What about all the amazing cultural achievements religion has afforded us?

In debates about the value of religion, I have heard this one put forth by highly educated people. It, more or less, boils down to this:

Many great feats of construction, architecture and art have been achieved by cultures attempting to honor their deity or deities. Without religion of one sort or another, not only would these structures never have been built (depriving us all of a kind of collective self-esteem boost) but the technology learned in the process of building them would have been lost or taken more time to discover and modern engineering and architecture would have been set back.

I have heard the rebuttals as well, which, in my mind, handily defeat it. Yet they seem to accept its premise a little too much, nevertheless.

So I want to completely quash this line of argument once and for all.

1. (Standard rebuttal) There is enough awe and wonder in the world around us to inspire us to these achievements without a need for a god.
2. (Standard rebuttal) The artists and architects worked for the patrons who could afford the projects.
3. I reject the premise outright. While the fear of retribution from an angry god was often a tool that helped manipulate the slaves at work on the projects, most monuments and great art was created to serve different ends than the praise and worship of a god:
a. Structures such as the pyramids, Greek temples, and cathedrals were marketing campaigns to raise the brand of a ruling class to the stature of gods in the eyes of the masses - deus ex machine - like the big green head in the Wizard of Oz
b. Structures such as the Great Wall of China, castles, Roman roads, aqueducts, etc. were built for military and logistical purposes in the maintenance of property, resource and trade route ownership rights
c. Stone circles and, possibly, some aspects of structures such as pyramids were astronomical observatories of sorts
d. Structures such as the Taj Mahal and yet another role of pyramids, etc. were to glorify the wealthy and powerful after death (see a)

Even today, the underlying role of large scale land development remains, in many cases, within the confines of a-d - even set within secular contexts such as government buildings, corporate headquarters, etc. They have morphed in many ways. And they have always mimiced natural formations and their effects on us.

Towering trees in an ancient forest morph into the high, peaked ceiling of the cathedral into the high, barrel dome of the train station into the high, glass atrium of the shopping mall.

Mountains morph into pyramids into skyscrapers.

Deer paths morph into trails into roads into superhighways.

Yes, the initial proposal is an incredibly spurious train of thought that shows, once again, that even if you don't pick a specific god to find value in and try to focus on some aspect of religion itself that has served humanity well and without a viable alternative, there remains no case for the value of religion.

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Comment by Richard Healy on November 28, 2009 at 8:14am
One final point.

Hitchens has been rather strong on this in some videos of him I have seen.

He points out that one can still appreciate the great art, majestic accomplishment, feat of engineering etc., of the Parthenon for instance - the new temple of Athena - within whose walls, if the interpretations of the frieze that runs along the mantle on the front are correct, human sacrifice was routinely practised.

It's rather like that thread doing the rounds at the moment: how would you feel wearing the cardigan of a serial killer? Does the wickedness or the beliefs of those that inhabit the structures attach to those structures or does the passing of time somehow 'cleanse' them?


Will the same be said (just imagine) if one day the religion of Christ disappears from this earth, will we remember that St Peters was erected on the back of plenary indulgences of the benighted masses attempting to buy favour the dead loved ones in a systematic exploitation of the weak and vulnerable?

Personally, I find it hard to remove myself from that knowledge, but I can well imagine that the passage of time will rob The Vatican of the same kind of bile and disgust that must have once surrounded all temples that thrived on the denigration of the human.

There is interestingly a branch of aesthetics for 'civilisational art' into which one can place, objects like the parthenon and St Peters, The Pyramids etc. human-created structures which are reappraised for their beauty as exemplars of culture rather than their historical oppression of the human in their construction. My point is the transition and reappraisal seems to be one of time.
Comment by Richard Healy on November 28, 2009 at 7:50am
Many great feats of construction, architecture and art have been achieved by cultures attempting to honor their deity or deities. Without religion of one sort or another, not only would these structures never have been built (depriving us all of a kind of collective self-esteem boost) but the technology learned in the process of building them would have been lost or taken more time to discover and modern engineering and architecture would have been set back.

I see a number of issues here. Both underlined sections are arguments about consequences.


"Religion of one sort or another" - so the argument is not specific to any one sect or god(s)


"These structures would never have been built " - Given the premise of the argument (religion creates great art) this can be treated as a rather uninteresting truism though in fact it is begging the question. We will never known what the Temple of Galileo would have looked like.

"(depriving us all of a kind of collective self-esteem boost)" - IF you belong to the sect involved. Were rebellious Protestants cheered by the sight of a catholic monastery being erected? Where the pool of potential sacrifices really relieved to know the crops were failing yet again, and maybe this time they'd be the one selected by the priests to have their hearts torn out? This is a claim about the good consequences of this structures and it is I believe insufficient to make the point that religious art is necessarily meritorious.

Furthermore, believing in something to make you feel better rather than understanding the truth is at best a consolation prize.


"The technology learned in the process of building them would have been lost."
- not so, there is nothing intrinsic to the belief in a super nature's that erecting a temple or citadel wouldn't require an understanding of materials and stresses and pressure. This is assuming that if one deleted religion from history all it's artefacts would vanish. But that isn't the argument, what is contested is was religion necessary to these objects being created so it isn;t the case that if religion had died out that no progress would have been made just that it would have been different. If anthropology teaches us anything about ourselves it is that as a species on all our cultures will almost by habit represent our reality any chance we get. In any case this argument is rather undermined in the next part..

or taken more time to discover
- so the danger isn't really in loosing them at all, this is an argument about timing!
So what is the religious objection to letting people suffer in darkness and depression for say an extra thousand years? For the humanist - human suffering is at issue because the human is intrinsically valuable and can experience pain, hunger, fear etc. lives that are "nasty brutish and short", to invoke the phrase so there is an argument to be made about the moral imperative for expediting progress in the alleviation of suffering but where is the equivilant in religious doctrine?

"and modern engineering and architecture would have been set back."
A pot-hoc assumption, about the rate of progress, the evidence is that religion has helped if to been the principle repressor of knowledge for centuries: if we hadn't of had some of the silly prohibitions like understanding how the human body worked internally by banning post mortem dissection how much earlier might successful surgery and medicine have been advanced, for instance? This is an example where it is necessary to believe the body is sacred and must not be defiled lest it risks divine wrath for spoiling the form of creation, i.e is necessary to hold such a belief to restrict knowledge developing, where the tenor of the argument as summarised, is that there is nothing in particular about religion that is necessary to our betterment but that it is trivially true because it so happened to be so.
Comment by Michael Schmidt on November 27, 2009 at 11:41am
The way the original premise is worded (your title) seems to suggest the idea that, despite the shortcomings of religion (ie. lack proof) and any "bad" that may have been committed in the names of those religions, we should accept that religion _can_ be good because of things accomplished.

As controversial as it might sound (yes I know, bringing up Nazis) I would counter with this: There have been many organizations, for example the Nazi party, who did horrible things, but who were also instrumental in some important achievements. Would you (religious person defending accomplishments of religion) agree to praising/accepting those organizations (ie Nazi party) because they accomplished good things as well as bad?

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