The London Olympics have come and gone, and left us with great opportunities to ponder. There was music for all generations, some speaking to multiple generations. The lyrics of John Lennon set me to musing about our post-religious culture.
You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We do want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution . . .
We have evolved. Approximately 3,500 years ago a people crossed the Red Sea and, though filled with fear and trepidation, they wandered in the wilderness and were reborn. It was in this vast unknown that the greatest revolution in human history took place: the revelation of the Word of God at Mount Sinai. We can discuss whether or not this revelation took place as written, but there is no doubt that the document has been bequeathed to us. A people enslaved for centuries were freed by this document of ethical monotheism. It was the greatest gift ever given to humanity, at any time, because it freed all of us from the constraints of capricious and malevolent gods, from tribalism, and from delusions of entitlement.
It was this document that demanded that we behave in a way that is anathema to the instinctual preservation of the self. It demanded that we sublimate our animal survival instincts and open ourselves to the needs of others, outside family, clan, and tribe. It is a document that teaches the importance of universal compassionate action and empathy, which it turns out are needed to live in a vibrant and diverse civilization.
There may be other documents expressing the same ideals, but it is ethical monotheism given to the Israelites in the Sinai desert that is the foundation, the very underpinnings of Western culture. Our social, political, and judicial systems are rooted in the teachings of the Hebrew Bible from the organization of the Supreme Court, to the ethics of business and law, our political systems and social justice—caring for the stranger, the weak, the poor, the sick and downtrodden.
There are those who say that religion is the root of all evil, that we are naturally good in our humanistic hearts.
Imagine there’s no heaven . . .
No hell below us . . .
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
We don’t have to imagine. The Enlightenment of the 18th century introduced us to new philosophies claiming the end of theism, the arrival and departure of deism, and the reign of atheism. That new religion was Reason. An objective reality of God was pursued. Voltaire proclaimed, “With the decline in the strength of religious creeds . . . there would follow a concomitant decline in human hatreds, in the urge to destroy another man” because of his religious beliefs. Over time, one would become indifferent to religion and this indifference would lead to tolerance. Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron d’Holbach wrote in the early 19th century, “If the ignorance of nations gave birth to the Gods, the knowledge of nature is calculated to destroy them.” By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the theories of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx were devoid of God.
Nietzsche proclaimed the birth of a new Superman, an enlightened, powerful man who would declare war upon old Christian values. Jungian psychology was questioning monotheism and turning towards the mystery cults of antiquity that Jung believed would free people from the repressive mask of civility imposed on them by monotheism, which he believed alienated them from their natural roots, their connection to the instinctive and intuitive natural man.
Removing God did not lead to peace. Instead it released the human race from the ordeal of civility—the ethics and morals revealed to us by God—and we reverted to tribalism, our innate instincts of selfishness. We let go of the onerous commandment to care for the other, for the stranger, for the weak and the sick. We returned to caring only for the family, the clan, the tribe.
The death of religion let us release the ties that bind us together, one to another, and latch on to the new holy grail: a world without boundaries, without restraints, which allows us to behave according to the animal within away from the path of kindness and compassion.
That brings me back to the music of the 2012 Olympics. I grew up with the Beatles. I still have my Beatles memorabilia. Because London paid homage to John Lennon—because his lyrics still speak to so many—we were asked, again, to imagine a world without religion.
Who would have imagined in this post-religion enlightened era the horror that would be unleashed on the innocent: from Mao in China to Stalin in the USSR; Hitler in Europe, to the Killing Fields of Cambodia; the massacres in Rwanda, the subjugation and starvation in North Korea, and the atrocities that took place with the breakdown of Yugoslavia into tribes, and now in Syria?
Those of us who believe in religion imagined it. We knew that ethical monotheism was a great revolutionary gift in the evolution of humankind; that abolishing the belief in this ethical God could lead to a reign of terror. Left to our own devices we fall back on tribal behaviours. It takes time to internalize civility, and the morals, values, and ethics that teach us to behave with compassion to others. The revolution of 3,500 years ago has only just begun.