A Defense of Religion (From an Atheist).

I am not a Christian, in so far as I do not believe in God. I grew up secularly, although held on to religion until pre-teen, when the lure of having fun got in the way of it. I abandoned faith, and after a period of confusion accepted observation, logic, and evidence; the atheist’s holy trinity, upon the golden rule: that nothing is to be considered true, until it is proven so, and even then held suspect on chance that the proof is flawed. And I remember a joke that a friend of mine used to tell, “without a soul, you’ll struggle to walk,” although it doesn’t work as well written down. I have, however, begun to think about the merits of a society that embraces atheism, or is wholly atheistic, versus that which is wholly Christian or at least majority so.

The evidence, and observation, seem fairly substantial that a society run on secular principles, principles of religious pluralism, and certainly under further atheism, are more politically stable. In an analysis by Tim Dawes, which combined the most religious countries versus the Economist’s measure of political stability (including threat of protest), it appeared that the more religious a country, the more unstable. Of course, this is not a conclusive study, in that it only matches up two forms of data, it does little to prove causation, and so instead take the testimony (or observation) of Seth Wagoner, from the same source, who states that New Zealand, under heavy atheist control, is more stable, more profitable, and more honest, particularly praising its incorruptibility, he says “We are often ranked #1 ‘least corrupt’ on the transparency international perceptions index”, and indeed whilst currently taking number four it would appear that New Zealand is among the top contenders for “least corrupt.” The top spots do also seem to reflect the least religious countries.

Now I don’t know by what margin or measurement a country can be considered “incorruptible”, in fact I might argue that only an incorruptible instrument can measure corruptibility, and yet of course the most corrupted instrument would measure it the most incorruptible. I too, would argue that political stability might increase as the power of the state would increase, where a government seems stable the way an old table is supported by too many legs. It may be sturdy but it doesn’t make it a table worth eating off, nor would you expect anything less from its increased support. I suppose what I’m getting at is this:

An adult looks to a god like a child to a parent, to guide him on what is or is not good, that punishes and rewards, that can teach him morality from immorality. A god that knows everything you’re doing, and that you should obey and respect, like a child may obey or respect a parent. And so when a child grows up, they fall upon religion as extended obedience, one that may be brought with them into adulthood. So what happens when a child does not have religion to fall back on? An atheist might answer that the child learns to be an adult himself, the child learns that he need not be obedient to anyone but his own needs. Only that isn’t true, what is left to obey when religion is gone? the state is left to obey, the law. To be clear, this is not to say the law disappears under religion, but rather that it grows stronger, and holds more power without it. The state will not like religion, as religion does not like the state, because they are competing fosterers.

Would it not seem likely then, that where religion falls, the state grows stronger? and when it does that, becomes more stable. Powerful in its stability, and supreme, but stable. While countries like Denmark may be considered by the World Happiness Index the happiest, most equal, most free, and yet very irreligious, it does not prove that these qualities are the result of irreligiousity. For example, by the same metric of “freedom to make life choices”, where Denmark places 6th, Uzbekistan places 1st, which is 93% Sunni Muslim. On the metric of “healthy life expectancy” Denmark falls to 30th, topped by India at 6th of which only 0.2% have “no religion”. It only appears to be the top, and mostly only when scoring across multiple categories (where if analysed separately religion would have no apparent correlation) that the least religious countries appear to score higher for happiness.

It would be the same logic for you to suggest that countries profit more and are happier under less religion, as it would be for me to suggest that the lack of religion in Marxist-Leninist ran countries (where they attempted to exterminate religion) led to the collapse of those countries. In both cases it would be an argument ignoring other factors. And I find myself wondering, when I think about the world’s most important problems, where religion, and Christian religion, may be of greater service than relativism or atheism.

We have a welfare state that incentives people to have children out of wedlock, and to raise a child in single parent families (which can negatively effect a child’s development). We have government run education, healthcare, we have people all the time asking for something for nothing. “I want free healthcare,” “I want free tuition,” “I want to win the lottery.” We have people who put glory in envy by aspiring to be famous, and rewarding the famous, and we have people who scrutinise success and call it greed. We have war, we have an immigration crisis. We are narcissistic in our approach to everyday life and like children reaching for their mother, or a god, we seek the attention of people who seek attention from other people, like a snake eating a snake eating a snake, and we think the government can solve all of our problems.

So where does faith come in? Maybe to teach people chastity and dignity, the nuclear family, school choice, private run institutions by limiting our calls to Father President, or Sister Secretary of State, maybe to teach people civility, and to limit pride and envy and to understand the accusations of “greed” as stronger accusations, as an accusation of sin over just a personal flaw, to have faith in people’s goodness, not certainty in their badness. To recognise the threat of an opposing religion, humility, and to judge ourselves in the eyes of God and not in the eyes of other people.

It may seem strange, an advocate of libertarian values to hold religion as admirable, but without a proof of secular ethics, without a universal guide for how to live, rooted in evidence, observation, and logic, we cannot be a free society, so better be tied I think to a community of values, than a valueless orgy.

We think of religion as tying our hands behind our back and telling us that by resistance it’ll make those arms more powerful when they’re untied, but without it we still pine for ways to make our arms more powerful, only we don’t have the rope anymore. By eliminating religion, we eliminate a reason for how we want to behave, we don’t eliminate the want, and without that reason, however unfounded, we condemn ourselves to behave unrestricted, and then feel guilty in that lack of restriction. It seems to me that religion, in some contexts, offered some reason to be good, without which did not make people bad, only confused them as to why they were being good. Take, for example, the delay of gratification.

Delayed gratification, in psychology, is the process of forgoing a simple reward in the instant, for a more satisfying reward in the long term. If you were offered a sweet a day, would you rather one sweet now or two sweets tomorrow? Religion offered this up, perhaps under a false promise of gratification, but by doing so taught among people to restrain themselves from the consumption of basic vices. In an older article on this site I referred to the left as having “impulse politics” meaning to act upon what appears right, rather than taking the time to ensure it is, and I think the principle of this can come back to that same delay in gratification. I think in large part, following the moment has led to a society of narcissists, to a delay in progress, where money is spent as soon as it arrives, a price is placed on happiness and where people want things now. I think of a kid in a store who doesn’t want to save up money for a toy, and throws a fit, and that is what I think of when I think of how the world runs today. And then I think of the parent caving in, and buying him the toy, and I think of how that kid grows up, spoilt, and entitled, and who believes that all he has to do to get what he wants is to scream the loudest. Does that not remind you of anything?

Chief Rabbi, of the Spectator, writes:

None of this should surprise us. This is what a society built on materialism, individualism and moral relativism looks like. It maximises personal freedom but at a cost. As Michael Walzer puts it: ‘This freedom, energising and exciting as it is, is also profoundly disintegrative, making it very difficult for individuals to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members. It opens solitary men and women to the impact of a lowest common denominator, commercial culture.’

So what about force in religion, where you “must” or go to hell? Isn’t that a strain on personal freedoms? Maybe, if it’s taught like that. John Steinbeck once picked up on error in translation of the bible when recounting the story of Cain and Abel, and upon discovering the original Hebrew, he writes, “The King James says of sin crouching at the door, ‘Thou shalt rule over it.’ The American Standard says, ‘Do thou rule over it.’ Now this new translation says, ‘Thou mayest rule over it.’ This is the most vital difference. The first two are 1, a prophecy and 2, an order, but 3 is the offering of free will. Here is individual responsibility and the invention of conscience.”

I would argue, if I have not made the case, that there is a lot to admire in those who follow religion, but I admit it would be a hard farce if you tried to do so without believing any of it to be true. And so, not maybe from a practical perspective, but a theoretical one, I do believe there are flaws in a society which turns its back on religion, and the west, which turns its back on Christianity. Do I wish that it were different? I don’t know, like I say, I don’t believe in God.

(Image by: Patche99z (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)