Religion and society: Success or failure depends on where you stand

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According to Martin Varsavsky, “nothing much” happens when a society gives up religion. Religion does nothing to maintain social order, does not improve standards of justice, doesn’t help people to be better citizens, and really makes no positive difference on a societal scale. He uses Spain as an example. Now, there’s a certain bias in both the selection and the comparison. Under the dictatorship of Franco, the author says, Spain was a Catholic country, but after “three decades of democracy,” this is no longer the case. It’s easy to see where a comparison like this leads. Religion = tyranny, but freedom tends away from religion. Of course any reader (hopefully) realises straight away that other examples could have been chosen that did not favour this portrayal of history. For example, in the 1930s in the Soviet Union under the atheistic state during the dictatorship of Stalin, it was very risky to be a Christian and religion was viciously suppressed, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism there, Christianity now flourishes by comparison. So of course we’ve got to be careful about how we let the writer’s selective sample sway us.

But back to the main point: Mr Varsavsky’s article is written to assure us that religion is not the backbone of a good society, and that when religion disappears, a society does not turn to chaos or fall apart or anything dreadful.

For those intent on missing the point, please read the following carefully: If you scan this blog entry from start to finish you will see that it contains no claim about whether or not society does turn to chaos or fall apart or anything dreadful when religion disappears. Thank you for realising this. I have views on that separate claim, but to minimise squabbling over other issues, I’d like to stick to the point that I’m going to make here.

OK, back on track again. One of the first ways I could be tempted to reply to Mr Varsavsky is by noting that according to religion statistics, Spain is a very religious country. However, I’m also well aware that in traditionally Catholic nations like Spain, nominal religion can continue to exist while those who take the label really care little for it, so there’s little point pursuing that objection. Let’s start out then with basic agreement on this claim: In the early twentieth century Spain was a largely Catholic nation, but now it is largely not a Christian nation at all. If either of us is wrong about this, it doesn’t make any different to my main point.

Now we get to the important two questions. First, how does Mr Varsavsky measure the change that has taken place in Spain? He does so as follows:

First, loss of religion became apparent with the legalization of divorce and contraceptives and the promotion of sex ed. This was followed by the decriminalization of abortion, the acceptance of drug possession for personal consumption (drug users are not criminals in Spain, but treated instead as medical patients) and a general acceptance of premarital sex. Later gambling in public places became commonplace, prostitution was legalized and regulated, and recently gay marriage became legal as well. So other than euthanasia, I can´t think of anything that the Church used to opposed that is not legal now in Spain. While 95% of the Spanish youth declared in the 60s that religion played some role in their life now only a third do.

the author adds to this by saying that in general when issues come up where most other nations would deem something illegal Spain does not, often in “surprising” ways. For example, Spain does not enforce the rights of copyright holders against members of the public when there are alleged breaches of those rights, and permits the downloading of copyrighted material (such as music or movies) over the internet (disclaimer: I have not verified that this is legal, I am taking the writer’s word for it). In ways like this (in addition to the ways listed above), Spain, we are told, has now become a very “tolerant” place.

OK, call me convinced. There have been some important social and religious changes in Spain, in such a way that Christianity no longer plays the dominant role in the life of the Spanish people that it once did. This doesn’t even have much to do with an official religion, it’s a reflection of societal change, since in a democracy the laws reflect what the people are prepared to allow, and some of these issues are not legal issues, but just issues over what is socially acceptable and what is not.

Now the second and vital question: In light of changes like these, how has Mr Varsavsky assessed the impact, for better or worse, on Spain? Obviously there has to be a way to check if his assessment is correct. What’s amazing is that the author really says almost nothing about his method of assessment. Instead he moves directly from the observations outline above to this conclusion:

If anything, Spain proves that societies do not fall apart when they give up religion and almost everything that was illegal for religious reasons, becomes legal. Moreover I believe that if Spain had not given up its repressive form of religious expression it would not have been the success that it is now. For those, mostly in America, who believe that religion somehow makes countries more ethical Spain proves the opposite.

How did we get there? Somehow, a huge gap between observation and conclusion was leapt in a single bound. Oh, the author does, after this, add two things: Spain as state funded kindergarten and since so many things are permitted, the police have less to do and the prisons are less full.

Here’s the problem: The author is evidently not a religious person, and also someone who believes that drugs should be legal, the unborn child lacks a right to life, the state has the job of educating children about sex, people should be encouraged to accept that sex without marital commitment is fine and so forth. So by his standards, of course Spain is doing fine. But then, Franco thought that Spain was doing fine when it operated by his standards too! Things were, he supposed, just as he wanted them to be. The trouble is, if conservative Christians are correct, then Spain isn’t doing fine at all. Instead, human beings with the right to life are being killed before birth en masse, people are being cheapened through promiscuity (this isn’t a legal issue but it is a societal change that the author favours), people are destroying their lives and the lives of others through narcotics, among other things. You can name this an “improvement” if these outcomes gel with your own values, but if they don’t, it’s a disaster.

How can anyone on either side of an issue like this claim to say to those on the other side that religious values are not necessary in order for a society to remain a decent one or to avoid collapse into ruin, when among the very things in dispute is the question of what constitutes ruin? How can one side tell the other than “nothing much” has happened when religion disappears when it is common knowledge that the parties in question do not agree on what would constitute “much”? A party to the dispute cannot possibly serve on the jury!

Glenn Peoples

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Glenn February 23, 2010, 3:51 pm

    I want to remind users about my policy on advertising (click on “blog policy”). I just removed a comment by “Richard Dawkins” here because of it. Also, this fellow in Australia calls himself Richard Dawkins and in the (now deleted) said that Richard Dawkins’ website is his own website. This also breaks my blog policy on representing yourself to be another person.

  • Anon February 23, 2010, 9:53 pm

    Excellent post!

  • fahad March 29, 2011, 2:19 pm

    Really loved your blog, religion is something that I am making myself familiar with recently, after mostly being an atheist.

    My problem has always been with ethics, and how religion comes so naturally where as atheism and skepticism is really hard to follow. Most skeptics who call them skeptics aren’t even skeptics in the true sense (carneades, sextus empiricus).

    After finally being disappointed by Kant and other modern philosophers. Hume and his contemporaries (karl popper etc) were brilliant though, I have now turned towards classical philosophers (greek, christian and muslim). Al-ghazali, pseudo dionysius etc were the real philosophers who truly demonstrated how important “belief” is and how dangerous “unbelief” could be.

    http://amaurosis-fugax.blogspot.com/2011/03/questions-for-athiest.html

    I am reading plotinus right now but would love to continue debate on this topic.

  • fahad March 29, 2011, 2:25 pm

    And there’s another problem as well….Nation state is fragile, so to promote kantian ethics, we would need a strong top down hierarchy and that kind of thinking is typically very fragile as was demonstrated by the collapse of USSR, Nazi Germany, etc. These modern pop-psychology ethics have no relevance when anarchy prevails, where as religion and belief are far superior in an anarchy-type situation.

    Every human being is just a few missed meals away from committing murder. What happens when you actually end up missing a few meals in a row. Would kantian ethics survive if that is the case. History has shown that societies collapse very frequently.

  • Samson May 13, 2011, 1:08 am

    I was going through your old posts, Glenn (having recently recommended your site to someone else), and I came across this old entry. I can’t help but note, with bitter humour, that Martin Varsavsky should have waited a few years before making his comments about Spain being just fine. Spain is not just fine, as recent world events have shown. It is on the verge of bankruptcy, like many Western nations, having traded sensible, traditional ways for an unsustainable lifestyle based on decadent, irresponsible living. Mr. Varsavsky could not have written his piece today with a straight face.

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