A Reply on Religion in Society

Jason Kuznicki of Positive Libery was kind enough to reply and comment to a post written somewhat earlier. I wrote a brief, off the cuff, reply in my links this morning. In this post/essay I’m going to attempt a more detailed response. Mr Kuznicki starts off:

We need religion because most people can’t manage (or won’t bother) to be good without it. A society can’t hold together without some shared values, and religion has almost always been at the heart of it. [emphasis mine]

The tail end of the last sentence is oblique for a reason: While religion has often held societies together, I would suggest that it has also often been a justification for dissent, revolt, and anti-social behavior.

“almost”? When has religion not been at the heart of shared values of a society (larger than a few 19th or 20th century isolated communal small social experiment)? However, it seems that Mr Kuznicki’s “almost” refers not the absence of communities without religion at their heart, but the occaisonal breakdown of community in the presence of religion. In my brief reply this morning, I had noted

In reading The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier it was noted by Mr Collier that ethnic and class (wealth) divisions are not statistically correlated with civil war.

This is contrary to the way things are normally considered. Ethnic and racial divisions in the current third world include religious difference and controversy. However, Mr Collier found that these differences are not statistically correllated with the outbreak of civil war. They are in fact the stated reasons why some of these sides are fighting. However these differences exist equally strongly in societies which do not break down. Religion has been the excuse used for dissent, revolt, and anti-social behavior. But it is likely that it is just an excuse.

Turning to a historical example, the riots in Justinian’s time might very well be termed violence spawned by and included in religious controversy, just as Mr Kuznicki might suggest. However, it is well to note that there was a dangerous culimination of factors. Religious differences aligned with sports “team” alliance, social difference, religious, and poltical. Imagine if today, our left/right divide also coincided with sport, religion regional, and economic differences. That GOP/Democrat today implied AFC/NFC (and similarly divided in other sporting venues), Protestant/Catholic, Urban/Rural, and Management/Labor at the same time. How long would peace last in that situation? Would it be “fair” to label the controversy “primarily about religion” as is frequently done in the case of Justinian’s situation.

Similarly, 17 and 18th century revolts were often about religion. However, that needs to be carefully considered. How often did religious differences coincide in regions and not result in breakdown of civil society. Mr Collier’s research implies that it [clarification: “it” here being social breakdown.] is not correlated. Correlation does not imply cause. However, lack of correlation does on the other, I think, seem to suggest lack of causation.

Mr Kuznicki continues:

Religion isn’t just a social adhesive. It’s also a corrosive. Religion has justified charity, but it’s also justified some horrible violence. I’d be remiss in my duties as an atheist if I failed to point this out.

My point in the former essay, was not that religion just “justified charity”. It put charity “on the map.” Again, harking back to Byzantium. Religion, in the form of homilies for which we have written record, were (according to the book The Byzantines) marked the first time in recorded history where narrative accounts of the lives of the poor were introduced in to the public square (via a definite lack of separation of Church and State). Christianity didn’t just “justify” charity. It brought it into the public square for the very first time. I’d be remiss in my duties as a Christian if I failed to point this out.

Oh, and one final note. I realize that Mr Kuznicki received his PhD, and could/should be referred to as Dr (as did I as it turns out). However, it’s been the custom on this blog to refer to people by their Mr/Ms + patronymic as a method of encouraging, via distance and some formality, measured polite discourse.

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  1. I’m far from expert on this subject, but is it really fair to say that religion has been “at the heart of shared values” of Eastern (i.e. Asian, not Orthodox) societies?

  2. Mark says:

    I’m not as well read on Asian history, but I think you’ll find that the religious impulse is not any less prevalent in the Asia as well. Consider for example, the civil religions linked to ancestor worship of Confucius and the earlier very political religion in China.

  3. […] A Reply on Religion in Society. Mark Olsen at Pseudo-Polymath. Mark argues what the Founding Fathers believed, that the Church (Christian religion) is required for a successful self-sustaining state. Religion, rather than being the source of social breakdown and civil war, is often the source of the charity that mitigates the situation driven by other factors. As Mark noted, “My point in the former essay, was not that religion just justified charity. It put charity on the map. Right on. Christian charity is almost a definition. […]