Sunday, May 29, 2005

Morality and the need for God

According Peter Schwartz, religion is not necessary for a morally stable society. Although hypocritical attacks against the phantom 'left' dominate his article, there is still fading evidence of some logical capability ticking away beneath all that political narrow mindedness:
Morality begins with the individual's life as the primary value and identifies the further values that are demonstrably required to sustain that life. It observes that man's nature demands that we live not by random urges or by animal instincts, but by the faculty that distinguishes us from animals and on which our existence fundamentally depends: rationality.

I’ve said something similar on a previous entry. However the real value of religion is not in the explanation of morality, but rather in the motivation for morality.

Atheists frequently recite the phrase “Good men do good things and bad men do bad things, but it takes religion to make good men do bad things.” Then they go on to cite various religiously motivated atrocities.

It would then be logically inconsistent of them to not follow that argument through to its conclusion; i.e. ‘it takes religion to make bad men do good things.’

Morality may begin with the value given to an individual’s life, but there are many individuals who only care for the welfare of one life; themselves. All this high talk about preserving the rights of the ‘universal individual’ means nothing to them. If they can steal, lie, cheat and get away with it, they would do so. The impact it has on the welfare of the others around them has no bearing on their conscience. They are not hindered by the possibility of everyone acting in this way. These are Nietzche’s 'last men'.

This is where all that fire and brimstone stuff comes in. In childhood (also applicable to the folks in the formative periods of civilisation), individuals initially choose the moral options due to the fear of being deep-fried by a giant thunderbolt. Of course, over time they are mentally conditioned into developing a conscience, and as a result realise feelings of guilt for committing a sin and feelings of joy for committing acts of nobility. Yet, it is that unparalleled motivation arising from self-preservation, which sets them off on that track.

Religion shares much of the responsibility for the progress of civilisation. I am of the opinion that for a much of human history, religions have been a force of overwhelming good.

Secular Law and its enforcement by itself cannot govern a society of people who have no qualms about lying, stealing or killing if they feel that they can get away with it. Thus in a way Justice Scalia is right when he says, “Government derives its authority from God”.

The problem is that at some point civilisation will outgrow the beliefs and traditions that nurtured it and kept it safe for so long. With our knowledge of the universe increasing and changing at such an accelerated rate, it seems only natural that more and more people will begin questioning the existence of long held notions such as Divine Justice, Karma and Final Judgment.

Some believe that this point has already been breached. They feel that the counterproductive influences of religion are slowly catching up to it's positive aspects.

Should we react in fear and choose the option of the fundamentalists? Should we try and turn the clock back? The danger in that is similar to the danger faced by an overly protective parent. The child might rebel not only against the unreasonable restrictions, but also, in it’s eagerness for independence, the good teachings of the parent.

So if 'God is Dead' or is in his death throes, what is his replacement? How do we engender a love for the Human Ideal and respect for it's consequential moral codes? What will now ensure the rights of the individual in a global society?

Personally, I think we are all doomed. Conclusive evidence? Click here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Is Religion a Force for Good in History?

First a few qualifications:

  • I am a Weak Agnostic and my sympathies lie towards Atheism.
  • I do suspect that religion might be, for better or for worse, approaching its use-by-date.
  • Religion has played a constant role in human history and I can only take specific examples that illustrate its persistent and fundamental quality as a supreme organisational tool. If this was a contest of how many examples each side can bring to the table, then we will be here for quite a long time.
  • It may be true that if we were to only look at history since the Age of Enlightenment, religion’s counter productive influences have become increasingly prevalent and steadily negating the impact of the positive role it had played till then.
  • This has become all the more evident with the changes of the 19th and 20th centuries (I can find no adjective to sufficiently describe the vastness and sheer speed at which these changes occurred).

But if we take a look at history from the beginnings of civilisation, then yes, I do think religion has been, on balance, a positive force and overwhelmingly so.

Allow me to focus on the development of society in pre-Islamic Middle East and Arabia to illustrate, chiefly because I am not completely ignorant about this particular region. Secondly because I have Lapidus’s definitive textbook: “History of Islamic Societies” on my bookshelf and I can quote it liberally. Thirdly, I felt that some of the events provide interesting parallels to the situation we are in now.

Beginning at the era of hunting and gathering communities, we know that they were organised around small familial units. With the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals they start living in tribes of nomadic pastoralists or in agricultural communities.

As these communities grew, the interactions between them became more frequent, especially with the nomads travelling from one agrarian village to another. Customs and beliefs were shared along with the goods and more than one community began worshipping the same Gods.

Motivated by their shared commitment to the service of these Gods, pastoral villages grouped into temple communities. For example the Sumerians believed that the lands they inhabited were the property of the Gods and that they were obligated to create temples in appreciation. They couldn’t do this if the villages didn’t co-operate.

Thus the city-state is born. This was revolutionary in terms of cultural progress. Constructing temples required administration and organization of previously unheard-of quantities of labour. Supporting professions such as artisans and sculptors began to ply their trade. Writing and trade customs were developed. Specialisation of skills and integration of labour meant that the cities became centres of economic growth and individuals experienced a jump in their standard of living.

It is no coincidence that the priests of the temples were also the city’s lawmakers and political leaders. In those formative periods, belief in the divine authority was essential to maintain the stability and security within the society.

Then came the empires. The first empire of the world was created in 2400 BC by Sargon of Akkad in Northern Mesopotamia. As Empires rose and fell, and each created its own imprint on the landscape. Over time Kings replaced priests as the primary mediators between heaven and earth. Quoting Lapidus (2002):

In Middle Eastern conceptions, kingship was justified as the expression of the divine plan for the ordering of human societies. Sacralized political power, as well as religious community, became a vehicle for the unification of disparate communities.
Empires became the new black:
For ancient peoples, the empires symbolised the realm of civilisation. The function of empires was to defend the civilised world against the barbarians and to assimilate them into the sphere of higher culture. For their part, the barbarians, mostly nomadic peoples, wanted to conquer empires, share in their wealth and sophistication, and win for themselves the status of civilized men. Empires commanded allegiance because they were a coalition of civilised peoples against the darkness without. They commanded allegiance because kingship was though of as a divine institution and the king was a divinely selected agent, a person who, if not himself a god, shared in the aura, magnificence, sacredness, and mystery of the divine. The ruler was God’s agent, his priest, the channel between this world and the heavens, designated by the divine being to bring justice and right order to men so that they might in turn serve God. The king thus assured the prosperity and well being of his subjects. Magically he upheld the order of the universe against chaos.
Leaving Mesopotamia, let’s travel forward to the beginning of 6th century Arabia and to a city called Mecca:
Mecca was one of the most complex and heterogenous places in Arabia. Here society had grown beyond the limitations of the clan and tribe to afford some complexity of political and economic ties. Mecca was one of the few places in Arabia to have a floating, non-tribal population of individual exiles, refugees, outlaws, and foreign merchants. The very presence of different peoples and clans – people belonging to no clan, foreigners, people with diverse religious convictions, differing views of life’s purposes and values – moved Meccans away from the old tribal religions and moral conceptions. New conceptions of personal worth and social status and new social relationships were fostered in this more complex society. On the positive side, the imperatives of commercial activity, and Arabia-wide contacts and identifications set individuals free from the traditions of their clans and allowed for the flourishing of self-conscious, critical people, who were capable of experimenting with new values… On the negative side, society suffered from economic competition, social conflict, and moral confusion. Commercial activities brought in their wake social stratification on the basis of wealth, and morally inassimilable discrepancies between individuals situations and the imperatives of clan loyalty...

Arabia was in ferment; a society in the midst of constructive political experiments was endangered by anarchy; strong clan and tribal powers threatened to overwhelm the fragile forces of agricultural stability, commercial activity, and political cohesion.

And it was into this that Muhammad was born. His book and his monotheistic God re-establishes the cohesive society, halts the decline of Arabia and Middle East and by the twelfth century, Islam had taken the region to the forefront of civilisation. It is also useful to note that when the Mongols destroyed Saljuq Empire in 1243, religious conviction of the Islamic refugees and their desire to fight the infidels of Byzantine led to the creation of that small frontier principality in the mountainous regions of Anatolia under the rulership of Ertugrul. His son Osman will of course start a series of conquests that will eventually result in the Ottoman Empire.

One could point out that all these wars and death and destruction were all the result of religious dogmatism. I would counter that by saying without religions there wouldn’t even be a civilisation to fight these wars with. In fact wars themselves are an evidence of the tremendous organisational capability of religion. There is even a possibility that due to this benefit, spirituality is an adaptive biological trait in humans. If it has the power to get someone to go out there and sacrifice his own life, then one cannot underestimate its power in convincing a person to live a moral life.