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Meditation 417
Why does God need government support?

by: Reverend Nigel Schofield

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A curiosity of the modern world is that so many states still have a state religion.  Even those countries that don’t have an established religion often like to dabble with the idea.  For example, the various bits of the US governance system periodically trying to promote the 10 commandments..  And certainly “in god we trust” isn’t going away any time soon. 

In fact most (perhaps nearly all) countries seem to want to get involved with religion on some level. The French may have a strong attachment to separation of church and state through “laïcité” and yet even they provide subsidies to religious schools and free use of public buildings.  At the other end of the scale, Iran and Pakistan declare themselves to be religious (Islamic) republics.

Why have states ever felt the need to take any sort of position on religion?  Presumably originally for the reason Voltaire offered - I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, he wrote, because then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.  Religion must be very useful if one is ruling a country as a despotic individual, or as a small and fixed ruling class.  Get the unwashed masses to believe in a strong and unquestionable authority with an uncanny (divine) ability to know when you’ve been bad; then imprint these feelings on the Government.  The potential advantages to past rulers are obvious.

Iran is a good example of this tendency in a modern state.  It seems unlikely that the Iranian Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians would still be around if they were not able to rely on manipulating religion to motivate the significant minority of religious militants in the Iranian population.   

And yet most (all?) Western societies are long past the top-down forms of Government of around even one hundred years ago.  Sure there are political elites, but they are not (very) hereditary. It is now generally possible for talented outsiders to enter the elite, and for slightly less talented people to be just outside the elite, but still actively involved in politics.  Western states no longer need a useful mass tool to make clever people outside the circles of privilege content with a bad lot in life.  If they have talent then you can give them a job inside the beltway. 

So what advantage for a country in supporting religion in these circumstances?  As a matter of public good, not much that I can see.  If one follows a particular religion then diverting tax funded resources to support it are a form of private appropriation for which criticism is unlikely to be damaging.  In other words it’s of benefit to individual politicians who happen to be religious.  Sort of like persuading the government to support your favourite sports team.  And of course it plays well with some voters.

But if the state often gains little then, what does God get out of governmental interest in religion?  Well the alleged deities of the world’s religions are fairly notorious for never appearing in a clear and unambiguous way which would remove any confusion as to who does and doesn’t exist.  So maybe he / she / it / they need the publicity.