I am not a scholar of irreligious trends in the west. But I am very aware of the professors and scholars who write books and give speeches propounding the incoherence of religious beliefs. They are right to point out that religious thought is incoherent and at odds with our best understanding of the universe. They are right to point out some of the terrible behaviours committed within religious contexts and by religious people. And so, with a deeply-felt moral ferocity, these academic atheists take to the stage to repeatedly explain why God isn’t there. They are right to do this. But what of their personal motivations?
Some academic atheists motivate their fight by making claims about religion. They say: religion encourages conflict; religion encourages immoral behaviour; and, religion perverts the progress of science and technology. It follows, they might claim, that reducing global religiosity will make the world less violent and encourage technological progress. This conclusion is probably wrong. Conflict, for instance, can be inflamed by many different social identities: e.g. political identifications, nationalistic feelings, and class divisions. Merely removing religion would not eliminate these other troubling sources of bad behaviour.
I further complain that ‘religion’ is poorly defined. We often give this word its meaning through a Christian lens. Christian practice commonly includes an assertion of beliefs — the existence of God, for instance. So, it is generally felt that one should attack this belief in God as the root cause of all religion and its ills. But not all religious practices include the idea of God, and not all religious practices emphasise declarative beliefs in the way that Christians do. So, to attack belief in God is not at all the same as attacking ‘religion’ — which comprises many different phenomena and defies a simple creedal understanding.
Even Christianity itself is clearly not just about the creed. Belief in the deity (and its son) is given lip-service in all the appropriate ways, but Christians spend their time doing much more than merely asserting this belief. A foreign visitor who does not speak the local language would observe that Christians are intent on singing, creating artworks, building feats of architecture, huddling together with their eyes closed, drinking wine from a cup, and so on. Indeed, for many centuries, most people experienced Christianity in precisely this more tangible way.
For most of Christian history, discussing theological beliefs was not important to laymen (nor were the words of the bible accessible to them). (Though, theological divisions were, however, extremely important for politics.) For the common folk, Christianity was imperceptible: it was a part of every aspect of culture. In particular, the moral conventions of that time were reinforced culturally through the propaganda of Christian ceremonies and rituals. Just as our own normative cultural expectations are reinforced through the media. Thus, to look at Christian Europe and say that ‘religion encourages immorality’ is to ignore that there was no causal separation between Christian practice and moral practice. Whatever moral feelings emerged from culture, the church institutionally reinforced them — just as we have (even more powerful) institutions to enforce our own moral doctrines.
We find medieval morality repugnant not because of its relationship to belief in god, but because it doesn’t meet the higher standards of our twenty-first-century morality. The bad morals of the past were not the direct consequence of belief in god, or even of religious practice itself: they were simply bad morals. Coming up with good morals is a difficult task, and merely removing belief in god from a population does nothing to guarantee the creation and maintenance of good moral discourse.
So why is it so difficult to maintain nonviolence, good morals, and a commitment to scientific knowledge? Perhaps one of the most prominent difficulties is group think, the herd instinct; that temptation we have to eagerly adopt the identity of a group that shuns all outsiders.
Groups, and the conflict they promote, are not always evil. Political alliances, for instance, promote conflicts. But if the ‘correct’ political group wins a conflict and enacts policies that improve society, then that, ultimately, might be worthwhile. One of democracy’s best qualities is that it allows precisely these political conflicts to proceed without violence. However, the adoption of democracy itself against reigning totalitarianism is ultimately a violent, conflict-ridden opposition of two group identities. I support decisive moves to democratic rule. But, concerned about the possibility of sustained and harmful violence, I can easily understand that it is not always a good time for a democratic uprising. Higher humanitarian ideals must sometimes outweigh our desire to see the rise of fairer political governance. Indeed, without the wealth and richness of the West, many countries find it understandably difficult to set up and run the complicated and resource-hungry democratic governments that we enjoy.
I think the same restraint must be employed in the transition to secularity. Just as I support the adoption of democracy, I support the adoption of atheism. I want to live in a world with more democracy and more atheism because I can see that such a world could ultimately be better than what we have now. Religious thought is unhelpful and extraneous to scientific discourse. Religious alliances do create yet another pointless source of group-driven conflicts. However, the world is a complicated place, and I don’t accept that there is a simple relationship between god-worshipping and how bad the world is. Indeed, as with the introduction of democracy, I think that the loss of religion is contingent on other, more important concerns. Not all societies are privileged enough to have sufficient wealth to eliminate hunger and disease, let alone maintain powerful institutions of justice and education. In lieu of these institutions, surely religious practices are of immense value?
In this way, religion can be a humane apparatus of control. I mean this in two senses: firstly, civic control — the enforcing of good civic laws that punish bad practices like murder and encourage social cohesion; and secondly, psychological control — the mental structures to provide resilience to cary on in a difficult world. It does not seem wise to remove these controls until societies have sufficient resources to erect more sophisticated institutions and ideas to manage their civic and psychological lives.
It seems inevitable, then, that much harm would come to an impoverished society that tried to secularise too fast or too early. I would love more people to enjoy the fruits of science instead of the smoke of dogma — science is better. And I am delighted to live in an overwhelmingly irreligious society. But religion performs a social function. Indeed, for many societies, religion is inseparable from the society that ‘practices’ it. Religious behaviour is social behaviour; and the evolution of social behaviours takes time.
Let us now turn back to Western, secular society itself. Just as religious and developing nations need civic conventions (that can be religiously enforced), I see see an immense need in the West for better ‘rules of society’ — rules that go far beyond the law and govern how we conduct lives with each other. I think that a troubling problem of our age is finding the identities and conventions that will allow people to live lives that they find fulfilling and interesting. Indeed, it is easy to be sympathetic to those many people who make (profitably) use of identities and conventions that are dredged up from religious tradition. Religious identities and conventions help to make people feel happy and optimistic in the face of illness; they build emotionally close bonds outside of the family; and they can turn immense suffering into ‘strengthening experiences’, rather than destructive ones.
One might observe that, in the consumerist world, we have replaced many of the conventions of piety with conventions of material ambition. However, it is (almost certainly) impossible to give the ‘gift’ of a consumer life to the entire world population, especially within our present day economic system. And besides that, many of us find consumerist culture ugly and uninteresting.
In place of material gain, I imagine a slide towards new social conventions and institutions that encourage individuals to participate in things larger than themselves. Conventions that encourage the fulfilment of our (one might say ‘vestigial’) emotional needs, and that encourage us to take an interest in thought and the history of ideas. That is, I imagine a society of people who take pride in our collective consciousness. Such people exist already. But these people are the subjects of immense privilege — wealth, university education, western citizenship — and, moreover, one observes that they too are ruled by many of our society’s unhelpful conventions (like gender roles and the ultra-moralisation of monogamy).
It is difficult to conceive of how we might form the social infrastructure — the words, practices and ideas — that will facilitate a world where more people can feel fulfilled and engaged. I think we must look to poetry and psychology and history to reimagine society. We ought to consider the societies of the past, and contemplate how the institutions of society relate to our psychological lives. We ought to find ways to talk about ourselves and our connections with each other in an age when relationships look as bedraggled (if enormously desirable and fetishized) as ever.
It is silly to think that the death of God in our collective consciousness will be sufficient to bring about these new social customs. Academic atheists and other secular thinkers should continue to explain, with compassion, why religious thought is wrong. But we must do more than just expound on the nonexistence of God. We must give serious thought to the social institutions of our society. We must help people imagine the possibilities of secular life. And, in less privileged parts of the world, we must admit that there is a good cause for people to hold on to their bad faith.