Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Is Religion the Problem?

A reader writes to me to say that he has been reading a lot about religion lately, and though he is loathe to admit, now holds the opinion that religion is the cause of a lot of humanity’s problems. Not days later Elton John states publicly that were he in charge of the world, he would ban religion and force all men to wear really flamboyant clothing (OK, the second part I made up). Not days later I am wandering in Barnes & Noble when I come across a book by Richard Dawkins entitled The God Delusion, which purports to prove, according to its jacket, than mankind would be better off without religion.

Allow me to wax philosophic on the general question of whether the world would be a better place but for organized religion, or perhaps more generally a belief in God. It seems to me that atheism is a fairly recent phenomenon within civilization. Our evolutionary forefathers may not have formed some grand theory about the origins and meaning of their life in this universe, but they also were, as we understand, gripped in the evolutionary battle of survival, which probably often included beating and eating their conspecifics (i.e. those of the same species). That left little time to contemplate meaning.

They may have been altruistic within a small family clan, but the world was probably characterized by thousands of Hatfield and McCoy like rivalries. As consciousness developed, very naturally in their free time, these guys started asking themselves what is it all about? When you ask a question, you naturally follow it with an answer, and the answer these guys came up with was that there were higher beings – gods if you will – that control the rising of the sun, the weather, and pretty much all observed natural phenomenon. Once that answer is given, the next question naturally follows: what does he want from us? The Judeo-Christian belief is that the answer to that question is knowable through a combination of man’s God-given ability to reason, coupled with God’s revealing Himself to us through history. But I digress.

Some religions answer that He wants nothing from us – He couldn’t care less. Others posit a God with big demands. Atheists posit neither, and instead insist no god exists. But all the same, history is really no judge of the question of whether or not religion makes humanity worse off, because there has never been a civilization that was entirely bereft of religion. Religion has evolved, with polytheism and superstition being replaced in most corners of the world with a much more philosophically compelling monotheistic view of the matter; for our purposes it doesn’t really matter whether or not you find any such doctrines compelling or true. What matters is that it really cannot be denied that modern organized religion is a cornerstone of most of the civilizations that have come into existence.

Now religion has also been the cause of much conflict between competing civilizations who take a different view of the matter, or even between competing nations within a civilization who share the same basic core of belief but who disagree vehemently on certain dimensions. This much I’ll admit. But the question is whether or not this has led to more bloodthirsty killing than what preceded it, where what preceded it was either tribal atheism or primitive tribal religion. On that score more primitive views of the meaning of it all are a definitive prescription for more killing. One archeologist summarized the proportion of male deaths caused by war in a number of societies; the percentage for the U.S. and Europe was orders of magnitude lower (at about 2 percent) in the 20th Century than that for many indigenous peoples in South America and New Guinea (with percentages ranging across different tribes from 10 to 60 percent (for the Jivaro). This is strikingly at odds with what one might expect given the violent wars of the 20th century in Europe, but the notion that the noble savage was corrupted into war by the institutions of the West has it completely wrong – he’s really been coaxed away from it.

So as religion has evolved, bloodshed has decreased, and this even though the technological means for killing have been steadily improved. And even when we look at wars, very few of the major ones of the 20th century have a prominent religious dimension. Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and that between Israel and every other nation in the Middle East, for all the attention each receives in America, have very few deaths attributable to them relative to the scores of wars fought for secular reasons (World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, etc.).

I suspect that many who think that religion is a problem have in mind a comparison with the Utopia in their mind rather than with any historical precedent, otherwise it is hard to understand how they draw support for their view as a blanket condemnation of religion. Perhaps the skeptic thinks that he has evolved beyond religion, and that all or most will be well if others would do the same. But even here there is ample historical reason to reject that view out of hand. We are fresh off of a century which saw an atheistic ideology (Communism) accounting for 100 million deaths, the vast majority of them unrelated to war. These regimes killed their own countrymen for the pure sport of it. Lenin, Stalin, PolPot, Tito, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Jong, Castro – none drew their inspiration from God. (But it is true that communism filled the same human need for some as does religion, and some describe it as a quasi-religion, or a religion that lacks only God. If those who criticize religion include communism in that set, well then they certainly have one good example to prove their point, but I suspect they mean religions centered around a God.)

That said, I do remember at the time of 9/11 someone pointing out that there were currently 38 war-like conflicts in the world at the time, and all but 2 or 3 involved Muslims on one or both sides of the conflict. Again, many of these conflicts, especially in Africa, appear to me less about religion and more about tribal rivalries. Islam was successful in converting many in Africa, but African nations haven’t successfully evolved beyond the same tribal mentalities that causes 60 percent of the male deaths of the Jivaro tribe in South America to be attributable to war. Even in Iraq, you hear of the importance of tribes in local politics. But even if I am wrong, the question here is not whether a particular religion makes humanity worse off, but whether religion in general does.

Of course it will come as no surprise to anyone that I think Christianity has made humanity unambiguously better off. To believe otherwise amounts to pure hatred of Western Civilization. Far from stirring controversy among otherwise noble savages, it seems to me that Christianity has been the most successful institution imaginable for curbing humanity’s otherwise deadly proclivities. Slavery, Nazism, Communism, the subjugation of women, the exploitation of the sick and poor – all have met their match, sooner or later, by peoples inspired by their Christian beliefs.

Tomorrow I’ll consider the question from a slightly different perspective.


Anonymous Jim O said...

Here's to Religion - the Cause of, and Solution to, all of Life's Problems

9:01 AM  

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