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Religion: Good or evil?BY: Dan Rottenberg 11.16.2009
Is religion a force for good or evil in the world? Maybe that’s the wrong question. In a constantly evolving world, yesterday’s force for good often becomes today’s obstacle to progress.
Lest we forget: A few kind words for
Is religion a force for good or evil in the world?
Maybe that’s the wrong question, as some recent responses in our Letters columns remind me.
Yesterday’s progressive ideas are today’s regressive ideas. What seems new and enlightened today will seem archaic and backward tomorrow.
Take any currently despised social practice you can think of and you will likely find that it originated as an improvement over the status quo:
Our debt to feudal lords
—In retrospect, feudalism was a nasty system that kept peasants in thrall to powerful feudal lords; but in the Middle Ages it was an ingenious concept that enabled starving peasants to earn a living while simultaneously transforming Europe from an undeveloped forest into a civilization.
— Gender-based job descriptions were a logical response to the staggering physical workload of the pre-industrial world, in which physically stronger men were needed to clear, chop, plow, hunt, build, mine and defend, leaving women to fill equally important domestic roles as nurturers, cooks and housekeepers.
— Homophobia— literally “fear of homosexuality"— is a vestige of the thousands of years before antibiotics, when population replacement was a major concern and every able body was needed in the reproductive pool. If the gay tenth of the population followed its natural inclinations and declined to reproduce, it could have meant extinction of the species (unlike today, when our big concern is overpopulation and gays are increasingly accepted).
Rottenberg’s Law applies with equal validity to most enlightened concepts today. The notion of life imprisonment without parole, for example, strikes many people as a humane alternative to capital punishment. And surely it is. But a thousand years from now, I suspect, historians who study us will feel less forgiving abut the alacrity with which we lock up 18-year-olds and throw away the key.
So it is with religion. The first polytheistic gods provided the ancient Greeks and Romans with a revolutionary means of explaining their otherwise inexplicable universe. That system became passé after the ancient Hebrews’ embrace of a single god— implying, as it did, that all things are interconnected— drew the first sophisticated connection between religion and morality.
Supernatural religion still works for many people as a method for explaining the unexplainable. But inevitably it has lost ground to another revolutionary means of explanation: modern scientific method. And as I suggested in this column last month, in Europe, for the first time, the primary explanatory role of religion seems to have been rejected by damn near an entire continent.
Liberals and conservatives together
So the critical question isn’t whether religion is a force for good or evil— because, in a constantly evolving world, yesterday’s force for good often evolves into today’s obstacle to progress.
Incidentally, my earlier column on this issue noted that conservative pundits often dismiss godless modern Europe as a lethargic repository of political and moral decadence. I hasten to acknowledge that some liberals share the same dim view of today’s Europe. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, writes Timothy Garton Ash in the New York Review of Books (Nov. 5), may have been “the last occasion— at least for a very long time— when world history was made in Europe. Today, world history is being made elsewhere.”
Return with me a thousand years hence, Timothy. I wager you’ll feel otherwise.♦
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