Lawrence Solomon: Godless societies are unfit for survival

(December 22, 2011) Time and again, they have been outcompeted by God-fearing societies.

“My own wish,” said Christopher Hitchens, the God Is Not Great author who died last week, is “to write an anti-Christmas column that becomes fiercer every year.”

God’s Ten Commandments trumped those of any king or despot in Christendom, curbing their power to rule by whim. (Credit: Paramount)

Hitchens didn’t live long enough to write a fiercer anti-Christmas column this year: The world has lost its most fashionable atheist. It has also lost a man of irony who inveighed against vulgarity while being vulgar, against propaganda while being a propagandist, and against illogic while being illogical. “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof,” Hitchens famously wrote, seemingly oblivious that he was himself asserting without proof. Worse, he asserted in ignorance, having made false assumptions.

Hitchens believed that the Judeo-Christian religion cannot be credited with imbuing in people desirable values, asserting: “If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now.” In dismissing “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” one of the Ten Commandments from God that Moses is said to have brought down from Mount Sinai, Hitchens asserted: “We don’t know of any society that has a commandment saying it’s OK to steal or a social custom that allows it.”

In fact, stealing is and has been lawful in many, perhaps most societies throughout time. The Spartans of ancient Greece encouraged their youth to steal, to teach them how to be surreptitious,resourceful, and agile. The crime — and Spartans punished it harshly — came in stealing badly, and being caught. In other societies, stealing from your own kind is considered immoral; stealing from others a matter of choice. According to Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture, published by University of California Press, gypsies have no moral objections to stealing “so long as one does not victimize another Gypsy, causes no physical harm, and takes no more than is necessary to survive.”

Even the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is and was at odds with the values of numerous societies. The Druids killed innocents in ritual slaughters, the Romans for entertainment. In many tribal or clan-based societies, honour killings for sexual transgressions remain obligatory. In most societies, the rules for killing distinguished between killing your own people and killing those of other societies, to whom you owed no obligation.

Moral values are not universal. Those peculiar to modern Western society, as summarized by the Ten Commandments, stem from the notion that there is but one God, and that all humans are created in His image. This entirely novel idea led to the widely accepted Western view that all human life is sacred. The notion of God as the ultimate lawmaker also promoted democracy — God’s Ten Commandments trumped those of any king or despot in Christendom, curbing their power to rule by whim.

Hitchens’ main point, of course, is the stupidity of religious belief, and the superiority of atheism. Where’s the proof? As a believer in evolution and survival of the fittest, he should have found the evidence to the opposite overwhelming. History has shown godless societies to be unfit for survival. Time and again, they have been outcompeted by both gods-fearing and God-fearing societies.

The term “atheist” comes from the ancient Greek, meaning “godless” or “to deny the gods.” It described the various writers and philosophers who doubted the existence of gods, or who doubted that the gods in any way cared about or influenced humans. Godless societies are believed to have existed throughout history although we know little about most of them, presumably because they died out. We do know a little about some, like the Lokayatikas of ancient India who advocated a “faithless” system, and who dwindled out over centuries. Some Pygmy tribes that not only lacked gods but superstitious rites did survive to modern times. But they haven’t thrived.

France’s brief experiment during the French Revolution with state atheism — known as the Cult of Reason — ended badly, in the desecration of churches and synagogues, persecution and a bloodbath at the guillotine. In the last century, godless societies made their comeback in the USSR, Red China, Cambodia and other communist countries. While many then saw these forms of social organization as the way of the future, most communist societies are dying or have died out, North Korea being the last great exemplar of a godless country.

When God’s law is not observed, the law can become whatever the ruler wants it to be: Ultimately there are no human rights, let alone property rights, as totalitarianism reigns. When religion becomes ascendant, so too does the rule of law. Here lies one of the most hopeful trends in the world today — the rapid rise of religion in a land that until recently was almost as soulless as North Korea: China. This still officially atheistic country now has an estimated 300 million worshippers of all faiths, with Christianity the fastest rising among them. Red Chinese Communism’s replacement — today’s lawless capitalism — leaves the Chinese wanting for more. Through growing religiosity, China has its best chance of reforming to a democratic society that respects human dignity and the rule of law.

“God didn’t invent man; man invented God,” Hitchens said. Perhaps that is true — we have no way of knowing. We do know, however, that if man did invent God, it was a useful invention, and a wondrous gift to mankind.

God is great. Have yourself a Merry Christmas!

This article first appeared in the Financial Post.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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