11 July 2009

Confusing religion and politics

By Liam Carroll

The world is full of injustice, tragedy and the horror of war, famine and disease. Much of this sad state of affairs can be placed squarely at the feet of social conflict, both within communities and between communities. Several recent books in Britain and America have held religion up as one of the primary causes of these human ills. Some evolutionists however have recently argued that religion has actually helped human societies bind together and that conflict is in fact a by-product of evolutionary development, of which religion is but a part.

Evolutionary scientists like David Wilson and Pascal Boyer have recently been speculating that religion is a natural phenomenon. Religion, they say, has been so widespread and fundamental to social development that it can only be a product of our natural evolution. We have needed religion, they theorize, to hold societies together; group cohesion and internal ethical structures, as provided by religion, have been necessary for societies to function.

There is good evidence to suggest that forms of belief in the supernatural have evolved over the last few millennia; starting with a mass of supernatural beings (animism), changing to a few supernatural beings (pantheism), before winding up as a single supernatural being (monotheism). The pattern coincides, roughly speaking, with the growth of the size of communities. Large communities require greater cohesion, and therefore they need a more simplified religion with a clearer ethical structure.

The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with religion, possibly way beyond any other. They indulged in a huge amount of ritual and diverted vast resources to the building of temples, pyramids and preserving dead bodies. Despite such seemingly irrational behavior, they had an empire that survived over two and half thousand years, dwarfing the longevity of every other empire since. Interestingly, toward the later years of the empire the Pharaoh Akhnaten tried to introduce a monotheistic religion around a new single all encompassing god, Aten.

The Romans had to adopt Christianity, it can be reasonably argued, to help keep the Empire together, as Christianity had become so popular. The need for religious coherence required the Emperor Constantine to enact a sweeping change from pantheism to monotheism almost overnight, in his pursuit of a more unified Empire.

The Arab world too, propelled itself into a new age of political and scientific success under Islam, a monotheistic religion. Under a diverse pantheon of gods, they had not been so successful.

Religion, in other words, has developed hand in hand with political authority over the years, and thus its many diverse and conflicting forms can be seen to parallel many of the varied political developments over the course of history.

In the The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, the author, bemoans the irrational faith placed in supernatural beings and argues that such faith has been deeply harmful to men's development. Well, maybe, but does he believe that history would have developed along purely rational lines in the absence of religious institutions? What about the non-religious governments of Mao, Stalin or Hitler, were they superior forms of authority?

In God is not Great, the author, Christopher Hitchens mimics the argument of Professor Dawkins, only he tries to lump the secular tyrants, just mentioned, in with religion, on the basis that they involved 'faith'.

To categorize political tyrannies as religions exposes the fact that the two systems share much of the same ground; they are about organizing society around certain principles, principles in which people must have some faith, at least initially. What can seem liberating, however, can of course soon turn to tyranny and in this respect religion and politics have much in common. To deny, though, that religion should play no part in our evolution, as Darwinists like Professor Dawkins do, could in fact, ironically, be to deny the working of evolution itself.

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