The amalgamation of three current events makes this question perhaps more salient than ever. Primarily it's the Christmas period. This is a time of monotheistic spiritual inception for the western world's faithful and one on both consumption and giving for the secular. Secondly, the conjoining in the last few weeks of two polarising politics views regarding the matter of faith.
The death of aggressive atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, who not only posited the positive ramifications of secularised society but insisted on the dangers of both organised religion and the idealistic worship of higher beings. In the same week, and at the other end of the spectrum, David Cameron announced that he felt British society needed to embrace Christian values is a more assertive manner.
In the modern technologised world, ever more dependent on the scientific method as an effective means to an end where should the future of society, the State and Church run? Should we embrace the teachings of monotheistic religions or is time to focus on what atheists see as the rational pursuit of knowledge based on evidence and practical necessity thus demoting the supernatural to the domain of pure speculation?
This question is not a contemporary one. The role of deities and their employment by society has been discussed by political philosophers since ancient times. And where politics can be self enwrapping, there is often political motivations behind political decisions and statements; the politics behind the politics if you like. Does David Cameron sincerely believe that religious values, in this case Christianity, can really benefit society; or is it an alluring and illusory trick with the aim of pandering to traditional conservative support? Why does society and politicians need God?
The Greek Philosopher Seneca said that religion is believed by the masses, refuted by the wise and useful for those in power. This analysis perhaps is nowhere more applicable today than the United States. The far right branch of the Republican Party must appease the southern Bible belt. Thus adherence to dogmatic Biblical ethos is the norm. This means same sex marriage and abortion is forbidden due to archaic canon. The religious posture enacted by American politicians is ever apparent in the fact that Congress has only one open atheist amongst their flock. Certain Republicans prefer to conspicuously ramp up the religiosity meter. Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Ron Paul either question or reject the theory of evolution. Now one cannot say whether these politicians sincerely believe their own message. Whether they practice what they preach cannot be known but one wonders how much homework has been done by the PR team.
This enigmatic religious framework and the controversy it ignites within the social world has seen a resurgence in debate over the last decade. Terrorist bombers' self sacrifice for the higher good fueled much of the new atheistic movement that included Christopher Hitchens. Is religion useful in any way? The new atheists would say it is far more dangerous than it is benevolent. The surrender to autonomy outside our world of existence and the acceptance of paradigms based on faith is a pernicious cognitive state. The blocking of stem cell research by the Bush administration was attributable to the adherence to scripture and its preference over rational scientific research. But does society need God and Why?
This question spurned Emile Durkherim, a founding father of Sociology. Durkheim proposed that religion was the glue that held social fabric together. It was both the most profound and affective way of ensuring a social collective outside the individualistic centered political philosophy espoused by Bentham and Mill. For Durkheim religion had vast practical benefits for society.
In the contemporary world, the arguments encompassing the need or disposal of religion tend to encompass the question of morality. This is partly because the question encapsulating the existence of God itself is obviously a prominently complex one. Theologians today tend to couch out some of their arguments in the cosmological realm. They state principles of "fine tuning" in an otherwise inhospitable universe. Others, even smarter philosophers propose that the existence of time and space cannot have a singularity in terms of cause an effect for the polar opposite of everything is nothing and "nothing" cannot cause a "thing". Thus there must be a force of creation outside the boundaries of temporal linear cause and effect that transcends time and space. These issues depend on the riddled concepts of causation and explanation in philosophy of science. However my concern here is not an ontological one. I want to question the source of morality and its necessary employment in society.
Morality is undoubtedly a required protocol in society. And often is not because we do not want to be left by ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world where the winner takes all, by any means necessary. The majority of the time is that we cannot but help feel sympathy for, and empahtise, with others. The ramifications of guilt, sadness or sympathy in the conscious being are as perplexing as they are mysterious. Here we come to the source of morality in society and an area where religious champions believe they have a coup de gras.
Proponents of religion and its necessary integration with society propose a moral virtue grown out of religion. In effect without God there can be no morality. But do we need God and religion to be moral in society? Research from within the social and natural sciences says no. And if you think you need religion to be moral this raises the question of what you would behave like if you did not think morality was based on God and its consequences!
The source, role and function of morality have been the focus of much debate lately. Concrete definitions of right and wrong feature as arguments proposing the objectivity of morality, which can only have its source in God. This strays way from the relativist perception of morality and the "good life" proposed by Aristotle. For the religious, there are objective forms of morality that one innately knows to be wrong through life's participation as a conscious being.
For the subscribers to a naturalistic perspective of morality, born out of evolutionary theory, they can be no objective framework from which to stand outside social life and classify behaviour as objectively right or wrong as these are cultural and social values dependent on contextual factors. For instance western contemporary societies no longer feel the need to publicly execute adulterers as where in certain societies this activity is seen as being morally depraved and worthy of execution.
Whether morality is subjective or objective one cannot dispute its existence, so where lies the source? I have already outlined the religious arguments for this but what about the alternative? Why is it that humans developed the need to be compassionate and thoughtful towards others especially in the face of survival of the fittest? Well known arguments consist of the ability and need for early nomadic tribes to coexist together. This then entails two primal functions of empathy and moral engagement. Primarily men need the assistance of others to survive and secondly it is in your own interest not to overtly engage in conflict with others. Disputes over ideals and decision making would have always existed and this is part of human disagreement. However acts such as stealing the food or children of others, murder and rape carry with them severe penalties and consequences due to the mental and physical well being of their effects. This gives an evolutionary basis for the development of morality as a functional role, bringing specific attention to why certain acts and ideas over others produce abomination from the collective society in question and your own conscience as a member of the same human species. However this does not justify a framework for objective morality only a series of learned and evolved processes over time that have enabled societies to coexist together by favouring certain acts an ideals whilst simaltaneously stigmatizing and chastising others.
Without the need to use God and religion to justify morality in society, an area in which all agree that ethical codes need to be enacted to protect members in society, what is the need and role of religion in society? Some say religion is comforting so it has its benefits even if it is fallacious. I believe that these claims of fantastical yet erroneous belief are dangerous. They seem to be an over glamorised version of eating chocolate as comfort food, which may be good in the short term but has health effects in the long term. Then there is the pluralist perspective in politics that freedom of speech and ideas are welcome in an open and free society. This is a view that most ascribe to; the ability and possibility to let others believe in something that you do not. On this politically philosophical account alone religion warrants its place in society as a belief system.
However on face value it appears as if religion is not needed for fully functioning societies. People can live fulfilled, responsible and inter-collective lives based around ethics that need not be cited by, or attributed to, an omnipotent creator. To a certain extent this was the goal of some of the enlightenment thinkers; that the exercising of reason and rationality embedded in an evidence based account of epistemology would eventually render belief in deities extinct. We have clearly not reached that stage yet and is it even desirable?
Part on the problem regarding the God hypothesis lies in epistemology. What evidence would warrant the existence of God? Conversely what evidence would disprove the existence of God? The question itself is not even a scientific one, for Karl Popper, as it is not falsifiable. What is apparent is humanity's obsession with the metaphysical. By pushing the limits of known and unknown forms existence, humans in the 21st century have continued with their beliefs concerning multiple realities and other worlds. With religious dogma and scripture losing favour with the masses we have seen a spike in spiritualism and new age philosophy. This is the adherence to souls and the afterlife not necessarily connected to the concept God. Perhaps this poses the greatest problem and question for those divided on the God hypothesis: Is the continuous metaphysical adherence proof of God's spiritual existence or does it illustrate, in profound terms, the obsession with God and the afterlife as being a naturally occurring phenomenon in the human psyche?