The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Religion as Social Glue

Does belief in an afterlife hold societies together?

Decadence is supposed to destroy civilizations. If religion is the enemy of decadence, perhaps it keeps entire societies on the rails. That is what religious people often claim. Are they right?

The first point is that religion is not the antidote for moral depravity that it pretends to be. Think Larry Craig, or Jim Bakker, or any of the other religious family men who turned out to be complete hypocrites (1). Then there are the pedophile priests.

Religion as antidote to decadence?

When people enjoy the good life, they become detached from religious institutions as in Europe’s godless social democracies where the majority do not attend church or see religion as important in their lives.

The Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Roman Empire, conform to this pattern: with indulgence in luxury and sensuality marking their peak. Moralists argue that any materially successful society becomes decadent and falls apart absent the binding glue of religious belief systems and rituals and the guiding light of religious morality. This is an extremely pessimistic view of history.

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One is entitled to be skeptical given that religious individuals are not more moral in their conduct. Yet, it is still possible that religion helps entire societies to function more effectively. If it doesn’t prevent decadence, can it hold societies together by way of being political glue?

Religion as political glue?

Before the 20th Century, political administrations were mostly – perhaps universally - religious. If there were no secular administrations, it is hard to say whether they would have succeeded had they ever been tried.

Some empires were more religion-centered, and less religiously plural than others. The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923 ) is a good example of an administration based on a single religion, namely Islam. The Roman Empire (27 BC- 1453) was initially much more religiously plural than the Ottomans would be.

So which was more stable? The Roman Empire at its peak was larger in area, had about twice as many people, and endured for much longer. On the basis of this limited comparison, it would be hard to say that a shared religion served as political glue. Moreover, soon after the Romans adopted Christianity, the empire went into decline.

Godless administrations

The failure of worldwide Communism, as symbolized by the collapse of the Soviet Union is often held up as proof that secular administrations are unstable. Yet, this is a mistake for various reasons. First, despite the lack of supernatural beliefs, Communism acted very much like a religion in the sense of repressing conventional religions and censoring unorthodox views. Communism was also stable for several generations. The problem was that it could not compete in a globalized economy. The Chinese solved that problem by developing a global-market-based system.

So godless societies do not disintegrate inevitably from lack of unity, any more than they crumble due to moral decay of individuals. But what if their citizens just stopped caring about each other and withdrew from participating in local communities?

Godless local communities

How can one study the effects of religion on local communities? The clearest approach is to compare community involvement in godless countries with religious nations. Judging from the godless societies of Europe, there is no sign of deterioration at the community level (2):

- They have low crime rates.

- They have a high level of involvement in community organizations, political parties, and volunteer groups.

- They enjoy a high level of social trust.

- They are successful at satisfying the basic needs of all their citizens and have all but eliminated child poverty.

- Their public education works well.

- They are good at encouraging entrepreneurial activity.

- They do not suffer from the huge income inequalities that make it difficult for ordinary people to accumulate capital and start businesses.

- Their health and health care are good and citizens have high life expectancy.

Godless societies can work, and they do work very well indeed. Contrary to religious propaganda, a shared supernatural belief system is not required to keep societies together.

Far from falling apart for lack of religion, the godless societies are easily the most successful urban societies to emerge so far in human history. That is because good living conditions undermine religion (1).

1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

2. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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