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October 22, 2010

In The Absence Of Religion

Filed under: Culture And Society,Religion And Theology — Vasilios Theodorakis @ 4:19 pm

Years ago, one of my social work colleagues entrusted me with the horrors she experienced during the break up of the old Yugoslavia. Much of what she described is far too graphic for the likes of this little blog, so let me give you the sterilised version. Both her and her husband grew up in a tiny village along the boarder of Croatia and Serbia, and identified themselves as Croatian Muslims. Their village was made up of both Roman Catholic Christians and Muslims who were descended from Ottoman Turks. The two groups had lived together harmoniously for decades, but when the Serbian army reached their village, the soldiers tried to separate out the groups. All the women of child bearing age were rounded up and raped and all the men, irrespective of age, were taken to concentration camps. Her husband, and a few others managed to escape, get back to the village and help her and some relatives get across the boarder into Hungary. From there, they eventually gained refugee status and migrated to Australia.

Why did this colleague share her ordeal with me? At the time I was an overly zealous young social worker and notorious for touting the virtues of Orthodox Christianity. Her experiences and pain very quickly brought my naivety about religion to an end. Interestingly, she never blamed the Orthodox Christian Faith for what happened to her. She believed that no genuine religious person could have done what those Serbian soldiers had done.

Her story did get me thinking about the sociological basis to law and order, and helped me come up with the following idea in the 1990s.

If an individual has genuinely internalised a peace loving religion and uses that religion to inform their conscience they cannot carry out such horrendous acts – even if society falls apart. Why? Because they carry around within themselves a sense of right and wrong.

On the other hand, if an individual has not internalised their religion and does not have an internal yard stick directing what is right and wrong, their morality is governed by external restraints i.e. like a society’s laws. Therefore, were a society to fall into anarchy, as Yugoslavia did, and were most of its citizens secular with no internal yard sticks of right and wrong, then its not hard to see how individuals without a personal morality could perpetuate the barbaric acts that were carried out on my friend’s village.

Unfortunately, as I’m no academic, I never carried out any serious research to back up my theory. Many refugee horror stories however, tend to support its premise, even if that premise makes people who lead secular lifestyles in stable societies like Australia very uncomfortable.

So my question to the good secular atheist is this: you live your life based on what external forces tell you is right and wrong i.e. the laws of society. What happens if those laws are suddenly removed, and you have no law courts or police officers telling you what to do or what not to do? What will you use as your reference point? What will pass as “right” and what will pass as “wrong” and who will decide it for you? Or do you think you are some how different to those Serbian soldiers who suddenly realised they no longer had to answer to anybody or anything! I fear that most people who are not bound by a code of ethnics, drawn from a higher power, revert very quickly to their animal state – we are not as advanced as we’d like to think!

Despite how untrendy it is to adhere to a religion and internalise a moral yard stick, I fear it’s the only thing that will save civilisation in the long term. Shocking case studies, such as those that occurred during the break up of Yugoslavia or the civil wars in Africa, add weight to my theory and the notion that just being “a good person” really means nothing. Nothing that is, unless an individual’s morality is drawn from God and written in their heart!

Post Update: 26/11/2010
A friend recently challenged me on part of this post’s premise, and on reflection, I have to concede that internalising morality and ethics need not be based on religion. The important thing is that one’s moral yardstick is (or has become) an internal construct and is not based on external enforcement! In this way even the secular can maintain law and order even if their social system has collapsed. Thanks for highlighting this John M.

Copyright © Vasilios Theodorakis 2010

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