18 December 2013


A recent survey indicated that nearly a quarter of all Americans no longer believe in God. This is still well below the level of disbelief in Europe, but the numbers have increased substantially. Although I am agnostic, I find this troubling, insofar as faith has been the source of the moral compass for most people, and it is unclear what can replace it. There are those who claim there can be a secular equivalent, based upon a humanistic philosophy, but few people are inclined towards intense philosophical reflection that will produce anything like an ethical substitute.  

Why is this problematic? As Dostoevsky wrote, “If there is no God then everything is permissible.” We do in fact live in societies where an ever-increasing scope of activity is tolerated, which is quite consistent with the libertarian nature of our institutions. We favor the general principal that people should be able to do what they want as long as they do not harm others. This leads us to strive to be nonjudgemental, no matter what the circumstances are, because a free society mandates that we be broadly tolerant. But in the absence of a set of fixed moral principles, the determination of right and wrong basically falls to the law. This has grave consequences for every one of us. If people do not behave according to some kind of internal moral restraint, it results in more and more external control. More laws are enacted to compensate for this, which paradoxically results in a situation where, on the one hand, our individual liberty is sacrosanct, but on the other hand, subject to ever more control and direction from above. In other words, if everyone, ideally,  is completely free to do whatever they please the actual result is increasingly intrusive regulation. For society to function at all there has to be some degree of behavioral restraint. The question then is whether we restrain ourselves from within, or are subject to restraint from without. 

This is symptomatic of a society with increasingly less of a common culture based upon broadly shared religious principles. These in turn, have traditionally been inculcated by the family, as the basic unit of society. But the family has increasingly been upended by a kind of atomistic individualism, which consequently has been coupled with an omnipresent state as social arbiter. Even if a democratically large majority still maintains a set of common cultural beliefs, they are constantly superseded by the courts in sustaining claims of rights infringement by any tiny minority, no matter how obscure, thus granting it a kind of equivalency with the ethos of the majority. This makes a common culture impossible along with any kind of shared moral outlook.

All of this would not be so bad if this new paradigm did not have such disastrous social consequences. Although secularization has been going on for more than a century, only now is it accelerating in the general population. At the same time we have seen a collapse in standards, our society has become increasingly coarse, if not downright vulgar, and rudeness and selfish behavior have become widespread. If there is not a strong family structure there is no shame, no no manners, and generally no restraint. If the moral basis of the family is undercut what then of civility, courtesy, manners, good behavior, and kindness? 

There is no simple solution for this dilemma, and certainly none to be had from the government, which some see as an elixir for every problem. There are certainly problems with religion, particularly in terms of the plausibility of some claims, but rationalistic criticism eludes the deep-rooted wellsprings of faith in emotions and the subconscious which must be channeled somewhere or there is nothing left but nihilism. At this festive time of year even the secular among us can feel some sense of the power of faith in the songs of the season that frequently provide an expression of it. Given the lack of any viable substitute for most people, we should not be too quick to arrogantly rationalize belief systems we do not fully comprehend and that have provided the moral foundation of our society for many centuries.