World better without religion?

At some point, you’ve likely heard the lament that the world would be better off without religion.  You may have even unwittingly imbibed it this past New Year’s Eve, when Cee Lo Green covered John Lennon’s classic hit “Imagine.” The song starts famously:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

And in due course the listener is asked to imagine a world with “no religion too.”  What better way to kick off 2012?  I’m sure Times Square’s officiants Lady Gaga and Michael Bloomberg approve wholeheartedly.

Beyond the pop culture realm, but still in the confines of Manhattan, the Oxford-style debate forum Intelligence Squared US picked up on the same theme this October past.  For some time I’ve heard bits of their debates on NPR, but only recently did I bother to get the podcast.  Naturally floating to the top of my queue was the episode featuring the resolution, “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.”

The debate, held before an audience at New York University, was remarkable in that the pro- and con- teams were prohibited from discussing the existence of God.  At first this might seem absurd; whether  God exists or not is patently germane to the question of religion.  But the imposed restriction has the benefit of allowing the debaters to focus neatly on the social ramifications of religion.

Consider what religion is in the restricted sense of the debate: moral beliefs with social consequences, that happen to be theistic. Then listen to the debate participants in action, and the chief complaint becomes clear: people kill and oppress others on the basis of differing moral beliefs.  So, would any hypothetical, religion-free world be better? No.  We would only be exchanging a world filled with a diverse array of theistic moral belief for a world filled with a diverse array of atheistic moral belief.  That people hold moral beliefs, and differ from each other on those beliefs are immutable elements of humanity.  So is the fact that we are social creatures.  We cannot escape each other.  I suppose we can imagine a world of people in secluded pods, or one solely populated by clones, or else a world that is entirely monocultural.  But most people would rightly see such worlds as deeply impoverished and no improvement over our own.  An inescapable part of being human is living in a world with others who hold to different “oughts” and “ought nots.”

Let’s move from possible worlds to the historical record. For thousands of years, religion has presided over mankind, such that any given killer, oppressor, or victim for that matter, could in some sense be tagged by us as “religious.” Only after the Enlightenment do we start to see significant cases of self-identified irreligious individuals.  All we need is one instance where an atheist kills another atheist on the basis of differing morality to obliterate the idea that religion is uniquely harmful.  Consider who swung the ice pick that killed Leon Trotsky.  It seems someone thought he “ought” not have disobeyed Stalin.  Purging religion only allows new types of contentious belief to crop up and take its place. Religion doesn’t kill or oppress people, human wickedness does. Christians rightly recognize this as sin nature.

So, how did the Intelligence Squared debate turn out?  The pro-side, making the case things would be better without religion, persuaded more audience members at the end and thereby won.  Unfortunately, the con- debaters Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbi David Wolpe failed to decisively isolate the social idea of “religion” from man’s underlying wickedness.  But even if they effectively made that case, what other outcome could we expect from public broadcast patrons congregated in a New York university performing arts center?

That the finger of blame could be pointed toward oneself has been thoroughly expunged from our culture today.  It’s easier for some just to chalk our problems up to some conception of a social condition called “religion.”

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