Saturday, 01 November, 2003

Reviving the religion discussion

An acquaintance once asked me if I wanted to live in a world where the majority of people acted as though God doesn't exist.  At the time I conceded the point, but I frequently come back to ponder the question.  Implied in his question is that belief in God (or, more specifically, the thought of a reward or punishment in the afterlife) is what keeps people in line.  The assumption is that Man's laws or established societal rules of behavior aren't strong enough to motivate people; that if people don't think they're answerable to a higher power they'll run amuck:  raping, pillaging, plundering, and in general making a mess of things.  But one only has to look at current events and religious wars through the centuries to see that a majority's belief in God or religion doesn't prevent people from doing bad things to each other.  At best, a belief in religion helps prevent people from doing evil to others who hold the same beliefs, but even that parallel is tenuous.

The question is phrased in such a way as to make an unbeliever look stupid either way he answers.  If he says, "No, I would not like to live in such a world," then he has in effect admitted that a belief in God (and, by extension, whatever religion is currently being advocated) is necessary for a society to function.  If he answers "Yes, I would like to live in such a world," then he is assumed to be an evil anarchist in need of saving (which could involve being put to death to save his immortal soul).

Belief in God or some other supernatural being is deeply ingrained in most societies.  Children are indoctrinated early on.  Even professed atheists and agnostics can be heard saying things like "God willing," or "Heaven knows."  It's like the little kid who says, "I know there aren't any monsters under the bed,"  but then snuggles in tight to prevent an uncovered arm or leg from being snatched in the middle of the night.  The number of spontaneous conversions by condemned prisoners and soldiers on the front lines is pretty astonishing, and I think would be impossible if some form of that belief hadn't been ingrained at an early age.  Given that, I wonder if it's even possible to have a society in which people don't have a strong belief in God.  Certainly such a thing wouldn't be possible on a large scale in the U.S.  It would take hundreds of years to remove those beliefs from a large part of the population.

I'm not saying that belief in God is a bad thing.  Nor am I saying that a majority belief in God is required to create an orderly society,  although due to the aforementioned deeply-ingrained beliefs that might be difficult to prove.  Certainly the government doesn't have to be based on religion although many today are, either overtly or in subtle ways that reflect their history.  (Including the U.S. government, by the way, but that's a topic for an entirely different series of postings.)

After years of pondering, my answer to the original question has become:  "I want to live in a society where people treat each other with respect and dignity, tend their own gardens, and are held accountable for transgressions against others."  Unfortunately such a society doesn't exist on a large scale, nor does it seem to have existed in recorded history.