Does Religion Play a Crucial Role in Western Civilisation: A Response

By Francois Osborne, Year 13

The following response does not aim to better answer the question proposed, but correct the false assumptions mentioned in the opinion piece. ‘Does Religion play a crucial role in western civilization?’.  In order to do this, I have given arguments solely based on reasons against institutionalized religion, but it would be futile to argue religion based solely on reason because, as David Hume believed, as religion is an emotional affair, and an attempt to discredit it using solely reason misses the core topic.

However, if one were to reason the role of religion in western civilization, and whether it was/is a force for good, the following would be my answer. The opinion piece seems to shift between three main questions. Has religion shaped modern day civilization, should it continue to, and what may happen if it were removed from our current civilization?

I, too, consider myself an atheist, however not certain that there is no god, but that ‘nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.’as Bertrand Russel said in 1958. It cannot be proven that there is not, but the lack of evidence gives me no reason to believe in god, as with a claim of the existence of a teapot in space, nor do I find solace in any of his teachings. God is merely a product of our inherent desire to find meaning in life.

Religion is a huge spectrum of beliefs about the nature of our universe which is boldly defined, in the piece, as being ‘more than the belief in a God or a divine power; it is the belief in the core set of values’, and these moral values are described as ‘virtuous’.  I whole-heartedly disagree. On the contrary, I believe that institutionalized religion can pose a systematic danger to the advancement of civilization. Any text that claims to hold the absolute truths to everything and demands that it remain unquestioned while filled with divisive morals, is dangerous.

What does religion promote as moral values?

There are no doubt beautiful verses in any religious text. Reading through the Bible, an atheist will not disagree with every verse as telling a morally wrong story, however, there are many problematic sections. Sexism and jihad in the Quran. Avocation for genocide and rape in the Bible. Compulsory genital mutilation in Judaism. If this constitutes an ideal world, look no further than the middle ages. One would expect an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing God to create texts that were morally, far more progressive those in religious texts today, yet they are disappointingly perverse. These values may have been widely held at one point, but from which western society has evolved, and continues to move away from. A text that refuses to be questioned, calls for blind faith, ignorance and calls any questioning of itself a crime, is dangerous, and why I believe most institutionalized religions, with the exception of Jainism, are potentially dangerous. Religious texts normalize irrationality while incorporating divisive moral views.

In addition, western values may have been shaped by religious men, but no one else could have. Institutions set up by religious peoples are not inherently religious. The example of the secular American law system makes no sense. A religious person would not form a secular system out of compassion for god, and though it may hold values in common with the Bible, the assumption that it must inherently be religious is false. Religion does not hold sole ownership of morality, in other words, moral values were definitely not created by religion, and you do not have to be religious to be moral. It is inevitable that certain morals will appear in more places than one.

Indeed, moral values can be found in any modern ape, through the rational principle of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”. A society that works on selfish gain will never work and never has. Our survival as primitive apes has relied on this principle whereby we recognize the usefulness of having a surrounding community to survive, to reproduce, and the comforts contact with our own can bring. The caring for our community has evolved from the necessity of survival of millions of years ago to the compassion we should feel as intelligent animals able to contemplate the great mysteries of life. In society today, different philosophies ranging from Nietzsche to Sartre to Epicurus propose different ways of making sense of the world that we have unfairly been thrust out into.

In fact, if you believe that all holy texts were written by ordinary human beings struggling to cope with the realities of their own lives, it makes perfect sense and can be comforting in our own difficult times. These humans wrote these texts with their own values, prominent at the time – not given to them by any sentient being, but by what they felt was inexplicably just. The holy texts are simply moral snapshots of the development of our own morals. Any ‘miracle’ described was mainly an inevitable delusion in our search for meaning, combined with our limited scientific understanding of the world. The dated morals were a sign of the time, and so it only makes sense that they change over time as we discover and accept new ways of thinking through reasoning rather than blind faith.

Another dangerous misconception in the opinion piece, that Mao, Stalin’s, and Hitler’s actions were done in the name atheism. First, Hitler was a Catholic. Second, the dismissal that their victims were killed because Mao and Stalin had no belief in gods is disrespectful. This would be the same as saying any man who committed homicide and was Christian did it in the name of religion. They were victims of fascist and communist ideologies which are inherently violent. These regimes maintain power through fear mongering, censorship, control of the law etc. among other man-made atrocities. These victims died from actions done in the name of communism and fascism.

Overall, the question proposed by the opinion piece is extremely interesting, yet has made several false assumptions along the way. However, this response should hopefully have answered the final question of the essay, ‘does Western culture predicate upon an established set of ideas derived from religion or merely human nature?’. The answer is quite clearly the latter.

1 Comment

  1. I’d first like to thank you for responding to my article. Any opportunity to engage in discussion and better an understanding of a topic is warmly accepted. I’ll start by saying that I am in fact an atheist, ironically. The purpose of my article was, in most part, to offer an alternative position on the issue, however, I still hold partial credence to the idea of the basis for my article (being broadly is religion responsible for our moral values today). Before I go on though, I’d like to preface that all that follows regarding my personal opinions is not necessarily reflected in the article. When defending the ideas in my article specifically, which I mostly do, I’ll make that clear.

    You correctly segmentise my article into three separate questions, being ‘Has religion shaped modern day civilization, should it continue to, and what may happen if it were removed from our current civilization?’. It seems that my personal answer to the second and third questions — though not shown in the article — align with yours (more or less the atheist commonplace rhetoric that religion is no longer fundamental to our society… blah blah blah). However, as I said, the idea that the religion may be the ‘foundational agency’ for our moral values, in my opinion, may still be correct.

    Throughout the article, you address that religious absolutism can be dangerous and, for its wild inconsistencies, it ought to be questioned whenever we set it out as an arbitrary doctrine. I’m inclined to agree. I mean, which lessons of the Bible are we supposed to cherry-pick? Those that say ‘thou shalt not kill’ or those that tell the story of God directing Moses and Aaron to slaughter in Exodus? In reading a large portion of the Old Testament, I think the theme of obedience is pervasive. Obedience for following God, which often entails, as you say, ‘blind faith’ and ‘ignorance’. Obedience did not lead to the abolition of slavery in America, which was once the status quo, nor did it lead to any cultural changes or social change that have helped advance our society.

    Though you do acknowledge my initial question concerning whether religion may or may not have shaped Western civilisation today, I think you only go as far as to say: it doesn’t, and that the supposition that it does is simply not enough. While I can sympathise with the idea that it was, in fact, human nature and experience that were more valuable contributors to what we, as humans, value and accept today, the argument is hearsay. The answers of human nature, which is essentially the idea of a built-in, ingrained system of value and morality, are so unbeknown to us that it is almost ineffectual to analyse and map out how it may have shaped our society. Consequently, the dismissive theory that because religion, as you correctly say, does not hold sole ownership of morality, it must, therefore, be human nature that is largely responsible, is an unsatisfactory one. That was the point I was trying to make in my article. Nietzsche, of course, has already pointed this out: the ethic that atheists think is a product of human rationality is in fact prescriptive. That is to say that it is of partial consequence of the history that preceded it (taking the form of stories in the Bible maybe). The atheist idea that these values are arbitrarily axiomatic is too simple. Even as we do continue to learn from experience, why does one get to suppose that there is not an intrinsic, established, transcendent morality beneath? The example of the American legal system embodies this idea.

    Needless to say, the idea that our society continues to progress as we learn from experience, and therefore move away from religion, is a truth and an important one (hence, why I agree with your opinion that the necessity for religion is no longer so true).

    Also, a quick side note. It seems as if my focus on the Judeo-Christian values was not solidified in my article. Although there are countless morally questionable stories told in the Bible, I would argue that your inclusion of the Quran was inappropriate to the argument — though I do agree with your underlying argument, as I previously said.

    Re: Hitler, Stalin and the other atrocities that occurred during tumultuous and disastrous twentieth century. To start off, I think it’s extremely far-fetched to claim that Hitler was at least, a cultural Christian. Despite him being a self-proclaimed Catholic, his domestic policies that grew gradually secular reflected this → 1933: Hitler signed deal with Roman Catholic Church ensuring the Pope stay out of politics. 1933: Hitler introduces the Faith Movement as an alternative to Christianity which is described as being a movement ‘away from Christianity towards a religion based on Germanic paganism and Nazi ideas’. 1936: Campaigns convincing children against the Church. 1939: Church Schools abolished. If you bring up institutionalised religion, I think this is an appropriate example, at least, of institutionalised secularism regardless of Hitler’s apparent and tacit Christian faith.

    The USSR’s institutional/ political secularism, I will admit, was much less focused or obvious. I would argue, however, that there was an underlying secular narrative that drove the forces of evil in the USSR. There were a less benign set of secular sentiments which drew from a yearning for inner perfection which would entail a trusting that history would deliver advancement and progression to the people in today’s life (rather than an afterlife, in the case of the Bible). The idea was that these desirable futures were to obtained by human endeavour rather than ‘the grace of God’ whose existence was questioned. Holding no particular value, it was, in fact, the Old Testament who had warned of this, namely in the myth of the Tower of Babel.

    So indeed, as my initial point was perhaps in favour of a sort of culture established by religion, it can too be argued that the culture of New Atheism (or perhaps, just atheism) in the twentieth century — being that the limit of human endeavour was ceaseless and the idea of a utopia was perhaps attainable — leftover residues that led to the despicable mass tragedies. However, as an atheist myself, I would certainly argue that absolutist religious cultures had similar effects (all the wars fought in the name of religion). So, religion being the ‘divisive’ force you say it is, I agree that is has been a principal motive for the ongoing issues of tribalism and identity politics that still exist today.

    I was exchanging emails with someone I knew the other day about this issue and I’ll include their last paragraph here. The secular sentiments and culture that was defined in the early stages of the 20th century made it possible… “for would-be hero figures to march into action promising glorious futures, and acting as if in the name of the proxy God. The French Revolution raised the flag for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and consolidated a fine if inward-looking civilisation, but also the guillotine, much persecution, and vanity of the Napoleonic wars. Then Victoriana and the British Empire with mass subjugations in the Americas, India Australia and Africa. Marx, Lenin, Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin with the gulags and mass famines caused by arrogant over-reach into agriculture and industry. Fascism, Hitler and the Holocaust. Mao’s cultural revolution, Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”

    A last word on Stalin/ Mao vs. Hitler. You say that ‘these victims died from actions done in the name of communism and fascism’. If one’s argument is that the casualties were not the effect of secularism, as indeed yours is, I think the alternative is that they were, in turn, a result of totalitarian states, rather than just communism and fascism. Specifically, I’m not sure whether we can point to any ideological shortcomings of communism that could have potentially been responsible for the tragedy that followed. Perhaps, we can point to fascism as it was so blatantly morally reprehensible. But I understand that this is aside from the issue.

    Also — just a quick thought. I wonder about your example of the ape and the ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’. I think the example you used was more a case of reciprocal altruism rather than an illustration of morality. And I’d be hesitant to draw those two together.

    Anyways, I feel I have babbled on. I’d like to thank you again for responding to my article. As a consequence of the discussion, it may appear as a lot of our interpretations of history are dissimilar, which may be true, however, I think that many of the beliefs we hold today are perhaps alike.


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