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Religion as a Civilizing Influence



By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

17 March 2013

Let us look at what life was like before civilization and organized religion some 10,000 years ago. In his book, `War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage’, Lawrence Keeley argues that the myth of the peace-loving noble savage is both grossly off the mark and misleading. Keeley bases his thesis on archaeological and historical research and shows that pre civilization warfare was more deadly than modern war. The savages lived in small communes widely separated from other communes, had great mistrust of others, which often lead to raids and ambushes, resulting in a high death-rate. His conclusion, based on examination of archaeological evidence, is that the homicide rate of prehistoric Illinois villagers may have exceeded that of the modern United States by some 70 times. He concludes that 30% of adult males died due to homicide 10000 years ago and death due to violence was 0.5% of the population per year Otterbein, K.F. in his book ‘How War Began’ provides supporting data and evidence which takes us to similar conclusions

If we take the death rate of 0.5% of population per year due to war or homicide before civilization, we should have had two billion deaths in the 20th century against the actual number of 100 million. This is despite two world wars, dropping of two nuclear bombs and vastly superior powers for destruction in the 20th century. At today’s population figure of 7 billion, we should expect 35 million deaths due to war or homicide per year against a figure which may be less than a million. The conclusion that we are far more civilized today than we were 10,000 years ago is inescapable.

Having established that man has indeed become more civilized and less violent, let us quickly examine, of the 100 million who died a violent death from unnatural causes in the 20th century, how many were on account of religious war/strife? The two world wars and the dropping of nuclear bombs had nothing to do with religion and resulted in 76 million deaths. The genocide in Russia by Stalin (1 million), the estimated 3 million killed in China during their “cultural revolution”, the US wars in Indochina, Korea, and Cambodia had little to do with religion. The cold war resulted in the dissolution of the USSR and many interventions of the US in Central America and had nothing to do with religion. All the big ticket items of violence in the 20th century, we discover, are for reasons other than religion. The big ticket item for religious violence in the 20th century was in Bosnia-Herzegovina resulting in 200,000 deaths. Religious strife does not appear to have been the cause for more than 1% of deaths in the 20th century. Even if we take a high figure of say 10%, the surprising finding is that contrary to what most people think of religion as a divisive force, the fact remains that religion is a very minor cause for strife and killing.

Let us now look at the civilizing influence of religion. We are all familiar with moral and ethical precepts that come from religion such as, the virtues of striving in the face of odds, of patience and perseverance, of abstinence and piety, of forgiveness in place of revenge, of returning good for evil, of observing limits in behaviour, the virtues of hard work, honesty, sharing, sacrifice and gratitude, the virtue of faithfulness and propriety and of justice tempered with mercy, the rights of the elderly, the orphans, the women and the weak. These values are transcendental and absolute and without reference to the consequences. Apart from Religion, is there any other source for moral, humane and ethical precepts and principles? Let us quickly examine what the philosophers have to offer.

Concept of Morality from Philosophy

Bentham begins his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) with this hedonistic assumption about human motivation that goes no further than describing mankind in terms that are equally applicable to animals.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure

 Man’s behaviour according to him, is governed by self interest:

“On the occasion of every act he exercises, every human being is led to pursue that line of conduct which, according to his view of the case, taken by him at the moment, will be in the highest degree contributory to his own greatest happiness.”

Bentham claims that utility not only describes human motivation but sets the standard of right and wrong.

“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question …”

In order to make man act not only in accordance with self interest, but in accordance with what is good for the society, rules must be framed and man should be made accountable, so that his self-interest and the interests of society coincide. Locke, Hume and John Stuart Mill have similar things to say.

St Thomas Aquinas thinks that all moral principles and norms can be inferred as either implicit in, or “referable to” as conclusions from the moral first principle of love of neighbor as self. But he never displays an example or schema of these deduction-like inferences. His successors have proposed that moral principles and norms have the self-evidence of first principles.

Immanuel Kant describes morality as acting in accordance with the categorical imperative which he defines as follows:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

The debate that raged subsequent to Kant proposing 'the principle of supreme morality" was why a rational being would go beyond maximizing utility in this World?

For example, if a judge had to pass a verdict on a simple matter where the litigants were a common man and the ruler and although justice favoured the common man on the issue, a verdict in his favour would make the ruler take revenge on  the judge. A verdict in favour of the ruler would cause the common man a very small harm which the judge could easily compensate monetarily from his own pocket. Should the judge please the ruler by giving a verdict in his favour, satisfy the common man by compensating him from his pocket and also save himself from the evil consequences of giving a judgement against the ruler? Common sense and considerations of utility would dictate that he should do what appears expedient.

What about society itself? Would doing the right thing in this matter set a shining example which would be followed by generations to come? Would doing the right thing prevent future compromises of a similar nature where outcomes are not so clear? Would compromising today lead to bigger and bigger compromises later and ultimately to oppression of the weak? The categorical imperative demands that the end is justice and a just verdict is given irrespective of the consequences.

The question then is how reasonable is such an expectation and why would any rational being go to such great lengths to do the right thing?

Kant eventually clarified in response to this predicament, affirming a principle that, “with respect to choice and action, such practical use of our reason cannot require of us what is impossible. To the extent that we view these requirements of reason from the sensible perspective of spatio-temporal causality, they will seem impossible of fulfilment. When, however, we view them from the intelligible perspective within which we frame the exercise of freedom, their fulfilment can legitimately be “postulated” in terms of the immortality of the soul and of the existence of God. Thus, with respect to the requirement that we attain the complete moral perfection of a holy will, Kant holds that we are justified in affirming that we will have an unending and enduring existence after death, outside the framework of spatio-temporal causality, in which to continue the task of seeking moral perfection. He holds a similar view with respect to the requirement that the highest good be the object of our willing. Even though our moral actions do not seem to have the efficacy required in a spatio-temporal framework to produce the happiness proportioned to virtue that is a necessary component of the highest good, we are justified in affirming that there is a supreme cause of nature — i.e., God — that will bring this about, not merely for ourselves, but for all moral agents.”

Immanuel Kant in his principle of supreme morality admits that without the concept of an immortal soul and a life in the hereafter, morality based on the categorical imperative (beyond consideration of utility or consequences or likes and dislikes or responding instinctively) may not be possible. Every other philosopher’s concept of morality is limited to the hypothetical imperative which Kant admits is without ‘moral worth’. Morality based on rational thinking cannot go beyond utilitarianism and consequentialism or beyond maximizing self interest in this World. While the philosophers have defined what morality is, they have singularly failed to generate moral and ethical precepts from these definitions and philosophers like Aquinas have fallen back on self evident first principles which derive from religion.

We discover that except Kant, the Philosophers have been unable to define morality beyond what maximizes selfish self interest. Kant has gone beyond others to define morality in absolute and transcendental terms, but he has had to fall back on religion to admit that such morality is not possible without a belief in God and an afterlife. 

An Example of Morality Based On Rational Thinking

Consider the following story from Jonathan Haidt’s book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’

“Julie and Mark are sister and brother. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoying making love, but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.”

Do you think it is acceptable for two consenting adults, who happen to be siblings, to make love? Haidt  goes on to argue that there is no valid rational argument against it since Julie is unlikely to conceive, their relationship is likely to become closer, the act is kept secret, and that they are unlikely to repeat it.

Does not everything start in small and safe ways and eventually become an epidemic? The absolute law of morality or the categorical imperative therefore has value. Morality based on rational thinking cannot take us beyond acting out of the hypothetical imperative.

The dangers of moral relativism are underestimated. Children outgrow their incestual and homosexual urges and are helped in no small way by the sexual mores of society and religion based taboos surrounding incest and homosexuality. Remove these and we already see homosexuality becoming far too common. This is not because what was hidden earlier is now coming out into the open, but a case of many who otherwise may have reoriented themselves after experiencing the childhood urges, are now indulging in it as it is no longer considered immoral. It is a matter of time before incest becomes both common and acceptable. The population growth rate of the ‘developed world’ is below maintenance levels. With homosexuality and incest becoming common, it can reach dangerously low levels and the societies can self destruct.

Philosopher Fredrick Nietzche declared that God is dead.  If God is dead, then morality is a matter of personal choice. The root of a person’s denial of God is also the person’s moral depravity. It is far too uncomfortable for a morally depraved person to believe in God.

What Has Psychology To Tell Us About Human Nature?

Dan Baston at the University of Kansas, devised a clever study to make people make moral choices unobserved, and his findings are that 90% of people are moral hypocrites and are unaware of it. They will cheat, if they think that they can get away with it. My guess is that more than 90% fall in this category and some are simply less enterprising and need more time to feel comfortable enough in a new environment (such as provided by the test), to start cheating.

Religion Based Morality

Religion promotes absolute transcendental values. The relativity of values has lead to vulgarity and obscenity, to the widespread use of alcohol and of drug addiction, to making homosexual relations common, and to the breaking down of barriers for incest. “Human dignity and the nobility of character are based upon permanence and stability in the moral order.”

Atheists underestimate the influence that religion has on their notions of morality which are derived from the society they live in. Although there are outward signs of decline in religion, notions of morality derived from religion still govern the lives of people. Moral precepts and all great ideas are logical in hindsight. These ideas are therefore accepted by all.  An atheist may reject religion but he will not reject good moral precepts irrespective of their origin. Because these ideas are self evident in hindsight, people tend to think that these ideas have always been there or are as a result of human thinking. We have just seen that the moral precepts owe nothing to philosophy or literature and come solely from religion. Religion besides giving us transcendental moral values has inspired great art, literature, music and architecture and has undoubtedly been a great civilizing influence.

I conclude that Religion has undeniably had a civilizing influence on society and without it, we would have remained barbarians. The weakening of the influence of religion and of absolute moral values that go with it, and the growing trend of moral relativism, will lead us into an enlightened form of barbarianism but barbarianism nevertheless. Technology may help us with surveillance and to ensure compliance with manmade laws, but can they be a substitute for the voluntary compliance with absolute ethical and moral values, to the inner peace and serenity that goes with it, and the higher meaning it gives to life?


Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to