The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Society Doesn't Need Religion

Humans possess an almost limitless potential. When one compares where our species has been, what we have evolved from, and what we have achieved in a mere two hundred generations, our ultimate potential is nothing short of staggering. The single celled organisms that dominated the Earth for the first few billion years of its existence replicated themselves for countless quadrillions of generations, before finally making the leap from single celled organisms to multi cellular organisms. Individual dinosaur species lumbered across Earth's Super continent for tens of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations, before their eventual annihilation. Human civilization by contrast, has existed for something around six, perhaps seven thousand years. While this may seem like an incredibly long time compared to our individual lifespans, in any sort of geological, evolutionary or cosmic timescale, it is nothing but a blink of an eye. And what we have accomplished in that time span is nothing short of breathtaking.

What can humankind achieve in five hundred years? What can humanity achieve in the next thousand years? In the next ten thousand? Even if one were to assume that human civilization were to suffer a civilization-wide calamity similar to those that plagued Europe after the collapse of Greece or Rome, or that plagued China after the fall of the Han Dynasty and plunged their respective civilizations into a prolonged period of retrenchment, regression and decline, it is impossible to ignore the simple fact that after every single collapse, humanity always comes back, and when it returns, it surpasses that which came before. Even if one were to assume that human civilization might suffer a similar setback, the fact remains that the ruins of OUR civilization will live on to inspire the human species to new heights so that our progeny will eventually surpass the height of our civilization.

Such a collapse, however, is in no way imminent. Indeed, in nearly every respect, such a collapse has never looked as unlikely as it does now. The likelihood of large scale military conflict between any of the largest sovereign states is incredibly low. Indeed, the globalization of commerce, trade and information has made armed conflict virtually unthinkable as an attack on the geographic centers of a foreign nation will have drastic and incredibly far reaching negative consequences here at home. To be sure, small scale regional conflicts such as those currently plaguing the near and middle east are likely to continue into the foreseeable future, but the reality is that none of the industrialized western nations are in any way inclined to engage in any manner of hostilities against one another, mostly by virtue of the fact that modern stable representative democracies simply do not attack one another. Indeed, such an event seems even more unlikely to occur now given that modern democracies are more integrated and their fates more closely tied to one another than ever before.

The trajectory of humankind is incredibly positive. To be sure, there have been dips and bumps and setbacks, but overall, in every conceivable way, the future of humanity looks better than the past. Infant mortality rates continue to plummet. Human life spans continue to rapidly increase. Indeed, so rapid has been the extension of human life that it has nearly doubled in the last two hundred years. Literacy rates continue to rise and the education level of Earth's citizens continue to rapidly advance. To be sure, there are local variations, and progress in many areas is horribly uneven, however, it is unquestionable that mass education and literacy have fueled the exponential technological advancement that has been the driving force for humankind in the modern era. Global famine and hunger are in decline and are presently at historical lows. Given the amazingly rapid advances in agriculture and aquaculture, this seems unlikely to suffer any serious reversals in the foreseeable future. Modern medicine and vaccination have increased both the quality and duration of human life, and squelched potential plagues and infections that would have become pandemics in earlier eras. And the material wealth and well being of the human species has never been higher. We now take it as a virtually inviolable right that all human beings are entitled to the basic necessities of life, food, shelter, water, medicine. Even in war ravaged countries, invading armies actually set up camps to facilitate the provision of the material basics to their mortal enemies. Only in completely failed societies is this even a question.

Compared to any other epoch in human civilization, such compassion for ones' enemies is unthinkable. And the fact that we as a civilization possess such surpassing material well-being that we can freely bestow it upon the citizens of our political enemies when they cannot or will not do so themselves is a testament not only to or technological progress, but our moral evolution as well. The material benefits of our modern global civilization are inarguable. The basic tenets of survival, food, shelter, water, are all taken as an absolute given. It is impossible to overstate what a paradigmatic shift this is from the lives of early humans, who spent virtually every moment of every day attempting, and often failing, to satisfy these most basic needs.

The earliest humans spent essentially every moment of every day simply attempting to survive to the next.

In advanced societies, the list of necessities has grown to include indoor plumbing, air conditioning, electricity, television, garbage service, Internet and cell phone service, and a car, not to mention the fact that we have access to virtually every kind of foodstuff imaginable. A modern supermarket possesses a variety of selection that would have likely been unavailable to even a king in earlier times.

The fact that daily human survival is really no longer a question for the vast majority of citizens of advanced societies has enabled a proliferation of specialization in the arts and sciences, which has facilitated ever greater and more rapid advances in technology within those societies. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of modern societies is that technological advancement begets not only greater wealth and material prosperity, but faster and greater technological advancement. By far, the greatest problem with this rapid technological advancement is that while it has dramatically improved the lives of nearly every inhabitant of this planet, it has at the same time created and entrenched a distinction in terms of wealth that is more pronounced than ever before.

Poverty is, of course, a relative term. And by almost any measure, those who possess cars, cell phones, Internet, cable television, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and have access to more food than they can possibly eat, cannot, by any historical standard, be called poor, yet in relation to the almost unimaginable wealth of those who dwell atop the human wealth pyramid, we are poorer than ever. This is not to diminish the undeniable fact that life is still difficult, especially for those in relative poverty, it is simply to acknowledge that the challenges faced by most in the modern era, even the least fortunate, are less centered on the cruel reality of starvation and day to day survival, and more on the difficulties of navigating interpersonal relationships and societal obligations.

What is truly stunning, is that these remarkable advances in human well-being have occurred most rapidly in those regions of the world that have successfully removed the yoke of religion. It is virtually impossible to ignore the fact that after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe became mired in the Dark Ages that persisted for approximately a thousand years. Indeed, one of the only things to truly flourish during those benighted times, was the proliferation and entrenchment of Christianity. While technology, literacy, education, engineering, civics, and science foundered, Christianity reached its apex in political power, economic influence and societal penetration.

At the same time that Europe was mired in a technological, social, and civic black hole, the Middle East, flourished as the center of literacy, science, mathematics, philosophy, art and culture. While Islam was the dominant religion, the Middle East was not dominated by theocratic states like those in Europe and as a result, enjoyed a far more cosmopolitan differentiation between church and state.

Ironically, at about the same time that Europe began to separate civic and political life from spiritual life during the renaissance and began its technological and scientific march that has persisted to the present, the Middle East went in the opposite direction. Just as Christianity had been the dominant political force during the dark ages in Europe, Islam slowly became the dominant political force in the Middle East and as it strengthened its hold, the region became more and more technologically, socially and economically backwards.

Clearly religion is not necessary for social well being. And even if religiosity is not the cause of many of the ills that plague the underdeveloped world, the very fact that religion is not a necessary precondition for society, the fact that religion is not necessary to create a moral code, not necessary to establish societal norms, to establish kindness and giving as a social good, not necessary to condemn violence and crime undercuts the very notion that society needs religion at all. Indeed, the evidence clearly indicates that society does NOT need religion in the slightest. That religion is, at the very least, inversely correlated to societal well being.

One is left to wonder, if we do not need God or Religion to explain the Universe, do not need God or Religion to explain the evolution of the cosmos, do not need God or Religion to explain the origins of life, and do not need God or Religion to facilitate and just, equitable, society, do we have any need for God or Religion at all?

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