Saturday, April 17, 2021

Do we need more Religion?

I recently came across an article by Andres Oppenheimer titled “Churches, Religion Losing Followers Around the World” (Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald, April 13 ‘21). He, in turn, quotes Shadi Hamid’s article titled “America Without God” in the April 2021 issue of The Atlantic
Neither of these pieces is earth-shattering, but I will use them as a prompt for some comments about religion. 
To quote Oppenheimer and Hamid: “The decline of religions in the western world is leaving a huge vacuum.... Human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning...and that won’t change....The danger now is that religions will be replaced by secular political fanaticism....If religions aren’t around to teach us basic values - you shall not lie, you shall not be indifferent to oppression, etc. who will do it instead? Christianity, Islam and Judaism (should) reinvent themselves... (They) offer us ancient tales of wisdom....they can serve as a much-needed moral guide...(if) they adapt to modern times. (Otherwise,) their decline will continue and dangerous secular radicalism will take their place.” 
The only thing which Oppenheimer and Hamid got right is that “human beings by their very nature are searching for meaning,” and truth, I should add. That is what philosophers and scientists have been doing for thousands of years - from Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s Metaphysics to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Twentieth Century Existentialism, Socialism and Einstein’s Relativity Theory. 

Organized Religion has done the opposite, spreading lies and superstitions more often than truth. 

Auguste Comte, the father of Sociology, posited that humanity progresses through three evolutionary stages: From religion at the most primitive level, to philosophy and finally to science, as the most advanced stage. Religion emerged as the first step in our evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to create larger groups that went beyond individual connections. 

I can see why Oppenheimer and Hamid fret about the 20th century rise of secular ideologies such as Fascism and Communism. It is true that movements led by men such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot have killed millions of people. 

However, I am wondering whether, on balance, Organized Religion has caused more good or more suffering. Christianity was responsible for crusades, inquisitions, auto-da-fés and it contributed to the genocidal treatment of aborigines all over the world. The religious Reformation wars devastated Europe. War between Islam and Christianity raged for centuries in Europe and in the Middle East. 

I have always been puzzled by the astounding durability of the world’s major religions. Their current decline cannot happen too soon. 

What is needed is not a renaissance of religion, but a growth of rational and benevolent humanistic values - the kind which emerged during the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) and were advocated by men such as Voltaire (1694-1778). David Deutsch, whose magnificent book The Beginning of Infinity I reviewed in this blog some years ago, identifies the Age of Reason as a unique turning point in history, namely the moment when humanity came to understand that its salvation lies in the open-ended scientific pursuit of truth. 

It is an error to claim that morality and good values can only be derived from religion. That only a religious person can be a good person. 

It is true that, as Perchik notes in Fiddler on the Roof, the Bible has many lessons for our times. However, whether one has good moral values or not does not depend on religiosity. For one thing, socialization is of the greatest importance. While we may not be born entirely a tabula rasa, there is no doubt about the exceptional level of human plasticity, and our great dependence on experience and learning. For another, we probably have, as ethologists note, an inborn sense of morality, as this benefits both the group and the individual. 

This is not the place to debate the nature-nurture question. However, I will remind you that human behavior is to a very great extent the product of culture and experience, and that socialization and education are therefore of the essence. We reject the extreme biological determinism which claims that some groups and some individuals are inherently no good. We recognize redemption and rehabilitation. Good and evil are both possible in each of us, and both are largely the product of nurture. 

Low-religion societies such as Japan, Australia and Western Europe do not subscribe less than the rest of us to principles of honesty, tolerance, respect for diversity, non-violence, compassion for your fellow human beings and community, what the German sociologist Tönnies called Gemeinschaft. Are countries with higher rates of church attendance more moral than those with lower rates? Very doubtful, and possibly the opposite. Is it possible that the more secular societies, those which have moved from Comte’s earlier stages to the more scientific stage, are more advanced, and have better values? 

I am no prophet. I have no labels for the positive ideas and value systems which will hopefully emerge in the future so as to improve the human condition. To take just one example, consider the contrast between the biblical mandate to gain dominion over nature, and the environmental movement’s opposite emphasis, namely respect for nature. Which is the better value? 

Humanistic values such as social solidarity, justice, love and honesty are not dependent on Organized Religion. They are part of our common humanness. The way we interact with each other, organize our societies and govern ourselves needs only to reflect and embody such values. These don’t depend on superstition. 

© Tom Kando 2021;All Rights Reserved