Without God (2)

As a practicing social scientist, I eagerly devour the latest research on religion and…war; and also religion and…peace. Although academics are used to some ambiguity in research results (after all, humans don’t behave predictably like most atoms), on the issue of the relationship between religion and violence the results and “opinions” are all over the place.

After last week’s post on individual religious belief, the time has come to tackle some broader, societal question(s).

First, notice the word “relationship” above. There might well be some connection between religion and violence/war, but that doesn’t in any way “prove” that the first causes the second. As the truism goes: “correlation is not causality.” One can think of a huge number of leaders who use religion as a (false) basis of going to war e.g., Saddam Hussein. The power-hungry will turn to any useful “ideology” to further their own ambitions.

Second, it is also clear that if religion does cause people to go to war (or act violently), it certainly isn’t the only “ism” to do that. In the 20th century, Marxism (Stalin and Mao) killed far more people than all the religion-based wars put together (admittedly, in Stalin’s case, Marxism was a cover for pure self-aggrandizement; Mao, though, probably believed in Marxism). Not to mention Hitler, whose war-craze was partly based on anti-religion (expunging Judaism and Jews). So even if religion can be said to be an important factor in world history for causing war – and that is correct only from Christianity onwards; in the BCE era, religion per se almost never played a part in international warfare, although it had some influence on civil wars e.g., Jews vs. local idol worshipping Canaanites – it is certainly not the only, or even the major cause.

Having said all that, we do live in an era of intense religious strife – mostly trans-religious i.e., between different religions (Moslem vs Christian) instead of what previously was the dominant paradigm: inter-religious (Catholic vs. Protestant; Christian vs. Jew), although the latter still exists: Sunni vs. Shiite Islam (located exclusively in the Middle East and northern Africa).

With all that, why are so many people in the world still religious? Well, first of all it has to be noted that the vast majority of them are peaceful, so it’s not as if “religious belief” automatically drives people to violence; there is no evidence for that whatsoever. Just as a relatively mere handful of secular extremist ideologues (Marxists, Libertarians, etc.) use violence to further their ideals, so too the same small proportion of religious extremists give religion a bad name.

The answer to religion’s continuing popularity is that it provides several advantages from a societal standpoint. First, it turns out that on average, regular worshippers have an added few years lifespan! Speaking as social scientist, that’s not because God is looking out for them, but rather because of the health benefits (mental and physical) of sociality and communality. Going to synagogue, church, mosque, temple on a regular basis brings people together. If the number one killer of older people is “loneliness” (that’s so great a problem that both Great Britain and Japan have established a Minister for Loneliness!), then clearly regular, communal religious gatherings are going to alleviate that critical problem, whatever the religion or level of belief.

Second, as I discussed in my previous post, another possible factor in increased lifespan is the believer’s reduction of existential angst; we know how much “stress” in general can cause illness and general bodily malfunction. Thus, instead of “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas’s immortal verse – pun intended), a true believer can face the eventual prospect of death with greater tranquility.

Third, religion has given humanity most of its moral code – or at least has provided a strong underpinning to buttress Homo Sapiens’ “natural” moral tendencies. It’s one thing to fear the government’s threat of punishment for transgressions, but those police powers cannot be everywhere; for true believers, God is everywhere and sees everything, so that further encourages rightful behavior. Having said that, the latest data clearly show something “peculiar”: the countries with the lowest levels of criminality and violence are the most secular (e.g., Scandinavia); the ones with the highest levels of corruption are the most religious (Middle East and parts of Africa). Of course, that might have nothing to do with religion per se, but rather a function of socio-economic level (that is also negatively correlated with religion – see the next paragraph).

Which brings us to the social downsides of religiosity – at least from a modern standpoint. It can be a stultifying, overly conservative force: maintaining patriarchy, continuing homophobia, undermining personal freedom, and in general leaving the population behind socio-economically. It is not a coincidence that the further one goes from south to north in Europe, the less religious and the wealthier/socially-advanced are the countries. But again, is that because secularism leads to more wealth, or because more wealth (and especially education) leads to less religiosity? Probably more the latter than the former, but there’s no unequivocal evidence either way.

Confusing? That’s precisely the point I started out with: there is no clear, one-way relationship – positive or negative – between religion and positive/negative societal outcomes. Like every other area of life, one factor – as important as it might be – cannot explain or influence the rest of our very complex, social world.

You better believe that!

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