Do we need religion in society today

This speech was presented at the Ahmidiyya Muslim Community Interfaith Symposium held at the Milton Sports Complex on November 24th, 2010 by Kevin Saldanha.

 

Do we need religion in today’s society? 

 

Thank you, Maqbool, and the organizers of this event for inviting me to give my secular perspective to this interfaith symposium.  My name is Kevin Saldanha and I am a regional director on the board of the national organization for Humanism in Canada.  Later this week atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens and British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair will debate, in Toronto, whether Religion is a force for Good in the world today.  As you can see, this topic is on many minds and is one that will continue to be discussed as we work towards a global ethic.

 

My talk can be divided into four parts.  I will first briefly mention the drawbacks of conventional religions.  Next, I will describe the personal benefit of practicing and being in a religious community.  I will then describe how morality differs from religion and, lastly, will introduce a new secular ethic to replace conventional religious morality.

 

However, before I begin, I will need to define what I understand by the terms “religion” and “faith”.  These definitions are important because they differ from person to person and from organization to organization. 

 

My general impression is that “faith” is a personal belief in a divine, supernatural entity and an attempt to live within the confines of morality that is dictated by that God.  Whereas “Religion” is the organizational structure to reinforce and enhance that belief into a consumable format by use of regular meeting in a holy spaces, recitation of prayers and taking oaths and pledges of allegiance to the faith.  It also lays down the structure of morality, most often in the form of holy books that have been inspired directly by god or gods.  The most successful religious enterprises are those that sell the comfort of metaphysical certainty, propose supernatural explanations to natural events, give the promise of some form of eternal life after death and offer a daily network of protection and support.  They compete among themselves as to which one offers the best cost-benefit package to people frightened and terrified by death and by the unknown, and are anxious for moral comfort, guidance and social support.  In this sense, organised religions fulfill psychological and social needs, create bonds and social alliances and help individuals cope with life’s vicissitudes, uncertainties and challenges.  In many countries, churches, mosques and synagogues are more political than social organisations, very much involved in the power structure of their societies.  However, when religion becomes political, it turns against humanity and loses it humanistic edge.

 

There are five major problems with the religions of today in general.

 

1.  All religions favour their own people to the exclusion of others.  This is evident in the animosity between even the three major monotheisms represented here, which are themselves corrupted plagiarisms of each other and earlier polytheistic religions found in the fertile cresent of Mesopotamia and North-East Africa, namely Egypt.

 

2.  The mistaken assumption that humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation and, as such, being the ‘centre-of-the-universe’ causes a loss of respect for other species as well as the environment.

 

3.  There is a subtle, but definite, discrepancy between private (individually practiced) morality and public (state sanctioned) morality.  This is evident in the selective enforcement of commandments such as “Thou shalt not kill” except in times of war.

 

4.  Religion uses the defunct currency of an afterlife, whether eternal or reincarnate, to extract moral behaviour in this world by using an intricate system of supernatural rewards and punishments.  This empty dogma is drilled into young immature minds and is virtually impossible to overcome.

 

5.  Religion separates the mind (emotional thought) from the body (brain function) to create a duality of being which has no scientific basis.  It therefore erroneously encourages the theological concept of responsibility for ones actions based on free will as a function of choice.

 

These features of religion were once necessary to encourage and retain membership in the various distinct religions.  Over the millenia, these ancient traditions have been honed into tools for manipulating the minds of those who do not trust their own judgement.  Various theologians have added their their own taint to the dogma.  However, rational and ethical secular treatise developed by ancient philosophers continue to inspire newer generations of critical thinkers to remove supernatural deities from moral considerations.

 

BENEFITS OF RELIGION

 

People remain within organised religion in order to derive emotional, spiritual, social or economic benefits at a relatively low cost.  For some, religions provide ease and simple answers to personal existential questions, such as : 

 

where do we come from? 

what is our destiny? 

what is the meaning of life? 

How should we behave towards other humans? 

What makes our existence good? 

Why do we age rather than remain young forever? 

Why do we have to die?

What happens after death?

 

For many people, visiting religious holy spaces and attending religious services are convenient ways to find time for meditation and introspection about life.  Immersing themselves into a religious environment may be the only opportunity they have to escape the chores of daily life and contemplate the bigger picture.  For others, religious teachings may be the only chance they have to enter the world of philosophical thinking and reflection.  In this narrow sense, religious thinking is a form of mental activity and education, and has positive effects on those who choose to contemplate them seriously.

 

It remains that religious leanings are primarily emotional in nature, not rational.  Blind faith has nothing to do with critical thinking, but a lot to do with human emotions and primitive instincts.  It is a legacy of the past, when man’s old brain was expanding and sought explanations for the surrounding mysteries of life.  Blind faith ( a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence) is a flawed inheritance from the past, when people had a piteous lack of knowledge about nature and the Universe. This does not mean that human emotions are not useful in peoples quest to find happiness.  To be happy indeed is to be satisfied with what one has, even though there are conditions, such as poverty or the loss of youth, vigour or health when it is difficult to be content with ones lot.

 

Thus some individuals feel emotionally secure and happy in accepting what leaders, religious or otherwise, tell them to believe.  Some can become addicted to the habit of being told what to do and in receiving orders on how to live a good life in this world to enhance their afterlives in the next.  However for most, metaphysical considerations about life and ideas of rewards in mysterious and hypothetical afterlives have very little to do with their joining organized religion, and a lot to do with their emotional, material and physical needs for survival and protection.  This is the collective feeling of security that people gain from living in a group.  There are very tangible benefits in joining and belonging to any organization including religious ones.

 

Religions unite people in common routines and rites, whether they be weekly gatherings or celebrating various passages of life’s milestones like naming ceremonies, coming of age, marriage, and death.  They offer a structured approach to celebrating these events and convey a sense of belonging.  Therefore the human need of emotional connection is fostered within religious organizations.  This is not the unique domain of religion, however, as secular humanist officiants now provide all these services and more.

 

Most people do not choose their religion and regardless of what they may say, are loath to leave the religion of their birth.  By the accident of being born to parents of a particular faith and by virtue of indoctrination, almost from infancy, most religious individuals will continue in the faith of their ancestors.  However, when large enough numbers of these organizations rebel against certain dogmas of their faith, they will split off to form a similar but different scion of that tradition that is in accordance with their sentiments.  That is why there is strong pressure to conform and remain within a religious community.  Defection is scorned and defectors are alienated from the community sometimes to the extent of proclaiming death to apostates.  This is something the Ahmidiyya Muslim Community will be familiar with.

 

For all the preceding reasons, remaining in a religious organization can be a very emotional decision, even though the official teachings of such an organization are rationally flawed and fundamentally illogical. If a person can be provided with some basic moral rules, be treated hospitably, receive a religious education and be part of a community at a relatively low cost, it makes membership in the congregation worthy.  This translates into a powerful system for the leadership of the organization to convey their ideals.  Throughout history, religions have been convenient nationalistic rallying points for ethnic groups.  At the national level, religion is a phenomenon that elites have often used to cement national and social cohesion.

 

However, it remains to be said that most of the tangible benefits once provided by religion are, in modern society provided by the government, medical practitioners, welfare & social agencies, non denominational or interfaith charities.  The spiritual benefits are equally available through Art, Music, Meditation, Solitude and Reflection.

 

 

MORALITY WITHOUT RELIGION

 

Evolutionary biologists suggest that an inclination by ancient humans to follow witch doctors, sorcerers or other shamans who claimed divine support could have had very real social and political benefits.  There allegiances turned the tribes of early cave men into more cohesive bands, increased their chances of survival and, if need be, enabled them to kill off their rivals more easily.  The question remains whether humankind can afford to adhere to such a primitive approach to living and to human co-operation.

 

Much of that morality is now known to be inherent in normal human beings and has evolved with our own progression from living in troops to living in tribes.  As ancient village communities congregated into towns and cities, where the personal contact between members grew more remote, it was necessary to come up with a code that allowed social harmony of larger numbers of citizens to co-exist peacefully.

 

Today, the world is faced with two options for moral guidance.  Religion is one source of moral guidance but there are others.  We have a choice to stay with dogmatic religion which consists of pessimistic fundamentalism developed in the pre-scientific and pre-enlightenment era to a set medieval moral codes or we can encourage adoption of an optimistic, courageous, forward looking and rational humanistic approach to morality based on reason, science and technology.

 

Humanity is in need of a new moral revival, free of sectarian references, in order to pursue it’s long march for survival in a climate of progress and liberty. ( as described by Roger Trembley in his book “The Code for Global Ethics” subtitled ‘Toward a Humanist Civilization’).  This would be the basis of my argument for a new, secular “religion”.

 

Three quarter’s of this panel is going to propose their own version of monotheism which is discriminatory and enforces a selective morality on their adherents.  It is to the credit of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Canada to include an alternative worldview in this symposium. 

 

SECULAR GLOBAL ETHIC TO REPLACE RELIGION 

 

I will make a case for the adoption of a new global ethic based on rational humanism of a secular variety.  Whether you wish to term it a religion or not is up to you.  However, it is not divinely inspired but based on scientific revelation and rational, ethical discourse without any reference to supernatural intervention.  It is underwritten by the basic assumption of the natural integrity and inherent worth of all human beings.  

 

A new global ethic is necessary for humanity since, it has been unequivocally established and continues to be reinforced by modern science, that we are all one people.  We left Eastern Africa in two waves within the last 60,000 years.  Since then, and more so in the last century, we have overpopulated a planet with finite resources.  We have used technology, like fire and the domestication of plant and animal species, to help us spread into otherwise uninhabitable areas of the globe.  More recently we have further shrunk the planet with instant communication, air travel and medical interventions to cause deterioration of our climate, water and air by more than six billion people all wanting to be middle class consumers.  These are shared resources that we are exploiting will need a new global ethic to protect.

 

The scientific method will help us make informed choices but the cultural lag of inherited moral doctrine, rooted in theistic religious dogma, will hold us back.  It is my hope that the revolutionary communication technology of inspirational individuals reaching the masses via electronic media and networking will help spread the word for the urgent need of a new global ethic.  Individual states may censor access to it temporarily but that will be a minor inconvenience in a universal spread of knowledge.

 

Rational humanism based on scientific revelation, idealism, compassion, and mutual tolerance will be tested by how we treat others and whether this new ethic will improve their lives.  In this regard, humanistic principles are compatible with religious ideals.  

 

The basis of formulation of a new moral ethic based on rational humanism is to understand that the human emotion of empathy may not be universal, natural or abundant.  It can be enhanced by deliberate inculcation or diminished by abuse.  It is necessary to develop a written code by which we should strive to live which should be open to amendments as our scientific knowledge progresses.

 

The empathetic basis of morality does not need divine revelation.  It developed in social animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate, in evolutionary response to the need to live in communities.  It is now used to establish ground rules by which we can continue to live in disassociated communities from our tribal origins, where such codes were unnecessary.  It includes altruism, compassion, self-sacrifice, co-operation and mutual aid within and between groups, basic sentiment of justice and respect for rights.  It also takes into consideration the extent to which we have spread across the globe and the need to respect the resources we now consume.  Sustainability is a new paradigm that we never needed to consider before.  Religion is only one source of morality which attempts to address some of these issues.

 

The Golden rule, and it’s corollary, is based on empathy and is found at the root of most religious traditions.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Do not do to others that which you would not done to you”.  However, the Super Golden rule developed by humanism states “Do unto others what you would wish to be done to you, if you were in their place”.  Thus rational humanism places the dignity of each and every human at the centre of it’s philosophy.  There have been a few Humanist Manifestos developed over the last few decades and ten  principles of rational humanism have been distilled from them.  I will attempt to elucidate them if time permits.

 

It is a dismal and historical fact that organized religion, especially the more politicized and proselytizing ones, have, for centuries supplied the intellectual and ideological support for innumerable crimes against humanity, while aligning themselves time and again with totalitarian and oppressive political regimes.  That is why they must accept a shared responsibility for the disasters that have beset humanity over the ages, in the form of wars of aggression, religion-inspired massacres, executions and persecutions, genocides, pillages, rapes and murders as well as slavery and exploitations of all kinds.  Religious morality has been, at best, a mixed blessing for humanity.

 

Thank You.

 

1.  Proclaim the natural dignity and inherent equality of all human beings in all places and in all circumstances

From the Super Golden Rule of humanist morality it follows that people should have the right to human dignity and equality and this should be the fundamental principle governing relationships between people and nations.  

 

2. Respect the life and property of others at all times

No person, in any capacity has the right to deprive another of their life or possessions.

 

3. Practice tolerance and open-mindedness towards the choices and life styles of others

Personal freedoms do not have to be compromised in favour of social and general conformity as long as they don’t threaten, in a substantial way, the functioning and survival of society.  Individuals have a fundamental right to develop their own thoughts, philosophies, beliefs and opinions.

 

4. Share with those who are less fortunate and help those who are in need

To sympathize with the plight of others is the core of the humanistic morality of empathy and reciprocity.

 

5. Use neither lies, nor temporal doctrine, nor spiritual power to dominate and exploit others.  Proclaim the principle of equality and opportunity for all

Exploitation of the uninformed can lead to various other abuses which denies equality.

 

6.  Rely on reason and science to understand the Universe and to solve life's problems, avoiding superstitions, which numb the mind and are an obstacle to thinking for oneself

True individual freedom and contentment are reached when each individual is able to think independently, without the crutch of absolutist religious dogmas.

 

7. Conserve and improve the Earth’s natural environment - land, soil, water, air and space - as humankind’s common heritage

New ways to live in harmony with the environment and each other need to be discovered before the burgeoning population of this planet overwhelms it’s sustainability.

 

8. Resolve differences and conflicts cooperatively, without resorting to violence or to wars

Before humankind destroys the environment, it has the capacity for self destruction, if a new universal morality is not soon adopted.  Wars must be avoided and outlawed.

 

9. Organise public affairs according to individual freedom and responsibility, through political and economic democracy

All power comes from the people and no one - neither secular nor religious - can usurp the right to govern without the express consent of the people under constitutional democracy.

 

10.  Develop one’s intelligence and talents through education and effort, in order to reach fulfillment and happiness for the betterment of humanity and of future generations

The right to education is a fundamental humanist right, and no child, wherever he or she lives, should be deprived of access to education and training, for financial or other reasons.

 

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The symposium can be watched here.