Can you imagine a world without religion? I don’t mean any specific religion (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc) or a particular sect or denomination within a religion (e.g Baptist, Reformed Judaism, Sufism, Mahayana Buddhism, etc.) Try to imagine a world without any religion. I am not talking that you just wish it were so (if you were so inclined to wish such a thing); I am asking, can you actually envision what that world would look like?
Can you do it? Maybe you can. But for most, even for some atheists I suspect, the idea of a world without religion is almost, if not completely, impossible to imagine. Why do I think that? Well, during this post I would like to reflect on why I don’t think it’s possible to imagine a world without religion.
Before beginning with those reasons, it seems only right to provide a definition of religion; however, that is not as easy as it sounds. If we look up the word “religion” in the dictionary, this is what we’ll find:
A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
That’s actually not too bad of a definition. Certainly “faith” is a property shared by all religions since they ask people to believe in things they can’t see or empirically prove. But religious faith is not simply a “system of beliefs.” There has to be something more to it than that. The reason I say there has to be something more to it is because people are not willing to die for a set of beliefs, even strongly held beliefs; however, people throughout history have shown a willingness to die for their faith.
The object of a mental opinion (i.e. belief) is an idea. The object of religious faith is more than an idea. The object of religious faith is God, or gods, or Nirvana. Notice I did not say “the idea of God, gods, or Nirvana.” That is a very important distinction. However, what religion claims is not so much that we know God (i.e. we have fashioned him in our minds), but rather that God knows us. And not only does he know us, he has made his truth accessible to us through the use of our reason (ST I, Q. 12, Art 12).
Polls have been tracking the trends associated with religion for decades. What the most recent poll data suggests is there has been a rise in the number of people who claim to be either atheist or agnostic, but an even sharper rise in those who claim, “no religious affiliation.” I think this is significant because I am going to give those who identify themselves as either atheist or agnostic the benefit of the doubt and say they have at least thought about the question of God, the possibility of his existence, and what that means or doesn’t mean for their life. But those who claim “no religious affiliation” strike me as people who have not really taken the time to think about God or religion. They are indifferent towards the subject. That indifference is now at an all time high.
What disturbs me about this trend is religion has always been a subject people feel very strongly about (positively or negatively). Religion, and it’s primary object (i.e. God), is the thing countries have gone to war over, it is the ecstasy of the Saints, and it has been the reason martyrs willing lay down their lives. Historically, people have cared about religion a lot! Religion is arguably the most controversial subject in the world. Nowadays people aren’t entertaining the subject as something even worthy of their consideration. This indifference is something to be concerned about in my opinion.
Religion has been so controversial for so many millenniums because people are passionate about it. And why are they passionate about it? Because it is so interesting. Why is it so interesting? Because of the questions religion claims to answer. For example:
- What is the meaning of life
- How can I find inner peace?
- What happens when I die?
- What is the origin of life?
- What does it mean to be good?
Religion attempts to answer these, and other, significant questions. Of course, different religions have come up with different answers to life’s big questions, and their answers, whether true or false, are typically “game changers” for individuals. People will radically alter their lives based on the answers they discover in religion. The range of alterations go from the sublime (e.g. inner peace) to the deadly (e.g. suicide bomber). What we can glean from this is while the truth claims of different religions may be disputed, the fact is the effect for people’s lives is significant. Religion is not a small, boring topic.
So why do I think religion is so important to think about? Many reasons. First, for many people in the world, [their] religion, more specifically the object of their religious faith, is the most important thing in their lives. It seems too cold, too callous of us as a people to not care, in some form or fashion, for what others hold so near and dear to the heart. To dismiss religion out of hand and deem it not even worthy of consideration is arguably one of the cruelest things one person could do to another.
Second, religion makes the most outlandish claims. If the claims religion makes are true (e.g. there is eternal life after death), then they are far and away the most important truths we could ever know. If the claims are false, then they are the biggest lies ever told. It is either fact or fantasy. If the claims are fact, then it needs to be treated as such. And if religion’s claims are fantasy, then they are the world’s largest, most commonly shared fantasy, dating back to the beginning of humanity. The fact is, the claims religion makes are either true or not; they can not be both.
Those who scoff at the claims religion makes tend to say religion is a man-made invention. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with the quote: “All religions have been made by men.” In many ways, I agree with that. As I said earlier, the most important claim religion makes is God knows us and he has made his truth accessible to us. Religion is our best attempt, as contemptible as it might be sometimes, to adequately worship the God who revealed himself to us.
But if religion is man-made, it is, hand’s down, man’s greatest invention. Consider the sheer magnitude of religion’s impact throughout all the annals of time. Consider all the causal effects generated by religion over the span of tens of thousands of years. Compare the “man-made invention” of religion against all the other ideas mankind has ever put forth. Take an imaginary scale and load it up with all of man’s most note-worthy triumphs:
- Control of fire
- Domestication of animals
- Navigation of the world’s oceans
- Walking on the moon
- Climbing the highest mountains
- Nuclear energy
On the other side of the scale place one idea. This idea is of a being who is
- Omnipotent (i.e. all powerful)
- Omniscient (i.e. all knowing)
- Perfectly just
- Immutable (i.e. unchanging)
If we further consider the idea of such a being in the context of the three Abrahamic Religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), this being is a person, a self, an “I” who possesses consciousness and a will. It is disputable if such an idea is fact or fantasy; however, it is indisputable that this idea is humanity’s biggest fact or the biggest fantasy.
Now return to the question offered at the beginning of this this post and try to imagine what the world would look like if no one ever conceived of religion, any kind of religion. Look back at all of history and rewrite it, removing the “religion factor” from the equation. You can’t do it. Religion has inspired more people to action, good or bad, since the beginning of time. Nothing else has had that kind of impact, not even all of man’s achievements combined! Religion has, without question, been the driving force for all of human history.
And that is why the rise of those disinterested, “no religious affiliation” people is so alarming to me: they are not even engaging in the most important conversation of their lives.