Belief in God, and Its Impact on Society

For the last couple of weeks, my mind has turned to God. Not anything particularly religious, mind-you, but the question of why we believe in God in the first place. As I pondered the subject, I could see two reasons for it.

First, a supernatural being provides an explanation for existence of the world. Our universe needs to come from somewhere, and to those lacking in scientific knowledge, God is as good as an explanation of anything else. Of course, there is disagreement on the actual mechanism, and I think many would agree that creation stories are just that — stories — used to illustrate larger points. Today, I don’t know of many people that believe in the literal creation stories (although there are, surprisingly, some); some hold on a modified version that the initial whatever that created the universe had to come from somewhere. Do we need God to explain the creation of the universe? Probably not; recent scientific findings (such as the recent Higgs Particle) indicate that the universe can indeed come from nothing.

So if we don’t need God to create the universe, why have the notion of God. I’ll posit that there is a more important reason to need the concept of God — as moral authority. Just like we need our parents as a moral authority to “lay down the law”, God serves a similar purpose. God provides the mechanism to reward good and punish bad for whatever moral system a particular society chooses to invent. Without this authority, people would succumb to their animalistic nature and just do what is best with them, and to hell with everyone else. God provides the authority to say — if you do right, you will be rewarded in some way, and if you do wrong, you’ll pay for making that choice. I think this notion of God is universal across the various religions, whether you see God as an old man on a throne or the determinant of your karma. Does this mean God actually exists? I’ll argue that’s irrelevant to the question; as long as we agree on the authority, that’s what is important.

This, of course, begs the question of what is right and wrong? Are there larger and smaller rights? If we look at the Torah, traditional thought is that all commandments are equal. But is that true? This is a debate that is playing out in the political arena, where some politicians place more importance in telling people what they can and can’t do (such as same-sex marriage or abortion) and others place more importance on doing good for society. Alas, we have no evidence that there is a God who punishes; it may happen, but those who are rewarded or punished have never come back to confirm it.

I was thinking about this again today as I read the papers over lunch. In particular, I was reading an article about the Republican and Democratic divides over society (in particular, the approaches to Catholicism from the two VP candidates). The Republican view seems to be moving to the Ayn Rand side of the argument overlain with certain moral precepts: it is our responsibility to look out for ourselves first and foremost; the only one responsible for our success is ourselves; government serves a minimal role in this process; and we select particular moral precepts from our religious doctrine to enforce on everyone. The particular moral doctrines were what we should “not” do: what government shouldn’t do, what people shouldn’t do. In many ways, this is a view from the turn of the 20th century (the time of Taft): government should stay out of the way; people should be the ones responsible for their success or failure; and government has the responsibility to impose morality (think prohibition). The LA Times has a nice editorial cartoon on this.

The Democratic view, as I see it, is actually the more “Christian” view: care about people first, do good for others and make society better, wealth for wealth’s sake is a bad thing, one should use wealth as a way to make society better. In doing this, they are making different selections about what God wants us to do. Politically, their view is reflective of the “Great Society” of the later 20th century: the approach taken by FDR, JFK, LBJ, and even folks like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The focus is on how to do good — how to be more accepting — how to be more accommodating. The only religious precept they seemed to want to enforce was the notion of doing good for others; each individual’s religion was free to dictate to that individual other moral aspects.

With the recent VP choice of Mr. Ryan, this distinction is becoming stronger. I think we need to be asking ourselves what our moral authority wants us to do: it is more important to do good for others, or is it more important to do good for our personal interest? Where do we want society to go in general?

It is important to remember this is not about the debt. Both sides want to reduce the debt (and trust me, you don’t want to pay off the debt completely). It is about what our priorities should be and what type of society we want.

[And if you want my opinion, I don’t believe we should return to the era of the Robber Barons, where power was concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, and where the financial goals were the exploitation of people and rules to gain more power. Your opinion may differ.]





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