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.