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Can There Be a Decent Human Civilization Without Religion?

Recently, I took part in an "Intelligence Squared" debate at Wilderness Festival in England. The debate was: "The world needs religion, just leave God out of it." Before you go straight to the comments section to start typing your opinion, the debate was not "religion has done nothing but evil" or "militant atheists demand the desecration of all temples," it asked if a decent human civilization without religion was imaginable. So here is my edited speech, unhindered by my usual on stage wild gesticulation and frantic arms:

There are many pessimistic, sometimes apocalyptic, predictions of what happens to human beings when they lose religion.

What of the sense of community?

How will we face death?

What of charity, empathy and altruism?

A strong and fair society needs all these things, but does religion really provide them?

Some agnostic and atheist intellectuals eulogize the powers of religion. Of course, it's not needed for them. They can survive without it because they have read Plato in the original classical Greek, Attic dialect and all, and are financially secure enough not to need the pew, sermon and parish fete. They are thinking of others not as strong as them; how kind, how patronizing.

So what of those societies like ours that are reaping the benefits of fervent religion and the joy, community and altruism it brings.

In the rich nations list, Japan and Sweden vie for the least religious, while the USA seems to have a clear lead as the most. Poor Japan and Sweden must be in a parlous state, and yet...

...Why does the USA have murder rates five times worse than Japan and Sweden, incarceration almost 10 times worse than Sweden, a higher suicide rate amongst the young (and as Al Alvarez wrote in his study of suicide, The Savage God, the more religious the nation is the less likely it is to declare suicide as cause of death). The U.S. has twice the mortality amongst under fives than Japan and Sweden. Let's not forget the statistics on sexual disease and abortion; number one for gonorrhea, number one for syphilis and number one for abortion, not by a little bit, we are talking 40 to 50 times more than Japan and Sweden. Thank goodness the USA has religion, or imagine what state it would be?

If religion has lauded powers of altruism, empathy and community, surely the most religious nation on the rich nation list should not be so low on the successful qualities of life scale?

I am not going to be so trite as to blame the religion of the USA, but if religion is the answer, then why is it failing so dismally there?

Clearly, religion is not required to make a benign society, so what could be? Something the less religious and apparently more successful society share is greater equality. For all the churches in the USA and all the bibles with the teachings of Christ within, it is a society with an extreme gap between rich and poor. Fairness, not ancient and much revised texts may be far closer to the answer.

While Sweden and Japan and are amongst the four nations with lowest income inequality, the USA is the highest. Sweden and Japan are the lowest on the health and social problems list, while the USA is, by some long way, the highest. This is true on child well-being too.

But for governments and those nearer the swill, religion is a much easier and cheaper answer than the politically and economically difficult issue of creating a more equal society.

I've also been told that religion heightens the propensity for kindliness. Yet, the most recent UK citizenship survey shows that the percentage of Christians and non-religious people to be actively involved in volunteer work is very close, 58 percent to 56 percent. Other religious groups, such as Hindus and Muslims, are considerably lower. Of the religious people I know involved in charity work, most see the link between their religion and their altruism as, at the best foggy, and in the case of the former Dean of Guildford Cathedral, non-existent. The kindliness of a religious person may have little to do with their religion, and a great deal to did with their humanity, it's just some campaigners like to give commandments and heavenly hopes all the credit.

Beyond statistics, I ponder on my personal experiences of human behavior. I think of the work of the human rights lawyer who spends his life campaigning for people across the world who he feels have been wrongly punished, including incredible work in Guantanamo Bay. He is a godless human trying to help many who have religious beliefs, sometimes it has been little more than their religious beliefs that have led to their incarceration. I think of the atheists I know who support these campaigns through word and deed, disagreeing with the victims' religion, but not their rights to be treated as human beings.

I think about those I have met who work for Doctors Without Borders, or charities for the abused, people I know who work for hideously low pay and hideously long hours caring for people with extreme disability, mental health nurse, etc., etc... Some have no religion, some do, but you would be hard-pressed to work out which ones do and which ones don't if I introduced them to you. We are also told that the church holds a unique place in its ability for people of different classes and societies to gather, perhaps, just perhaps, that was true some centuries ago. In the 21st century this is no longer true. What of the people brought together by music, by theater, by art, by campaigning, by allotments...

And I think of goths. I think of the murder of Sophie Lancaster, and how her mother, Sylvia, and her friends, and a huge group of Goths and metal bands, many appearing to be united by little more than a liking of leather overcoats, smoke and music, made sure Sophie's life mattered to people who never even knew her by supporting the anti-bullying charity set up in her name. They organize gigs, they gather together, and they try and work out how to create a world where the sort of brutality that Sophie suffered can be combated by understanding.

I have seen too many disparate groups of people brought together too often to think religion has some unique ability to unite or improve us.

The loss of religion does not make life meaningless, if anything, I believe it strengthens the will to make life meaningful. My belief is that life is finite, and so I want to pack as much into it as possible, I want to look at the stars, I want to ponder the incredible richness of life framed in any window I look out of, I want to work out how I can make sure my son grows up to be a better human being than I am.

Without religion, there is still a greater feeling of delight in helping people than there is in doing nothing.

What we need is to celebrate and reward educators and education, to work towards generations of children who want to learn, who want to ask questions, who can face being part of this intriguing, confusing universe. we need to eschew dogma and embrace knowledge, grow up and realize that living in an uncertain world does not lead to a planet of nihilism and despair.

Some suggest that we water down religion, remove the ugliness of misogyny, homophobia, overbearing and harsh god or gods, but then why not just wash it away altogether and instead start striving towards a cosmopolitan society united by common goals of health, education, respect for the old and young, founded on principles of empiricism, critical thinking, philosophy, science and literature -- The Bible, Torah and Koran don't have to be thrown away, they can just join a far larger library with The Republic, Beyond Good and Evil, Middlemarch, The Myth of Sisyphus, the Treatise of David Hume. We can aspire to so much more, we do not need The Good Book, we need plenty of good books and plenty of open minds.

Some seek nostalgia, remember when a more Christian Britain was a happier more charitable place. Ah, the golden days of that Christian Victorian nation, where London was happy place of child prostitutes, baby killing was rife, the warmest place a child had to sleep in was a chimney and eight year old cress sellers plied their trade and died by the age of 10 having never even seen a park.

The roots of charity, empathy and altruism are not in religion, they are in our evolution -- we see apes sharing food with non-relatives, chimpanzees consoling attacked animals, the love of parent to child -- these are the roots, but we can rise above them -- we have begun to. Isn't it time we grew from our adolescence to the young adult stage of our existence?

And let's not fall into that patronizing trap that some of us can survive without religion, but those unwashed masses must be given something to help control their base urges.

Our narratives of life and death are changing as we understand more about our place in the universe, no religious narrative is grander to me than the fact that everything we are made of, every atom, was forged in a stellar nursery, that the atoms makes us now have made rocks, mules, dinosaurs, volcanoes, apple blossom and meteors, and that when we die, all those atoms will go to make many other things, spreading out across the mundane and the beautiful.

I believe we can rise above religion, just as we once rose above sacrificing goats for luck and burning spinsters because our crops have failed. The answers are not easy, which is why each time we reach new and better ones, we have achieved something remarkable for a species.

Robin Ince is currently touring "The Importance of Being Interested," a show about Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman and red-lipped batfish. Visit www.robinince.com for tour dates.

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