I’ll admit it, I’m a pretty big nerd, but I’m not a very well-rounded one. I can tell you all about your CPU or resistances, but am pretty lost when it comes to even the common-knowledge elements of world history and the like. This last semester, though, after one too many times not knowing who fought in the Battle of Waterloo or what happened to Archduke Ferdinand, I decided things needed to change and ordered a few nice, thick world history books. After scouring Reddit, I think I found a pretty thorough telling of world events—one of the books literally starts with various theories for how the first single celled organisms came about.
It’s interesting to think about; somehow, over the course of tens of thousands of years, humans went from being sparsely distributed semi-nomadic groups to, well, civilization as we know it. Somehow, something sparked a change in the way we thought about sharing resources and cooperation; it’s difficult to create a society with no prior inspiration, but there was evidently some tipping point that lead to the spontaneous eruption of nations and government.
There’s a very strong argument that religion was the catalyst here. Virtually all societies had some form of religion, and many early ones held priests and Gods at the center of their governments. It would appear that most ancient villages operated somewhat communally, with residents giving goods to a church, in the name of various deities. The clergy would then redistribute the goods and resolve ensuing conflicts, acting as some of the first governments (1). We see echoes of this through the ages; Pharaohs, Kings, and Emperors believe to have authority given directly from a god (if they themselves didn’t claim to be the physical manifestation of the deity), even today the United States prints “In God We Trust” on its currency and swears politicians in with various holy books.
Explicit examples include a tumultuous period during the New Kingdom in Egypt, when the famed King Tutankhamun’s predecessor, Akhenaten, tried to refocus Egyptian belief on a single God, Aten, in a ploy to draw power away from the priests of the traditional temples. He went so far as to move the capitol and change his name to more closely associate with his new deity, but underestimated the willingness of Egyptians to give up traditions. When Tut came to power, he removed “Aten” from his name and replaced it with “Amun”, symbolically refocusing on the old gods and restoring Egyptian’s faith in the Pharoah (1)(2). As the Russian Tsars transitioned to autocracy, they undermined the power of the priests and boyars in part by claiming God-given power and eventually annexing the government with the Russian Orthodox Church (3). Later in history, Alexander iii was briefly successful in justifying counter-reforms by declaring he was discussing the matter with God. Gleb Uspennskii wrote that the serfs at the time came to accept their wretched living conditions as “God’s will that thousands and millions of people struggle just as we do” (4).
Given it’s uniting power, I think that religion has played a fairly important role in human history, providing reason for moral action when science or philosophy fell short. Some, like the Clayton Christensen and the Mormon Newsroom, argue that society (especially democratic society) without some form of religion is impossible (5)(6). However, I also think that it’s served as a crutch and reasonable society is also possible without a religious backing: while it may be so that some degree of societal organization was needed to allow for logic and scientific ideas to develop and spread, a world with both society and science does not necessarily need religion to support the two.
There now exist well-researched explanations for most phenomena that was explained at some point by religion; theories about the origin of the universe, origin of life, inner workings of the human body and brain, reasoning and philosophizing about societal structure and the keys to some degree of peace. While there are certainly gaps, and while studies have shown that religion tends to considerably increase happiness (7), I don’t think that religion is necessarily the only or best solution to all societal problems. For example, when previously seemingly reasonable religious beliefs clash with newer observations, religion can significantly slow scientific progress (Galileo proposing that the earth orbits the sun (8)) and even endanger the wellbeing of humanity as a whole (the reluctance of some groups to accept that at god would create a world where global warming is possible, and the following resistance to the appropriate corrective action (9)). When peoples of different religions interact, the conflicting directives of their individual beliefs can lead to open conflicts (10).
This brings to question the relevance and role of religion in society today; historically it has been the basis of strict societal values and the reason for conflict, but at the same time religious people are 11% happier than those that are not and are significantly more likely to volunteer and donate (7). Although it seems that religion increases family togetherness and happiness, many specific religion’s doctrines directly conflict in a way that logically (although not always practically) end in some form of violence. As the world becomes smaller, and more people of clashing beliefs move closer together, how do we address belief systems that contend they are the one and only way, or suggest that other belief systems are deserving of violence or scorn (a contemporary example is the debate over whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, or whether or not bakes have to bake cakes for gay customers (11))? In a world where people of diverse faith backgrounds all hold some stake in a common government, to what extent is it helpful for religion to influence policy?
I think there exists an important balance between reaping the benefits of faith and allowing a specific religion to determine one’s political views, especially when those views wind up deciding things for people of other religions. It’s beneficial to consider whether putting a religion in front of humanity results in net good for the individual, society, and the religion or god itself; there are very few religions that would support the violence caused by allowing conflicting beliefs to lead to death and injury. Simultaneously, there are great benefits to be had from religious acceptance: Pew Research has found that religiously diverse countries are less prone to religion based bias and homogenous countries are more likely to be involved in religion based conflicts (12)(13).
I’m fairly certain there’s a way to have the best of both worlds; the social stability and acceptance that comes from living in both a diverse and a religious environment, but without the hatred and violence. The means to this end are somewhat unclear, but I think it’s important to remember that as much as one religion may think it’s correct, others feel equally as passionate. Understanding this, I’ve found, is key to understanding some of the seemingly inexplicable actions of others, and understanding why supporting, for example, legislation that is fair to all faiths is more important than lobbying solely for one’s own. While a single-minded approach to religion may have been what brought society together, I don’t think it will continue to be the optimal situation in the modern world.
1. The New Penguin History of the World: Fourth Edition, J.M. Roberts
3. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Kort
4. Revolutionary Russia: A History in Documents, Weinberg