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Have we outgrown religion?

This is the talk I gave as my contribution to the question "Have we outgrown religion?" in a debate held during Interfaith Week 2011 at Sydney University. The debate, part of the Sydney University Union's Tuesday Talks series, took place on Tuesday, October 11, and the other participants were Greg Clarke (founder of the Centre for Public Christianity and CEO of the Bible Society), Scott Stephens (Editor, Religion and Ethics for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's web site), Avril Alba (Director of Education at the Sydney Jewish Museum) and barrister Martin Hadley (a friend of mine and fellow committee member of Australian Skeptics).

I am an atheists so you probably think that all I have to do is say is "Yes" and then sit down. In fact, this is a serious question and deserves a serious answer.

I'm going to look at four reasons for the existence and evolution of religion in society. We are social animals, we have evolved to live in tribes, and as far as I know no anthropologist has ever discovered a society which did not have some form of religion, so there must be some reasons why religion was important in our past. The question is whether it is still important.

The four reasons for the invention of religion are:

  • To explain nature – why does the sun come up every day, what are stars for, why are there storms, droughts and floods, how do plants grow, why do we get sick?
  • To provide rules, structure, hierarchy and political policies to societies.
  • To provide a common culture for a society, with shared values, ceremonies, rites of passage and identity.
  • To answer the spiritual questions – why are we here, where do we go when we die, is there an afterlife, what is good?

The nature question is settled and the only place that religion still plays a part is in the rejection of science by fringe groups such as young-Earth creationists or the faith healings claimed by charlatans. Every new discovery in science or medicine reduces the places for gods to hide or to influence events. People still pray for rain or for disease to be cured but when it rains or the patient gets better there is almost always a better explanation than "God did it". Yes, there are things we still don't fully understand (and might never fully understand), but calling on the god of the gaps isn't really an option any more. We have outgrown religion as an explanation of the natural world.

Nobody wants to live in a theocracy any more. If I polled the people in this room I doubt that anyone would want to repeal the section of our Constitution which expressly prohibits the establishment of an official religion. Australia has been lucky in that it was formally created as a secular state, with citizens free to practise whatever religion they wanted to provided it doesn't violate any of the other rules. We frown on animal sacrifices, for example, and forbid practices like genital mutilation of girls, human sacrifices and "honour" killings. We don't care that any of these are part of your heritage – don't bring them here.

Yes, we have debates on public policy where people's religious views play a part, such as on abortion, same-sex marriage or the recent discussions about school chaplains or ethics classes, but generally religion is given no more influence than any other form of opinion. On the big issues facing society, such as climate change, health, education and the future of work, religion plays almost no part in the debate and religious leaders have the same input as any other citizens.

Things might be different in other places (it is undeniably different in theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia) and an example would be the USA, nominally a country with a strict separation of church and state but a place where nobody can be considered for the position of President without avowing strong Christian beliefs. This has even reached the absurd position where candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2012 election are arguing over who is more Christian than whom, with fingers being pointed at a Mormon for not being Christian enough. In Australia the first Australian-born Governor General was Jewish and two out of the last five Prime Ministers have been atheists (although they used the word "agnostic" just to be safe). In Australia, at least, we appear to have outgrown religion as part of the political and legal systems, and the remaining vestiges such as prayers to open Parliament are just historical monuments like the Union Jack in the corner of our flag.

People will keep saying that Australia is a Christian country, but the facts say otherwise. Marriage is a civil matter everywhere with no requirement to attend a church for any form of ceremony. Unmarried couples have many of the rights endowed by formal marriage and divorce is a matter for the couple involved with none of the concepts of sin or right-or-wrong which used to affect the process. (Religion still has an influence in the opposition to legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but this will change and society will not collapse.)

Many of the other social ties that religion provided are no longer relevant. We have clubs, societies and associations to join, we have entertainment options that weren't dreamt of a century or two back, we can travel long distances away from home without any problems. Once, the first permanent building in a settlement was usually a church, now a new development will include space for schools and shopping malls but churches will come after the houses, if they come at all. When we travel to strange towns we are more likely to ask when the Rotary meeting is on or where the bowling club is than to look for a church to pray in. (As an aside, if you go to live in a small country town it is often useful to find a church to attend even if you are a non believer. Many other members of the congregation will be there just for the social life too. Some of these towns don't yet have shopping malls or Rotary, although they always seem to have a bowling club and a pub.) We seem to have outgrown the need for religion to be the major organising factor in our social life and interactions.

The final use for religion is spiritual. It explains the questions that science can't answer. Why are we here? Where do we go after we die? For me, these questions aren't really that important, but I can see why they might be important to others. I was dead for billions of years before I was born, and I expect my afterlife to be much the same. Our existence in the universe is something that can probably never be satisfactorily explained, but the fact is we are here and have to make the best of it. I'm happy for religious people to use gods to answer these questions if it provides them with comfort and certainty. If it does this, then they have not outgrown religion and might not even need to do so.

So one out of four reasons for religion might still have validity, but I submit that for all the other reasons we have, or should have, outgrown religion in our lives.

After the talks had been given questions from the floor were invited and I was asked about mutual respect. Here is an approximation of my answer.

The fact that the five people on this panel disagree about certain things while agreeing about others but we can still have a discussion like this implies respect. The very idea of "interfaith" implies respect for the views of others. All of us can learn from what other people say and believe, and even though we might not agree with them we have to accept that they hold these beliefs sincerely. We are, after all, talking about something that can be neither proved nor disproved – the existence of gods. The very definition of faith means "belief without evidence".

While I don't believe in a god I have no problem with people who do, provided that they don't use their religion to harm anyone. (Remembering that nobody lives in total isolation from other people, so even matters which might seem to be intensely personal might still have bad effects on others.) I do, however, ask for respect in return. I find the suggestion that atheists must be totally immoral as offensive as I am sure religious people find generalisations about terrorism or witch burning. The fact that I derive my moral philosophy from different books is just an example of the diversity that humans exhibit. We all want the same things in life. We just have different ways of finding and explaining those things.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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