Thursday, September 29, 2005

Is religion the bane of society?

In the absence of empirical data, often the next best thing is extensive research that is based upon sound scientific principles. The product of such work is typically published in one Scientific Journal or another. This public exposure encourages, if not demands peer review, which ostensibly leads to the verification or falsification of the ‘findings’.

This is not to say that everything in print is infallibly True. Quite to the contrary, as Apesnake says: "studies" are at best a starting point for science and at worst a load of latrine ballast…

With that in mind, there’s an article in The Times (the British variety) that mentions a new study which suggests that "societies are worse off when they have God on their side".
According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

That is at once overly broad and stereotypical. It is overly broad because it presupposes that “belief in and worship of God” is monolithic, and therefore a causal factor of “social problems”. It is stereotypical inasmuch as it erroneously assumes that all “believers” share the view that “religion” precedes, and therefore facilitates, morals and ethics.

Let’s look at those independently, shall we? Firstly, belief and faith are not synonymous, despite the popular misconception that suggests otherwise. As it happens, belief is but one aspect of faith. In other words, 'belief’ is simply mental assent, whereas ‘faith’ is akin to knowledge (i.e. settled understanding or conviction). While that might seem like a distinction without a difference, I contend that it is not. For instance: belief is to third-hand information, as faith is to first-hand information. Faith is imputed to individuals by God; unlike belief, faith is not a volitional act. Furthermore, faith is not a collective faculty, even though it may be shared with others, not unlike dialogue, whereby individuals share thoughts, without divesting themselves of those thoughts. I won’t get into the theological 'weeds' at this point, but I'll be glad to explicate the issue—in the comments—to anyone that might be interested.

Now, faith is not testable by the scientific method, nor is it subject to peer review. Given that reality, I’m cognizant of the fact that skepticism or ‘disbelief’ is the rule, rather than the exception. Such is only reasonable, and in fact, the Bible affirms this. So the questions are: how does religion relate to faith? and how does religion relate to society?

To answer those questions, one must define religion. In the context of ‘the study’, religion refers to the cumulative acts, beliefs and world-view of mystics and theists in general, and American Christians in particular. To the extent that a majority of Americans profess a “belief in God”, it follows that there would necessarily be a blurred distinction between society, morality and religion…they appear to constitute a trinity, so to speak. But in reality, morals and ethics are a-religious; they refer to acts and judgments that emanate from an understanding of that which is right and/or good, as opposed to wrong and/or evil.

To be sure, “right and wrong” are not always universally agreed upon, but let’s stipulate—for the sake of argument—that capriciously violating another’s inherent rights to life, liberty or property is categorically immoral and unethical. The fact that God (providing that He exists…just play along) is the epitome of perfect morality does not prove, in any way, that His adherents are perfectly moral; nor do they consistently act morally; nor do they have an exclusive claim to morality. God is moral, but morality is not God.

As I’ve stated, belief (mere assent) is not faith (spiritual enlightenment). It is therefore my contention that the two—more often than not—are confused by the religious and the irreligious alike. The former are, in some cases, self-deluded, whereas the latter (generally speaking) simply form opinions of theology et al based upon, for want of another phrase, a flawed sample.

The examples that spring to mind are tele-evangelists, religious-right authoritarians and garden variety zealots that insist upon ‘converting’ the world to their peculiar sect. In addition to those, (yes, there is an overlap among them) there are the proponents of Intelligent Design, who presumably mean well, but seemingly fail to realize that their ultimate goal is futile. Their goal being: after demonstrating that the universe was “designed” by a “designer”, the next logical step will be to discredit Darwin and validate modern Christianity in one fell swoop.
“The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

With that, who could disagree? The idea that the success or failure of a particular society depends upon the collective ‘religious’ morality is utter nonsense. Primarily, this is because the source document—the Bible—clearly articulates that God assess the “heart” (i.e. the inner thoughts) of individuals…not groups! Therefore, based upon the texts, (regardless of ones view of their validity…they are subject to judgment—as literature—in terms of logical consistency) the all too common belief that America—collectively—will be blessed or punished by God is flatly false. While that fact is all but irrelevant to atheist and agnostics, it is potentially life-altering to “professing believers”, in that legions of them contribute their time, talent and treasure to self-perpetuating institutions (churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) in hopes of pleasing God by increasing its numbers and enriching its leaders. Sadly, in this case, ignorance is not bliss.