This post is partially inspired by Monte Canfield’s account of his experience with killing at age 10, which can be found here. His story reminded me of my own similar experience at the same age, and I realized that it fit nicely into this post.
When I was about ten years of age, having had several different B-B guns, pistol and rifle, my dad bought a .22 caliber air rifle for me and my brother. That gun used compressed air to propel pellets out the barrel, which had the advantage of not making a loud bang, as gun powder was not used to propel the pellets, so it did not damage your hearing and did not disturb the neighbors. The absence of the loud bang also made it easier to sneak the gun out and shoot without being heard. My brother and I were not supposed to use this gun unless dad was present to supervise, but one day I snuck the gun out of its usual repository and went out on my own.
After a short time of shooting at bottles and other inanimate targets I became bored. As I was walking back to the house, there was a large tree in a neighbor’s very large fenced yard about fifty to seventy-five yards, to the best of my recollection, from where I was standing. I spied a sparrow up high and decided to see if I could hit that sparrow, figuring the odds were quite against me, which made it more of a challenge than anything else. I had never heard anyone say much good about sparrows, anyway. You probably have guessed that, in fact, I did hit the sparrow despite the distance and the many branches that hung between me and the sparrow.
The sparrow stood still for just a few seconds making me think my shot had missed, and then it fell. I ran over in excitement to see my victim up close, and when I arrived I experienced something, an emotion, which taught me a lesson that has stayed with me ever since. I saw the sparrow lying on the ground, but not yet dead; it was bleeding and gasping for air, and then as I stood there watching, the sparrow finally died. I felt horrible. There was a queasy feeling in my stomach, and the exhilaration of hitting my target completely vanished as I was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness. Suddenly the eyes that had just seconds before shown signs of life became lifeless. I often wonder how different things would have been if I had not gone over and seen the sparrow taking its last breath. For years I often wondered if it mattered, at all, to that sparrow that I was standing there with it as it died; sometimes I still wonder. As the first tear ran from my eye, I decided to put the gun back in its place, and I never shot a living thing again.
Is religion essential to society?
A few years ago I took a college course on world religions. It was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience for me, less in what I learned from the curriculum than in what I learned in observing, and interacting with, others in the class, including my interactions with the class instructor. (He and I continued an email debate, off and on, for several years after I took the class.)
The class was structured as a night class, three hours once a week, which I found beneficial for this particular subject; I don’t like that structure for some subjects, like Math, for instance, but for philosophical topics it seems to work very well, as we have a week to do the reading and then 3 hours to discuss what we’ve read.
In an early class session, the instructor posed this question to the class; “Is religion essential to society?”
“Of course not,” I thought.
We spent a substantial amount of class time discussing and establishing definitions. The class discussed different meanings one might attach to the words, society, religion, morals, ethics, and sacred. When one delves into this topic the difficulty with definitions can become quite overwhelming, which is why, for the sake of this discussion and because I think these are the most common usages, these are the definitions I’ll use:
Society: a highly structured system of human organization for large-scale community living that normally furnishes protection, continuity, security, and a national identity for its members: American society.
Religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Moral: of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.
Ethics: pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.
Sacred: devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
And last, but certainly not least:
Essential: absolutely necessary; indispensable: pertaining to or constituting the essence of a thing.
(Definitions from dictionary.com.)
The classroom was set up with round tables and chairs rather than conventional desks in rows, and so, since we were already broken into smaller groups, the instructor told us to briefly discuss the question in our little groups after which we would have a class discussion. Well, as it turned out, I was the only one out of five at my table who thought religion was not essential to society.
I was surprised by this and must confess to experiencing some confusion. Had I not understood the question? Did I not understand the meaning of “essential”? Was there some special meaning of the word that everyone else knew and which I did not know? Even more surprising, I was the only one in the entire class who did not think religion was essential to society, or at least I was the only person who said so. Even the instructor accepted the premise that religion is essential to society. My logical and concise argument was simply pushed aside and the class “voted” to accept the premise that religion is essential to society. (I have had other instructors in sociology and related fields who proposed that religion is essential to society, although, upon further discussion with me most of them either restated their position without the word "essential" or, in one case, explained in frustration with me that the point on which I was focusing was not important.)
There was discussion of why religion is essential to society, which finally rested on two arguments:
1. Religion is a source of morals.
2. Religion is a cohesive societal glue holding societies together.
The above statements are, in my experience, the cornerstone arguments made by those who support the premise that religion is essential to society.
In the hope of sparking some thoughtful conversation, I propose the following two assertions:
1. Religion is not essential to society; society is essential to religion.
Society existed long before religion. It is simply impossible for religion to exist, impossible for it to develop, without there first being a society in which it develops.
Consider also that the Founding Fathers of American society felt strongly that religion was a threat to democratic society, and that they created a barrier to its involvement in American government. Some might argue that excluding religion from government does not imply it is not essential to society. However, it seems that since religion is a form of social government in itself, excluding it from a form of government necessarily implies it is not essential to governing a society, and if it is a form of government that is nonessential to governing society, then it is not essential to society.
2. Religion is not a source of morals; morals are a source of religion.
Making this assertion, I would point to my experience with killing the sparrow at age ten and watching it die a pointless death that I had caused. I was raised by a very religious mother, forced to go to church from my earliest days up to and including that point in time and beyond. Obviously, my exposure to religion was not sufficient to prevent me from murdering that sparrow, but my direct experience with causing that death was the catalyst to prevent me from further committing similar acts. The emotion I felt from watching that sparrow take its last breath was the source of my moral sense, my recognition, that what I had done was wrong, not because someone told me it was wrong, but because I felt the wrongness personally. Regardless of religious exposure, it was in my nature to experience this, just as it is apparently not in the nature of some.
Another similar example of this is the story related to me by a woman I know. She told me of an incident that occurred when she was about the age of five or six years old. She accidentally smothered a kitten to death. She didn’t realize what she was doing until it was too late. She says that when she realized the kitten was dead, she felt dreadful guilt. She says she remembers how the realization that humans could do this hit her hard, even at that early age. She has basically been a protector of animals ever since. Unlike me, however, she was raised in a completely non-religious home where there was no talk of gods or church and most definitely no participation in such.
“The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”
– Arthur C Clarke
I hope for some thought-provoking conversation on this question.
What IS essential to society?