No Gods or Demons Required
Are values implanted by belief in gods? Is it necessary to believe in gods to see demons?
There was a time when most human beings believed in many gods. They ruled the world. A volcano or earthquakes was attributable to angry gods who must be appeased; if something predicted by the gods didn’t happen then it must be the fault of demons.
Gradually, the gods were displaced by belief in one god and, in Christianity anyway, demons were replaced by a single demon called Satan. In Judaism and Islam multiple demons, named shaitans, remained embedded in their beliefs. Indeed, Islam shows its belief in multiple demons in the stoning of the shaitans during the Hajj.
However, we do not need to believe in gods and demons to see gods and demons in our lives. All we need do is rename them as rights and wrongs. We can have personal rights and wrongs and society’s rights and wrongs. And, just as we find when we study religion, the two do not always have to coincide. In fact, very often they are at odds.
It is often said that Margaret Thatcher was brought up to respect the Methodist work ethic. Some call it the Protestant work ethic but it is mostly associated with Methodism. We know that Thatcher felt strongly that people should be rewarded for hard work but she also believed that hard work should be professionally and fairly applied. Looking back at the history of Methodism, though, we can see that a god was not a requirement to instil the work ethic; the work ethic was as much developed in the coffee bars of the 18th century as it was in chapels and churches. Anyway, Thatcher introduced her version of the work ethic into her politics not to please her god but because she believed it would be good for society.
As an example, we can consider the medical profession. I experienced the worst side of the medical elitism prevalent before Margaret Thatcher when one of my twin daughters was severely brain damaged during her birth. We were told that the cord was wrapped around her throat. Further investigations revealed that this was not true. My wife had been given an injection to contract her uterus before the second daughter was delivered and she was crushed inside my wife’s womb. However, not one medical specialist would agree that negligence was a contributing factor. Indeed, one said he had no intention of destroying the career of a fellow doctor and made it clear he would be a hostile witness.
A couple of years later, Margaret Thatcher handbagged the medical profession. She told doctors in no uncertain terms that they were incompetent and unprofessional and must start putting their patients first. So what had gone wrong? From the perspective of their personal rights, they had been right to put their profession first. Any failure by a doctor would put strain on the whole profession and the status and earning potential of every other doctor would be put at risk. From society’s perspective, doctors had become aloof, not caring if they treated patients fairly or not. By the time Thatcher had finished, doctors were encouraged to report incompetent or dangerous behaviour on the part of their colleagues and persuaded to understand that such behaviour made it more likely that the profession as a whole would be brought into disrepute.
Things worked well for some years but, as always happens, personal values began once again to re-emerge. This time there was no Thatcher. There was Brown, and Brown collapsed in morbid fear at the threat of a strike by GPs and handed GPs everything they had asked for. The most important thing to note in respect of this post is that Brown had also been brought up as a protestant Christian. He was supposed to have had values similar to Thatcher’s instilled in him; instead, rather than his values coinciding with society’s, his values were based on his personal survival as a politician.
Having rid themselves of polytheism and embraced monotheism, humans are now able, if sufficiently mature, to rid themselves of gods completely. Gods and demons can be replaced by recognising that rights and wrongs are values which can be personal or societal and that the two can conflict. If any, then, which set of values, personal or societal, are more important?
Humans are creatures which have survived and multiplying by cooperating. A single human could not hunt and kill a mammoth but a group of humans could. A single human male might compete with another for the attentions of a human female but could not promise to feed his conquest by himself. And without supplying food he and his mate could not survive.
It appears, then, that the story of Jesus was wrong to concentrate on the individual. Sure, the individual is important and should be respected but if individual, personal values are allowed to erode society’s values then the very survival of the human race is put at risk. We do not need to believe in gods and demons to see the value of that.