I’m always amused whenever I hear the popular sentiment, “We’re better off now without religion” boasted by atheists/humanists as they point to prosperous and largely secular European countries today.
The following conversation illustrates beautifully why I think this boast is utter nonsense.
This conversation is between philosopher and theologian, David Bentley Hart and Terry Sanderson, president of the UK’s National Secular Society (in 2011). While the video is a few years old, I assure you these same arguments are being made by atheists/humanists today. This is an audio recording (on YouTube) but it’s well worth the listen if you’re interested. Here’s a snippet from the part two:
“In developed countries, particularly in Europe where religion has waned…I think we’ve reached a point in civilization where it’s better than it’s ever been in history. And that’s not because religion has informed it, it’s because it’s been discarded.”
Sanderson further opines…
“In places like Scandinavia, in France, where religion plays very little part in people’s everyday lives, the compassion and self-support and mutual support in those countries means that everyone has a safe and securer life than they’ve ever had before.”
Case closed, right? Getting rid of religion brings world peace and harmony among human beings. Well, not so fast. Here’s Hart’s response:
“If [Sanderson] presumes something that we recognize rather than we inherit as part of a long history of moral cultural, religious, and extra-religious thinking and instruction is a bit dubious….
But I don’t believe in the myth of progress. If he literally means that we have emerged into a period moral superiority in every sphere, I mean, yes, Western industrial societies flourish and they look after their own, they’re also complicit in many more discrete violence’s, violence’s that are hid from everyday view, wars that are not fought on their own soil, exploitation of other peoples, their resources, their economies. The use of…cheap labor in China to mass produce products to give us a level of material comfort that allow us to look after one another. Yes, we have altered the way in which we go about enacting our violence’s, we have drawn in our borders a bit, and we do in modern societies have functioning welfare states that are somewhat more provident toward our own, but the notion that we’re better off now morally, that morally we’ve advanced in an unambiguous way, and in every sense, and because we’ve thrown off religion, as if religion existed in the abstract and we’re a single monolithic reality, or as if religion were to blame for the atrocities of the twentieth century, which is the age of the great march forward of the secular national state as a project, I think it’s just a wild over-simplification, and a dangerous one, because I think it allows one a degree of a moral complacency and optimism not warranted by history….”
Sanderson accuses Hart is just being cynical in his view, and Hart counters…
“It’s a realist view to recognize that just because we tell ourselves that we’re morally superior to our ancestors when you actually get down to the ways in which our society is constructed and how it sustains itself, we discover that, no, we, in our own way, are violent and rapacious and indifferent to the sufferings of others, we just have chosen a different set of others to be indifferent towards.”
I should point out that Hart is in no way defending the long list of atrocities done in the name of God throughout religious history in general, Christian history in particular. This, he says, as I have also said, point to a much more fundamental human problem.
If the twentieth century taught us anything it’s that secular human progress is a myth. And anyone with a reasonable understanding of history knows that morality and ethics cannot be extracted from a long history of religious postulations. Our ideas of morality and ethics are ultimately borrowed from these sources. Of course, atheists/humanists will disagree. But, then again, their ontology is also incoherent, so there there you are.
Besides, these optimistic secularists make these claims at odds with some of their smarter and more intellectually honest comrades:
“When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is not self-evident… Christianity is a system.” – Fredrich Niezsche
“Those who doubt the effect of religion on morality should seriously ask the question: Just what are the immutable moral laws of secularism? Be prepared to answer, if you are honest, that such laws simply do not exist!” – John Steinrucken
Here’s part two of the conversation. I will provide links to the other four parts if you’re interested. Each part is short so you can break it up for your listening convenience. Again, it is worth the listen if you want to understand the debate.
- The New Atheist’s Myth of Secular Progress – Part One
- The New Atheist’s Myth of Secular Progress – Part Three
- The New Atheist’s Myth of Secular Progress – Part Four
- The New Atheist’s Myth of Secular Progress – Part Five