Religion seems to be a mainstay of our lives, but we rarely seem to appreciate its very purpose. It’s more like an accommodation to those who have faith, like if you want to go bowling: It’s something you can do if it suits your fancy, but necessary? Probably not.
It is worth exploring what the world looked like before Judaism (and later, Christianity). It was not pretty. Might made right. Theft, rape and murder were perfectly acceptable — at least for those in power. Think the Canaanites, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the ancient world in general. It took thousands of years for Judaism and Christianity’s teachings to filter down and create what we consider a universal “morality” today.
All of our sense of morality stems from what the Judeo-Christian mindset has taught us. Recognizing the primacy of family, for example, the Bible teaches us that incest is completely forbidden. Why so? It is not because abnormalities might occur. If that were the case, then a brother and sister who were older or who had no intention of having children should be able to marry each other. But we still forbid it.
The reason is that the possibility of sex among family (beyond the mother and father) would necessarily tear the fabric of the family: a mother might give birth to daughter, only to be terrified that her husband would one day abuse that girl as a sex plaything. No culture or family, let alone a civilization, could grow under such a paradigm.
For those who claim it was a matter of “logic” to prohibit incest, or that it was somehow rare, they would be wrong on both counts: incest was prevalent in the ancient world, including Rome and Greece. In short, like slavery and polygamy, incest was common.
Then there was polygamy. Not only did the ancient world practice it, it was a sign of wealth and power. Today is not only illegal in most of the civilized world, but when it is practiced, it is deemed backward and inherently evil.
Why the turnabout? Judaism understood the devastation that polygamy wreaks upon civilization. As Joseph Telushkin explains in his “Biblical Literacy,” the Bible shows the destructive nature of polygamy: from internal frictions and petty jealousies (Joseph is the “favorite” son because he derives from Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife), to the murderous (David has many wives, all of whom jockey for power to ensure that their son becomes the next king. Those sons war with David and each other.)
These were norms which we do not consider part of civilized society today. As Nonie Darwish explains in her own powerful book, “Now They Call Me Infidel,” polygamy leads only to mutual distrust, destructive jealousies, insecurity, and perpetual fear among women. This cannot advance civilization.
Likewise, slavery was the norm of the day. Until the early 19th Century, many people not only considered it “natural” in the development of society. After all, it always existed. And how else were you going to get those fields tilled?
It was not the professed “logic” of atheists or the human “heart” that ended slavery. It was the Judeo-Christian mindset, which derived from the teachings of the Bible and the New Testament, that pushed (and ultimately achieved) abolition of slavery, first in England and then in America. Soon, there was such passion against slavery that 600,000 men died in the struggle to eradicate it during the American Civil War.
Many atheists jump to argue that the Bible condoned slavery, and even embraced it. That is false. The fact that slavery coincided with Christianity doesn’t mean that Christianity created or approved it. One might as well argue that Mormons embrace alcohol and gambling because, alcohol and gambling exist today.
The Bible also repeatedly expresses its contempt of slavery. Not only is it a clear violation of the Eighth Commandment not to steal, but God made laws regarding the treatment of slaves so onerous and expensive that in the end, most Jews simply gave up the practice altogether.
It was Christianity and Judaism that fought against the evils of eugenics (a program of forced sterilization of “undesirables” that swept through America and later in Germany, and which gave Hitler a basis not only to sterilize “undesirables,” but to kill them as well) The godless were somehow absent in this fight. In fact, they embraced such programs, thinking that this would actually better mankind.
It happened even more recently. China’s one-child policy, first patterned as a “progressive” reform which many progressives in America wanted to follow to save our planet, soon revealed its horrors: the Chinese government was forcing abortions upon citizens. Those who failed to comply suffered destruction of their homes and even execution. Parents, realizing they could have only one child, routinely aborted girls.
God — and only God — can truly give us a sense of justice, wisdom, purpose and even our notion of freedom and the sanctity of the individual and life. Not only could Civilization not happen without such things, but Civilization means nothing without such things.
We forget the very reason why we enjoy these notions — especially freedom and the ability to enjoy those freedoms — is due to religion’s creation of the very concept of civilization. Those who believe otherwise do not realize that they are benefiting from a world that the Judeo-Christian religion has given them. It’s like finding yourself in an airplane at 20,000 feet in the sky and then somehow believing that you got there all by yourself. In fact, may you can even fly by yourself.
People seem to appreciate that technology has lifted us to the great scientific advances we’ve achieved. But when it comes to our general sense of morality? Somehow that all came about haphazardly and organically.
The morals and standards that we enjoy today, where we understand that it is wrong to steal, kill or otherwise violate each other is not the norm. We walk about our day-to-day lives, enjoying such foundations, but never really appreciating how we got them. But these are the value that allow us to have a civilization.
God is like air: We never really notice air. But take it away, and you’ll soon be thinking about pretty much nothing else.
And so it will be if we take God out of civilization.