THE LATEST THINKING
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How Are We Influenced by Religion?
How secular are we? Are religious values inescapable?
An old debate between religious and nonreligious people comes up, in which the necessity of religion in society is debated. Some might argue that religion is necessary, and without it, there is no point in being moral, upstanding people. Without religion, they feel we would descend into chaos. Others might say that we don't need religion to tell us to have basic decency, like not stealing or murdering. We still need to have rules to function in society, after all, and they feel religion is an unnecessary tool to get us there. So who is right? I'm going to say both sides are right, but neither are completely right.
Let's first look at a strictly individual level. It is true that we probably don't need religious justification for why murder and theft are wrong. But there are some values that are perhaps less obvious to us. Consider mercy, forgiveness or compassion. There remains debate as to whether or not these should be considered positive, and without religion, the justification becomes less clear. Values of temperance, charity, loving one's enemy and more examples can be found of values that are still up for debate.
We can also look at it broader, in a legal sense. Codes of law have existed for thousands of years, from Hammurabi's Code and Roman law to medieval law to what we have in modern day. Advanced, successful societies have certainly instituted secular law, but it's important to perceive these cultures. These systems of law didn't exactly allow for much forgiveness or leniency, and the cultures were often brutal and tribalistic. Today's laws of Western society are, by comparison, more merciful and, in some cases, fairer than ancient, once effective codes.
This doesn't mean all religiously motivated laws are the way to go. I'm sure we can all find examples, past and present, where religion in morality the law got things wrong. It's also a question as to if secular reason would eventually yield these types of moral and legal codes we see. But it stands to reason that religion has influenced or morality and law in seemingly innocuous ways.
While it seems interesting to postulate a world without religious influence, our modern systems of law and morality seem inextricably linked to these concepts. What seems clear, however, is that religion has ingrained itself on these modern systems, and it begs the question if we can (or should) secularize these aspects of life without removing its benefits and functionality.
So in a way, both sides of the debate are right and wrong. Religious people would do well to consider that society would exist without religious doctrine, and core moral tenants exist without religion. Nonreligious people would do well to consider that, while functional, society without religion would likely be far more primitive, brutal and tribalistic than modern society, as well as look at their own values that are likely uniquely religiously connected.