Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

Humans obviously evolved to form groups and form societies. We have a desire to work collectively and establish rules for the common good, rules which benefit the group as a whole rather than the individual. Ideally, these rules should facilitate the right of individuals to live as they see fit, so long as they do not inhibit other individuals from doing the same. This is often the subject of intense debate: the right of an individual to live as they wish versus the right of the state to limit behaviour which may harm other individuals or the state itself versus the right of society to establish unofficial norms of behaviour.

The evolutionary adaptation to form societies and make rules has long been recognised. Aristotle described humans as being “zoo’on politikon”, usually translated as “a political animal”, the word “political” including the idea of group forming and rule making (nations and laws).

Even before the formation of nations which imposed laws on their members, humans lived in groups. This is evident from the archaeological evidence found in caves of both modern man and our near cousins. It is inconceivable that a group of people could live together in a cave society without some rules governing behaviour, even if those rules were quite simple.

We can see such rules of behaviour already in more distant relatives such as chimpanzees and gorillas. They live in groups and members behave in certain established ways if they are to remain members of those groups. Some of this may be instinctive, but not necessarily all, and some behaviour may be the result of a strong individual imposing their will on others, whether by violence or by status in the group. There is no reason to think that early human societies were any different nor to presume that modern human societies are any different, except, perhaps, in complexity.

We no longer live in caves, by and large, but we still form groups, which we call nations, states or countries and their subdivisions. We certainly still make rules, and sometimes it appears that as time passes those rules get more and more complex.

The rules include both laws and policies enforced by the state, and social norms enforced by society itself. There are also individuals who want to control other people’s activities simply because they can, or think they have the right to do so. Often, but not always, these are family members or employment supervisors. There are also non-government groups who require their members to behave according to an additional set of rules. These are frequently religious in nature, although by no means confined to religions. Professional societies, clubs, unions, associations and others all do the same to a greater or lesser degree.

Where these rules and regulations serve simply to identify members of a group or facilitate the goals of a group, and are voluntarily endorsed by those who are members of the group, there is nothing negative about them and their enforcement is usually quite benign. Presumably people join these groups because they agree with their aims or to gain the benefits coming from being members. In any case, it is a simple matter for a member who does not agree with the rules to just resign from the group and remove themselves from its influence, although they may have to forego any benefits originating with the group.

With other groups, separation of the individual may be more difficult. As an example, it is not so easy to resign from employment, particularly if there are family members who depend on the continued employment for the provision of life necessities and, of course, it is not possible to resign from the obligation to follow the laws of a nation, except to leave the nation’s territory and live elsewhere, something which is not always possible.

At a national level, the fundamental laws in Canada are the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All other laws, rules and regulations are to be interpreted so they do not conflict with or negate those two. In the USA, the equivalent would be the Constitution with its Amendments.

One thing about laws is that they change in response to changes in society, although they lag behind somewhat. Sometimes this leads to anachronisms, with laws remaining on the books after society has changed so much that the older law strikes us as ridiculous or humorous. The usual practice is to ignore them, although it would probably be better if they were removed by the appropriate body. Changes in laws do, however, underscore that society is fluid and dynamic, constantly changing. It emphasises that laws, morality and societal norms are just human conventions and that human conventions can change. Some things, of course, are thought reprehensible over very long periods of time, murder for instance, others have their day, then change.

It is quite apparent that society has become more lenient and forgiving during the last several decades, at least in Canada. During my life time, things that would not have been tolerated decades ago are now considered of no importance. That is a good thing, since it allows for individuals to live as they wish, by and large. A large part of this change in society is due to a more prominent distaste for discrimination and hate in all its forms. Sometimes, changes in one area bring about modifications in others, and it may be that the feminist movement, with its great emphasis on equality between men and women, has resulted in changes in other areas such as same sex relationships.

The emphasis on human rights that has become more prominent over the years has also resulted in a hardening of attitudes in some areas. This can be seen in the way parental kidnapping during a divorce is treated. At one time, not so very long ago, if one parent took a child from the other parent and left for some other community, very little could be done about it and the abandoned parent was left to cope as best they could. Now, whenever it is possible to do so, the kidnapping parent is located and may be charged with a criminal offence.

A second example would be in the tolerance for sexually oriented behaviour and comments in the workplace. I am not referring to the common banter between people who work together and have become friends, and where the talk is voluntary and acceptable to them all. Even then, sometimes people outside the group may make the assumption that it is not voluntary and presume there are improper and inappropriate comments being made when that is not so. The emphasis is on whether those involved do so voluntarily or not. Any degree of coercion would turn harmless banter into harassment. It is surely obvious that those in such environments, whether in the workplace or elsewhere, should ensure that such conversations truly are voluntary and inoffensive.

The basis for laws should be what benefits society, the state and its citizens, while protecting as much as possible the right of the individual to live their life freely without impinging on others. This may be a simple statement, but in practice may be difficult to accomplish, particularly when enacting legislation affecting rights which conflict with each other.

It must also be noted, rather emphatically, that this altruistic view of what should constitute the basis for laws is not always met in practice. It is far too common for laws to be enacted which benefit individuals or small groups who have influence over the lawmakers. In times past, and in some states even now, this was based on religion and even resulted in laws being enacted which made one specific religion the religion of the state. In other cases it is commerce based, and many states today give benefits to businesses that are designed to improve the income of those businesses. Sometimes this is so that the businesses may provide opportunities to the state’s citizens, such as employment, and sometimes it is to simply increase profits with little benefit to the citizenry.

It is an undoubted fact that many businesses have gained this influence by contributing financially to political parties, thus enabling those parties to form the governments which enact pro-business legislation. A similar point is often made by pro-business groups about labour unions and ties they may have to other political parties.

There have been calls in some places to have political donations from both business groups and labour groups forbidden, being replaced with some form of state financial support, often based on the number of votes a party gets, and on individual donations from voters. It is claimed that such financial support systems are less likely to lead to undue influence from third parties and consequently to improved democracy, in which the welfare of the citizenry is the most important factor.

Democracies come closest to bringing about a society which is based on the will of a nation’s citizens. Few things are totally absolute, so there will undoubtedly be some things that some citizens will not like or approve. Nevertheless, all of the alternatives to democracy do a far worse job of meeting citizens’ wishes, except, perhaps, in those societies which are based on a monolithic viewpoint, often religious. Even then, the introduction of democratic government and its consequent freer speech, may make it evident that the monolithic viewpoint was a sham and there were many differing viewpoints actually present but not expressed due to the expected consequences of disagreeing with the norm of the society.

Even in democracies, individuals band together with those who have similar views, despite not completely agreeing with each other. However, the views are close enough that there is sufficient commonality to form the basis for some agreements or actions. In societies new to democracy, the commonality may be broadly based enough that widely disparate viewpoints may be represented, but these are not as important in the coalition formed as the overridingly important common goal. Once that common goal is reached, of course, these disagreements on other aspects may cause the coalition to founder and split apart, but that is just democracy in action and is to be expected.

Any identifiable group will do what benefits that group. Nobody is going to engage in actions which cause self-harm and societies are no different. This sometimes results in democracies not behaving democratically, particularly in countries foreign to them. Similarly, political parties are sometimes swayed by their supporters to enact legislation benefiting one segment of society at the expense of another. Each group in society works for an advantage for that group’s benefit in the same way as nations seek to benefit themselves internationally. The art of government would appear to be in satisfying each of these groups sufficiently that they are cooperative to the whole.

This group-forming tendency of people is sometimes referred to as “tribalism”, just not in the geographic or ethnic sense. Unfortunately, it is a separative process, i.e. it causes people to think of themselves as separate and distinct from others, as a people apart, and is therefore a negative and destructive force in society. Reducing tribalism would increase cohesiveness in society, whether at a local or international level. Equally unfortunately, it is not possible to reduce this kind of tribalism by coercion as it is a mental, perceptual process.

To be successful in this, people must come to believe they are members of a larger group and are benefiting from being so. Ironically, one way this might be done is to expand the concept of the tribe to be more inclusive. This has been happening slowly over the years, particularly in new countries such as Canada, so that immigrants may be absorbed into the broad stream of Canadian society and be seen as Canadians rather than just as immigrants. More needs to be done, however, since it is quite plain that some people resist including certain groups into the Canadian mosaic, and others voluntarily exclude themselves. There is no doubt that, despite the advances made in equality over the decades, many countries, old and new, still retain a core of prejudice that needs to be excised.

Previous page Home page Secular Articles Religious Articles Next page