In 1950 Kenneth Arrow published an article in the Journal of Political Economy titled, “A Difficulty in the Concept of Social Welfare”. This and related work led him to a Nobel Prize in Economics. Arrow had set out to establish a method for aggregating individual preferences to come up with some sort of intelligent social welfare function. He couldn’t do it. So, like a good economist, he set about trying figure out why he couldn’t do it. He managed to prove it was impossible. The result is generally called, “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem”. The theorem amounts to a relatively simple statement; any consistent well behaved aggregate preference ranking must be the preference ranking of a single individual, and that’s not very aggregate. There is no way to aggregate preferences and retain many of the properties we think preference structures should have. There are 5 or 6 properties a well behaved preference structure should have, depending on how you count. These properties include things like reflexivity, completeness, transitivity, etc. Most of these properties seem pretty mundane. The problem comes when we try to come up with a method for combining them.
What does all this have to do with religion? Consider a situation in which you have to get a large group of people (more than 3) to agree on a fairly complete set of principles to live by. This set of rules should be reflective of the preferences of the group, otherwise they won’t be followed. But Arrow’s impossibility theorem tells us that we can’t incorporate everybody’s preference or the set of rules will internally inconsistent. Any set of rules that is grossly illogical probably won’t last very long. This problem would tend to make large scale society impossible.
One solution is to impose one preference structure on the group. This is, of course, going to create resentment. This is one reason why dictators tend to have to use a “secret police” to rule. There is another way to pull this off. HereThis is religion is a solution to a secular problem. If the preference structure comes from outside the system – particularly from a divine being – there’s likely to be a lot less resentment and resistance. This is why the divine right of kings worked as well as it did in Europe.
With the loss of religion as a method of defining an appropriate social welfare function we’re kind of left at lose ends. It’s getting harder and harder to get large groups of people to agree on anything positive – negative is easy. We’re seeing politics and social movements become increasingly fractious. The result is going to be a movement toward ever smaller political units. We’re seeing this in a lot of the world already, and the trend is only going to continue.
I’m not saying God does or does not exist. Simply that society could not exist without such a concept.