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Religion: is it forever?

By Peter Bowden - posted Wednesday, 22 July 2009


Religion: is it forever? These few words are a trial run for a talk at Sydney’s philosophy café, www.philoagora.com, in October. They argue that religious beliefs will be with us - the human race - until the end of our time on this planet.

My opponent will, I presume, argue that common sense, human intelligence and rational thought will win out in the long term. People will eventually give up religious practices. After all, church attendance is dropping in the Western religions even now.

Before I start, however, I need to state that I am a Huxley Agnostic, tending largely to agree with Richard Dawkins. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, coined the term agnosticism, presumably from the Greek, agnostos, unknown or unknowing. He stated that we do not know whether God exists or not. I certainly do not know. And that we cannot prove it either way. But I do believe that an all-powerful and loving God who listens to our prayers is highly unlikely.

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But that is God. This argument is about religion. I have five reasons that state that the rational beliefs in atheism will never entirely win out, even in the very long term: for they are a total misunderstanding of human nature. The five are:

One: We have had religious beliefs in all communities and all races since the beginnings of historical knowledge. I suspect, in fact, since our early evolutionary days, and the development of a brain large enough to understand the concept of cause and effect, and the ability to assign intention to the actions of others. The reasons are many: fear of the unknown, need for assistance, for consolation, our spirituality, as well as punishment for our supposed sins.

Two: Religion is rational .It creates a community, a sense of belonging, a reason for existence. When spirituality, or even for some religions, mysticism, is coordinated into a belief system and a series of moral expectations, total rationality is at work. Communities are social vehicles, coherent, protective of members, offering assistance to and engagement with others in the group.

In the Christian religion we only have to look at the Bible and its values for a community. The baby born in a stable; fury at merchants in the Temple; the Sabbath as a day of rest; the truth that shall make you free; the parables of Good Samaritan; the Prodigal Son; and others. The Sermon on the Mount; blessed are the meek …

Or Jainism, 1,000 years earlier stated an overriding rule of life - not to hurt one another. To win all hearts and minds, atheism will need to replace these values.

Three: Religion offers consolation in times of great suffering. And possibly the greatest of these times is with the loss of a loved one. All religions have an after-life. They simply tell us that our loved ones are not gone from us - that we will join them again. The Catholic Church has the day of Resurrection. The Pentecostal type churches are much more explicit: you will meet your loved one again in the after life. He or she is not dead. When we ourselves go, we are also not dead.

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I would be the last to deny that consolation to those who pray. The ceremony must be included in the consolation - the gathering of family and friends, the prayers of farewell, the hymns, the eulogies, the liturgy. Death is an occasion. For us who are left behind, it is worthy of some ceremony.

I might add that I suspect that the Christian beliefs in the reward of heaven or the fear of hell do not rank at all highly in peoples’ consciousness. We see them for what they are - illogical and somewhat inconsistent. I also doubt that many, even of believers, acknowledge that they are destined for hell. Perhaps hell was created for the same reason as the Inquisition, or the persecutions - to encourage, even force compliance with the ruling dogma.

Four: Religious beliefs are wired into us. Robin Dunbar, “one of the most respected evolutionary psychologists in Britain”, points out the research that shows people with religious beliefs get sick less often than the rest of us, and when they do, they recover more quickly. They also get over major surgery more quickly. The research is extensive, although not universally accepted. Reasons may lie in the reduction in stress or the greater levels of comfort open to a believer. If the research is valid, it also demonstrates that religion complies with the conditions for an evolved behaviour: a practice that has existed over centuries, across all cultures, that has resulted in longer lives, and greater numbers of children with an affinity to that behaviour. Dunbar doubts the human ability to do without religion.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is formerly Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University and now Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Sydney University. He is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Sydney University, working on institutional ethics, runs with others a Philosophy Cafe (Philo Agora) in Sydney and is on the National Committee of Whistleblowers Australia.

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