So, the other day I wrote about religiously motivated hate, how that has impacted my own spirituality, and how that plays into the Christian response to the events in Orlando. Naturally, I got a combox full of atheists claiming that the way to solve these problems is simply to do away with religion.
It’s a very familiar old trope. Imagine a world with no heaven, no God, no religion, no countries, nothing to kill for, nothing to die for, and we would all live life in peace.
The problem with this line of thinking is fairly straightforward: what this particular form of naive atheism envisions is a world in which the things that are worth dying for are cropped away from human life in the hopes that if we simply eliminate the things that incite strong feelings of loyalty and common identity in human beings we will be able to live in harmony with one another.
The experiment has, admittedly, never been tried – for the very good reason that the majority of people can see from the get go that it would be a suicidally idiotic project. There are good reasons why people believe in things bigger than themselves. The most obvious of these is that the existential burdens of human life are astronomically greater than any individual is capable of dealing with without external support. The feeling that life has meaning, that you’re a part of something that transcends the limitations of the individual, that your existence has a significance that extends beyond the horizon of mortality, and that your choices matter in a moral sense (rather than just a utilitarian sense) is essential in order to answer the question “Why do I not simply kill myself.”
Why is this? Well, the answer to that kind of depends on whether you believe that there is actually a higher power, or whether you don’t. If you think that there is a God, or that nature possesses some kind of quasi consciousness, or that the universe functions in an intentional way, or that there are extra-material beings of some sort directing the whole show, then the answer is simple. Whomever created us created us intentionally, for a purpose, and since this purpose proceeds from something which is objectively greater than myself it is capable of giving meaning to my life.
If you don’t believe in God, then the answer is evolutionary: we are a species that could not have survived, and which still cannot survive, as a collection of mostly isolated individuals. We may be the top predator, but we don’t have the same ability that, say, many large cats possess to live mostly solitary lives, coming together only to mate. From the very earliest stages of our development, human survival has always depended on us working together, forming collectives that are capable of performing feats (like defending a camp from gorillas, or bringing down a mammoth) that no single individual could achieve their own. From this perspective, the capacity to form strong group identities is an evolved characteristic, and our brains reward group behaviour for the same reason that they reward work and sex: because these are survival behaviours.
Nor have we, in any sense, evolved past this need for communal identity and collective action. Today, probably even more than in the prehistoric past, human beings are incapable of surviving on their own. The average person, if they find themselves lost and isolated in the wilderness without other people will not survive a month.
Okay, okay. So people need people — but does it necessarily follow that people need to divide themselves into subgroups? I mean, couldn’t we all just be part of one big human family, with no divisions, everybody holding hands and sharing everything and loving everybody else?
Here’s the thing. The single most effective, long-lived and successful attempt to achieve this is a religion called Christianity. Among its primary, fundamental tenets are: that humans all share the same origin, and the same destiny; that God cares equally for people of all lands, all races, all social classes; that in Christ there is neither “gentile nor Jew, servant nor free, woman nor man”; that when somebody strikes or attacks you, you are to offer love, healing and forgiveness rather than retaliation; that you are to love your neighbour as yourself, and that your neighbour includes everybody, even your enemies; that all goods are made for the enjoyment of all, that everyone has an obligation to contribute and also a right to receive from the goods of the earth and the work of human hands; that every human being has a right not only to live, but also to be loved and welcomed into communion with the whole Church — and that the Church will do her utmost to invite the whole human race to sup at this table of mutual support and charity.
And how has that gone? Well, we can see how it’s gone. The Christian message has been historically perverted to justify pretty much every conceivable form of exclusion, violence, judgment, condemnation, narcissism, power-lust, greed, hatred, pride, self-superiority, unforgiveness, conquest and division.
But it has also done more, historically, to bring about something like the goal of universal human communion than any other institution. It has outlived and outperformed pretty much every other system that has tried to guide human beings towards the goal of joining together in a single community that encompasses all humankind. There are some groups that have come closer to being perfectly peaceful, a scattered few idyllic communes, but most of these have been short lived and have only appealed to a very few people, usually only for a season of their lives. Even here, the idealistic communes of the Church (monasteries and religious communities) have a larger membership and endure for a much longer time.
And the non-religious movements that have tried to secure perfect equality, fraternity and liberty among men? They have not exactly brought about John Lenin’s starry eyed dream. Without the patient, long-term vision of a religious movement to guide the quest for human perfection it becomes necessary to try to impose it, always against great resistance, always with bloodshed.
This is because the problem is not religion. Nor, for that matter, is the problem communism, or libertarianism, or democracy, or monarchy, or science, or philosophy, or any of the other things that we might condemn for having aimed high, shot low, crashed and burned a thousand times over the course of human history. Any of these systems would work beautifully, if you could only remove the human heart from the equation. The problem with all of the ideals that we devise is that in practice these ideals must be practiced by us, by humans, as we actually are and not as we would like to imagine we could be.