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Religion Is Essential to a Moral Society

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey explains in the subsequent viewpoint why a moral society is necessarily a religious society. He claims that contemporary America's secularism has reduced the concept of morality to a question of personal choice. According to Yancey, the ability to make authentic judgments about right and wrong requires the guidance of religion; any moral system set down by secularists is completely arbitrary, since it has no higher authority as its foundation. Yancey is the author of many books, including the recent What's So Amazing About Grace?

A representative of Generation X named Sam told me he had been discovering the strategic advantages of truth. As an experiment, he decided to stop lying. "It helps people picture you and relate to you more reliably," he said. "Truth can be positively beneficial in many ways." I asked what would happen if he found himself in a situation where it would prove more beneficial for him to lie. He said he would have to judge the context, but he was trying to prefer not-lying.

For Sam, the decision to lie or tell the truth involved not morality but a social construct, to be adopted or rejected as a matter of expedience. In essence, the source of moral authority for Sam is himself, and that in a nutshell is the dilemma confronting moral philosophy in the postmodern world.

The Rise of Unmorality

Something unprecedented in human history is brewing: a rejection of external moral sources altogether. Individuals and societies have always been immoral to varying degrees. Individuals (never an entire society) have sometimes declared themselves amoral, professing agnosticism about ethical matters. Only recently, however, have serious thinkers entertained the notion of unmorality: that there is no such thing as morality. A trend prefigured by Nietzsche, prophesied by Dostoyevsky, and analyzed presciently by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man is now coming to fruition. The very concept of morality is undergoing a profound change, led in part by the advance guard of a new science called "evolutionary psychology."

So far, however, the pioneers of unmorality have practiced a blatant contradiction. Following in the style of Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that meaningful communication is impossible even as he devoted his life to communicating meaningfully, the new moralists first proclaim that morality is capricious, perhaps even a joke, then proceed to use moral categories to condemn their opponents. These new high priests lecture us solemnly about multiculturalism, gender equality, homophobia, and environmental degradation, all the while ignoring the fact that they have systematically destroyed any basis for judging such behavior right or wrong. The emperor so quick to discourse about fashion happens to be stark naked....

In a great irony, the "politically correct" movement defending the rights of women, minorities, and the environment often positions itself as an enemy of the Christian church when, in historical fact, the church has contributed the very underpinnings that make such a movement possible. Christianity brought an end to slavery, and its crusading fervor also fueled the early labor movement, women's suffrage, human-rights campaigns, and civil rights. According to Robert Bellah, "there has not been a major issue in the history of the United States on which religious bodies did not speak out, publicly and vociferously."

It was no accident that Christians pioneered in the antislavery movement, for their beliefs had a theological impetus. Both slavery and the oppression of women were based, anachronistically, on an embryonic form of Darwinism. Aristotle had observed that

Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals, yet for all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival. And as regards the relationship between male and female, the former is naturally superior, the latter inferior, the former rules and the latter is subject. By analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast (and that is the state of those who work by using their bodies, and for whom that is the best they can do)--these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I have mentioned.... It is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain people who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.... From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.

Cross out the name Aristotle and read the paragraph again as the discovery of a leading evolutionary psychologist. No one is proposing the reimposition of slavery, of course--but why not? If we learn our morality from nature, and if our only rights are those we create for ourselves, why should not the strong exercise their "natural rights" over the weak?

The Need for a Moral Authority

As Alasdair MacIntyre remarks in After Virtue, modern protesters have not abandoned moral argument, though they have abandoned any coherent platform from which to make a moral argument. They keep using moral terminology--it is wrong to own slaves, rape a woman, abuse a child, despoil the environment, discriminate against homosexuals--but they have no "higher authority" to which to appeal to make their moral judgments. MacIntyre concludes,

Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors' premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

In the United States, we prefer to settle major issues on utilitarian or pragmatic grounds. But philosophers including Aristotle and David Hume argued powerfully in favor of slavery on those very grounds. Hitler pursued his genocidal policies against the Jews and "defective" persons on utilitarian grounds. Unless modern thinkers can locate a source of moral authority somewhere else than in the collective sentiments of human beings, we will always be vulnerable to dangerous swings of moral consensus....

A Generation of Wingless Chickens

It is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens.--Flannery O'Connor

What happens when an entire society becomes populated with wingless chickens? I need not dwell on the contemporary symptoms of moral illness in the United States: our rate of violent crime has quintupled in my lifetime; a third of all babies are now born out of wedlock; half of all marriages end in divorce; the richest nation on earth has a homeless population larger than the entire population of some nations. These familiar symptoms are just that, symptoms. A diagnosis would look beyond them to our loss of a teleological sense. "Can one be a saint if God does not exist? That is the only concrete problem I know of today," wrote Albert Camus in The Fall.

Civilization holds together when a society learns to place moral values above the human appetites for power, wealth, violence, and pleasure. Historically, it has always relied on religion to provide a source for that moral authority. In fact, according to [historians] Will and Ariel Durant, "There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." They added the foreboding remark, "The greatest question of our time is not communism versus individualism, not Europe versus America, not even the East versus the West; it is whether men can live without God."

Playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia Vāclav Havel, a survivor of a civilization that tried to live without God, sees the crisis clearly:

I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative, coordinates.

On moral issues--social justice, sexuality, marriage and family, definitions of life and death--society badly needs a moral tether, or "system of coordinates" in Havel's phrase. Otherwise, our laws and politics will begin to reflect the same kind of moral schizophrenia already seen in individuals.

On what moral basis do doctrinaire Darwinians, committed to the survival of the fittest, ask us to protect the environment, in effect lending a hand to those we make "unfit"? On what basis do abortionists denounce the gender-based abortion practiced in India, where, in some cities, 99 percent of abortions involve a female fetus? (For this reason, some Indian cities have made it illegal for doctors to reveal to parents a fetus's gender after an ultrasound test.) Increasingly, the schizophrenia of personal morality is being projected onto society at large.

James Davison Hunter recounts watching a segment of the Phil Donahue Show featuring men who left their wives and then had affairs with those wives' mothers. Some of the relationships failed, but some worked out fine, the men reported. A psychologist sitting on the panel concluded, "The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong. I hear no wrongdoing. As I listen to their stories, I hear pain."

The Fate of a Godless Society

Hunter speculates where a society might be headed once it loses all moral consensus. "Personally I'm into ritual animal sacrifice," says one citizen. "Oh, really," says another. "I happen to be into man-boy relationships." "That's great," responds a third, "but my preference is ..." and so on. The logical end of such thinking, Hunter suggests, can be found in the Marquis de Sade's novel Juliette, which declares, "Nothing is forbidden by nature."

In Sade's novel, Juliette's lover enhances their sexual ecstasy by raping Juliette's daughter and throwing the girl into a fire; wielding a poker, the mother herself prevents the child's escape. A brute accused of raping, sodomizing, and murdering more than two dozen boys, girls, men, and women defends himself by saying that all concepts of virtue and vice are arbitrary; self-interest is the paramount rule:

Justice has no real existence, it is the deity of every passion. ... So let us abandon our belief in this fiction, it no more exists than does the God of whom fools believe it the image; there is no God in this world, neither is there virtue, neither is there justice; there is nothing good, useful, or necessary but our passions.

U.S. courts today take pains to decide the merits of a case apart from religion or natural law. New York State passed a law prohibiting the use of children in pornographic films and, in order to protect it from civil libertarians, specified that the law is based not on moral or religious reasons, rather on "mental health" grounds. In earlier times the Supreme Court appealed to the "general consent" of society's moral values in deciding issues such as polygamy. I wonder on what possible grounds the Court might rule against polygamy today (practiced in 84 percent of all recorded cultures)--or incest, or pederasty, for that matter. All these moral taboos derive from a religious base; take away that foundation, and why should the practices be forbidden?

To ask a basic question, What sense does marriage make in a morally neutral society? A friend of mine, though gay, is nevertheless troubled by calls for gay marriages. "What's to keep two brothers from marrying, if they declare a commitment to each other?" he asks. "They could then enjoy the tax breaks and advantages of inheritance and health plans. It seems to me something more should be at stake in an institution like marriage." Yes, but what is at stake in marriage? The authors of Habits of the Heart found that few individuals in their survey except committed Christians could explain why they stayed married to their spouses. Marriage as a social construct is arbitrary, flexible, and open to redefinition. Marriage as a sacrament established by God is another matter entirely.

Separating Sex from Morality

Feminist thinkers have led the way in questioning the traditional basis of sexual ethics. In The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, Dalma Heyn argues that women unnaturally bind themselves at the marriage altar, abandoning their true needs and desires. Heyn recommends extramarital affairs as the cure for what she sardonically calls "the Donna Reed syndrome." In an essay in Time, Barbara Ehrenreich celebrated the fact that "Sex can finally, after all these centuries, be separated from the all-too-serious business of reproduction.... The only ethic that can work in an overcrowded world is one that insists that ... sex--preferably among affectionate and consenting adults--belongs squarely in the realm of play."

Ehrenreich and Heyn are detaching sex from any teleological meaning invested in it by religion. But why limit the experience to affectionate and consenting adults? If sex is a matter of play, why not sanction pederasty, as did the Greeks and Romans? Why choose the age of 18--or 16, or 14, or 12--to mark an arbitrary distinction between child abuse and indulging in play? If sex is mere play, why do we prosecute people for incest? (Indeed, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States circulated a paper expressing skepticism regarding "moral and religious pronouncements with respect to incest," lamenting that the taboo has hindered scientific investigation.)

The Alice-in-Wonderland world of untethered ethics has little place for traditional morality. When California adopted a sex-education program, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent this official memorandum:

The ACLU regrets to inform you of our opposition to SB 2394 concerning sex education in public schools. It is our position that teaching that monogamous, heterosexual intercourse within marriage is a traditional American value is an unconstitutional establishment of religious doctrine in public schools.... We believe SB 2394 violates the First Amendment.

Secularists Cannot Defend Any Morality

Again I stress, to me the question is not why modern secularists reject traditional morality, but on what grounds they defend any morality. Our legal system vigorously defends a woman's right to choose abortion--but why stop there? Historically, abandonment has been the more common means of disposing of unwanted children. Romans did it, Greeks did it, and during Rousseau's lifetime, one-third of babies in Paris were simply abandoned. Yet today, in the United States, if a mother leaves her baby in a Chicago alley, or two teens deposit their newborn in a Dempsey Dumpster, they are subject to prosecution.

We feel outrage when we hear of a middle-class couple "dumping" an Alzheimer's-afflicted parent when they no longer wish to care for him, or when kids push a five-year-old out the window of a high-rise building, or a ten-year-old is raped in a hallway, or a mother drowns her two children because they interfere with her lifestyle. Why? On what grounds do we feel outrage if we truly believe that morality is self-determined? Evidently the people who committed the crimes felt no compunction. And if morality is not, in the end, self-determined, who determines it? On what basis do we decide?

In the landmark book Faith in the Future, Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the (British) Commonwealth, argues that human society was meant to be a covenant between God and humankind, a collaborative enterprise based on common values and vision. Instead, it has become "an aggregate of individuals pursuing private interest, coming together temporarily and contractually, and leaving the state to resolve their conflicts on value-neutral grounds." In the process, "the individual loses his moorings ... and becomes prone to a sense of meaninglessness and despair." Sacks argues that only by restoring the "moral covenant" can we reverse the breakdown in the social fabric of Western civilization.

Or, as the Jewish medical educator David C. Stolinsky put it, "The reason we fear to go out after dark is not that we may be set upon by bands of evangelicals and forced to read the New Testament, but that we may be set upon by gangs of feral young people who have been taught that nothing is superior to their own needs or feelings." ...

The Absolute Value of Individuals

In his study Morality: Religious and Secular, Basil Mitchell argues that, since the eighteenth century, secular thinkers have attempted to make reason, not religion, the basis of morality. None has successfully found a way to establish an absolute value for the individual human person. Mitchell suggests that secular thinkers can establish a relative value for people, by comparing people to animals, say, or to each other; but the idea that every person has an absolute value came out of Christianity and Judaism before it and is absent from every other ancient philosophy or religion.

In his study Morality: Religious and Secular, Basil Mitchell argues that, since the eighteenth century, secular thinkers have attempted to make reason, not religion, the basis of morality. None has successfully found a way to establish an absolute value for the individual human person. Mitchell suggests that secular thinkers can establish a relative value for people, by comparing people to animals, say, or to each other; but the idea that every person has an absolute value came out of Christianity and Judaism before it and is absent from every other ancient philosophy or religion.

Yet if there is no Creator to endow these rights, on what basis can they be considered unalienable? Precisely that question is asked openly today. Robert Jarvik, a scientist and inventor of the artificial human heart, expresses the more modern view:

In reality, there are no basic human rights. Mankind created them. They are conventions we agree to abide by for our mutual protection under law. Are there basic animal rights? Basic plant rights? Basic rights of any kind to protect things on our planet when the sun eventually burns out, or when we block it out with radioactive clouds? Someday, humans will realize that we are a part of nature and not separate from it. We have no more basic rights than viruses, other than those that we create for ourselves through our intellect and our compassion.

Jarvik captures the dilemma: If humans are not made in the image of God, somehow distinct from animals, what gives us any more rights than other species? Some animal rights activists already ask that question, and a writer in the journal Wild Earth even mused about the logical consequences:

If you haven't given voluntary human extinction much thought before, the idea of a world with no people may seem strange. But, if you give the idea a chance I think you might agree that the extinction of Homo sapiens would mean survival for millions, if not billions, of other Earth-dwelling species. ... Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.

When representatives from the United States meet with their counterparts from China and Singapore to hammer out an agreement on human rights, not only do they have no common ground, they have no self-coherent ground on which to stand. Our founders made human dignity an irreducible value rooted in creation, a dignity that exists prior to any "public" status as citizen. Eliminate the Creator, and everything is on the negotiating table. By destroying the link between the social and cosmic orders, we have effectively destroyed the validity of the social order.

Copyright Philip Yancey