The former include public telephones in the street, ice-chests in the kitchen and alarm clocks you had to wind up. Among the latter, in the near future, will be cash, drivers’ licenses and books made with paper. Within fifty years, in the new era of Artificial Intelligence, the second list will include doctors, lawyers and members of professions we still think are indispensable. Call it progress if you like. If you don’t like it, you’ll just have to lump it.
The atheist’s wise-crack to a believer : “Keep the faith; I don’t need it”, is a bit too tired to bear repeating. But it still expresses a pertinent, profound truth. Faith and religion are born of the human need most people feel to make sense of mysteries they cannot fathom and to help them face dangers they cannot avoid. These needs give birth to another : the need for … clergy. The gurus, sorcerers and witch-doctors who invented the myths that became tribal beliefs, in the process created livelihoods for themselves. Credulous people needed them to explain the doctrines their clergy had dreamt up and for the sacrifices and the rituals they alone could perform and which they decreed to be necessary to appease the gods they had invented. Tribes needed a special clerical caste, and were prepared to house and feed them and provide for their material needs, just as the priests took care of their parishioners’ “spiritual” needs.
A 2011 movie about Catholic exorcists – a specialist function recently ressuscitated in Rome – starring Anthony Hopkins (“The Rite”), has a priest remark that the average age of nuns today is 69, and that 3000 parishes in the U.S. no longer have priests to minister to them. The obvious reason for their inevitable, imminent extinction is that folks no longer feel the need for them. The surviving clerical dinosaurs will be wiped out, not by an astronoid but by their former flocks’ indifference to the services they offer – as useless as that of the town-crier of yore or of the ticket-puncher in the Paris métro forty-five years ago. The latter stopped punching tickets just five years after I stopped preaching sermons, celebrating Mass and forgiving sins.