Do We Need Religion to be a Decent Society?

On Saturday, I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate at Wilderness festival. The debate was “The world needs religion, just leave God out of it”. For the motion were Selina  O Grady and Douglas Murray, against, Peter Atkins and Myself. 

I am glad to say we won.

 I’ll start with my end of debate summing up, and below that you can see some of the working out I did on stage beforehand, if you’ve got the time. The time limit for the main speech was a strict 7 minutes, so much was jettisoned and my arms waved like antsy pelican wings.(Written as a speech, I’ve tried to neaten it up for the purpose of reading, sorry for where I may have failed)

If we are going to water down religion, remove the ugliness of misogynies, homophobia, overbearing and harsh god or gods, then why not just wash it away altogether and instead start striving towards a cosmopolitan society united by common goals of health, education, respect for the old and young, founded on principles of empricism, critical thinking, philosophy, science and literature – The Bible, Torah and Kora’n don’t have to be thrown away, they can just join a far larger library with The Republic, Beyond Good and Evil, Middlemarch, The Myth of Sisyphus, the Treatise of David Hume. We can aspire to so much more, we do not need The Good Book, we need plenty of good books and plenty of open minds. 

Some seek nostalgia, remember when a more Christian Britain was a happier more charitable place. Ah, the golden days of that Christian Victorian nation, where London was happy place of child prostitutes, baby killing was rife, the warmest place a child had to sleep in was a chimney and eight year old cress sellers plied their trade and died by 10 having never even seen a park.

The roots of charity, empathy and altruism are not in religion, they are in our evolution – we see apes sharing food with non-relatives, chimpanzees consoling attacked animals, the love of parent to child – these are the roots, but we can rise above them, we have begun to, isn’t it time we grew from our adolescence to the young adult stage of our existence.  

And let’s not fall into that patronising trap that some of us can survive without religion, but those unwashed masses must be given something to help control their base urges. 

Our narratives of life and death are changing as we understand more about our place in the universe, no religious narrative is grander to me than the fact that everything we are made of, every atom, was forged in a stellar nursery, that the atoms makes us now have made rocks, mules, dinosaurs, volcanoes, apple blossom and meteors, and that when we die, all those atoms will go to make many other things, spreading out across the mundane and the beautiful. As Carl Sagan said, “we are all star stuff, the stuff of us is the stuff of the stars”

The opposition are pessimists, I am an optimist, there is much work to be done, but because the task is difficult, should we not attempt it?

I believe we can rise above religion, just as we once rose above sacrificing goats for luck and burning spinsters because our crops have failed. The answers are not easy, which is why each time we reach new and better ones, we have achieved something remarkable for a species.


There are many pessimistic, sometimes apocalyptic, predictions of what happens to human beings when they lose religion. 

What of the sense of community?

How will we face death?

What of charity, empathy and altruism?

I wouldn’t argue that human beings don’t need all these things for a strong society, but does religion really provide us with them? I believe if we cannot imagine a successful society that can thrive and satisfy without religion, then we are losing all the ambition and imagination that marks us out as a species.

(breath in before attempting the next paragraph)

The ingenuity that has brought us to this point, indeed into this festival tent, the ability to arrive here with the aid of engine rather than mule, the reasonable confidence you can consume the food and drink around here without being poisoned, the knowledge that when you leave here and return home, it is to somewhere with clean and hot water to wash off any ill-advised face pain, to medicine cabinets to try and rid yourself of the aches of ill-advised boozing, to lie under dependable roofs – all of this is the product of the minds of a species with tremendous potential, and I believe the potential to face up to the fear, excitement and joy of being a self-conscious being in this universe. 

Some agnostic and atheist intellectuals eulogise the powers of religion. It’s not needed for them, they can survive without it because they have read Plato in the original classical Greek, Attic dialect and all, and are financially secure enough not to need the pew, sermon and parish fete. They are thinking of others not as strong as them; how kind, how patronising.

Let’s look at those societies that are reaping the benefits of their fervent religion and the joy, community and altruism it brings.

In the rich nations list, Japan and Sweden appear to be the least religious, while the USA and Republic of Ireland appear to be the most. Poor Japan and Sweden must be in a parlous state, and yet…

…why does the USA have murder rates five times worse than Japan and Sweden (the Republic of Ireland is only about 40% worse) , incarceration almost 10 times worse than Sweden, a higher suicide rate amongst the young (and as Al Alvarez wrote in his study of suicides, The Savage God, the more religious the nation is the less likely it is to declare suicide as cause of death), The US has Twice the mortality amongst under fives than Japan and Sweden, Rep of Ireland is slightly less than USA on under 5 mortality, and let us not forget the statistics on sexual disease and abortion, number one for gonorrhea, number one for syphilis and number one for abortion, and we are not talking by a little bit, we are talking 40 to 50 times more than Japan and Sweden. Thank goodness the USA has religion, or imagine what state it would be?

If religion has lauded powers of altruism, empathy and community, surely the most religious nation on the rich nation list should not be so low on the successful qualities of life scale?

(Douglas Murray suggested that perhaps guns have some blame here. I agree, but that seems no answer. If religion brings a sense of community that cannot be replaced by any other method of thinking, why are so many people in communities shooting each other?)

I am not going to be so trite as to blame the religion of the USA, but if religion is the answer, then why is it failing so dismally there. 

Clearly, religion is not required to make a benign society. 

Before we go running to the advertising agency and ask them to brainstorm this godless religion of delight and get it up on the billboards, we should look at where so much of societies problems may come from, and that seems to be inequality</a> far more than lack of dogma, tribalism or religion. 

While Sweden and Japan and are amongst the four nations with lowest income inequality, the USA is the highest. Sweden and Japan are the lowest on the health and social problems list , while the USA is, by some long way, the highest. This is true on child well-being too. Religion sounds like a nice thing for a nice society, but the evidence is just not there. Values can exist without religion as their anchor. 

Religion is a much easier answer than the politically and economically difficult issue of creating a more equal society. 

I am also told that religion heightens the propensity for kindliness. Yet, the most recent UK citizenship survey shows that the percentage of Christians and non-religious people to be actively involved in volunteer work is very close, 58% to 56%. Other religious groups, such as Hindus and Muslims, are considerably lower. Of the religious people I know involved in charity work, most see the link between their religion and their altruism as, at the best foggy, and in the case of the Dean of Guildford Cathedral, non-existent. The kindliness of a religious person may have little to do with their religion, and a great deal to did with their humanity, it’s just some campaigners like to give commandments and heavenly hopes all the credit. 

Enough statistics, I want to speak of my personal experience, of the people who do good, care about their community, and want to build something better, but do it without religion.

(here I had a long list including…)

I think of the work of the human rights lawyer who spends his life campaigning for people across the world who he feels have been wrongly punished, including incredible work in Guantanamo Bay. He is a godless human trying to help many who have religious beliefs, sometimes it has been little more than their religious beliefs that have led to their incarceration. I think of the atheists I know who support these campaigns through word and deed, disagreeing with the victims’ religion, but not their rights to be treated as human beings. 

I think about those I have met who work for Medecins Sans Frontiers, or charities for the abused, people I know who work for hideously low pay and hideously long hours caring for people with extreme disability, mental health nurse etc etc… Many have no religion, many do, and you would be hard-pressed to work out which ones do and which ones don’t if I introduced them to you. We are also told that the church holds a unique place in its ability for people of different classes and societies to gather, perhaps, just perhaps, that was true some centuries ago. In the 21st century this is no longer true. What of the people brought together by music, by theatre,  by art, by campaigning, by allotments…

I think of the odd sheds, halls and barns I have played across the UK where farm labourers, school receptionists, postmen, doctors and greengrocers have taken unused buildings and made them centres of their communities – sometimes screening Finding Nemo, sometimes housing myself reading from ludicrous giant killer crab novels accompanied by an accordionist, hey, that’s variety.

And I think of goths. I think of the murder of Sophie Lancaster, and how her mother, Sylvia, and her friends, and a huge group of Goths and metal bands, many appearing to be united by little more than a liking of leather overcoats, smoke and music, made sure Sophie’s life mattered to people who never even knew her by supporting the anti-bullying charity set up in her name. They organise gigs, they gather together, and they try and work out how to create a world where the sort of brutality that Sophie suffered can be combated by understanding. 

I have seen too many disparate groups of people brought together too often to think religion has some unique ability to unite or improve us. 

The loss of religion does not make life meaningless, if anything, I believe it strengthens the will to make life meaningful. My belief is that life is finite, and so I want to pack as much into it as possible, I want to look at the stars, I want to ponder the incredible richness of life framed in any window I look out of, I want to work out how I can make sure my son grows up to be a better human being than I am. 

Without religion, there is still a greater feeling of delight in helping people than there is in doing nothing. 

What we need is to celebrate and reward educators and education, to work towards generations of children who want to learn, who want to ask questions, who can face being part of this intriguing, confusing universe. we need to eschew dogma and embrace knowledge, grow up and realise that living in an uncertain world does not lead to a planet of nihilism and despair. 

Religion may have once been the opium of the masses, but can’t we build a better world where the opiates and illusions are not required at all.

twitter @robinince

my solo tour about Darwin, Feynman and the human imagination starts again in Liverpool and goes across UK, for details of that show and other gigs here 

New science app The Cosmic Genome, which includes Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, Helen Czerski, Stewart Lee and many more, is here 

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78 Responses to Do We Need Religion to be a Decent Society?

  1. parliamentaryowl says:

    Or, why don;t we just get a better God? the one we have appears to be a complete washout!

    • Pete UK says:

      What! Another one to add to the list of over 3000 gods created my mankind? Why not recycle an old god, recycling is the ‘in thing’ at the moment.

      • Anony Mous says:

        I’m divided between the sheer awesomeness of Thor and the sheer awesomeness of Zoroaster. On one hand, Thor actually kept his promises (just Google “Thor and Ice Giants”), but Zoroaster had one of the greatest singers of all time as his devout.

      • Afas Ayan says:

        Actually, Hindus alone have more than 40 million gods

    • Tom says:

      Because we don’t need one at all.. I thought Robin’s piece demonstrated that pretty well.

    • zenjazz says:

      I like it. Lets reinstate Odin. he promised he’d get rid of the ice giants and I haven’t seen any Ice Giants lately. Good enough for Viking Berserker !

  2. Pingback: Do We Need Religion to be a Decent Society? |

  3. belle says:

    Very intriguing thoughts. I should have liked to have seen this debate. I was raised in a time when we believed all religious people were good and therefore all non-religious people were evil. But then I grew up. I don’t believe in fairy tales, either. Even the most religious among us can and have shown a propensity to perform malevolent acts throughout history and even today. As you rightly say, instead of religion we need to encourage thinking and knowledge and hopefully, decency.

  4. I only skimmed through this, cause I’ve a headache, but nonetheless – perfect. Why oh why can’t we leave our past’s brutal shadows behind, and move on, cleaner, wiser, and unshackled to the fragments of our maudlin ties? Let’s still teach religion in schools, but in history rather than in science. Let’s keep the bible, but like you said, in the library’s fiction section. Take what’s good (beneficial, sensical, beautiful), drop what’s stupid, and carry on… carry on – as if nothing really matters.

  5. Francis Lunn says:

    Whilst religion can do lots of harm, I just don’t accept this idea that we can dispense with it altogether.

    Firstly- what is religion? I would say it ought to include any belief in some transcendental supernatural force that mandates certain actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ irrespective of their practical consequences for the actor.

    I think there are a lot of ‘atheists’ who believe in a set of higher values that don’t come entirely from empiricism and the material world. Ergo I don’t think they’re true atheists. Or perhaps we need a new term to distinguish these ‘spiritualists’.

    I don’t accept the idea that the good feeling, buzz, we get from being altruistic is aways going to be enough to drive good behaviour. It and reciprocity will often serve to drive altruistic behaviour but I don’t think enough.This is because it will often be in conflict with other urges eg sexual and because it’s not really ultimately based on a rational argument. If I’m aware that there’s really no logical reason why I ought to anonymously give a chunk of my limited pay to help starving African children I might be tempted to resist and fight the guilty feeling I get for deciding not to do it and enjoying that extra night out instead.

    Our feelings are not always rational, and we often seek to step back and consider things more coldly and rationally. This in itself can start to change our feelings.

    Finally I think religion of SOME sort is always going to be necessary as we don’t possess perfect knowledge and science will probably never give us that. We have to fill the gaps somehow, and we then start using faith and belief.

    • simon says:

      Why do we HAVE to fill the gaps? If we don’t understand something, just accept that we don’t understand it. Or, better still, try and understand it by scientific investigation and reason. Just making up answers doesn’t mean we understand anything or fill any gaps.

      Many of us ALREADY do without religion and we manage to be quite well-behaved.

    • Zunjine says:

      “Firstly- what is religion? I would say it ought to include any belief in some transcendental supernatural force that mandates certain actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ irrespective of their practical consequences for the actor.

      I think there are a lot of ‘atheists’ who believe in a set of higher values that don’t come entirely from empiricism and the material world. Ergo I don’t think they’re true atheists. Or perhaps we need a new term to distinguish these ‘spiritualists’.”

      This is a bit muddled. You seem to be saying that anything metaphysical or non-empirical is automatically supernatural and that, therefore, anyone who believes in something like that is automatically religious.

      I don’t see how this argument works. I believe in many things I can’t empirically prove or demonstrate but none of these things are dependent on “some transcendental supernatural force that mandates certain actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.” What you’re doing here is taking the result of human reasoning and calling it supernatural. If I sit and think and decide that it’s good to share my food with a friend, even if it means I am hungry, how do you make the leap from this action based on personal reasoning to something mandated by a higher power?

      You then go on to argue that we need religion because we won’t always behave perfectly due purely to the “good feeling”, reciprocity and rational thought but you fail utterly to show that we would behave perfectly with religion as a driver. The above blog is full of evidence that shows that we, in fact, don’t.

      Finally you assert that we need faith because we don’t have all the answers. I fail to see how writing “here be monsters” on our mental map is any better than a blank space. In fact, it’s clear to me that it’s worse.

      If you’re saying that we need values to be good then I am utterly with you. What I don’t see is how you’ve shown any requirement that these values be based on religious faith.

    • @rynalan says:

      If they are atheists, their ‘higher values’ are based on morality they have learned from many sources (some of which Robin referenced in the ‘good books’ section of his speech) but they do not believe they have been handed down from a higher power, or magical being.

      How much kindness a person is capable of, or how often one anonymously donates to charity is not really connected to faith. I have known professed religious people who were not very charitable at all. Look at countries with a high percentage of atheists: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Japan… and I don’t think you’ll find a higher level of starvation and misery on average as countries with populations who are more religious.

      Also, because people occasionally behave irrationally and may lack understanding in certain areas of science is not really a good reason to invent an invisible being to whom they apologize, or attribute the unknown. If there are gaps in understanding, we should be working to fill them with demonstrably true information instead.

  6. ferniglab says:

    Reblogged this on Ferniglab's Blog and commented:
    Excellent piece, reblogged at Ferniglab

  7. Clare bridges says:

    Why blame God in the first place for what man CHOOSES to do. Look at it like this. If everyone decided to follow the laws of God then it would be a happier place. god and religion do not tell ppl to murder maim rape and pillage

    • robinince says:

      God wasn’t part of this debate. That said, unfortunately the laws of the Abrahamic god do have a number of contradictions, if you follow all the teachings of the Bible, you will be all over the shop.

      • eric forbes says:

        Quite right Robin, I’ve been all over the place and it can be a road to mental illness. Took me over 10yrs to work through the brainwashing I accepted as The Truth at the time. I can now live without fear…

    • Lizzy says:

      Yes it does… ‘If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives.’ Leviticus 20:13

    • Dan B says:

      ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.’
      (1 Timothy 2:12)

    • Celia caetwright says:

      Try reading Moses, you will find that genocide, rape and slavery are on ‘god’s’ good to go list. Isn’t it time to be honest about the Bible, it is full of contradictions. What “laws” are these that will ensure our right living? People pick and choose which lists they will have and those they won’t, and religion has been used for centuries to control people, to tell the, what they can and cannot believe. I am a Unitarian, it’s religion, spirituality, philosophy all rolled into one, we don’t have dogma. We do gather together to embrace the mystery of life and together work out a way to live in harmony. Not easy but very human.

    • Bryan Hible says:

      “If everyone decided to follow the laws of God then it would be a happier place” – Which god? Yours? Abu Qatada’s? David Koresh’s?

    • Chris says:

      My dear Clare Bridges, you are typical of your average believer who clearly hasn’t read the holy books properly or has simply believed what she/he has been told about them.
      The old testament and Koran particularly but the New testament as well are full of incitements to cruelty, killing and maiming and pillage against people who don’t follow the laws of God as laid down by primitive old men thousands of years ago!

  8. Matt Howlett says:

    Very well written. I needed that.

  9. Lee says:

    Interesting read, I’m a believer in God, and a believer in more than we know or understand. I’m ashamed by religious bigots, who in Gods name kill, abuse, condemn and do other wrongs. I’m equally humbled by non believers (whatever that means for the individual) in their acts of kindness, consideration and love. BUT, it seems to me were all given choices on who we are, and this is a separate debate of what we believe and how it guides us. I think we need to believe because there will always be something bigger than us, to poke at the bible (or whatever) I think demeans the debate. There are inconsistencies because we are limited by our own understanding. Most religions indicate there is a point when we are judged. I can’t pretend to know what this realy means, but I know it drives how I behave today, not so some ‘god in a cloud’ can judge me, but because I think he put that ability to judge in me, if I just stop and listen. I always find it interesting when people tell me my faith is wrong, then condemn religion for limiting them. Ill do you a deal, how about ill respect your view, if you mine? Seems like something every decent society’s could sign up to. Just a thought.

    • I am not too far from agreeing with you – I think that Robin’s speech is compelling particularly since the debate wasn’t “Shall we do away with god”, it was “Do we need him”. As an atheist I don’t need him and have no reason at all to believe he exists. I have no problem with other people who have beliefs so to a large extent I endorse your view. Where we might diverge is when religious people, people with a ‘god’, claim extra privileges because of that faith. Believe in god, by all means, but don’t have bishops in the House of Lords, believe in god but don’t have tax exemption for religions, believe in god but don’t use that as a justification for laws that govern the lives of non-believers. There are many ways of conceptualising atheists (because they aren’t really an entity in the way, say, christians are) but it is certainly possible to divide them into Atheists (me included) and Antitheists (Dawkins and others). The Antitheists would do away with god entirely, whereas I am with Robin – we just don’t need him.

    • I respect your right to hold those views,but I won`t respect the views themselves,I won`t respect religion as long as it causes harm,and it does cause harm.And as long as my taxes are used to subsidize religious institutions then I have every right to criticise said institutions.

  10. Chris Judge says:

    Thank you for this, Robin Ince. I find your choice of the medium/artform of humour to express ideas that used to be deemed too profound, sacred, off-limits or just not palatable to an audience of comedy-lovers most agreeable. I believe the “pinch -0f-salt” humour offers when discussing such issues makes it the ideal format for this type of thing. Please can I have your autograph?

  11. Deborah Lovett says:

    All our problems have nothing to do with God but man and his ideologies re God they’ve made it all up to control the masses it is man who is the cause of all our woes including man made religion lol … stop passing the buck and lay the responsibilities at the feet of those who have stuffed evetything up!

    • Zunjine says:

      Of course our problems have nothing to do with god. That’s like saying our Christmas presents have nothing do with Santa and the money under our pillow has nothing do with the Tooth Fairy. God, the entity, cannot be the cause of our problems because, like Santa and the tooth fairy, god doesn’t exist.

      That all being said, does something have to actually exist to be powerful? Does something need to be real to be capable of affecting the world? I’d argue that it doesn’t.

      Consider Santa – he doesn’t exist. But Children can be made to behave with the threat that “Santa won’t come if you don’t do your homework!”. And then what about the belief in the root races? They never existed but that didn’t stop the idea of racial purity driving eugenicists to mass murder.

      Now consider god. Even though god doesn’t exist, can the idea of a god cause problems? For example, what does it do to someone who believes that there are absolute rights and wrongs which are handed down by an unaccountable deity? The idea that we are all being judged by an unseen and unchallengeable authority? What does that do to personal freedom and autonomy? The promise of eternal life for only those who worship correctly. What does that do to tolerance of difference? Would you let your child marry someone of another faith if you truly believed that your grandchildren might, as a result, end up in hell?

      God doesn’t exist but the idea of god is extremely powerful and I think it’s clear that there’s reason to believe that the idea of god is a very dangerous and damaging idea indeed.

  12. Cheryl McWhirter says:

    While I consider your article in teresting and informative I consider a need for God. The Abrahamic God you speak of needs a lot of study to understand, while the God of the New Testament is a somewhat more tolerant God. I think the girl who left the comment about following the principles of God, probably meant the New Testament God. People’s lifes are turned around because of their belief in a God. Most AA programmes, drug rehab programmes etc are run on the basis of belief in a higher power. There is so much more to say and not enough room to say it, so I will leave it at that. Thanks for your article.

    • Scott near Berkeley says:

      “…a lot of study to understand, …” ???
      This “God” is an imaginary supernatural being, like Paul Bunyan, or Santa Claus. What are you studying, other than stuff made up by fallible, unreliable sources…ancient herders??? You are simply fooling yourself. If I studied Paul Bunyon “a lot” perhaps I’d suddenly feel I understand how he was able to plow with his ox Babe and make the Mississippi River, or if I studied Santa Claus “a lot” perhaps I’d know how he makes it all around the world and delivers those toys, such as he obviously did for me at age five. If you study the Old Testament “a lot” perhaps you’d understand that all the languages of the world were created, so that the Tower of Babel would not rise up to heaven. So, ancient people, according to the Bible, -could- have actually BUILT A TOWER that would reach Heaven, and the inability to communicate was the ONLY REASON it never got too tall.
      How about studying that story, Cheryl? Tell us why satellites are not viewing any area of Heaven?

  13. I do not need religion I just need God

  14. The Syed Atheist says:

    Reblogged this on The Syed Atheist.

  15. Koko says:

    Bloody awesome and inspiring! I love that there are people like you in the world 🙂

  16. Pingback: Good without god OR religion? » Butterflies and Wheels

  17. Saratov says:

    I haven’t read the article, but I will when I get a chance. I’m currently translating a very long essay which compares the three monotheistic religions. I’m struck by how ridiculous they all are. Honestly, the fairytales I read to my kids have way more meaning and sense to them. We should make the entire collection of Moomin comics the Bible for the next two millennia and we’d be much happier and a hell of a lot wiser. Translating the essay, I was thinking about the immense suffering which these religions have caused to so many people down through the centuries. I’ve decided that if I ever get a time machine, the first thing I’ll do is go back to the 5th century and give St. Augustine an almighty kick where it hurts most (“There’s some original sin for you!”).

  18. Kelly jenkins says:

    Your piece about the USA and religion was somewhat biased by your own version of atheisim. Heres why you have a jilted view towards woman when you talk about their rights as if you understand you are a man sir. Do you have the right as such to condem woman for using their bodies well that’s what you just did in your above article. This is why religion continues to be a male dominated enterprise so that woman can’t speak out for what they believe in. Therefore your rights are more equally created as you advise others. As you speak out against woman and children so too you must agree with a religious sect of male ignorance. You have the right to your beliefs but not to your own facts Mr. Robin Ince. As well we are far from a well documented understanding of religion and how it impacts societies both good and profoundly evil. The above sketch which you vaguly offered in your piece was hardly a profound work of scientfic data which should be used to argue against those who oppose your ideas. Therefore it will be only until all factions come together into a deep understanding of what it is to be a woman and what it is to be human and to know peace and love. If you shared these ideas they may guide society through religion and into a more civilized approach to human suffering. As long as your beliefs predicate mine you will ultimatly become a force for hate. Science alone cannot cure the human condition only love can accomplish that sir.

    • robinince says:

      it had nothing to with my version of atheism. put simply, I questioned the opposition, and many others in the past, who declare that religion brings empathy and altruism unavailable by other means. I do not say religion causes those issues for the USA, but question if religion brings empathy and altruism, why is the most religious nation on the rich nations list the one with the highest murder, sexual disease, childhood mortality rates? How much worse would it be without religion?

      as for talking of women’s rights , can you quote the specific passages that bothered you. I don’t remember mentioning that much so it would make it easier to discuss this as I am not sure which sentences you are talking about.

      “as you speak out against women and children” again, can you cut and paste these passages, I think I have missed something.

      as for right to my own beliefs, but not my own facts, please could you cut and paste the specific factual errors to make this easier to discuss.I am ready to be corrected.

      • Excellent response.

      • Kelly jenkins says:

        Thank you for responding to my post.   And let us not forget the statistics on sexual disease and abortion, number one for gonorrhea, number one for syphilis and number one for abortion, and we are not talking by a little bit, we are talking 40 to 50 times more than Japan and Sweden. Thank goodness the USA has religion, or imagine what state it would be?
           Here I question the broad scope comparison between the United States and Japan in relation to religion and altruism.  If your using Japan  to exemplify a modicum of human decency it would rate poorly.  Altruistically Japan is not a gem next to the United States for several reasons. Although universal healthcare is available in Japan, woman do not have the right to live freely in Japan. Woman do not have the right to make important health care decisions for themselves in Japan nor are they granted the ability to choose to have a legal abortion. The number of abortions in Japan is likely higher than that which is actually documented. In any case due to the weak representation of human rights in Japan woman and children continue to be abused there. This is an website which concerns me about human rights violations against woman and children in Japan.
        Here where your say, If religion has lauded powers of altruism, empathy and community, surely the most religious nation on the rich nation list should not be so low on the successful qualities of life scale?
         I am not familiar with this particular scale however presumably  it is in line with human rights? Essentially it seems as though you are revealing in the above comparison that outlawing abortions would improve the lives of woman and children and this  is not so. If we are going to compare apples and oranges than one should at least make clear distinctions between generalities. For example, in the United States in the instance of abortion there are laws  in place which protect woman and children from being criminalized this is not the case in many countries like Japan which lawfully oppose abortion. Yet abortion in Japan is widely accepted amongst it’s people. It appears to me it is still the unduly concern of men both religious and non-religious who presumptuously propose dogmatic arguments which are ethically senseless as a means to label woman and children murderers if they dare exercise their human rights. These beliefs  and other forms of opinion based concepts argue against the fundamental principal of life which is ultimately freedom. In this case your trying to prove that the United States fails altruistically when compared to other Nations who are not highly religious but at the same time you have picked specific outliers Japan for example which do not identify with your altruistic cause this ultimately makes your point unrecognizable.  As to your point in comparing Sweden this makes somewhat more sense to me because Universal  health care encourages equality and therefore would give woman the opportunity to live better lives. Where America is lagging, Sweden is strong. It is in my opinion a more plausible argument would be to focus on universal rights including healthcare and individual freedoms for people than to tie together blanked statements concerning religion, human rights, and the USA as was done in your post.
        This could be discussed infinitely but clearly religion and altruism do not speak for themselves in the case of the state of America.  However it appears after this brief overview that universal rights tend to offer people a higher quality of life. Likewise Universal healthcare is now working to save lives and has largely improved quality of life for people in many countries around the world.  I am quite sure we will see how universal healthcare in America ultimately effects true markers of success here. Because in my opinion Markers of life success should start with a quality of life scale which putts human rights and universal healthcare first. Abortion is a human right and should not be deemed ill founded along with diseases such as syphilis or ghonneria, and/or with criminal violent behavior such as murder. In fact this truly is a disservice to woman and children around the world who suffer from perpetual violence as the result of blighted belief systems and faulty conceptual models which do not honer life. May I ask where you stand on the issue of abortion?
        This article uses proofs to exemplify beliefs which makes sense to me.
        Conversely your post seems widely opinionated in that you have picked facts which seem to fit your cause. Especially in cases where you are trying to correlate things which are not based on widely accepted facts. Have there been any studies which relate to religion and human rights in the USA? If so I would love to read them. As well who deems abortion a marker of human success and where might I find this scale you are referencing in your article?
        Simply putt the answer is No.

      • robinince says:

        I have picked facts that seemed to fit my cause? You do know how debates work?
        My main point was arguing against the idea that religion is vital to decent society, so I took the statistics I had on the rich nations and saw that the US has highest venereal disease stats (by some long way), highest murder rate (by some long way) , childhood mortality (by some long way) etc (and much more besides) – this does not seem right if religion provides an ethical decency unavailable by other means. As you read, I did not then lay the blame at religion’s door, but more at inequality. There seems to be a correlation between societies with a greater gap between rich and poor having social problems that then cause problems for everyone within that society. Some of these social problems can be sorted by dictators and dogma, but I don’t see that as an answer.
        This is a 7 minute speech on “Society Needs Religion, Just leave God out of it”, which does not give time to talk about traditional cultural problems in Japan etc etc.
        You have read a great deal into this to find the argument you require, but thank you for link to other issues which are of interest for another day and for another argument.

  19. Saratov says:

    Having now read the article, I agree wholeheartedly with it. The key to a better society is education and more equality. Personally, I think reform of the monetary and banking system, so that the banks don’t have us all over a barrel, is a prerequisite. While we are talking about new ideas and new information, can I recommend the ideas of Silvio Gesell on monetary reform. The last few years have again proved how right he was.

  20. David Farrell says:

    I agree with the sentiment of your speech but I’m a bit defensive about the Republic of Ireland references and comparisons to the US given that I’m an Irish (Republic of Ireland) atheist living in America.

    I think the ROI is a better case study for a country emerging from the constraints of religion than one that’s “religious”. We’ve some way to go yet (e.g. abortion and secular education) but I am hopeful.

    To say that the ROI is very “religious” isn’t as true as it once was. Although Ireland is officially ~84% Catholic, those type of statistics are based on a census whereby the answer to “What religion are you?” didn’t include “I’m not religious, I’m an atheist”. As most Irish people were raised Catholic, they picked the most closely relevant answer: “Roman Catholic”. However, I can honestly say I don’t know a single person under 40 from home that goes to mass outside of Christmas Day when they want to hear all the Christmas Hits. Religion is dying in Ireland. People are opting for secular weddings and church attendance today is 30% among Catholics in the ROI compared with 91% in the 70’s (

    All this is in spite of the fact that you can’t officially leave the Catholic church!

    Also, regards the murder rate – it’s 20% higher than Sweden, equal to the UK and somewhere mid-table for Europe. I can’t see any reason religion would be a factor in that stat in the ROI – i don’t see a correlation, positive or negative.

    • David Farrell says:

      sorry, this is the place with the stat on church attendance in the ROI

    • I concur. I’m Irish (also Republic of Ireland), now living in the UK, but still have family there, so I often visit & religion, specifically the Catholic religion, is nowhere as strong as it used to be. People are extremely disillusioned with the Church & given the scandals of abuse, the Magdalen laundries, etc., who could blame them? Irish people are growing up. For myself, I was raised Catholic, but after asking questions that were answered by lies or not answered at all, I became an atheist. I find it very difficult to reconcile myself with the fact that the church still regards me as a Catholic.

  21. Deborah Lovett says:

    Religion has alot to answer for. In God’s name they have committed horrific atrocities. You only have to do a little research online to see centuries of this. They have much blood on their hands ie war & much more …. all in the name of God. So I agree yes! take God out of religion it has given him a bad name for far to long. In fact in regard to the “Last Days,” in which I do believe we are NOW living, Jesus said: ” Not everyone saying to me ‘Lord Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heaven will. Many will say to me IN THAT DAY, ‘Lord Lord’ did we not prophecy in your name and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name? And yet then I will confess to them: I never KNEW YOU! Get away from me you workers of lawlessness.” -Matt 7:21-23 hmm looking much like God, not man nor man made religion, has got it all sorted anyway ;);)

    So while you still have freedom of speech go ahead try another alternative, fair enough. BUT keep in mind like many before YOU and after, as history has proved time and time again. MAN and his big INTELLECTUAL & INDEPENDANT ideas have always FAILED !! 😦

    God’s Word the Bible states: “…man has dominated man to his injury” -Ec 8:9 and “..there is nothing new under the sun” -Ec 1:9

  22. jwkuyser says:

    Reblogged this on Jake Kuyser and commented:
    I’m Re-Blogging this interesting post.
    I think it’s right that people can be decent, honest and caring without being religious. This excellent post by Robin Ince explains this very well indeed. We should strive to build a better more enlightened world for everyone. 🙂

  23. Pingback: Robin Ince on why we don’t need religion « Why Evolution Is True

  24. The 20th Century was the deadliest in human history. More than 100 million people were slaughtered by their own governments, all of which were explicitly secular. Materialism is a closed system that leaves no place for morality or reason.

    • Scott near Berkeley says:

      The Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany substituted state worship for religious worship. To see if a system of belief is “religious”, ask one question: is there a penalty for apostasy? Was there a penalty in Nazi Germany for denouncing the Nazi Party, or leaving as a member? Yes, death. Was there a penalty in Stalin’s Soviet Union for anything, any attitude but unquestioned obedience and loyalty? Yes, death. Is apostasy in Islam tolerated? No, the Qu’ran dictates the death penalty for apostasy.

      Worshipping human leaders is a religion, just as worshipping imaginary god(s). And both lead to killing on a large scal.

  25. Mr. Lynne says:

    “The opposition are pessimists, I am an optimist, there is much work to be done, but because the task is difficult, should we not attempt it?”

    To that I quote Seneca: Non quia difficilia sunt non audemus, sed quia non audemus, difficilia sunt. It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.
    – Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD) from Letters from a Stoic

  26. Reblogged this on @Gspellchecker's Blog and commented:
    Great piece.

  27. Mike Stott says:

    Well written. I like the way you haven’t berated anyone, just used facts. This way makes it harder for anyone with a religious bent, to miss understand your “agenda”! And if they do try, you can see right through them…
    thank you.

  28. megame73 says:

    I noticed that there were those who commented about GOD when the piece clearly stated ‘RELIGION.’ Not sure if that was the intention. As for my view, it will always boils down to our core values. Sometimes we encounter people who seem to be in pain and situations that may seem painful; we then judge the experience and automatically find something or someone to blame. I say this is who we are, this is what we are. We may get rid of religion but there will always be something. If we truly believe that religion has nothing to do with kindness and nothing to do with the advancement, we wouldn’t really spend time discrediting it (?) The question, Do We Need Religion To Be A Decent Society? I say no.

  29. Deborah Lovett says:

    I s’pose NOT we don’t need religion to be a decent society. We have our very own built in morals. We know right from wrong, don’t we? So as a society how is it these morals are completely ignored buried under non-moralistic ideologies.? Religion was created under this concept. Powerful religious leaders, theologians, philosophers etc. Advisors to KINGS in ancient times hahaa & right up to our day ie CHURCH & STATE. It was these pious intellectual nutters who put two & two together cashed in on Jesus’ moralistic views smashing them t pieces. His powerful messages he delivered to the very happy multitude & created them with LIES & MURDER. Yep ‘religion’ (I call it false) took off after the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees cleverly plotted against him. He was brought before ‘Pontious Pilot’ a powerful roman Ruler, whom by the way was no made up fairy story character. They had Jesus viciously tortured whipped eventually dying nailed to a stake, not a cross according to my research. Yep these EVIL religious leaders murdered Jesus took control of the MASSES, by force mind you ie the infamous spanish english & german inquisition ( correct me if my research is wrong) wars, debased unwholesome practices &so on… done in the name of God. They were so good at what they did their warped ideas and laws have filtered like posion water into almost every aspect of our lives.

    WOAH now that is POWER used without MORALS our natural inclination to do what is RIGHT. Like the law of gravity so is the law of morals.

    Ugh so sad 😦 I think all of us in one way or another are a part of “A stolen generation” controlled by an EVIL force in action behind the scenes. A bit like a mafiosa boss, you don’t see them but you know they are there!!

  30. Deborah Lovett says:

    *sorry not created but infiltrated

  31. sam says:

    Need it or not its here, and always will be, anyone who thinks that can be changed is more deluded, and maybe more dangerous than those that take comfort in fictions. Noisy Atheists are like those who repress sexual urges who end up with something far more perverse. Its getting embarrassing, we all believe in fictions, believing in human logic does not make sense

    • robinince says:

      the good old, “things have always been this way” argument. It all went downhill after some meddler found a way of making fire

    • robinince says:

      As I said before, I think the thing to attempt to kick against is dogma, but that wasn’t the debate I was asked to take part in. I am not sure “noisy atheists” have ended up with something “far more perverse” either.

      • sam says:

        A “scientific study” i read on the Dawkins foundation website said. Religion would die out by 2041 in the developed world. Big D is getting more perverse by the hour, and aggressive to. When extremists realise things are not going the there way, they often turn aggressive and more extreme

    • Zunjine says:

      “Its getting embarrassing, we all believe in fictions, believing in human logic does not make sense”

      I wonder – did you not use logic to come to that conclusion? Should we all, on that basis, dismiss your conclusion as it is based on a nonsensical belief in human logic? If not, at what point should we begin to dismiss anything based on thinking?

      I’ve seen and appreciated a lot of sceptical arguments. I’ve used a few too. Yes, the idea that we can think the world to perfection is silly but I don’t think that’s what Robin or anyone else is arguing for. We can, I believe, apply incremental changes, using trial and error processes, to gradually move the world towards a broad consensus of what is good. We will never be perfect but using such reasoning to argue against any attempt at improvement is nihilistic.

      • sam says:

        I make no claim of my own logic, replying to a blog, in my case at least is pretty close to insanity. Science accumulates knowledge, human nature does not, fragile gains can be made, and lost in the blink of the eye. To believe in a incremental progress in human nature owes everything to religion.

  32. Kevin Friery says:

    Actually, to understand (not “believe in an”) incremental progress in human nature owes everything to evolution and socialisation. To go back to the true story of the debate – you know, as opposed to the things people wish the debate had been about – the reality is that both evolution and socialisation are not remotely dependant on religion and we can be perfectly decent people for no better reason than pure human logic; society works better when people are nice to each other as often as they can be. You don’t need a god to tell you that.

    • sam says:

      When did I say you need a god to be nice to people. And don’t try and set a boundary on what I write. There is no incremental progress in human nature. Agriculture had a big effect on human nature, don’t know of any serious evolutionary scientist who thinks the human brain has changed since then, take away fossil fuel and you are no different from your ancestors. I bet you have many fictions, as do we all, it is the human way

    • sam says:

      What is socialisation? Do you use it instead of the word memes, is this because the people of Salt Lake city would find it hard to come up with something as crazy as memes

    • sam says:

      Socialisation sounds like something they do to people in the Gulag

      • Saratov says:

        Socialisation means the introduction (and integration) of a child into society (beyond its family). It is a fairly standard term. Surprised you haven’t encountered it.

      • sam says:

        Are you, you must live a very sheltered life , lots of words have different meanings to different people, surprised you did not know that

  33. sam says:

    Thanks, the bit about socialsation of animals, confirms my gulag comment

  34. sam says:

    How do you “wash away” religiosity? Re education camps maybe, not very cosmopolitan. I’m often surprised at how illiberal, liberal peoples language can be. If belief in human rationality was scientific theory it would long since have been abandoned. Denying reality in order to preserve a view of the world is not a practice confined to cults. Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition.

  35. I love what you guys are up too. Such clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the excellent works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll.

  36. Hello there! This post could not be written any better!

    Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!

    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this
    page to him. Fairly certain he will have a
    good read. Thank you for sharing!

  37. sam says:

    Is Richard Dawkins the atheists arthur scargill, I wonder if a Ukip Member tweeted what he did you would be so forgiving

  38. Can anyone recommend a book on the subject of why society needs religion? Something scholarly but readable, a la Kevin Phillips’ or Niall Ferguson’s style of writing?

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