The 11th Anniversary of the 9-11 attacks seems like an appropriate time to reflect on John Lennon’s words and imagine what our lives would be like with no religion. Most atheists already know what it means to have no religion, at least on a personal level. But what about society as a whole? Can we dare to envision a world without corrupt, repressive, separatist dogma? I certainly hope so.
What would we be missing if religions vanished tomorrow? Charity? If you currently believe in a god and you donate your time and money to doing good deeds, would you stop those charitable endeavors? Is the only reason that you donate to charity to win points with your god? There are numerous charities that do wonderful work with absolutely no religious affiliation. Youtube atheists are currently involved in their annual fundraising effort for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). These men and women go into some of the worst areas of the world to bring medical help to the poor. They do it without any appeals to a deity. Oxfam is another secular charity that is working to bring food to starving people around the world. Not by praying, but by getting off their butts (or their knees) and working to educate people in poverty stricken regions and help them start sustainable economies.
What about Community? If tomorrow morning everyone woke up and realized that there were no gods and closed up all the churches, would you really have nothing more to do with all the friends you made in church? Do you need a god to tell you to love your neighbor? Do you need a god in order to get together with people in your community and have a barbecue?
What about law and order? Without the fear of hell or the promise of heaven, would you become violent or dangerous? Do you really need threats or bribes to keep you from doing bad things? Or do you know that something is wrong, because you would not like someone to do it to you? Do you feel empathy for your fellow humans? Do you value fairness?
So, without religion we would still have Charity, Community and Lawfulness. What would we lose? There will always be terrible, selfish people that want to hurt others. But what about good people who are convinced that they must hurt others in order to appease their god? What about people that would have grown up to care for others if they hadn’t been taught their whole lives that they, and everyone else in the world, were born evil and sinful because of something a dirt man and a rib woman did thousands of years ago?
People don’t just wake up one morning and decide to fly a plane into a building. It takes years of indoctrination…years of being told that without this god or that prophet or the other dogma they are evil and worthless. It takes years of being told that their religion is the one true religion and all others are heresy…apostasy…wickedness. It takes a lifetime of being told that eternal torture is the act of a loving father.
Life is too precious. We are biologically wired to preserve it at all costs….our own and others. People don’t wake up one morning and decide to kill and terrorize. They are taught to do it. Every myth about mankind’s failure makes destroying our fellow humans a little less horrific. Every dogmatic claim that this ritual or that rule will absolve you of any guilt makes the thought of personally taking another life a little more palatable. Every claim that this group knows the secrets of the universe and all else are damned makes it a little bit easier to view those outside of our nation… our church… our kinship group…as Other…as non-human.
Without religion feeding our xenophobic tendencies, perhaps the human race can begin to shake off the evolutionary baggage of forming exclusive groups. It worked well for our hunter/gatherer ancestors who had to protect themselves from outside tribes competing for the same resources, but we have progressed much faster than we can evolve. The world is smaller today. Last week I chatted via skype with my in-laws in Malaysia. A few hundred years ago I would not even have known that they existed. Today I can log onto a computer and chat as if they are in the same room.
Technology has made us a global kinship group. Religion may have been a useful adaptation for strengthening the bonds within small communities, but we have grown. We no longer depend on small tight knit communities just to find food and chase away predators. Our community now reaches around an entire planet. I have nearly 7 billion kin and I’d like to get to know them. No myths necessary.