Political Economy Matters
Throw them Out

Is Religion Needed in the 21st Century?

Jonathan B. Wight

Earlier this year the Cambridge Debate Society provided a wonderful debate on the role of religion in the 21st century. Much of the discussion related to the origins and importance of ethics in society.

Richard Dawkins (biologist of The Selfish Gene fame) and others present sharp arguments against the theology of God, original sin, blood sacrifice, and other religious dogmas that deliberately obscure the search for truth via science. Dawkins notes that the laws of physics somehow gave rise to trees, insects, and humans, and it is a glorious achievement—but it was not the result of a plan, even as we want so much to believe in a designer. Nor can we argue that religion is the basis for morality, which develops and evolves along the lines of moral sentiments not divine commands.

Dawkins says we should not be satisfied with religious supernatural non-explanations. These are a "cop-out" and "phony substitute for an explanation." Religion is a pernicious "charlatan" that gets in the way of truthful explanations. There are gaps in our knowledge, through which many religious would seek to offer their answers, but the gaps are getting increasingly narrower.

On the other side of the debate, Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) and others argue that engagement with religion contributes to the organization of society. Religion is not so much "organized" as "communal." Religion is a matter of community-building, compassion, fellow-feeling, inclusion, and tradition-building.

William's strongest argument is that religion was the basis for the development (and continued support) of the concept of human rights. Religious community, he argues, is based a passionate metaphysical commitment to human equality: the respect and dignity for everyone. How can rights for all be defended without the backdrop of an argument that each is created equally in the sight of the creator?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Citizens in some atheistic countries today enjoy rights, by way of tradition. But will such traditions survive without the underlying fabric of belief in a higher power? To Williams it is not wholly self-evident why everyone deserves our respect, except as an object of God's love. By contrast, Dawkins offers no defense of rights in a Darwinian world of survival of the fittest.

Williams notes that that even religious people fall short of perfection and narrow sects sometimes exclude others. However, the basic evolution of religious thought supports a greater concept for the possibility of humanity. A pluralistic discussion leads to improving both the church and society. Critics noted the gender discrimination in many churches such as Catholicism and Islam, and that the fastest growing religions in the world today seek to exclude non-believers.

There was much of interest in this hour-and-a-half debate. On leaving, students at Cambridge took a vote. Williams won the debate, 324 votes to 136, convincing the house that religion has a place in the 21st century.


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