I watched ‘12 Years a Slave’ the other day. To be honest, I don’t know whether I like it. I think there is a certain art in film making which includes being able to tell the story without the graphic and overwhelming demonstrations ‘12 Years a Slave’ relied on. However, there was a conversation between Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt which caught my eye. The question related to Fassbender’s assumption to his right to the slaves. Fassbender’s reasoning was the law permitted it. He was a religious man who had already descended into anarchy.
This is something I frequently point out: there’s a nihilism inherent in assuming values are handed down by society or God.
And the truth is, religious people and places do fall into anarchy. Sometimes the anarchy precipitates out precisely because of religion. Israel comes to mind, however the challenge once put to Christopher Hitchens comes more clearly to mind:
“A week before the events of September 11, 2001, I was on a panel with Dennis Prager, who is one of America’s better-known religious broadcasters. He challenged me in public to answer what he called a ‘straight yes/no question,’ and I happily agreed. ‘Very well,’ he said. I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now — would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting? As the reader will see, this is not a question to which a yes/no answer can be given. But I was able to answer as if it were not hypothetical. ‘Just to stay within the letter B, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance’.”
All of that is not to fall into the now cliché of saying that religion is the cause of war and descent into anarchy, but instead to clearly illustrate that religion does not protect you from a descent.
Fassbender’s character in ‘12 Years a Slave’ followed both the law and scripture. If you removed scripture, he would still have the law keeping him where he is (spoiler alert: it’s barbaric. But it offers the same limit as religion offers him). However, I imagine most religious people find it very patronising for people to assume that the only reason they are half-decent is because of the belief they have; that they have a celestial and external moral motivator. I know I find it patronising.
I am not religious. However, I hold down a respectable job, don’t push new mothers and prams into the road for walking too slowly and give up my seat on the train for the elderly. What do you assume I have that religious people do not that means I behave morally, where if you removed religion from the equation for religious people they would not? I find the question patronising because my grandma is a highly religious and moral person. This is true, except for her racism; she’s a product of her time, which is another thing that can keep a person within moral boundaries without being religious. I simply don’t see that if my grandma woke up tomorrow without faith that she’d be a worse person.
But it goes further than the offence I take and the imagination I have. There is evidence that a low rate of religiosity in a country is related to low rates of crime and a high level of psychological wellbeing. I confirmed the study in a rough sense by researching crime rates and religiosity rates of countries separately and found considerable overlap between the least religious rich countries and lowest crime rates globally. I implore you to do the same thing. Religion simply is not the gel of a community the question hopes it is.
“Atheism and secularity have many positive correlates, such as higher levels of education and verbal ability, lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism and homophobia, greater support for women’s equality, child-rearing that promotes independent thinking and an absence of corporal punishment, etc. And at the societal level, with the important exception of suicide, states and nations with a higher proportion of secular people fare markedly better than those with a higher proportion of religious people”
The question becomes “why do you suppose that lacking a belief in God leads to a descent in anarchy?”