Would the World Be Better Without Religion?

A Facebook friend of mine posted his response to a poll: “Would the world be better without religion?” two days ago, generating, to date, 3,627 comments—by far the most I’ve ever seen for any single Facebook posting, and remarkable for one with 481 “Friends.”

While I haven’t read all of the comments, the general flavor seems to be a confusion between “religion” and “theocracy.” “Religion,” after all, is simply a set of beliefs, and as C.S. Lewis shows in his brilliant book, The Abolition of Man, nearly every civilization in the history of the world has shared a belief in Natural Law, or what Lewis calls the Tao, from “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you,” (Confucius), and “I have not slain men” (ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead), to “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (Judaism), and “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” (Christ).

All in all, not bad bases from which to conduct one’s life.

Indeed, I’ve yet to have anyone successfully explain to me how a world without “religion” would operate by anything other than purely situational ethics—from whence would one derive a concept of “Right,” much less “Rights”?

So why this hostility to “religion”? A much-repeated phrase is something along the lines of “religion is responsible for all wars.” Yet even a cursory review of a list of wars exposes this as patently false:

  • Hundred Years War: No
  • Revolutionary War: No
  • Civil War: No
  • Boer War: No
  • World War I: No
  • World War II: No
  • Vietnam War: No

And despite the much-ballyhooed framing of the current “War on Terror” as a “clash of civilizations,” “jihad,” or any other such, even the vast majority of Americans who support its prosecution do so under the mistaken belief that it protects Americans’ security rather than on religious grounds.

It thus seems more likely to me that the multiple comments were excited by confusing “religion” with “theocracy”: the intermingling of Church with State. As C. S. Lewis put it in his essay, “Is Progress Possible?: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State

I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ it lies, and lies dangerously.

(He continues to presciently add: “On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in.”)

Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God provides a fascinating take on the change that occurred when Constantine made Christianity the official State religion, setting off a continuing struggle between the “Church of Power,” vs. the “Church of Piety.” The American Founders’ “Separation of Church and State” was thus as rooted in an understanding of the corrupting influence of the State on the Church, as any fear of a Church corrupting the State—and both are well worth guarding against.

Face it: the State does not itself function well as a protector of the poor, suffering, downtrodden; and most States have been primarily a deliverer of death, privation, famine, destruction. The most effective killing machines have been those that banned religion: China, the Soviet Union, Cambodia. Meanwhile, the individuals who have stood up to challenge the evils being perpetuated, champion the oppressed, and deliver relief to the suffering, have overwhelmingly been motivated by and drawn their courage from their belief in God and the need to fight for their fellow man—in short, religious beliefs. From William Wilberforce’s successful campaign against the British slave trade, to the Salvation Army’s fight against sexual trafficking since the 19th century and extensive social services and disaster relief provided worldwide, to John Paul II’s consistent attacks against oppressive regimes everywhere, to the much-admired Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu.

Yes, there are plenty of examples of evil-doers invoking the name of God to justify their actions. But are these isolated individuals the source of “religion” as the root of all evils in the world? Or are the truly large-scale horrors primarily rooted in divorcing ethics (what is right to do) from science and society: Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest” evolving through eugenics and Hitler’s Aryan supremacy and “final solution,” to China’s one-child policy’s forced abortions and infanticide; to regimes killing millions of their own citizens while heralded as great leaps forward; to acceptance of the argument that the end justifies the means to perpetuate mass bombings; to a relentless quest to wrest autonomy from the individual and invest it in the State.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently summed it up:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

It seems to me the world rather needs more religion: more declarations that every individual is a beloved child of God not to be indentured, bombed, tortured, enslaved, or generally interfered with. And if indeed “God is Love,” then even John Lennon might have thought better of “and no religion too” as the answer to a hurting world.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
Full Biography
Beacon Posts by Mary Theroux
  • Catalyst
  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org