, you're very liable to find it." Similarly, if you go looking for some particular quality in religious belief you are likely to find it there, as well as its opposite. What's needed is the distinctly scientific attitude that takes disconfirming evidence seriously, and doesn't respond to it by simply repeating the confirming evidence.
I happened to see a play "On Religion" by the British atheist philosopher AC Grayling last night, which is an excellent dramatisation of some of these issues. The atheist character, a woman lecturer, is given a speech in which she recounts the story of a scientist who has spent fifteen years arguing that the Golgi apparatus does not in fact exist. It is an artifact of the inadequacies of our microscopes. Finally, he attends a lecture from a visiting cell biologists who proves conclusively that the Golgi apparatus does exist. And, just as the whole department is trying to avoid his eye from sympathetic shame, he rushes up to the lecturer, grabs his hand, and says "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years." It is an improving and inspiring story, which pitches over into bathos as soon as the atheist spells out the moral. "No religious person could ever say that" she says. Has she really never heard of the phenomenon of conversion? What do the converted say, if not that some evidence has convinced them they were wrong all their lives before?
So, I think, if I am to be optimistic, that there will be a real breakthrough in the empirical study of religion, at the end of which no scientist will ever feel able to assert that "no religious person could ever say" without making a careful enquiry into what religious people actually do say and what they mean by it.