Not until the 19th century were children granted the same legal status as domesticated animals in regard to protection against cruelty and/or neglect. In 1962 the term “battered child syndrome” entered medicine. By 1976 all states in the United States had adopted laws mandating the reporting of suspected instances of child abuse.
The Hitchens brothers, Christopher and Pete, were brought together by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life this past Tuesday. Their joint appearance was billed as a “debate” by the media because of the brothers different perspectives in answering questions about ethics and religion. As you might know, Christopher is an atheist and Pete is a theist.
At some point, the brothers were asked “if civilization can survive without God”, which struck me as poorly formulated and very problematic question, if it is to be taken seriously. But perhaps it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. And as a question meant for fun it would seem to have some promise.
That’s to say, it seems likely you can chew your cud all day long over whether “civilization can survive without God”. There are so many different ways of interpreting the question that no one should be left without an inspired opinion. For instance: Since “God” is capitalized, we must be talking here about the Abrahamic god. But if that’s so, then it’s obvious that many civilizations around the globe have done nicely without benefit of the Abrahamic god. The Chinese, Indus, and Mississippian civilizations, for examples. QED: God is not necessary for the survival of civilization. And I bet that’s just the beginning of the fun you can have with a question as silly as whether “civilization can survive without God”.
I recall it’s generally accepted by anthropologists and others who study the matter that humans are more or less natural animists. Animists don’t necessarily believe in gods, but rather see spirits in most or all things, and Animism is both the most ancient religion and the religion we humans have held to the longest of all. It seems we were animists for hundreds of thousands of years. Moreover, we were animists before there were gods, and I suspect we will revert to animism after the last god has left us. So, it would be interesting to know precisely what sort of madness prompted our ancestors to — after living for thousands upon thousands of years as happy animists — create the gods?
Some might say it was civilization that prompted our ancestors to create the gods.
Unless I’m sorely mistaken, the very first gods we know of come to us from Sumer and Egypt. And, in both civilizations, the gods are intimately involved in legitimizing the state. That seems to have been one of their earliest roles — and it might even have been why they were invented. But if that is possible, then the question is stood on its head: Instead of asking, “Can civilization survive without god?”, we probably should be asking, “Can the gods survive without civilization?”
Now that’s a fun question!
But for now, I’d like to get back to the former question (that is, “Can civilization survive without God?”). When Pete Hitchens attempted to answer it on Tuesday, he dragged in the commonplace notion that morality is in decline: “The behavior of human beings towards one another has sunk to levels not far from the Stone Age,” he said. He then tried to link today’s allegedly poor behavior to a breakdown of the Christian religion: “… there is no longer in the hearts of the English people the restraints of the Christian religion that used to prevent this type of behavior.” The implication, of course, is that Pete Hitchens believes civilization cannot survive without God.
People say the darnedest things. It is quite obvious that, in the West (and perhaps in most other places), morality has been changing for sometime. For instance: Our current morals are almost nothing like the morals of our ancestors 500 years ago. But the operative word here is “change”. To say something else — to say that all our morals are not only changing, but all are in decline, is to put a handsome amount of spin on it.
Instead, it is more truthful to say that some of morals are becoming less popular and some are becoming more popular.
Studies seem to show that over the past 100 or so years, lying and cheating have become increasingly acceptable to Westerners. In other words, some forms of honesty are becoming less popular. But over roughly the same time frame, other morals have become more popular. For instance, Westerners have over the past 100 plus years created very strong moral prohibitions against child abuse:
It would be mighty peculiar to assert that all morals are in decline when folks are becoming demonstrably more prohibitive of child abuse.
Add to child abuse such new and developing morals as prohibitions against racism, sexism, ageism, and so forth, and one begins to get a sense of how morality is changing. Not necessarily declining, but changing.
It seems to me that, if one is going to argue “civilization cannot survive without God”, then one must do so using much better grounds than the false assertion morality is in across the board decline. But, of course, the question of whether “civilization can survive without God” is so problematic that it is probably meant more in fun than to be taken seriously.
I mean, if we took that question seriously, we would need to begin by defining what we meant by “civilization”, what we meant by “God”, what we meant by “survive”, and so forth. And we could define those terms in many different ways. Moreover, it would be likely that most of those different ways would lead us to different conclusions. So, in effect, the question operates as if it were not just one question but a hundred questions! Or, to put it simply, the question is not at all clearly formulated.
But it is fun.