Religion and Politics - My response to a lecture by George Will

My friend Charlie sought my input regarding a speech he read regarding religion and its place in politics. Here I post the link and, following it, my response.


I find it unconvincing and there are multiple points I find objectionable. Perhaps most important of them is the characterization of the fascism and communism as THE forms secular government has taken. I appreciate that it is his meaning that American democracy has been infused by religious feeling from its very inception, but both it and many other democratic governments have been at their heart secular. Remind me when the Scandinavians slaughtered millions of people, theirs being countries approaching 90% irreligion. Tell me how, despite its various unacceptable actions and treatments, modern communist China is not the most powerful anti-poverty, suffering-lessening engine in world history. Certainly it could not do so with such drive without the advancement of the Western world before it, but that does not mean that a Communist nation is completely and inerrantly destined for nothing but suffering and slaughter (It should be noted here, if for no other reason than to avoid derailing the subject, that I still have very strong objections to much about China in multiple ways and I do not propose to hold them up as a model of human decency).

As for the bloodshed supposedly caused by the meaninglessness of certain states in the 20th century, it's important to remember that, despite those conflicts, the 20th century is currently second only to the 21st as the LEAST violent century in human history, when adjusted for the percentage of humans killed by other humans. The only reason the bloodshed of the 20th century was possible was because there were just so damn many of us married to the birth of weapons of mass killing, but we still killed a lower percentage of the global population of ourselves than in the previous 100 years. Of course it was unprecedented, but any conflict in that time would be similarly so, lest one think that one thinks a nation-state with the ideology of the modern Iranian theology dropped into 1930's Europe with Germany's industry, weapons technology, population and power would result in less bloodshed.

Ultimately, he comes off as a snob, as arrogant. I have seen this among my fellow atheists, and I suspect it resided in some measure in the mind of George Washington himself. It's the opinion that society isn't decent enough, people aren't good enough to be decent and good people without religion. It's saying, "*I* don't need God to find my moral compass, but look at all these mongrels about me. They're so numerous and so low that without the Fear of God to keep them in line, there's no hope that they'd be anything more than murderous, savage mob out for blood." I have a higher opinion of humanity than that.

Putting aside the question of whether religion in general or any particular version of religion is true, religion was likely necessary, or at least very important, in the childhood and adolescence of human civilization, at a point where human culture had to overcome millennia of tribalism, conflict and distrust to forge the earliest associations of large groups of humans. But I think that time is over. There are more, healthier humans than have ever existed on the planet, even when measured by percentage, and more of them are irreligious than ever before. The happiest, safest and, by nearly every reasonable measure, best nations and societies on the planet are also the least religious. The only anomaly to the general trend is the United States of America...except that the trend is restored when you break the US up into constituent states. I won't claim to know the causative factor, but I believe it puts the lie to the proposition that irreligion somehow dooms us to meaninglessness and abject despair, a state from which we can accomplish only malice.

I believe something quite different. Many humans will find meaning in many human things. For many, for a very long time and for a long time to come, a major source has been religion. I have no intention of forcibly taking that away from anyone. But I also believe that religion's gradual decline is not leading to a malaise of meaning, but instead, to finding meaning elsewhere, with a multitude of sources of transcendence. I found it in gazing into the depths of the universe on a cold night, in the astonishing intricacies of the most basic living organisms and in the realization that even if some religion is true, the only way humans can truly be certain of changing the world is by changing it themselves. There are too many driven, passionate atheists, many of whom I have met myself, for there to be a dearth of meaning and motivation in a world without religion.

And so I find George Will's treatment to be unconvincing, wrongheaded and arrogant. I neither begrudge my fellow humans to worship as they will nor fear their behavior if they cease that worship.

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