“The theme in your editorial “Redemption, peace and goodwill” (December 23-25) is that religious values are the panacea for our current ills. That is a difficult argument to sustain.
Religion has a bad track record. Some religions teach bad things, such as cruel punishment and discrimination against women. Some advance poverty and illness (including HIV-AIDS) by their teachings. Many religious leaders have enriched themselves at the expense of their followers.
It is not only religious leaders. Many political leaders of faith have done evil on a massive scale. Many have been morally corrupt in their public lives. On a lesser scale, some of our political leaders in recent times seem to be no better for their religious beliefs, either in their policies or in their methods.
In the ordinary run of human affairs, many religious people do bad things, including the abuse of women and children and other serious crimes.
Where does that leave religion as a force for goodness? It is certainly not sufficient to produce good conduct.
On the other hand, many irreligious people lead exemplary lives. So religion it is not necessary for good conduct either.
Where does good conduct come from, then? Experience shows that there is a natural propensity in human nature for empathy towards others, a co-operative spirit, altruism and a sense of fairness. There is also a propensity for selfishness, ambition and competition at the expense of others, the ruthless pursuit of self-interest.
These opposing tendencies seem to be universal. How are they resolved? Mostly by the fact that good conduct is satisfying and bad conduct is not. Where does that come from? Is the pathway innate in human nature? Is it cultural, built up by childhood conditioning and the example of role models? Possibly both.
But whatever the process that makes people good, where is the role of religion when, in public and private life, so many religious people do wrong and so many irreligious people do good?
The fall-off in religious observance referred to in your editorial may not be a sign of moral decay but an awakening to the irrelevance of religion as of any benefit in human affairs. That is not a matter for despair. It is up to us to shape the society we want. Recognition that there is no aid from on high is a healthy development. It puts the responsibility squarely where it should be. On us.”
I hope that Harold Spurling doesn't mind me re-running this letter to the SMH, but there is no way to link to it.