In recent decades, astronomers have discovered at least 3,264 planets orbiting nearby stars, many of those planets similar in size to our planet Earth, and some of them with conditions suitable for the evolution of life. We now estimate that the whole universe contains billions of planets supporting life. Some of those life forms are presumably less intelligent than us, some more intelligent than us. Why, then, have we never been visited by flying saucers? And what would an intelligent creature from the Andromeda Nebula, upon visiting Earth, conclude about human religion? The visitor would notice that religion is virtually ubiquitous among human societies, but that it costs humans huge amounts of time and resources. Why, then, haven’t atheistic societies, which could devote all of that time and resources to other purposes, thereby gained a big advantage and taken over the Earth? The Andromedan visitor would realize that human religion serves functions and brings at least seven types of benefits, which have changed in importance over the course of human history. These changes suggest guesses about how human religion will change during the next 50 years.
Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and more than 600 articles, is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. Since then, he has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among his many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan’s Cosmo Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize Honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by Rockefeller University. He is the Inaugural Lecturer of the SIFK Lecture Series.