I’ve heard the “religion is necessary for some people” argument now from several friends and acquaintances. This argument is that it is fine for some people to be without a religion because they have an good system of personal ethics. However, other people actually require a religion with a built in moral code to prevent them from doing evil.
According to this argument, some people are bad because they lack an internal moral compass, and as such they require the constant threat, guidance, and promise of religion to prevent them from becoming criminal. Religion is also supposed to reform evil people from being criminal, or from just being a non-contributing member of society.
To me, this seems like Alcoholics Anonymous – where the alcoholic acknowledges that he or she requires spiritual guidance and strength to overcome addiction. This works for some people – I know that having a positive attitude is necessary for success in any endeavor, and the belief that you can draw strength from outside of yourself can increase your will to succeed.
When I was taking Tae Kwon Do we were taught that bursts of strength came from focused ‘Qi’ – and yelling the “Kee-YA” during a strike seemed to make the blow more effective. I see the belief in a ‘Qi force’ to be a useful fiction that actually allowed me to focus my mind and body on a very narrow target and increased the force of my punch. I’m under no illusion that this force is real – it is merely a useful way of fooling myself.
And perhaps the belief in a ‘higher power’ is a useful way of fooling yourself to stay sober through AA. Perhaps the belief in a “God the Master” prevents people who lack a moral compass, or lack willpower, from doing evil. Belief in a God who owns both the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell ensures that the poor sinner will stay on the straight and narrow path.
And what about falling off of the wagon, so to speak? In AA someone who fails is forgiven, and allowed to try again, for as many times as it takes. Forgiveness enables a person continue on – without forgiveness a person might come to believe that any attempt to change is ultimately futile and may not bother to make a second (or third) attempt.
So, I think I must concur that bad people can use religion to help themselves reform. But I must disagree when such a person gives God all the credit for success. This sort of personal triumph was aided by a useful fiction, but ultimately it is personal actions and attitudes that matter. I think it is as silly to thank God for your ability to change as it is to thank Qi for your ability to break a brick with a Karate chop.
We should ask why there is a belief that only religion can give ethical aid, why can’t we use a non-religious approach?
I’ve been told by Christians that their religion is the only hope of reforming evil people, or of preventing people from becoming evil. After all, the argument goes, in 2000 years Atheism is yet to create the same sort of moral guidelines supported by a community ‘safety net’.
In my reply to Daniel Lewis I state my opinion that there are two reasons why non-belief has not already created a useful ethical system. First, science is a relatively new human invention. Humans have always experimented, but only recently have we learned how to qualify results. Second, the persecution of non-believers and other heretics has stifled progress. (Torture and death tends to cloud people’s minds.)
Karl Marx wrote that religion was being used to create the illusion that everything was okay, that it masked real suffering that had to be addressed, and therefore religion ought to be abolished. In my opinion Marx was very wrong.
I think that getting rid of religion without offering an alternative philosophy is a mistake. Religion is used as an extended social network, binding people and communities together. When done well, it acts as a safety net. It is a very powerful tool which, like any tool, can be used for good or evil purposes.
Non-believers are becoming interested in systems of philosophy based on the scientific and the rational. Secular Humanism is currently my favorite.
Paul Kurtz, founder and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism has almost single-handedly snatched the insulting label of ‘Secular Humanist’ from Christianity and used it as the foundation of an ethical system based on science, reason, exuberance, and the philosophy that improving the condition of humankind while reducing human suffering is the greatest good.
I think Dr. Kurtz is onto something here – and other non-belief ethics seem to fall in line with the various manifestos of Secular Humanism. (Yes, there are more than one – but the latest manifestos seem to be saying essentially the same things. The Humanist Manifesto 2000 is the latest.)
Is Secular Humanism the replacement for religion? I dunno. The philosophy is in its infancy, and science is only now starting to focus on the evolution of morals. There is a lot to discuss here.
But I’ll leave that for another entry.