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Can we do without religion?

Christ the Redeemer. Credit: Hermes Images/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Christ the Redeemer. Credit: Hermes Images/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

June 20, 2019   4 mins

There’s a species of assassin bug called Acanthapsis petax that has an unsavoury habit – it wears the remains of its eviscerated prey as camouflage.

Shopping centres can be a bit like that. Many are constructed behind the facades of much older buildings. Though architecturally bland on the inside, these complexes sometimes preserve historically interesting features on the outside – especially if you look above ground level.

The other day, I was exiting out the back of a 1980s era retail complex and stopped to look at the red brick Victorian facade. On the inside, the likes of Topshop and River Island were jostling for attention, but on the outside there was a stone set in the wall, on which was inscribed: “To the Glory of God.”

I’m not sure what purpose the original building served. It didn’t look like a church, but might have been a church school. Then again it might not have been any sort of ecclesiastical building. In the Victorian era, the secular could be religious too.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a commercial or municipal building going up with any such dedication. Our society may retain the legacy of an older, more religious past – an established church, bishops in the House of Lords, a monarch “by the Grace of God” – but behind the facade its purposes are profoundly materialistic.

Does the emptying out of what used to animate our civilisation actually matter? After all, as individuals we can still search for the meaning of life – and practice whatever faith we might find without the distortions and constraints of social convention.

And as for society as a whole, not paying much attention to the God stuff doesn’t seem to have done us too much harm. On the whole, there’s been no breakdown of public order; most of us live our lives in peace and prosperity; and on various metrics we continue to make collective progress.

Perhaps, it was ever thus. Rather than depending on a certain, commonly-held set of beliefs, we might theorise that the religiosity of, say, the Victorians, was actually the product and emblem of the society they’d built for themselves – the icing not the cake.

There’s a debate in academia as to whether the idea of “Big Gods” – i.e. all-powerful, all-seeing beings who lay down moral standards and mete out divine justice – came before or after the development of complex human societies. Back in April, I unpacked an article about some research that concludes that belief in Big Gods is a development not the foundation of big societies.

However, not everyone agrees. In a fascinating piece for Nautilus, Brian Gallagher interviews a researcher who comes to the opposite conclusion :

“Joseph Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, sees it differently. He contends that moralizing gods spurred societal complexity because belief in moralizing gods leads to success in intergroup competition.”

Henrich argues that belief in a moralising God encourages individuals to co-operate with people beyond their immediate circle:

“We’ve done experiments, where we had people divide sums of money between themselves or a member of their own village, and someone else in a more distant community. What we find is people who believe in gods that are more punishing, or more moralizing, are more equitable in how they allocate money between themselves or a member of their village in these more distant communities.”

But what about the research that draws upon Sheshat – the global history database which systematically records the social development of cultures across the world? Doesn’t it show that Big God religion emerges after the founding of big societies? Henrich responds by referring to the problem of “forward bias” – which arises from the incompleteness of historical and archeological records:

“For example, if we find evidence that humans had fire 200,000 years ago, we can be sure that, as a statistical fact, unless we think we found the actual first time anyone ever made a fire, that we’re finding it later than it actually appeared. So dates in archeology and history are always forward biased, at least statistically. One of the analyses we did was just to minimally correct for forward bias by moving back the smallest amount of time possible in the Seshat database, which is one century. When you push things back one century, it reverses the results.”

So, religion enabled complex societies, not the other way round. But, in turn, complex societies enable the development of enduring secular institutions – such as systems of law and law enforcement, not to mention deeply enculturated standards of civility and other stabilising social taboos. Henrich compares traditional religion to climbing a ladder – once society gets to the top it doesn’t need it any more.

Or does it? Contemporary western societies have kicked the ladder away, but might we yet fall from grace? Can the institutions and understandings that underpin our way of life endure? It’s too early to tell. Things that took centuries to build up usually take a long time to decay – even when neglected. As Adam Smith once said “there is a lot of ruin in a nation.”

Perhaps the best place to look for portents is in those areas of our common life that are most weakly connected to our civilisational foundations. The most obvious example is digital culture – which is entirely the invention of (post) modernity and a domain that floats free of the established rules of social interaction. ‘People wouldn’t behave like that real life’, one hears people say of social media.

I’ll leave you to do decide whether that’s an encouraging sign.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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