I enjoyed the debate between atheist Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell on Q&A last night. Being an atheist myself, I just couldn't be swayed by many of Pell's arguments. However he certainly landed some punches.
One point in particular struck me as very powerful. The transcript's not yet up so I'll just go from memory on this. They were talking about hell, and Pell related a story in which a kid asked him about who would have ended up there. Pell suggested Hitler. He then went on to opine that if someone as clearly evil as him just got the same "punishment" (that is, death) as everyone else then it would be a terribly unjust universe.
That's not proof of the existence of God, of course. But it's certainly a good reason to have religion, particularly one like Christianity that lays out some sort of final judgement -- with clear consequences -- on how good or bad a person's life has been. I mean, hell, if megalomaniac mass murderers don't get punished for what they do then why should anyone even try to be good?
Now some non-religious types might argue that there is still some kind of universal justice at work since people like this are punished during their lifetimes by being inherently miserable, deeply angry, shunned or whatever. But quite often such A-grade arseholes are happy as Larry! They can have good health, be very popular, and sleep very well. They don't suffer a guilty conscience because they don't have a conscience in the first place. In any case they don't think that what they're doing is bad, wrong, or evil. If anything, they see themselves as heroic crusaders for good.
And that gets back to the idea of original sin. Dawkins and many other atheists bristle at this Christian idea that we are somehow inherently bad, and that we have to redeem ourselves. But while I don't agree with the details of it, I think original sin is a very good and useful concept. You just have to look at nature to know why.
Nature is obviously amoral. It's just a rolling shit-fight, let's face it. Animals are brutal, craven beings. They just get what they want in whatever way they can without any concern for other creatures except those of their own species (and even that consideration doesn't hold very often).
At our core that's what we humans are like, too. Just look at what happens when civilizing influences disappear, such as in the wake of a natural disaster. They can even happen when they're still there, but have been heavily eroded. The London riots are a case in point.
Sure, it's not only religion that gives us these inner restraints. Atheists can still be good people. That said, religion is still one of the best ways of creating and maintaining them. While we do live in a secular society here in Australia, many of our moral laws and ideals come from Christianity. They work very well and we should keep them. It would be a horrible place without them.
So, just from a very pragmatic point of view, I think Christianity in particular, and religion in general, are very civilizing. I don't subscribe to them in an official way by joining one church or another, but I certainly respect them, and I respect the right of people to follow their faiths. If religious types started trying to ram their beliefs down my neck then my feelings would be different, of course. But I've never once been sermonized to about how defective I am for being an atheist by any religious person in my life. Ironically, the closest thing I've ever heard to a sermon is from zealous atheists bitching about how evil and wrong religion is, and who would clearly be a lot happier it were outlawed.