What would the world be like if there were no religion? I know, at this point it’s just an atheist’s dream. Still, I think it is useful to ask whether the world would be better or worse if no one believed in a god or gods. How would an absence of faith affect morality, violence, cultural traditions, happiness? Volumes have been written on this question. Here I thought I would just touch on a few of the ways in which the world might be different.
Question: Isn’t religion (or at least the Judeo-Christian tradition) responsible for the moral code that we enjoy today? If there were no religion in which to ground our morality, wouldn’t moral standards deteriorate, leading to the kind of dysfunctional societies described in Lord of the Flies or Mad Max?
Answer: I’ve addressed this question in another essay on my Skeptic Reflections blog. In brief, in my view moral standards originate not in religion but in our humanity and in the need for mutual cooperation in the social order that we have established. In that sense religion is not the source of moral standards. Rather, it is used to rationalize moral standards that exist for other reasons.
While I believe there is a core set of moral standards that are based on our human condition and our interdependence on one another, I also believe that on a historical basis religious groups have modified that set of standards. We can disagree whether those modifications have generally been for the better or the worse. But just consider for a moment the moral standards described in the early Israelite society. Christians often point to the Ten Commandments as the acme of moral standards. I don’t agree with that assessment in any event, but what they tend to gloss over is that the Israelites also engaged in—and condoned—genocide, slavery, rape, and polygamy. Or consider those periods in Christian cultures when simply expressing or even just having the “wrong” belief was declared not just immoral but a punishable offense.
Things are better today, at least in Western culture, but not because of the influence of religion. Slavery, rape, genocide, and polygamy are condemned, but we are still dealing with morally questionable attitudes toward reproductive rights and toward the LGBT community. And there is still an attitude among many Christian groups that their religious beliefs should be promoted by the government over competing beliefs regarding religion. And then there is the issue of radical Islam and the violence against those of other beliefs.
In sum, religion has been detrimental rather than beneficial to the quality of moral standards. The loss of religion would actually result in an improvement in those standards.
War and Group Violence.
Question: While moral standards generally refer to individual behavior, there is also the related issue of group violence. Would the incidence of war increase in the absence of religion?
Answer: This is another case where there have been accusations on both sides. A friend of mine believed that most of the casualties of World War II were the result of atheist aggression. He argued that both Stalin and Hitler were atheists (Hitler apparently was in the “closet”) and that they were waging a war on behalf of atheism. On the other hand, it could be argued that historically a large percentage of the wars have been fought over religious differences.
My sense is that, while cultural differences, including differences in religious belief, have been a factor in formal aggression, the fundamental causes have usually been largely unrelated to religious differences. More often the underlying conflicts have involved economics or autonomy. Consider again the quasi-historical example of the Israelites. Their history was often the recounting of one bloody battle after another against neighboring tribes. And while one might argue that their (er, their god’s) goal was to convert their rival tribes to the worship of the Israelite god, rather than the other tribes’ “false gods,” a more realistic view of that history is that the Israelites’ goal was to gain freedom of action and favorable land. As a second example, consider the genocide of Armenians by the Turks in 1915. While the Turks were Muslim and the Armenians Christian, that religious difference was only one of several cultural and economic differences between the groups.
In short, human nature being what it is, groups have always found themselves in conflict with their neighbors. In most cases the conflicts leading to aggression have centered on competition for resources or a desire for autonomy. I don’t believe the absence of religion would have much effect either way on the incidence of that aggression.
Question: Christian charitable organizations are a major force in American culture. Most Christian denominations encourage their members to participate in charitable activities, both formal and informal. There are a lot fewer atheist organizations that are engaged in such activities. Wouldn’t there be an enormous loss of good deeds in the absence of religion?
Answer: There’s no question that most Christian organizations sponsor and encourage their members to engage in charitable activities. I consider such activities to be perhaps the most positive aspect of the Christian faith. And it’s true that atheist organizations don’t have nearly the presence in, say, the social welfare arena as do Christian organizations. (Atheist organizations more often see their mission as one of education.) On the other hand, there are many more Christians (currently) than atheists. And I would also point out that there are a great many secular organizations engaged in charitable activity—the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Goodwill Industries, and Doctors Without Borders, to name a few.
I believe that built into any larger society’s moral code is a recognition of the need to help those less fortunate. Here again religion has taken credit for this universal moral standard, but the disappearance of religion would not have any significant impact on this activity.
Question: A great portion of our cultural treasures have been created in the name of religion. These include great works of art, of music, of literature, of architecture. Wouldn’t there be a terrible loss to our cultural heritage in the absence of religion?
Answer: I don’t think so.
Admittedly, one aspect of religion that I miss has been the powerful and often emotional music that I grew up listening to and participating in during religious services. Moreover, among the favorite subjects for my photography hobby have been the interiors of religious venues. And it’s certainly true that many of our cultural treasures were inspired by religion or at least sponsored by religious organizations. However, until the Age of Enlightenment, religious organizations occupied an unrivaled position of power and influence: Great music was primarily religious music; great art, religious art; and great architecture, religious architecture. That’s where the money was.
But contemporary artistic creations are nearly all secular. For the last few hundred years most art has involved secular themes rather than religious ones; great architecture has involved commercial buildings and secular public spaces such as museums, libraries, and arenas; and music . . . well, we’re certainly aware of the secular themes of most modern music.
In sum, although religious themes have historically inspired a great amount of cultural activity, without religion that genius would be—and is being—channeled into equally creative and powerful secular themes.
Question: What impact would the absence of religion have on the advancement of scientific knowledge?
Answer: Now we are getting somewhere. To say that religion has been an obstacle to the advancement of scientific knowledge would be a gross understatement. And that is true by reason of the great differences between the nature of religious faith and the nature of scientific reasoning.
Religious belief is based on the notion of revealed truth. A statement is to be accepted as true by reason of its source, whether scripture or a religious leader or possibly the deity himself or his chosen messenger. Moreover, because of the nature of their source, religious beliefs are deemed irrefutable. Who is going to question god’s word? This is virtually the polar opposite of beliefs based on scientific discovery. Scientific facts are by their very nature based not on authority but on the observation of objective evidence and controlled experimentation. All scientific knowledge is considered tentative and may be refuted by subsequent observation and experimentation.
Historically, religion has stood and continues to stand in the way of scientific advancement. But, whether the question has been the cause of disease, the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth, or the evolution of life, science has won essentially every one-on-one confrontation.
Not only has science advanced knowledge where religion has not, but these advances have benefited the human condition. As an illustration, consider that through the late 1950s the long-term success rate for religion (aka prayer) in curing acute childhood leukemia had been 5%. (That should read 0%, but I’m being generous here.) In the last 50 years science has raised that success rate to 95%. Consider, too, the role of science in the reduction in infant mortality, the eradication of smallpox, and the advances in prosthesis technology. (By the way, religion still has not solved the problem of limb regeneration through prayer.)
Just think of all the intellectual capital that has been devoted to religious thought and consider how much more understanding of the world we would have gained if that same effort had been spent on furthering our understanding through scientific reasoning and experimentation and technological development.
Question: Many devout Christians, especially evangelicals, point to how their faith has provided them with a joy and a comfort that would be lost in the absence of religious faith. They can also point to the fellowship and support that religion provides to them and their loved ones. Regardless of whether religious belief can be sustained on a rational basis, wouldn’t its elimination reduce human happiness? Moreover, without religion and the hope of salvation after this life, wouldn’t life itself be without any ultimate purpose, leading to despair? Why not just let Christians continue to enjoy their beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are rational?
Answer: I have addressed these questions in two previous posts, here and here, to my Skeptic Reflections blog. While it certainly could be frightening for Christians to contemplate life without a god who cares and without the promise of eternal life, that is because they have placed a big bet on the salvation story. Without that belief, they would be in the same position as all of their atheist colleagues, that is to say, focused on the one life that we are fortunate to experience and enjoy and determined to make the very best of that opportunity.
As a practical matter, it may not be possible for most Christians to abandon their beliefs, not just because the intellectual hurdles it would require but because of the emotional ones.
I have great confidence that a world without religion would be a better place in which to live and that that will ultimately be the reality. You could call that my “I Have a Dream” statement. And it’s the younger generations that present the opportunity to achieve that goal. Ultimately, the question is when and how to get there.
© 2015 John M. Phillips