In the primary stages of my adolescent becoming, I was an ardent and fervid atheist, adamant that the absence of any sound, scientifically-backed evidence that a higher being such as God existed meant that religion was… bad. My thought process was more or less as follows: do you mean to tell me that I’m meant to be going to church to worship an entity that floats above us all in the sky whose omniscience and existence relies on a book that was written 3,000 years ago? Thanks, but I’d rather stay at home.
However, like many of the strong and forceful ideologies that we adopt before coming to adulthood — especially those that are inherently polarising — I came to appreciate the counter-argument to my initial conclusion that religion had no place in the world today. The counter-argument was a tedious and less exciting one that rested on pragmatism. The components of these arguments were more or less this: religion is more than the belief in a God or a divine power; it is the belief in the core set of values and it is those core values that are rooted in the growth of Western civilisation. The idea that religious values, in particular, Judeo-Christian values, was perhaps responsible for the West’s culture and society as it currently is today was the operative argument that drew me closer to the subsequent reluctance of my initial conclusion. Of course, I knew that the current-day practices of religion taught virtuous moral values. What I had not yet come to acknowledge was the idea that it was these values that had outlined today’s Western culture to operate in the way it does today. And here entered the question: does Western civilisation and culture predicate upon a set of ideas or rather on opinions and human nature? If the former was to be true, it became clear to me that the abolishment and negligence of religion would cause more harm than good. Besides, how would I expect the values to withstand if I were to take away the very establishment of the values themselves? Did my first conclusion rely too heavily on the presupposition that morality was a universal phenomenon rather than something that required a foundational agency?
There are strong arguments that support the notion that Western civilisation in fact predicates upon the teachings of religion. For example, the laws that are embedded within the legal system of the United States strongly value the sovereignty of an individual — the law’s respect of the rights of an individual based simply on their individuality and existence as a being endures to the extent that is sacrosanct, regardless of if that individual is a serial murderer or rapist. (The manifestation of this in a real-life scenario, for example, would be that every accused has the right to an attorney and the burden is on the adversary to prove that the accused is guilty. Furthermore, in the event of condemnation, every prisoner’s human rights, notwithstanding of their wrongdoing, are inviolable and absolute.) For all of its shortcomings, the legal system is depicted most accurately as the expression of the ethics that we value, the moral framework per se. Upon reflection, the extent to which the law values the sovereignty of an individual seems unusual and outlandish; essentially, an individual can be so malignant and dangerous to society, yet still appraised as somewhat deserving and equal. In fact, the virtues that are practised by the legal system in this context are deeply reminiscent of the Bible’s proclamations which see man as holding intrinsic value due to the potential he or she possesses simply by being a creation of God. So, the question is: are these just groundless suppositions that do not require a foundational precedent or a continuation of religious values that are rooted and ingrained into our culture?
The argument made my modern-day atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris propose a world that is driven by rationality and human nature. The assumption is that the morals we choose to accept and live by do not need to exist alongside all that religion encompasses. The existence of a God is seen in literal terms: what evidence is there that a God exists? But does that miss the point? Can God not be a representation of the transcendent values taught by religion rather than the man in the sky? And therefore, if God exists as a personification and embodiment of religious teachings that serve as dogmatic Western principles, does the belief in God warrant consideration?
There exists also counter-arguments to living one’s life by rationality and logic. What precisely is irrational about the stratagem of ‘every man for himself’ despite its clear deficiencies in the eye of morality? A self-serving human surely has more of an incentive to seek personal glory at the cost of others if you remove the foundation of the morality that teaches altruism, compassion and magnanimity.
The story of the 20th century, that entailed extended periods of time in which both Eastern and Western states became secular and atheist (a matter which in itself can be debated), is a telling one. The East, for example, saw China and the USSR emerge as socialist powerhouses*, driven by Mao and Stalin respectively, and whose states turned away from the traditional religious teachings, in some cases sequestering them. What followed was possibly the worst sets of exterminations in human history. In the Soviet Union, Lenin, and later Stalin, oversaw the elimination of between 30 to 60 million people (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn*, a Russian historian and critic of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian state, predicted the latter figure to be more accurate) who dissented from the interest of Russia’s totalitarian state. Similarly, in China, internal repression cost the lives of what is estimated to be about 45 million people during Mao’s Great Leap Forward — in four years. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Nazis, who had successfully revitalised a dejected nation in Germany, directed the slaughtering of close to 20 million.
Are these examples of how precarious and treacherous societies can be after eradicating basic religious principles? German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche certainly thought so. Nietzsche foresaw the atrocities of the 20th Century, predicting that somewhere near in the future, man would try to supplant religion, through the means of increased populism taking the form of a socialist uprising, and the unbearable circumstances would cost the lives of many. He thought religion served as the cornerstone of a multiplex building and that its removal would, therefore, lead to inevitable tumult. Or are these events attributable to the dangers, simply, of a totalitarian state? The answer to that might disentangle the complications of the initial question: does Western culture predicate upon an established set of ideas derived from religion or merely human nature?
* Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian citizen. As well as being a historian and “outspoken critic” of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was an author. One of his books was the Gulag Archipelago in which he depicted his time spent in the Russian Gulags (forced work camps) that were spread across the Soviet Union.