Religious occasions such as Easter are important but a belief in God won't address threats to our species

The poignancy and deeply affecting nature of Anzac Day has in recent years drawn increasing numbers of New Zealanders of all ages to dawn services across the nation. It has, arguably, over the decades, become the most profoundly moving and spiritual of days for our nation, deeply symbolic as it is of the tragic, senseless slaughter of vibrant youthful men on the shores of Gallipoli in service of king and empire, and of all battle sacrifices so many of our young men and women have made in various theatres of war.

This year, Anzac Day closely follows Easter, the most sacredly held period for Christians, with its commemoration of the crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ to life eternal. The core Christian message being, that Christ died for our sins in order that the "truth" and "light" could be revealed to all who believed in him and the heavenly father. The Easter story remains a symbolically powerful one that has played a central, though now diminishing cultural role, in the development of western civilisation.

However, one of these narratives remains deeply embedded in fact, the other myth. The former, as a factual event, is supported through verifiable historical accounts, while the other remains neither provable nor disprovable. Yet our 21st-century scientifically proven discoveries and understanding of the history of our universe have enabled us to map time and space over billions of years. Through the disciplines of astrophysics, biology, chemistry, quantum physics, mathematical calculus and anthropology, our human understanding of our origins since the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 has become incredibly enriched and detailed.

In comparison, the same cannot be said of organised religions that rely upon "belief" and "faith" in the unproven to retain the loyalty of their followers and adherents. Dialogue contributor, Anglican vicar Michael Hewat aptly demonstrates this in his argument that the credibility of Christianity stands and falls upon the belief or otherwise of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Further, he believes this "truth" is accepted more by those living in societies where "that truth is proclaimed confidently".

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Yet the tide is turning against organised religion. The United States Pew Research Institute, in its comprehensive 2012 report on the global religious landscape, found that globally, roughly one-in-six people (1.1 billion, or 16 per cent) have no religious affiliation. This grouping is made up of atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, and those believing in a god or higher power. In Europe, nations with the highest percentage of atheists tend to be those with the most socially stable, progressive, economically developed and educated populations. Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and France stand out in this regard. In contrast, the United States and African nations have maintained high degrees of religiosity, accompanied by varying yet significant degrees of social, ethnic, and political-economic disharmony, friction and strife.

Mr Hewat postulates that questions of creation, suffering, and the failures of the church serve as "secondary" considerations to the importance of belief in the resurrection. This is perhaps not surprising given such issues have tended to expose systemic underlying flaws in religious belief systems. The holocaust of World War II resulting in the deaths of 6 million Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, intellectuals, and the disabled, during which innocent men, women and children were barbarically tortured, slaughtered, maimed, and ritually abused, alongside the countless hundreds of millions killed through other cultural and ideological purges over the centuries, quietly puts paid to the credibility of notions of a loving, all powerful God, and an afterlife for believers. As the great Italian writer, scientist, atheist and Jew Primo Levi stated upon his release from Auschwitz: "There is no God."

As deeply embedded cultural traditions, symbolic religious occasions such as Easter and Christmas serve importantly to existentially engage us as individuals in thinking more deeply about notions of life and death, belief and disbelief, of what is real, and what is not. Such examination can be spiritually rewarding, without the need to be a literal believer in the Bible's claims. In this respect, the Christian church retains a core degree of relevancy to society, alongside the many other faith systems.

Religious belief persists for complex and varied reasons. In the developing world, poverty, disease, famine, and misery serve as perfect territory for missionaries promising dream-like eternal afterlives. Little wonder that two-thirds of Catholic adherents now come from the developing world.

Geo-political, environmental, social, and economic issues and tensions facing our world have never more seriously threatened the well-being and security of our species. Reason, evidence, and secular humanist values must lead in addressing these — not religion.


Sam Clements is a tutor within the University of Auckland Business School's department of management and international business. His views are entirely personal.