Ever since humankind began to live in communities, for mutual protection, companionship and economies of scale, there have necessarily been laws, taboos, lines which must not be crossed, just as there have been conventions for the demonstration of respect, trust, love and loyalty. Had this not been so, societies would not have been able to exist. Life would have been chaotic, violent, uncertain, or in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. Well, more so, anyway.
Both laws of prohibition, for control of antisocial behaviour, and prescriptive codes of etiquette, fealty, chivalry or romance have derived, by and large, from systems of morality and ethics codified in religions. History shows that it matters little which particular religion pertains in a particular time and place, as long as there is some form of rule of law for the orderly conduct of human relationships. Mankind created religions out of its need for structured, peaceful societies, and also as a mythology, giving answers to inexplicable conundrums.
In any significant religion, the custodians of religious knowledge, the keepers of holy places or holy objects, those who believed themselves, or were believed by others to be in close contact with the god or gods of their choice have, ipso facto, wielded great power, and they have not been shy to use that authority to safeguard their rank and privilege.
Secular leaders, tyrants, kings and queens have historically sought to bolster their position by assuming the mantle of divinity, or claiming to rule by the authority of God.
Paradoxically, some of the most powerful socio-political systems have been atheistic – the USSR, communist China, post-communist China for instance. Genghis Khan, who ruled over probably the largest empire in history, cynically used religion to his advantage. His credo, roughly, was ‘kill the men, marry the women, adopt their religion’. Arthur Koestler, in The Thirteenth Tribe, postulates that most modern jews are descended from Genghis Khan!
Belief in the Christian God and the certainty that, win or lose, God is on one’s side might, in fact be a strategic disadvantage in the race for survival. It does rather tend to make of one a sheep among wolves.
Radical islam has no compunction about justifying its atrocities as the will of God. When a terrorist, though, shouts Alahu Akbar while launching a rocket or detonating a suicide vest, the words seem to be antithetical to the deed. Surely the islamic God, any god, must in essence be a loving creator, not a jealous, vengeful destroyer. Islamic terrorists have hijacked their own religion and perverted it for purely political ends.
The predominantly, somewhat obsessively Christian United States is not above similar sophistry. One of George W. Bush’s senior military advisors, propagandising the War on Terror, proclaimed that “It comes town to our God against their God and guess what? Our God is bigger than their God!”
I suspect that King Lear was right in his despairing utterance, “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”
From the few basic tenets necessary for peaceful cohabitation of men and women have evolved vast legislated codices, basically the fine print after the original commandments.
What, though, is to become of societies, or of the global society, when there are fewer and fewer believers in any deity or subscribers to any religion? Respect for parents, elders, teachers, for the law and for each other in general, is contingent on there being an underlying moral or ethical code. If there is no God, if religion is a sham, what then is to replace it?
In Australia, one of the most secular, most irreligious, if not atheistic nations on Earth, attempts have been made recently to teach school-children ethics, without reference to religion. Any religion, after all, simply enshrines in doctrine a set of commonsense rules for peaceful coexistence. The ethics in schools program, though, has had very limited success, due to lack of funding, lack of support by educational and governmental entities and the indifference or else religiosity of parents. This seems a great pity, to say the least, since a universal, ecumenical code of ethics is surely more than ever necessary to the survival of mankind.
Rather than face up to the moral and philosophical dilemmas of contemporary life, not to mention the looming catastrophes of overpopulation and climate change, many people either revert to fundamentalist religion, which equates in my mind to the renouncement of rational thought, or else escape into hedonism – sex, drugs, rock and roll – mental oblivion. Another popular alternative, similarly dysfunctional, is to retreat into a solitary, insulated existence, (earphones securely pugged in, avoiding eye contact with others), uninformed, narcissistic, lonely and futile.
What hope then for mankind? It may well be that humanity faces well-nigh insuperable obstacles to the survival of homo sapiens. If our species is to continue to exist, new rules for coexistence will need to be formulated, abandoning the primitive religions of our ancestors in favour of pragmatic, humane principles. Back to the drawing board!