Religion and Civilization

From reading some of my posts, readers might get the impression that I’m not extremely fond of religion.  In some ways, I’m not.  I’m especially skeptical of organized religions that, in their attempts to grow and perpetuate their doctrines and “way of life,” succeed in creating a mental state where those who practice the faith become essentially blind to the shortcomings and huge inconsistencies inherent in that faith… and often reject literal physical realities because they conflict with their beliefs.

On the other hand, given human nature, I’m not so sure that human societies without any religion at all, at least today, might not be far crueler, less ordered, and less desirable places in which to live, but then, ultra-theocratic societies tend to be religiously ordered to the point of denying human freedoms, as well as also being crueler and less desirable places to live, especially for women.

As I’ve noted before, the only codes of behavior the majority of human beings have accepted, at least for most of human history, have been those with strong roots in religion.  I suspect that’s because most of us really don’t think another human being has the “right” to declare what rules our conduct should follow, but that “God” does.  Yet, paradoxically, “God” doesn’t tell us that.  Other human beings tell us what God told them is correct behavior, and for most people throughout history, such theologically derived codes of law and behavior have been accepted. I suspect part of the reason for this is not necessarily great unanimity, but a combination of religious belief and simple pragmatism, and it may be that the key to a “good” society is indeed the combination of a theological concern and a secular pragmatism.  Certainly, those few societies without a significant religious “tie,” such as Nazism and Communism, have been anything but “good” places to live, yet the same is true for ultra-religious societies.  Oh… the “true believers” in those societies did well, but not many others.

History does show that societies dominated by religion tend to be short on human freedoms, creativity, and progress.  Societies where religion plays no role in setting cultural values also tend to be short on human freedom and restrict creativity, but often achieve progress for a time by stealing from others in various ways.

So, as much as I may complain or point out the notable shortcomings of religion, and organized religion in particular, it appears that healthy societies require some theological basis, at least at the current level of human ethical development.  The question then becomes to what degree religion should influence government, law, and behavior. Personally, I think the Founding Fathers got it right, but I mean it in the way they wrote the Constitution, and not in the activist way in which too many true believers seem to think that freedom of religion means the freedom to compel others to behave according to their religious beliefs or the freedom to enact laws that in some fashion or another effectively institutionalize those beliefs.


15 thoughts on “Religion and Civilization”

  1. Steve says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion that historically a balance between secular government and faith has served society best. I would add that a strong societal emphasis on education is necessary to make the balance last.

    Where I have disagreed with you in the past is whether organized religion works as an single entity, or as a collection of like minded individuals. As an outsider looking in you seem to view organized religion as a collective mind without individual autonomy. We dehumanize those with whom we do not agree. It allows us to attack without guilt.

    Although I am sure that coercion exists in every organization, my experience within the religious community of Utah, and even in Cedar City is quite individual. Therefore, when my vote has been at odds with yours, and it is discounted as automatic and mindless, it is upsetting.

  2. Steve says:

    I always find it amusing that many religions believe that they’re the “only true one” and that all others are wrong. If that doesn’t speak of Hubris, I don’t know what does. My wish is that religion would focus more on how to love our fellow humans and make the world a better place and less on evangelism and conversion.

    Unfortunately any institution that exists for a long period of time starts serving itself more and its constituents less as the years progress. Just look at big business, unions, government and organized religions as prime examples of this shift.

    Fresh blood and new ideas are the solution to this dilemma, or as the saying goes, strong beliefs weakly held.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    Time and again history has proven that most humans need some manner of external control exerted over them in order to keep civilization stumbling forward. Government and religion are merely two of the more obvious ways that this happens.

    Unfortunately, they ARE quite obvious and people (rightly) chafe against some of the more onerous requirements they set out (e.g.: women remain in the house, don’t eat pork, face mecca 6x/day to pray, don’t drink wine, etc.).

    For those who ARE self-directed and self-motivated to act in an ethical manner (leaving morality aside for the moment), they are cast as outsiders unless them make (at least) pro forma obeisance to the powers that be.

  4. JakeB says:

    It’s funny you should choose that example, W.G., as I was just thinking yesterday that despite my complete atheism, I usually find that when I attempt to determine the most ethical way to do something, I refer to what I know of the Sufis’ teachings (who, after all, talk an awful lot about wine, although it’s claimed to be all metaphorical, but anyways)

    In each major religious tradition, there seems to be a sub-discipline or order that allows the more free investigation of ethical questions. I suspect that when such groups are squelched, in the development of fundamentalism, that that’s a sign that any goodness in the religion is disappearing.

    I must admit, however, that I had thought the Catholic Church’s treatment of Liberation Theology was a perfect example of its absolute rottenness, and now along comes Francis.

  5. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

    It’s quite strange that people tend to group non-Christian religions together. I work with a lot of Islamic people, and there’s quite a range of beliefs and practices going on. Some of them are “okay” with homosexuality, some pray during the working day and others don’t, some smoke cigarettes, some don’t have beards, etc. It shows me that like within the various sects of Christianity, there’s many ways to show your religiousness and to practice it in your own way. You would find similar diversity in the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, etc. communities.

    As for me? I’m probably “constitutional” on this, despite being in the UK – by that I mean I feel that you and other people have a basic, fundamental right to follow any religion of your choice in your own way, with allowances made for festivals, prayers, etc., so long as you do not push your religion on others or use it as a stick to oppress. Making allowances for someone’s religion (e.g. Halal meat) is not the same as them pushing their religion on you, too.

    My problem is much the same as Mr Modesitt’s, in that I’m wary of (long-established) organised religion, at least its leaders and most fervent members, because of the issues mentioned in the above post. I don’t think they generally represent the views of their followers (thinking of the Scottish Catholics, over half of whom supported marriage equality whilst their leader decried it), and they shouldn’t be thought of as holding those beliefs until proven otherwise.

    But I also wonder if there’s a thing as ‘true’ freedom of choice with religion. In the West we’re heavily biased towards Christianity, with its iconography and morality underpinning Western society on a grand scale (not to mention the linguistic flavourings), but I don’t think a lot of people have a choice in their religion, especially in more devout sects – How many Mormons *chose* that religion, for example? Or were they brought up in it, with it pushed on them since day one? That to me seems wrong, but also unavoidable.

    On a final note, I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in religion. I don’t quite understand that either.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Few religions (Shinto and Buddhism being notable exceptions) do NOT preach conversion/evangelism. Few of them do NOT call for action in the secular world.

    Honestly, the only thing that might come equal to this is people in the environmental movement or the legalize marijuana movement. Talking to them gives me the exact same headache that as I get talking to SDAs, JWs, LDSers, etc.

  7. HN says:

    How does this need for a theological basis to a healthy society which you see, rhyme with the succes of Danish, Dutch, and Scandinavian countries? They are very secular, with a large percentage of people who are either atheist or agnostic, or not affiliated with an organised religion, nor with the ideologies of communism or Nazism, which you appear to consider to have social effects similar to the shared belief in religion.
    Yet they consistently score very high in rankings of stability of the country, health and happiness of their people, relatively low amount of crimes*, corruption etc.; while very many countries with high proportions of people professing to belonging to an organised religion score very badly on these things, and increasing religiosity generally seems to worsen these scores (which may indicate or be a result of increasing intolerance or fanaticism).

    * At least they used to be, except for bike theft in the Netherlands, as everyone there has at least one bike and often more, which makes stealing them much more prevalent than in countries with less minimaly-protected bikes standing around everywhere. Opening the internal European borders has upped the crime rates a lot, as criminals from poor eastern-European countries have taken to ‘shopping’ in the affluent west. I don’t know how the recent numbers compare, but don’t think such an influx of foreign thieves or fences** can be considered the fault of the non-religiosity of the countries’ residents.

    ** Please don’t misconstrue this as an anti-foreigners rant, but an open market for criminally acquired goods is a natural result of an open market environment; and as long as income and wealth distribution between east and west remains unequal, the temptation for criminals is clear.

    Sorry for sticking to initials here, and for being a bit long on the explanations. I like reading your thoughtful blog posts but you don’t know me because I don’t comment here, as I don’t generally feel quite at home in this community. This comment is an exception because I’m genuinely interested in your views, as I’m often surprised at how people who don’t consider themselves very religious still say religion is necessary and a basic part of being human and creating a human society.

    I wasn’t raised in a religious family and have never felt the need to believe in any kind of deity, so I do not personally see this as a necessary part of being good. Treating others as you’d hope to be treated, honestly, kindly and with understanding for what they need from you; with solidarity and support in times of trouble for one’s fellow-humans and fellow living creatures where needed and possible lead to a moral life without needing a superior being to loom over one like a policeman to make sure you keep to the rules. Most people don’t need a policeman around to stop them from breaking the rules of society, so why would anyone need a god around to do so?
    What *is* needed is some consensus on the necessity for some rules for people to be able to live together in a civilised way, and the general acceptance of some authority to maintain those rules among the (small) percentage of those who won’t comply without threat of punishment. I really, honestly, don’t see a need for religion in that, just a basic acceptance that we’re all human and in this together, but I respect your views on what makes and influences societies, and apparently you do.

  8. What I said was that codes that have strong roots in religion seem to be the most accepted. Although the countries you mentioned are certainly secular now, roots don’t just vanish immediately, because they’re intertwined with the culture. It will be very interesting to see what happens over the next century.

    You also make the point that most people don’t need a policeman around to keep them from breaking the law. True enough, but very few societies would forgo law enforcement because there are enough people who do need the threat of laws and police.

  9. HN says:

    Thank you for your answer.
    The old, common root of Christian belief has been at the basis of our society, as you say, and the influx of new ideas and new people is changing things. Still, there have been many waves of change over the centuries, and as long as the new ideas can be accomodated and integrated in the fabric of our secular society it will endure, with or without people practicing their religions in private.
    In that respect I worry more about the rise of the American ideas of individualism etc., which often translates as pure selfishness on the part of the ‘haves’, and undermines the ability to get society to do things together for the good of all, than about the loss of organised religion or the mingling of new religions.

    I agree about the necessity of law enforcement; it’s why I mentioned the need for a general acceptance of some authority to maintain the rules among those who won’t comply without threat of punishment.

    My remark about most people not needing a policeman around constantly to keep them honest was meant as more of a rebuttal for the argument I’ve seen from some religious people, that non-religious people cannot be trusted because they don’t believe an omniscient God will see all their misdeeds and punish them. If someone honestly believes that, I can see that they would consider a near-universal religious belief necessary to a moral society, because there is too much in life that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) constantly monitored.
    I just don’t think that most people refrain from doing bad things only if they feel they will be observed and punished for them – most people I know, whether religious or not, are good people. In fact, most of the few I’ve known to behave underhandedly were religious, with one of the worst being an elder of his church.
    So that wasn’t meant as an argument against law enforcement, but as an argument against a universal omnipresent and omniscient observer (i.e. God) being necessary to ‘force’ people to behave with morality.

  10. D Archerd says:

    This is a very interesting thread. I have a couple of observations.
    1. Any organization, religious, civic, or corporate, has its own continuation and self-preservation as one of its top priorities, whether stated explicitly or not. (Those which do not don’t last very long, for some strange reason.) This is not inherently bad, but can lead to some unpleasant consequences, as when calls for reform or modification of the organization’s goals or practices are seen as threats to the existence of the organization and thus are repressed, leading to increasing dogmatism and ossification of the organization. Of course what is often really at work is that calls for change or reform are actually seen as threats to the privileges and status of the current elite, who find it far to easy to conflate their own survival with survival of the organization. When you add in the factor of religion, most of which (with some exceptions other posters have noted) believe they possess The Truth, this can lead to the belief that any who challenge the existing dogma or practices are not only wrong, but evil – even to be cast as heretics and on the side of the Devil – which means that any actions, however cruel and vicious, may be justified to repress, even murder those same heretics. This is why theocracies have a tendency to be especially brutal in their repression.
    2. To characterize Fascism and Communism as godless is accurate, but it is not accurate to say they are not religious. They both appeal to the same inherent human desires that any organized religion does – a purpose, a chance to be a part of something greater than oneself, and a bit of certainty and explanation of things and events in our lives which otherwise appear fearsomely capricious. And they both utilize many of the outward trappings of religions, from a carefully schooled dogma to a select priesthood to public pageantry and ceremonies. When I visited 1970’s Soviet Union, I was struck by how much the Communist Party had simply overlain much of the predecessor Christianity with very similar practices and ceremonies, and even had a new pantheon of gods, with Marx and Engels representing the Old Testament, and Lenin representing the Christ figure. Of course, Christianity itself used similar tactics to overlay older, pagan practices with new Christian meanings, which is why we still celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees and yule logs (from Northern European tree-worshipers) and Easter with eggs, rabbits, and chicks (from spring fertility rites throughout Indo-European culture).
    3. Finally, because so much of human society has included the practice of religion, I find that world-building fantasy writers like Mr. Modesitt are more credible when they include religion as part of the fabric of society. It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about his Imager series; the religion focused on the worship of The Nameless is both interesting in itself and also helps to knit the narrative into the society and make it more believable and more “human”.

  11. Cathie says:

    Just an observation.

    Many of the complaints I see here (and elsewhere) about religion tend to focus mainly on the trappings and traditions of those religions, not the heart and soul of them. It is important to avoid getting caught up in the trappings of a religion. God is about Love, and about the natural laws of right and wrong that most of us have written upon our souls. Religions are the structures built that help people feel closer to God (by any name). We don’t all fit within the same structures. I saw an interesting documentary on Netflix a while back, With One Voice. One thing stood out to me in particular. The most spiritual individuals, the mystics, the contemplatives, the “enlightened ones” from the major religions of the world, they don’t argue over the different trappings of their religions. They don’t fight with each other. They are able to feel and accept the unity they share, despite their differences. It is the individual, caught up in the trappings of their own particular religion (or those in love with power/whole different story), that hates, fights, kills, and wars with others, to prove that only their religion is Truth.

  12. Vicki says:

    I am not a fan of organized religion. I “believe” (or disbelieve) equally in all gods, modern and historical.

    I have really enjoyed reading the homilies in the Imager’s books. I can’t say that I “believe” in the Nameless any more (or less) than in any of the others, but I like the theology.

  13. fscottkey says:

    I have read three of the books of Modesitt’s Imager series. I had wondered about his background and if he was conflicted about God and his position on Religion after the tremendous amount of time he spends in the inclusion of constant snippets throughout each chapter on the teachings of the fictional religion of his fictional world of the book. The ideas about the ‘nameless’ that is their god of the story-line and the adversary or Evil representative or devil of their religion being called the ‘namer’ made me go online and try to find out what Modesitt really was trying to portray. Was it a animus against all religions in the characterization of a God that seems so like the Catholics God who is without form (no arms legs head — no body). I researched (which took a great deal of time as the formal Catechism is not presented online except chapter by chapter and not readily searchable. Having learned from a third of that text that the Catholics formally by their own literature (i.e. The Catechism) AND a careful reading of “Exact Exposition of The Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus– I had my confirmation that Modesitt’s use of the nameless fit very well with the formal Catholic construct of a god that is unknowable. The header for St. John’s first Chapter was “That the Deity is incomprehensible….”

    Taking an understanding of the Catholics of a God that is everywhere present, all powerful, but incomprehensible– I felt I had an inkling of what Modesitt might have been presenting with his literary ‘tongue-in-cheek’ presentation of religion in his Imager series. To make fun of something that he saw and understood was without logic. Modesitt’s background in education and experience seemed to bear this understanding of his position and attitude against at least the Catholic Religion.
    I then looked at whether he held to any recognition or acceptance OR in fact rejection or mocking of the Jewish Religion. I had learned that the formal Jewish faith (which of course can be different from membership who may be Jews by name but not by practice. The formal Jewish faith has a strong tradition of not writing the name of God thinking it would be blasphemous. (Which is quite startling given the ancient records of the Jews which most assuredly did write the name of God)
    So when reading Modesitt’s books I thought perhaps he was spoofing or at least drawing some of the Jewish community to their position of leaving out the name of God (thus making him ‘nameless’) which might be an author’s effort to construct perspective in his books reading audience who were Jewish.

    I finally found this blog and learned a bit more.
    It seems that Modesitt is in fact an atheist and perhaps a secular ecological socialist. He does not actually come straight out and say he is atheist or agnostic– and his explanation on his website dealing with the issue of Religion is not as clear and concise as I am sure he can be with the remarkable facility with words he demonstrates in his books.

    It is truly lamentable that he had to game the readers with his particular use of the ‘nameless’ in his fiction as it detracts from the plot line of the book.
    But I have learned, as well as all you other readers have as well, that every author has an agenda– position or attitude in whether to include politics morality or religion in their fiction.

    It is lamentable that Mr. Modesitt has failed to see that all things organized by men (whether they label it as being created by men or by a God) are still man-made.
    And that there is an actual man — perfect and powerful (having in the words of the nature of spirituality ‘glory’
    His remarkable and full life has left a core element of Reality on the sidelines by simply assuming that because there are hundreds of practiced religions and thousands of religions in history – that there could not be something other than whims or the machinations of conspiring men to create philosophies that they named religion.

    There is an actual Faith. Yes just one.
    There is only one actual answer to a mathematical formula that is truly correct and accurate.
    There are actual answers to whether there is a God or no God? If it is yes– he would NOT be a God of Confusion and create a million paths all leading to different destinations conclusions. In fact He did not.

    There is a God – he lives and sent a son to earth to give to men and women the Truth of God and this life and our purpose that was detailed to the first man and woman and which over the many generations had been corrupted into the thousands of false ideas pagan faiths and false churches of men.

    After all the Evil that Mr. Modesitt and you readers have seen or experienced — to think or deny the existence of Evil and a master or lead representative of Evil — would be simply beyond any Reason or Rational Thought.
    And to think that that being — seeking the opposite of Good established by and flowing from a God — would seek to corrupt Truth and create thousands of conflicting problems would be inconceivable

    Mr. Modesitt gives quite a fabric of intrigue and plots of those following Evil in his imager books — Yet cannot see that in the Real World and presents the idea of nameless God that by his books definition could never take any real action for Good and thereby never take any action against Evil. (yes i know its fiction- but we’re talking about his work and mindset) But that would make any efforts by man or women to seek Good and fight and conquer Evil (torture rape murder dictatorships etc.) Pointless and Totally Impossible.

    That is what is so lamentable with men of talent who write and draw to their works of words as authors- -that such would use their talents to then create a sense of pointless defeat and doom– with such a mindset to reject and (yes in a way mock) the idea of an Actual Named Being of Perfection who sent us here as Children to gain bodies and seek to become like our fathers and mothers.
    The insanity of people claiming God is their Father – and yet being violently opposed to thinking that the children of that God they fall “Father” could never grow up and mature to actually becoming like their Father is to me unimaginable!
    Yet the vastness of societies faiths are so embroiled
    with the false philosophies of man-made religions
    that The Truth of That Fact —
    seems beyond their ability to reason out.

    Dear Modesitt there is a God he has a name Elohim!
    He has a son who before coming to earth was called with an exact name Jehovah
    (and yes I know I am speaking English and God has his own language – and he has a name in His Language for His name and for The Name of His beloved Son)

    There is a faith and there is an answer.
    Just like there is an answer to the sum of 2 plus 2 is 4.
    It is as simple and beautiful as mathematics,
    And can at the same time have the wonder as the
    complexity of physics which can explain wonderful things
    with exactness of formula as precise
    as does the mathematics formula 2+2
    Your Economics background should serve you well
    to joy in that fact.

    And in the true answer about God–
    There is no shame of the name of God
    or using it out loud or on paper.

    There are answers for your questions –
    indeed there are true answers for every question!
    As an educated man you must know that each question has a cost for the answer by either time or more education to its discovery, understanding and application!

    So it is with the spiritual realm and its relation and interaction with the material/temporal realm
    We Call is The Faith – or The Doctrines of Christ or in the vernacular The True Gospel of Jesus Christ
    It has rules and laws and formula- patterns and a fabric or reality that existed before you and remains
    after the end of your mortal life. It is there to find, learn, live and by which each can have Joy.

    Sadly what drives most to abandon the inner light from God is the fight with the desire to be selfish and rebellious. And the reality of God frightens or enrages those who will not bear the idea that their actions have consequences set and exact by the person who gave them life. That they don’t want to face admit accept and live accordingly. So they create avenues of escape – to avoid that confrontation and accounting.
    But the real Truth allows for change for repair and for Joy. It takes faith – mental power- and personal changes in behavior. But it is possible and it is worth the struggle!!

    And when you come to that Truth —
    perhaps you can use your talents to both entertain
    and to inspire your readers to seek the moral strength and nature of character to match the being the perfect man who so many call upon as ‘Father’

    Yours Truly

    And by the way– there is a communication tool to reach that actual person — it’s called prayer.
    And there is an actual means to getting answers and it’s called The Holy Ghost (another actual perfect man having a spirit body just like Jesus did before he came to earth and was born in a body just like each of us here on earth)
    And that holy man — ‘The Holy Ghost’ can answer your prayer. Then you shall know like I most definitely know
    that there is a God and there is a one and only True Faith
    and you can proceed on the greatest adventure — and see if you can reach your divine potential.
    You get to choose– seek Truth or
    remain in the realm of fiction.
    I hope you choose wisely


    1. You have found your Truth, but you don’t understand mine. Let’s leave it at that.

      1. Dov Ber says:

        There are all sorts of things to say to this. I found this on accident after reading through a bit more of Princeps. I wondered if perhaps he was a Jew because of the way he speaks about G-d. I find it interesting to hear that he may in fact be an Atheist. But I think overall the way he speaks about G-d in his books leans more towards belief than disbelief. Quaeryt’s thoughts on life seem to be in keeping with that. He understands more than he thinks he does. He just hasn’t made a decision.

        Mr. Modessit your characters seem to have the questing logical knowledge seeking characteristics of a Yid. That was just how it felt to me.

        As for the gentleman above, I don’t think it is appropriate to preach and missionize on an Author’s website.

        Also if you understand the importance of not using G-d’s name in vain why would you ever write it down? That makes little to no sense and show’s great disrespect to the one you claim to believe in. Do you call your mother by her first name? Your father? Do you hold so little reverence and awe for your Creator that its okay for you to just use his name for a little bit of self satisfaction? I doubt this will reach you after 6 years but oh well. I said what I had to say.

        Mr Modessit, I love your books. I have been reading them for around 16 years. The Imager series has been some of the best reading. I took Imager’s Intrigue with me to Yeshiva and it is currently sitting in my dorm in Jerusalem. Thank you so much for all the love and strength I have gotten from your writing. You have a wit and imagination that is unparalleled.

        All the best,

        Dov Ber

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