What If… There Were No Religions?
January 9, 2008 (25 Responses)
I WAS READING the comment trail for an article I wrote recently entitled “Alien Anthropology: Religion Is Dead But Faith May Yet Prevail” when it sparked off a few chaotic thoughts in my noggin and got me thinking about a hypothetical scenario. It’s a simple enough question to ask, but the implications for any answer are likely to be far reaching and widely debated.
I’m not looking to evolve a perfect answer here folks, but I do think it might be interesting to see what perspectives you can bring to this topic, so please do feel free to comment on it. And so to the question at hand…
What if there were no religions?
Imagine a world without religion, any religion; what would it be like? Not a world where religions suddenly ceased to exist, rather a scenario where they never began in the first place. Would we be better or worse off as a result?
Please don’t just run to your comfortable corners with this one folks and spew out any practiced positions if you can avoid it, rather take some time to examine the possible implications and then let rip with your views. To kick things off hereÂ are my initial thoughts on the subject.
I decided to look at some key topics and examine if they would be significantly changed or not in light of the hypothesis and to be honest (speaking as an agnostic) I was quite surprised by the results myself because I would have predicted a completely different outcome…
Relgious fundamentalism is an oft usedÂ phrase these days, particularly in relation to either the extreme Christian right or the various middle eastern islamic factions, but if religions didn’t in fact exist would we still have fundamentalism as a concept?
In a paper entitled “Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival” William O. Beeman writes that theÂ term fundamentalism has rapidly entered the vocabulary of social science in the past two decades as a general designation for revivalist conservative religious orthodoxy. Though originally applied only to Christianity, Gananath Obeyesekere theorizes that the extension of the term to other religious traditions dates from the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79. Today it is used to describe Evangelical Christians, Iranian revolutionaries, ultra-orthodox Jews, militant Sikhs, and Buddhist resistance fighters, among others. Its categorical use is so widespread and so easily applied, that the misperception persists that it has always been with us.
The specific origin of the word fundamentalism dates to an early 20th Century American religious movement. The movement took its name from a compendium of twelve volumes published between 1910 and 1915 by a group of Protestant laymen entitled: The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth. These volumes were circulated in the millions and served as the concretization of a cross-denominational set of traditions with roots in previous centuries. It owes its existence particularly to the same evangelical revivalist tradition that inspired the Great Awakening of the early 19th Century and a variety of early millenarian movements. Spurred on by reactions to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the original Fundamentalist Movement was seen as a religious revival. It came to embody both principles of absolute religious orthodoxy and evangelical practice which called for believers to extended action beyond religion into political and social life.
In other words the term ‘fundamentalism’Â Â was borne from a religious context, but if we had no religions would we have no fundamentalism? Unfortunately the answer – in my humble opinion – is “no”.Â We mayÂ never have had any religious wars or fundamentalism in the name of religion, butÂ that’s not to say there wouldn’t be wars or fundamentalist behaviour, but it just wouldn’t done in the name of religion. Would this be any better or worse than the world we live in today? I think not unfortunately; given that human nature seems to be hell bent on destruction by default. We may not have religious or sectarian violence, but we would still have violence of some description I think.
SexualÂ Repression, Prostitution & Porn
An obvious area to explore (in my addled mind at least!) is the wonderfully messy world of sexuality and related items. In the absence of religion would we still have such hangups as sexual repression? Would the porn industry have evolved to the multi billion dollar industry it is today and would we still have prostitution?
Western religions have spent millenia inflicting shame, guilt, repression and punishment upon human sexualityÂ - especially upon women’s sexuality. Asian faiths aren’t so punitive. They generally accept lovemaking as a natural part of life, hell some Tantric sects even practice ritual intercourse, but the West presents an opposite, ugly story: a long chronicle of religious hostility to lovers.
Sexual repression is nothing new. Many societies around the world place restrictions on the sex lives of their citizens, often with heavy consequences should an individual deviate from what is considered acceptable in that society.
Adulterers, unwed lovers, homosexuals, and even people caught in the act of masturbating have been institutionalized, tortured, mutilated, or even executed for committing acts of sexual gratification.
The Old Testament raged against “whoredom” and decreed brutal penalties for unapproved sex. It commanded that non-virgin brides be stoned to death (Deut. 22:21). The earliest known papal decree, issued by Pope Siricius in 386, sought to forbid church elders from makingÂ love with their wives. Today, the church’s ability to imprison, torture, mutilate or otherwise inflict penalties on nonconformists has receded (in the West at least).
However, every censorship effort, every attempt at sexual repression, pretty much still comes from religion in one context or another. If there were no religion it logically follows that there would no sexual repression… but what about prostitution then? Without religion and sexual repression would there still be prostitution?
In a paper entitled “Authentic Herstory of Prostitution” by Gabriel Loch-Lainn SeabrookÂ it is suggested thatÂ early humans were already promiscuous. Like our closest living relatives, the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan, they were pansexual; that is, prehistoric women and men engaged in sexual activities with all other group members, female and male, young and old. This sexual behavioural pattern would eventually change, however, from rampant promiscuity to one in which we formed pair-bonds based around female prostitution. This transformation occurred around 1 million years ago in an early human ancestor known as Homo erectus.
Any animal behavior that spans such an enormous length of time will become biologically programmed into that animal’s genetic code. And this is precisely what happened in humans when we switched from promiscuity to pair-bonding. To this day-because it is now a genetically determined behavior-pair-bonding is the type of bonding that the majority of women and men in every culture and society engage most actively in.
Anthropological studies show however that humans are not designed for lifetime monogamy, and that even in societiesÂ where lifetime monogamy is held to be the ideal, only a tiny fraction of couples actually practice it. To the contrary, nearly all people, following our prehistoric ancestor’s basic mating pattern, form a temporary pair-bond with a single mate, separate, then go in search of a new partner with whom she or he forms another brief, tenuous bond. This primal custom is overtly reflected in our obsession with dating, and in our extremely high rates of desertion, infidelity, divorce, and remarriage.Â More to the point, the modern human practice of both serial polygamy, and the far less popular lifetime monogamy, are rooted firmly in the soil of prostitution, an element without which no sexual relationship could exist.
So, no sexual repression but still a healthy trade in prostitution… so what does that mean for the porn industry? Would it still have evolved in the vacuum left behind where religions currently exist?
The Porn Industry
The answer is a resounding “yes”. Before early proto-men could even fashion a jagged rock into a cutting tool, pornography existed, in the form of voyeurism. Keep in mind that mortality rates were certainly impossibly high in ancient times, perhaps 50 percent or even higher, so propagation was almost as important an enterprise to the survival of a species as eating.
Once a member of any species reaches sexual maturity, hormones take over, and sexual behavior ensues as a healthy matter of course. Once early Homo Sapiens developed enough brain capacity to think abstractly, early forms of pornography were scrawled on walls inside of caves, perhaps as fertility icons, or just perhaps simply to arouse one’s sexuality.
So we’re seen that the absence of religions would not improve our lot from a violence perspective, would almost certainly have done away with sexual repression (and therefore hopefully helped us evolve into healthier happy humans) but would not have had any impact on the porn industry or prostitution… so where does that leave us?
Shrinks, Education & The Sciences
If we’re not sexually repressed anymore do we still need shrinks, psychoanalysts and their like?
Unfortunately the answer is again “Yes”. Rather the answer is that these areas would still have evolved in the absence of any religion whether people felt sexually repressed or not, so no domino effect there unfortunately. Psychoanalysis got its start in Vienna in the 1890s in the work of Sigmund Freud, a neurologist who treated numerous patients with “hysteria,” a collection of somatic symptoms (such as paralysis, motor automatisms, blindness or deafness, etc.) that appeared to have no physiological basis.
The history of psychology as a scholarly study of the mind and behavior dates back to the Middle Ages. It was widely regarded to a branch of philosophy until the middle of the 19th-century when psychology developed as an independant scientific discipline in Germany. Ancient psychiatry originated in the 5th century BC with the ideology that psychotic disorders were supernatural in origin.
At that time clergy were the individuals in society with the responsibility of “curing” mental disorders – so its possible that if religions didn’t exist then no clergy therefore no psychiatry… but suspect if it wasn’t the clergy it would have been someone else.
So – no happy ending there either; the absence of religion does nothing to cure us of all those damn expensive shrinks, and that probably also follows for the freakin’ lawyers and accountants too!
So what about education then? Those pesky priests and religious orders have had the market on education cornered for a long time… would it still be the same without them?
Once again I have to dissappoint by saying “no”… things would not be that different. Education was the natural response of early civilizations to the struggle of surviving and thriving as a culture. Adults trained the young of their society in the knowledge and skills they would need to master and eventually pass on. The evolution of culture, and human beings as a species depended on this practice of transmitting knowledge. In pre-literate societies this was achieved orally and through imitation. Storytelling continued from one generation to the next. Oral language developed into written symbols and letters. The depth and breadth of knowledge that could be preserved and passed soon increased exponentially. When cultures began to extend their knowledge beyond the basic skills of communicating, trading, gathering food, religious practices, etc, formal education, and schooling, eventually followed
Is itÂ possible however that the sciences would have a more dominant role in our society today if they didn’t have to contend with the various religions down through the centuries? Imagine a world with no Bible to interpret, no Koran or ten commandments to hand down as rules and/or guidelines of behaviour.
Since the beginning of human history there have been many explanations for events that seem out of human control.Â In recent civilized history, religious and scientific views have often clashed with one another. Religious ideas are usually presented first and then enough scientific evidence accumulates to dare religious beliefs. These findings of science are met with incredulity and most are considered a heresy. Since the middle ages until the 18th century, religious ideology was the most accepted way of explaining the unexplained. During the next couple hundred years, many members of academia(a school of philosophy), using science to back them up, came up with new ways of dealing with the unanswerable questions. When the church had the greatest power, the men and women of science were viewed as the bad guys.
In most cases it was safer to believe in the church and their ideas, in order not to be excommunicated or shunned by society, than to place their trust in charlatan scientists. As a result, many conflictsÂ arose (and continue to do so today)Â between men of religion and men of science. Scientists like Darwin and Voltaire accepted the risks involved in presenting new ideas and pushed the boundaries of science as a result. In the absence of any religions would science still have evolved?
The answer is “yes”, however the real question is would it have evolved in the same way if it didn’t have the religious orders and views to contend with? I guess on that front we will never really know, however it is likely that without the religious viewpoints to contest the advancement and adoption of the sciences it’s likely people would have developed aÂ more reasoned and logical worldview based upon those things that they could see, touch, feel, measure and predict, rather than the faith-based views held today by the various religions.
What About The Athiests & Agnostics?Â
Without religion would there be any atheists?Â
Although the term atheism originated in the 16th century, based on Ancient Greek (roughly translated: “godless, denying the gods, ungodly”) and open admission to positive atheism in modern times was not made earlier than in the late 18th century, atheistic ideas and beliefs, as well as their political influence, have a more expansive history.
The spontaneous proposition that there may be no gods after all is likely as old as theism itself (and the proposition that there may be no God as old as the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism). Philosophical atheist thought appears from the 6th or 5th century BC, both in Europe and in Asia.
Agnosticism (from the Greek a, meaning “without”, and gnosticism or gnosis, meaning “knowledge”) is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claimsâ€”particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of God, gods, deities, or even ultimate realityâ€”is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently unknowable due to the nature of subjective experience.Â Agnostics claim either that it is not possible to have absolute or certain knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of God or gods; or, alternatively, that while individual certainty may be possible, they personally have no knowledge. Agnosticism in both cases involves some form of skepticism. Some agnostics are termed agnostic theists since, while they do not claim to know any deity exists, they do believe (with varying degrees on skepticism) in, at least, one.
It seems likely therefore that if there were no religion to begin with, no belief system in a god or gods… then there would be no need for a counter-point perspective either so both athiesm and agnosticism would not be required.
So where does that leave us then? If religion had not evolved or taken hold all those centuries ago would we be better off or worse off today?
Contrary to my own internal assumptions the absence of religion would not yield that many changes in the world. There would still be wars and fundamentalism of some kind, but it would probably just have a different name associatied with it; humanity would have evolved as agressive and self destructive with or without religion I suspect. Sexual repression would not exist (at least as strongly as it does now) and perhaps we would all have less of a fascination with the porn industry and prostitution as a whole, but overall the differences would probably be marginal.
On the upside education would not be hampered by the absence of those wonderful christian brothers and their like, and the sciences would possibly have a stronger hold over us today without the various religious orders to hold them back in the embrionic stages, so I suppose we would live in a more reasoned and logical world as a result – which is a good thing from my perspective, but then again the absence of any religion would also logically lead to the absence of any anti-religion and therefore atheism and agnosticism would not exist because we wouldn’t need it.
When I started down this road I did actually think that in the vacuum left behind by all the religions the world would be a very different place, but in fact it appears that not a lot would be changed in any radical sense. I thought there would be many many reasons to do away with religion but actually, after doing a little light research for this article it probably comes down to one thing (tongue firmly in cheek!).
The Real Difference?
There is one overwhemling reason to do away with religions, in particular Western religions, given all of the above context and it is simply this…Â Â if they themselves did not exist then we wouldn’t have to put up with any television evangalists!
That’s got to be worth a thought though, right?
And speaking of thoughts… have you got any?