Imagine There’s No Religion

The following Swedish opinion piece by Karl-Olov Arnstberg discusses whether it is possible for a society to survive without religion in the long term. We don’t yet know the answer to this question, but may soon find out as it pertains to our own society — probably not in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetime of the next generation.

Many thanks to LN for translating this op-ed from Mörkläggning:

Sunday Chronicle: Can secular societies survive?

July 24, 2022

A couple of decades ago, I followed Couplings, a British comedy series. It included Jane, an attractive but not very smart character who fell in love with a good-looking and smart Christian guy. Because of his religion, he had some reservations about extramarital sex. Jane didn’t, and decided to snag him. Open-minded as she was, she saw his Christian faith as a small bump in the road to love. She would come to terms with that. It didn’t turn out to be that simple, however. When he tried to explain to her for the umpteenth time why they couldn’t sleep together, the penny suddenly dropped for Jane. Hastily, she said: “But do you Christians really believe in that sort of thing? That stuff about God and Jesus, that’s just fairy tales!”

That Jane was not very clever was one of the points. It took time for her to understand that Christian morality was serious, that this handsome, articulate and thoughtful guy turned out to be an idiot after all. But stupid enough to believe in religious fairy tales; no she wasn’t. That was the limit. For myself, I can only conclude that I am probably as stupid as Jane.

Ingemar Hedenius, the philosopher from Uppsala who was Sweden’s best-known critic of both Christian doctrine and the Church in the 1950s and 1960s, was just as stupid. His credo was that you shouldn’t believe in anything that there are no rational reasons to believe is true.

Moving closer to our own time, a similar criticism flared up after 9/11, as religion and terror could be linked. Between 2004 and 2007, so many books critical of religion were published that a new movement took shape: neo-atheism.

The neurobiologist Sam Harris wrote The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and the journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He died a few years later, and it’s hard to believe he ended up in heaven.

What the neo-atheists have in common is that they attack religion by shooting at the beliefs themselves. The three scientists did so from the perspective of evolutionary biology, while Christopher Hitchens took a swipe at reason and was perhaps the harshest critic of all. He likened the Christian kingdom of heaven to North Korea, where citizens are forced to worship a totalitarian leader. God, the constant overseer, is genocidal, homophobic, sexist and even a sadomasochist, because he forces us to love him, even though we fear him.

These highly gifted scholars and thinkers made it as easy for themselves as Jane in Couplings. They are late to the party, by the way. Very late. Not even Nietzsche was first when he concluded a century and a quarter ago that God is dead. The 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who was a deep believer, said that if you decided to embark on a project as vast as listing all the things in the world — shoes, houses, clouds, stars, people, etc. — God would not be on that list, because God is not a created object but the creator himself. That is almost the same as saying that God does not exist.

Three years ago, the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund joined the ranks of religious critics with The Life, a book that attracted quite a bit of interest in the U.S. Instead of nailing the simplicity of religious thinkers, Hägglund tries to promote what he called secular faith, an interest in earthly and finite life. The kingdom of heaven and eternity hold no appeal. People need to get over their religious delusions and realise that everything is about what we do with our finite time together. It is not eternal bliss we lack, but social and institutional forms that enable us to live happier earthly lives.

Another of today’s notable thinkers is the psychology professor Jordan Peterson. He often includes stories from the Bible in his public lectures and discussions, but won’t say where he stands himself. He has explained that he considers it a private matter, but he has also said that he is ambivalent: “I act as if God exists and am terrified that he does.”

This is a contradictory answer, to say the least. I would be far more comfortable with the opposite formulation, “I act as if God does not exist but am terrified that he does not.” For it is an answer that is entirely in line with something we do not know, whether secular societies can survive in the long run. The Soviet Union did not, nor did Kampuchea. Whether China will do so is still too early to tell. In The Righteous Society (Free Thought 2022), Jonathan Haidt writes that societies that do away with the “exoskeleton” (good word, google it) of religion should think carefully about what will happen in the long run. We don’t actually know. The only atheist societies we know of have emerged in Europe in recent decades. They are the most inefficient societies we know of in terms of converting resources (which they have a great deal of) into offspring (which they have very little of).

One thing that distinguishes the Soviet Union, Kampuchea and China is that they have proved adept at genocide, and in many cases it is their own people who have had to put their lives on the line. Note that in these three countries, religion waited patiently for a return. In the former Soviet states, Russian Orthodoxy is once again very much alive. Buddhism is alive in Cambodia and both Taoism and Confucianism in China. Islam is also alive in China, despite the mass imprisonment, torture and persecution of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities. Amnesty International notes that this is a systematic and organised repression that should be classified as a crime against humanity.

Now imagine a society where there is no religion waiting to flare up again. Societies where not only God but religion is dead. Sweden seems to be aiming for such a future. Are purely secular societies possible? No one knows. It is not a question that I am aware of being debated, even by philosophers. For those who think they see our society committing suicide, and there are quite a few of them, it is not only a frightening but also a puzzling phenomenon. Religion may well be the exoskeleton that prevents the collapse of human societies.

The anthropologist Richard Sosis has compiled statistics on some two hundred more or less sectarian communities founded in the United States in the 19th century. They survived as long as they managed to weld the group together, displacing self-interest and solving the problem of some people freeloading. They were either religious or secular, usually socialist. Only 6% of secular collectives were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39% of religious communities. For the religious collectives, the more they demanded of their members, the longer they survived. However, this was not the case for secular collectives, most of which went under within five years.

The French philosopher Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), alongside Max Weber and Karl Marx, is considered one of the founders of sociology. He argued that Homo sapiens was in fact Homo duplex, a creature existing on two planes. The mundane plane is the ordinary daily world where we live most of our lives and worry about wealth, health and reputation. But we also have the ability to transcend and become members of something greater than ourselves. There we become part of a whole. That is the task of religious rites, to transform more or less autonomous individuals into members of a collective. It is the religious sense of belonging that matters, not the religious belief. Those who live in a religious community are embedded in a set of norms, relationships and institutions that shape their behaviour. The threat is what Durkheim called anomie, the normlessness that dissolves a society that no longer has a common moral structure. We have evolved to live, act and trust each other within common moral rule systems. When a society loses its grip on its members and lets everyone do as they please, the result is often reduced happiness, confusion and increased suicides, as Durkheim showed us more than a century ago when he published Suicide, one of the classics of sociology.

One idea that Jonathan Haidt tests is that our beliefs are often an afterthought. It justifies and legitimises our collective community. He writes in The Righteous Mind (Free Thought 2022):

If you see a hundred insects working together towards a common goal, you can be pretty sure they’re siblings. But when you see a hundred people working on a construction site or going to war, you’d be very surprised if they all turned out to be part of one big family. Humans are world champions at working together across family lines.

If Jonathan Haidt is to be believed, this is the main task of religion, to create this unique form of collective for humanity. Religion exists primarily to enable people to do together what they cannot do alone. He has put forward the metaphor that reason is a house, our own house, where we are intimately familiar with every room, every nook and cranny. But then we discover that there is a staircase up to something higher and unknown. If we take that staircase, we leave the house of reason and become part of something greater. The individual with his sharp boundaries between himself and the outside world is dissolved. We transcend reason and reach a higher and religious dimension. We become part of the “sacred”. Jonathan Haidt asks whether human societies can function without the sacred. He does not, however, have the answer.

— Karl-Olov Arnstberg

15 thoughts on “Imagine There’s No Religion

  1. “Imagine there is no religion “. The Soviet Union did that. “Imagine all the other religions including any kind of spirituality have been wiped out “. The Muslims are doing that now.

  2. The reason for the differences across the “pond” is that Europe has suffered for at least 1,500 years at the hands of those who would make Faith a matter of religious works and observances. They have largely succeeded and whatever Vati-can do is done regardless of the mental and spiritual hurt that are the consequences of their actions.
    Those who refused to accede to the religiosity that was being imposed either fled or were slaughtered before they could. The Puritans, who picked up where Martin Luther left off, fled to a wintry sheltered bay in New England. The Moravians, who believed that a personal relationship with the Lord God through Jesus Christ was necessary and ritual was an unwanted distraction, fled to Pennsylvania and met Charles Wesley on the boat that they were sailing to America in. The result was a wake-up moment for both of the Wesley brothers and a spiritual revival in the Colonies that produced the fervent faith that made the United States of America possible.
    Meanwhile, back in Europe, the peoples and the countries were sinking even deeper in the mire of their rituals and philosophies that eventually denied the existence of God with the promulgation of happenstance evolution. The horrors that have been inflicted upon this planet since the end of the 19th Century can be seen as the direct result of philosophies that exalt the self and “self-made” society regardless of the consequences to others, (inasmuch as the “others” are not sufficiently evolved to make a difference).
    Yet, the Lord God is still here and at work. He can be trusted as He is good to His Word, even to His own hurt, towards us and what He has said He has done (1×10 to the 17th) and will do. As for the Bible being a made-up book, I have seen the Scroll of Isaiah along with other lesser scrolls when they were on exhibit at the Claremont Colleges and the translation of that scroll that was finished during the late 1970s found what was published in the King James Bible to be 98.37% accurate. The New King James translation is the word for word. BTW, what happened in the past has been confirmed in multiple accounts by archeology and histories from the times during which the events occurred.
    So…you can have your philosophies that deny the existence of God. You will have the opportunity to stand before His great white throne and give an account of your thinkings.

  3. It is a common Czech saying: “I am such a die hard Atheist, that I am a bit worried God will punish me for that.”

    Atheists have a problem, IMHO, that they don’t understand what they are talking about because they are talking about something which they didn’t see from the inside, and when they begin to read the Bible, they miss a lot of “logic” because they get carried away on “cheap things” like whether unicorns and fire breathing dragons exist? The thing they generally don’t know is that unicorn is the rhinoceros. And when it comes to fire breathing dragons, I also never seen one, but I think it would be good to use a similar kind of due dilligence. The fact that we have never seen a living fire breathing dragon doesn’t mean that such animal never existed.

    “His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.” Job 41:15

  4. The author and I agree on one thing, he is indeed stupid; no doubt highly educated, but stupid none the less. The examples he all gives were actually religions. The Soviet religion was the Party, Kampuchea prostrated itself to Pol Pot, China to Mao. All houses built upon the sand. Atheists usually attempt to define themselves as secular or unbelieving to justify their desire to be god. In reality they are just another wannabe pagan. Hitler was at least honest about it. That was his fascination with Mohammedanism. Anti-Semitism was just bonus points. What he truly craved was his metamorphosis into a demi-god at the head of an eternally regenerating quasi-military society dedicated to conquest, which Mohammed had successfully pulled off, but only by that seed being planted first in the minds of a desert pagan society, much like Lenin’s, “Give me a child for 4 years and I shall plant seeds that will never be uprooted.”

    Virtually all of the author’s authorities are of a nihilist bent and so seeking justification for their own deification, even if only in their own minds.

    “It is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.”
    ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn


      Case in point. The hubris of this dross is so over the top it’s difficult to imagine someone so unself-aware. They don’t realize there is already a movement for exactly what is proposed. Of course the original promoters shortened “communitarian atheism”, because that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, to “communism” which is not truly an economic theory but rather a societal grift, a leveraging of grievance rooted in jealousy for political power; and, like this author, the leaders viewed themselves as possessing god-like omni-prescience. While absolute political power is not the same as omni-potency it will do to put people on their knees in obeisance, which is the point of the grift.

    • You got it absolutely spot on! People who are stripped off spirituality have a profound emptiness in them. As nature hates a vacuum, anything fills in it. No wonder, wokeism is a godless religion and Islam is a political ideology masquerading as a religion

  5. I get along just fine without religion.
    I thought about it. So far, I see an incubator matrix around me. And I don’t like her. I don’t think my life experience makes any sense. I do not think that my so-called. the soul has some meaning.
    We just have to help each other get through it all and not hurt others.
    I need accurate information about how everything works around, and not an incomprehensible belief in a fictional creature. Some Eastern religions speak of Transcendence. Someday I’ll check it out. But I’m not sure.
    Christianity seems to me unconvincing, and Judaism and Islam disgusting – because of the ideas of superiority.
    I don’t think it’s because of the atheistic childhood. If my childhood had been religious, I would have grown into a blasphemer. Such is my nature.

    I am not afraid of God. I don’t do anything to be afraid of. If I do something wrong, pangs of conscience begin, worse than any hell. Yes, if you look at the abomination that people do when they tell us about God, then compared to them I am a newborn baby with my petty sins.

    Greetings to you, Immanuel Kant – with your starry sky and moral law!

  6. Every human civilisation was based on a religious belief, which in fact determined its identity. Attempts to build a society on a purely rationalist, materialist foundation have never succeeded.

    The USSR was strong as long as most Soviet people continued to live according their traditional religions or at least to the basic moral teachings of them. In the census of 1936, the majority of the rural and a very significant minority of urban population openly declared themselves religious (and many more concealed their fatih). And during World War II, there was an upsurge in religious faith and practice in the USSR.

    But as soon as most Soviets lost their faith, the USSR began to rot alive. Convinced materialists simply did not understand why they should work properly, give birth to and raise children, take care of their old parents, refrain from stealing etc. while having an egotistic, individualistic life style was much more comfortable.

    In the modern West we see the same triumph of selfishness, hedonism and immaturity, including in the highest echelons of power. Besides, in the past, Christianity – the religion that gave meaning to Western society – checked the development of destructive insane ideologies which are now running riot.

  7. Isn’t that the reason why it’s called faith?
    If everything is explained away in a rational way, then there can be no humanity.
    I’m what the great Religions, coming out of the Middle East, would call a Pagan, closer to Nature by being a part of it instead “ruling” over it, but I would never dream of forcing my beliefs onto others.

    The problem I’m having with RELIGION, is, that it’s always a creed from the Top down by immense force and if I may add, invented by scoundrels after they’ve met the gullible.
    And haven’t we seen exactly this phenomena since 2020 again?

    I’m not against personal beliefs, but I’m against forcing those onto others through the might of the “State”.

    • “If everything is explained away in a rational way, then there can be no humanity.”

      Why? I agree with what you said above wholeheartedly, but this single statement I have a problem with. I’d say it is beyond our current knowledge to answer this. It’s even a non-starter, because we don’t at all know how to define ‘humanity’ in an objective way, everybody (esp. the religious) has a different view on it. And lastly, it’s also illogical since only a rational explanation gives any meaningful information, and what does “explaining away” even mean here? Does it vanish the moment someone utters the correct answer, like the stars in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God”? It’s one of these sentences which sound nice to quote but that don’t make any sense at all.

  8. Fictitious stories produced for TV are usually made with an agenda. The choices for the roles and starting point of the storyline, intelligent believer and stupid unbeliever, are telling.

    The actual issue is, can a society survive in which not everybody subscribes to the same narrative. Whether that be religion or something else doesn’t matter, difference is a recipe for conflict and to handle it takes a degree of maturity we as a collective are falling short by a wide margin.

    The greatest hindrance I see is that people don’t just take a belief as belief, which would mean to remain open-minded to other theories. Instead, people build their identities on their beliefs, religion or ideology. Nobody just says “I believe in God” and leaves it at that, no, they say “I _am_ Christian”, Muslim, communist, or whatever. Therefore, any criticism of a belief system is taken as an attack on someone else’s identity. And they do take it personal. (As a sidenote, the English language at least can distinguish between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, a tool which German doesn’t have.)

  9. Well thats a fine piece of work, Baron. Religion as glue of a society. Maybe thats true from the pov of a society as a whole.

    But I can only smile of your article because there is still no proof that god exists and I doubt that science will ever come up with such a proof.

    This means that a rational man has to believe that god does not exist. Many people (not all of course) need such made up myth, religions and idelogies to feed their brain.

    So in conclusio. Even if it is “good” for society if god is considered as real, which I dont deny, this “goodness” is still based on a lie.

    • “This means that a rational man has to believe that god does not exist.”

      So John Paul II was not a rational man?

      I have a Masters Degree from Harvard. Other people I know believe I am rational. I believe I am rational. I question my Christian Faith all the time but I rationally choose to believe in the Christian story. I have not heard or read any person prove to me that Jesus Christ did not exist nor live the life as exactly put forth in the bible.

      I am perfectly happy if you disagree and I will just hope you yourself will believe one day.

  10. ——- Original Message ——-
    On Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022 at 14:25,
    To: LN
    From: Karl-Olov Arnstberg:

    Checked the comments.
    Long – from undoubted believers in God.
    I don’t think it would look that way with
    Swedish comments.

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