First, allow me to reiterate (if the title of this post wasn’t clear enough) to those in the organized religion crowd who may be reading this, that I am not speaking about whether religion is good for you personally. I have plenty of friends who are devoutly religious (I grew up in a small town, so that’s to be expected) who never pass up an opportunity to explain to me that their religion is a ‘friendship with Jesus’ and that it has completely transformed their lives. So if right now you’re drafting an e-mail/blog post to me that makes that argument or a variation of it, you’re missing the point.
Here, I’m talking about the benefit of organized religion from a social or anthropological perspective.
So, with that in mind, it goes without saying that historically-speaking, religion has been a massive force for good in human civilization. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, notes that there’s plenty of anthropological evidence to suggest that it wasn’t until we saw the transition from mere tribes to chiefdoms that organized, socially-relevant religion came into existence. Sure, Diamond notes, religion existed beforehand, but it was merely concerned with personal piety and had little social significance. So, with Chiefdoms, for the first time we began to see the phenomenon of a distant ruler which necessitated a ‘state’-sponsored religion.
I won’t go into the specific anthropological evidence supporting this, but, in short, it makes sense considering that this is the time period in each society when we start to see massive tributes, statues, shrines and temples erected in the name of the gods and organized by the society or chieftan.
In short, Diamond notes that the collective and cooperative peaceful existence of large numbers of people was made possible in the first instance by organized religion. What is more, this large, organized and peaceful existence of a large number of people was what made agriculture, aqueducts, education, literacy and exploration all possible.
Fast forward to the time of Socrates.
Socrates, who the Athenians considered basically just a weird guy who preached philosophy in the market for donations of money, had a student, namely, Alcibiades – the great Athenian General. On the eve of the suicidal and utterly pointless Sicilian Expedition, Alcibiades (or somebody else depending on which version of history you read) cut off the penises of all of the Hermes statues in Athens which, the Athenians believed, cursed the Expedition.
Socrates was tried for, among other things, corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety towards the gods. Although he had the opportunity to escape, Socrates chose to stay and accept his execution and drank the hemlock that killed him. Why did he do this? Because he believed that even though the society as it existed was corrupt and even though the god of war was being used to justify pointless war and even more pointless strategies within that war, both were still so important to humanity (because they allowed for a city in turn allowed for philosophy) that he would rather die than risk de-legitimizing the city and religion.
Fast forward to the 12th Century.
Joachim of Fiore, a devoutly religious man wrote about how our existing world of strife, angst, war, pain and suffering would come to an end (specifically he said it would come to an end in the year 1260) and that we would all live in what he called the Age of the Holy Spirit where the love of God would reach beyond merely churches and holy shrines and touch everyone’s life. Thus, Joachim argued, peace would be with us and all that was needed was faith and love of God.
Fast forward to today.
Today, organized religion is fundamentally different from what it was in the chiefdom societies, the time of Athens and the turn of the first millennium BCE. In each of these three eras, religion was a source of pious moderation. In these three eras, the religious man (generally speaking) was a peaceful man and the non-religious men were inclined to do battle, to go to war, and to kill.
Let’s take a look at what function religion serves today.
Today, the US President lists Jesus Christ as his favorite and most influential philosopher. He claims to be devoutly religious and attributes his religion as having a transformitive effect on him. He also was Governor of the US state which executes more people than any country on the face of the planet other than China. He also was the president who deliberately used faulty intelligence to go to war in Iraq and kill upwards of 100,000 innocent civilians (see proof here). He was also the president who has deliberately allowed for the extra-legal torture and rendition of people who have not been convicted of any crime.
Can he be considered moderate?
Ann Coulter has called for the assassination of the staff at the New York Times. US commentator Glenn Beck called for the carpet nuking of Iran (available here). Pat Robertson, as devout a Christian as there ever was, famously called for the assassination of foreign leaders (available here) as well as supporting Liberian president Charles Taylor in his one-sided slaughter of a ‘civil war’ (available here).
Can religion be considered to have moderated these people?
Even Islam, which is by nature a peaceful religion (whose name literally means ‘total surrender to the will of God’), has also been perverted away from the moderation it once instilled.
So, since organized religion on all sides of the spectrum is now causing us to move away from the moderation that is necessary for us to continue living together peacefully, can will still continue calling it a virtue as Socrates considered it to be? Or, should we instead consider it the greatest hindrance to a peaceful existence that we currently face and thus consider it a relic of an age which humanity has long since grown beyond?