If atheism became the dominant belief system, would society become more peaceful ? Some people point to religion being a major cause of disruption and war. To paraphrase John Lennon – would we have anything to kill or die for without religion?
According to 2001 census statistics, over 8.5 million (1) people in the UK class themselves as atheist or non religious. There were also nearly 400,000 Jedis (2) thanks to some well publicised campaigns in the media.
Atheism can include non-religious, agnostic or other theist ideologies. It can be incorporated into part of other belief systems, for example, Buddhists, Humanists and Taoists (and Jedi) who can also be atheist. Estimating the number of atheists in the general population is therefore difficult, but there is no denying that ‘official’ declared atheism is on the increase, particularly in the UK and Europe.
That religion can be a causative agent in war is without doubt. The conflict in Northern Ireland; 9/11 and the Indian riots (2,4) are just a few examples of conflict which would not exist without religion to create separation between otherwise similar people.
However, it is our differences in general that instigate conflict and not religion itself. Both World Wars I and II would not have been avoided by removing religion from the equation. Religion can be used and twisted by those with their own agenda to justify their actions to others. (5)
Religion has always been a substantial part of our culture. Religion brings a comfort to some people’s lives and can act as a ‘security blanket’ from problems and fears. Having faith can be the driving force behind a sense of charity and good-will towards others.
“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them…Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God.”
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814(6)
As Jefferson observed, a lack of religious belief does not exclude morality. The opposite could be argued as well : not believing in an after-life makes the life we have finite and so even more precious. Predominantly secular societies such as Europe and Japan can also have low crime rates (7), which can perhaps be best explained by the dominance of our innate sense of right and wrong, which long predates any religious text.
Genetic tendencies for altruism have existed as long as Homo sapiens has been living in groups(3). It is hard wired into our brains to want to help others – it improves our odds for survival. Although this tendency is exhibited most strongly with relatives, we also behave this way to some extent with complete strangers. Altruistic genes survived in our genome fairly unchanged to the present today, which perhaps indicates their value to us as a species. Co-operation is part of our biological make-up and is evident in our close primate relations and in some other animals.
To assume that a completely secular society would be without conflict is naive. Conflict will always exist while there is competition for resources such as land, food and fuel. Pressure on our dwindling resources will continue to grow due to a burgeoning population increasing demand.
If humanity could concentrate more on our similarities, we may be able to one day reconcile our differences. If we could co-operate to tackle our shared problems , we could perhaps prevent future conflict, and finally be able to ‘imagine all the people, living life in peace.’
1. Office of National Statistics, Focus on Religion, National Statistics Online 2006, retrieved 05/05/2011 www.statistics.gov.uk/census2001
2. British Humanist Association, What is Happening, The Census Campaign, 2011, retrieved 05/05/2011 http://census-campaign.org.uk/what-is-happening/
3. Dawkins R, The God Delusion, Transworld Publishers, London, 2006.
4. National Secular Society, Challenging Religious Privilege, http://www.secularism.org.uk/, 2011, retrieved 06/05/2011, http://www.secularism.org.uk/religioncauseswarsitdoesntsolvet.html
5. Price T, Religion causes Wars, http://www.bethinking.org, 2011, retrieved 07/05/2011, http://www.bethinking.org/suffering/religion-causes-wars.htm
6. Jefferson T, letter to Thomas Law, http://teachingamericanhistory.org, 2008, retrieved 07/05/2011, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1506
7. Powell A.R, The Value Of Life, What Atheism Offers, http://www.aaronrosspowell.com, 2008, retrieved 06/05/2011, http://www.aaronrosspowell.com/blog/what-atheism-offers-the-value-of-life/
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