Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. ~ Christopher Hitchens
As the Holiday Season rolls around, columnists pour forth an annual load of drivel over the true nature of Christmas, its Christian origins, and importance to modern society.
This year, Conrad Black has contributed to this dreadful tide by proposing, “Christmas also happens to be as good a time as any to take stock of how much worse an un-Christian world would be.” I usually quite like what Black writes; I don’t often agree with it, but it generally does make me think.
The case that he lays out, though, is so perfectly limpid that it barely deserves a response. It must, however, be confronted solely because the argument ought to be contested before it becomes so common as to be consensus.
Black says that prior to Christ, “Secular leaders in the Roman Republic and early Empire…routinely declared themselves to be Gods.” This is of course true, though hardly as true as it was in other cultures. Not the finest historical example with which to start.
However, the underlying precept – that leaders take advantage of religious obtuseness in order to gain power – is a prescient one. But, Black hamstrings himself by saying:
But human mores and folkways have been improved and tempered by the widespread belief that God created man, man does not bootstrap himself into deity, and that the real deity takes an active interest in human affairs.
At least he has the shame to admit, “sectarian differences and misplaced religious enthusiasm have visited much evil on the world.”
The problem is that human “mores and folkways” have hardly been improved in any meaningful sense by religion.
Leaders may well have claimed to be gods in our ancient past, in our much more recent history, power has been gripped by claiming to have the ear of the divine.
The monarchs and tyrants who presided over Europe for much of its history did so by claiming the divine right to do so. The supporting scripture, at Romans 13:1-2 reads:
For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
These rulers were hardly enlightened people that protected liberties and improved the lot of citizens. These were the rulers that led disastrous campaigns of conquest, kept people in a state of virtual slavery and generally made “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The darkest years in civilized history also happen to be the years when religion has been the most powerful. Black might well have a point by arguing that humans are the problem, not religion. But, he errs gravely by suggesting the use of religion has been significantly different at any point in human history, and that it has significantly bettered humanity.
There is no relevant difference between pretending to be God, and claiming to speak with Him personally.
The attendant historical reality is that human society has not been dramatically improved by religion.
However empurpled the pious might become, it is inarguable that the greatest progress has not been made through the expansion of piety, but instead, the slow development of democratic and civil liberties.
Values and behaviours that have been cast aside on our march towards civilization have been lost in spite of the Christian faith, and not as a result of it. Just as one example, the way we do justice today is decidedly un-Biblical.
Biblical justice is by its nature punitive. Romans 6:23 kindly reminds us that, “the wages of sin is death,” and Matthew 25:46 clarifies that the punishment for sinners is “everlasting punishment.” For a crime as simple as cursing your mother or father (Mark 7:10) – and what teenager has not done that – the punishment is equally severe.
The list of capital crimes in the Bible leaves no slight unpunished. The heinous – rape and murder – are listed alongside the less objectionable, such as sodomy. This sordid list descends into moral bankruptcy with Deuteronomy 22: 20-21, which insists upon stoning any woman who is not virginal for her wedding night.
The point is the development of a “just” system of justice has absolutely nothing to do with a Biblical conceptualization of justice. The gallows have long disappeared from the public squares in most modern nations in spite of the Christian faith.
Only the United States retains this outmoded and discredited form of punitive justice.
Equality between men and women, ethnic and religious tolerance, and various other constitutional freedoms are not Biblically mandated. They are the result of years of intellectual and philosophical struggle, and are those things that make a society stable and productive.
And yet, Black writes that faithlessness “generally leads at best to a struggle for man’s dignity made unnecessarily grim by the denial of all spirituality, and at worst to egomania or nihilism.”
There are indeed religious foundations for many of our most important philosophical tenets. Augustine, for example, wrote a great deal about the importance of charity; our society is structured such that we are charitable to one another.
But, does the denial of all spirituality make life “unnecessarily grim,” as Black suggests?
Probably. But it is a fairly major misunderstanding of atheism, or humanism, or faithlessness, to suggest it amounts to the “denial of all spirituality.” Both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens wrote, and spoke, about the value of religious music, and the importance of religious architecture and art.
Additionally, the “struggle for a man’s dignity” is truly the best we can hope to attain, and this is no pithy struggle. In a somewhat ironic twist, the struggle for dignity today is often a struggle against the religious. On one hand, we hope to better the levels of food security and employment, and try to reduce poverty and the spread of infectious diseases.
These are all secular goals, and ones that are attained through strictly secular means.
The other major struggles are gender equality, sexual equality and dignity, maternal rights and health. Coupled with democratic rights and civil liberties, these battles are not waged against simple humans. These battles are fought against centuries-old texts, and those who believe the offer valid instruction on how to live in the modern world.
The indignities imposed by the remaining vestiges of religion in this world are exponentially grimmer than the life faced by atheists. The prospect of living a life but once is not so bad when put up against the horrors the faithful have to endure while hoping for a second.
We cannot escape our collective religious past. And we should not deny what it has done for us. But, the positives of religion should not be overemphasized, nor should the accomplishments of philosophy be credited to spirituality.