1.2.1 Do We Live in a Sick Society?
Moreland opens his article in Promise with the old saw that “our society is in a state of moral chaos.” This is meant to convince us there is some new problem that he can then blame on secularism. Other Christians who argue that our present woes are something new, and secularism to blame for them, include Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live? (1999), and David Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2000). But these writers fail to mention that this has been said in every century of human civilization for which we have any appreciable amount of social commentary, going on four thousand years now. The ‘depravity of society’ lament is nothing new at all—for the oldest examples of this genre, see Samuel Noah Kramer, “The First ‘Sick’ Society,” History Begins at Sumer, 3rd rev. ed. (1981, pp. 259-69). But most relevant for our present situation, see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992) and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families (1998).
In fact, when we look objectively at history, Americans are more moral as a society today than any society at any time ever in human history, apart from our free democratic cousins around the world, who tend to be far less religious than we, yet somehow enjoy far lower rates of crime, and sometimes even greater economic equity and social justice, contrary to the very thesis Moreland is defending. But focusing solely on America, what do we really see? We see an amazingly progressive culture that has crawled out of an age of violent expansion and bigotry, and is starting to show incredible promise as an enlightened society.
Never before the 20th century have tens of millions of people voluntarily supported international human aid projects on a vast scale, without regard for political borders or religious affiliations, such as the Red Cross or Second Harvest. We even give aid to our enemies. We lead not only the world, but our own past, in hours devoted per capita to volunteer humanitarian work. Education is regarded for the first time in history as an inalienable right, and is universally provided, even for women and minorities, and illiteracy is almost a thing of the past. The poor have government-funded medical care and millions of people are calling for more, out of pure compassion for their fellow human beings.
For the first time in history, women have full political rights. Free speech and freedom of religion are not only regarded as fundamental to our national character, but are ardently and thoroughly defended by all social classes. Slavery is defeated, and all forms of racism and hatred are almost universally loathed rather than accepted. For the first time in history, most people actually have compassion for the plight of animals—even the ones they eat must be humanely killed, and national organizations are devoted to their protection. For the first time in history, when men went to die in Viet Nam, millions of people actually protested an unjust war and stood for peace, despite being beaten and killed for it. In contrast, before our time, there is no recorded case, ever, of any comparable mass Christian action against a war. Today, even poor Americans live as well as Medieval kings once did, with more political power (in the right to speak, protest, and vote) than most of their counterparts in history ever had, amidst a sea of free parks and libraries, subsidized public transportation and 911 response teams, with luxuries galore, from sanitized water to portable orchestras in a box, all because people cared, and were honest enough to make the government work and the economy prosper, very much unlike the hopelessly corrupt governments and societies of many third-world nations today.
Let’s compare America today with past centuries. Despite complaints about high rates of crime now (which have mostly declined steadily since the 1990’s), compared to any other century our crime “problem” is extremely minimal, and has never been greater than it was eighty years ago anyway, when the murder rate skyrocketed under Prohibition. No surprise that today it is a new Prohibition that fills the vast majority of our prisons and drives young men to crime. In past centuries bandits and pirates threatened most rural routes and seaways, and travel was often a risky venture. Kidnapping was so routine that many people prayed they wouldn’t be snatched. Robbery was so routine many people hid their money in mattresses or socks. Even the most effective civilizations, at their peak, could stave off only some of these ills, compared to the safety of our current society, and only for small regions and for short spans of time...or for select social classes.
Children were legally beaten and very often exploited or abused. The rights of women and minorities, not to mention the incarcerated or mentally ill, were all but nonexistent, and slavery (and the oppression of native peoples) was defended as God’s Will. Indeed, millions of God Fearing Christians actually fought to the death for their right to abuse and enslave millions of their fellow human beings. Whereas now people protest even if a single soldier might lose his life, in all past eras war was accepted as the natural course of things—indeed, until recently, it was hard to find any adult in history who did not suffer through one, or lose a member of his family to one. And there was never before our era much concept of a ‘war crime’ or any real concept of ‘workplace safety’. Think of the horrors of days past. McCarthy. Jim Crowe. Wounded Knee. Salem. Dare anyone claim we were better people then?
I could go on, but the point is clear. The true picture of life in past times is always bleak. No one today, who really knew the facts, would trade this century for any other. No sensible woman would dare do without feminine hygiene products and civil equality. No sensible man would dare walk into the disease-infested cities of the past or risk maiming or death in a pointless war or a gruesome industrial accident, or worse, risk finding himself a slave in the Antebellum South, or an aborigine on the Trail of Tears.
And if you hate political corruption today, you haven’t seen corruption until you’ve flipped through a history book—the scandals of our past are quite revolting. But even in this century we have witnessed unprecedented progress. Whereas hundreds were killed and entire towns burned to the ground in the race riots of the Red Summer of 1919, even the worst riots today are a walk in the park by comparison. Once, minorities lived among us abused and mistreated, most living in a level of poverty that would disgust any human being today, while affluent white families virtually ate off their backs. Millions of blacks lived every day of their lives in fear of being lynched, or worse.
Yet things have changed. Now, in nations that are free and secular, only pockets of resistance remain tainted by this past evil, such as inner city slums, or Appalachian hovels, and scattered individuals or neighborhoods. But men like Moreland don’t seem to call upon these real problems in their condemnation of society. Rather, his best example is the staged-and-scripted buffoonery of the Jerry Springer Show, which is as harmless as any other circus, and hardly indicative of reality for the average American. Why, then, are men like Moreland so eager to see our time as somehow more immoral than ages past? Apart from the general fact that people tend to falsely idealize their past, I would suggest two other factors are at work. On the one hand, we have a common error of reasoning: more weight is placed on sensational cases than on overall statistical facts. For instance, despite outrageous school shootings like Columbine, school crime has declined nationally and continues to do so. On the other hand, people like Moreland simply do not have their priorities straight. Personally, I will not accept any form of oppression, such as of gays or women or religious or racial minorities, as signs of a ‘moral’ society. Nor, in contrast, do I accept open sexuality or vulgarity as immoral.
Signs of morality are simply this: compassion and integrity, on a wide social scale. But many among the religious right see gays being openly gay and being treated as equals, they see offensive art, people challenging authority, women deciding for themselves what their place will be, and so on, and they don’t like it. I cannot say whether or to what extent Moreland has such motives for condemning society, but they are certainly not uncommon among Evangelical conservatives generally. But none of that is immoral. To the contrary, these are signs of a moral society, where freedom, tolerance, equality, and compassion are the order of the day. This is not to say modern society is all peaches and cream. We have a lot of progress to make, a lot of maturing left to do. Humanity is a young race, only four thousand years civilized. That’s a mere 200 generations. If you knew all your ancestors, back to the day the first human city was built, their names would barely fill a single sheet of paper. Now humanity is slowly reaching young adulthood, petulant and naive, faulty and prone to missteps, but not the child it has been through all its past. Human beings are generally more conscientious now, more educated now, more freethinking, more cosmopolitan and more compassionate now than ever before.
Though we are centuries yet from where we ought to be (and where Secular Humanists want to take us), it is quite dishonest to portray our current existence as somehow a moral decline. We look in vain for the ‘Golden Age’ we are supposed to have declined from. And though I agree with Moreland and others that progress is being hampered by a sort of spiritual aimlessness, I do not believe they have the solution. They are only partly correct. We do need people to be more philosophically skilled, introspective, and spiritual (in the sense described in III.10.4, “The Nature of Spirituality”). We do need them to be less shallow and materialistic. But I believe Secular Humanism does far better at providing this, given our current state of knowledge and enlightenment, than any other worldview. As we’ve seen, the Secular basis for morality parallels the Christian, yet in each case, as I see it, there is empirical evidence to support the Secularist, but very little, if any, for the Christian. And Christianity comes with far too much baggage.
We must observe that, historically, Christianity even at its height, in the Middle Ages or the American Colonial Era, has always failed to produce a moral or enlightened society. While today, of the surveys that have been done, all show that Christians are no more moral than non-Christians. For instance, see Richard Scheinin, “Not as I Preach,” San Jose Mercury News (September 11, 1993) and Steve Chapman, “Praise the Lord, Pass the Ammo: If teen violence is the question, religion isn’t the answer,” Slate (June 30, 1999). A Roper survey showed Christians more prone to driving drunk than non-Christians, as reported in Freethought Today (September 1991, p. 12), any issue of which catalogues the routine horror of crimes committed by clergy (of all sects, not just Catholics). So even when adopted Christianity does not have the curative effect Moreland claims for it. Perhaps one might call for a study wherein devout Evangelicals are compared with others, but in such a study I would ask that devoted Secular Humanists also be singled out for comparison and not lumped with the apathetic majority. I will bet good money we will find no winner in this match either. Indeed, though anyone could name a dozen famous Christian criminals, I doubt they could name even a single self-described Secular Humanist to match.
In contrast, Secular Humanism as a value system isn’t getting the press it needs in order to have the extensive influence on people that Moreland mistakenly thinks it already has. Hardly a soul can give a correct definition of it, and few have even heard the phrase. And what people really need is not being given to them, nor is Moreland asking for it. Philosophy is not taught every year in school, as it ought to be. Churches are on every corner, not Freethought Houses. Every Sunday, believers go to be preached to in silence, not to actively discuss and debate the important issues of philosophy or policy. No one is being given the tools to think analytically about life and morality, or to critically examine and make an informed choice about spiritual direction, and no one is being encouraged to practice these skills.
And yet, instead of encouraging and fighting for this, people like Moreland are selling what appears to many of us like a dubious quick-fix: believe on Christ and all will be well, a claim that sounds a lot like the naive rally cry to hang the Ten Commandments in schools and society will improve itself, to just pray and you’ll cure every social ill. This has the ring of talismanic superstition. It has consistently failed in every previous century. Why should it work now? Instead, the Secular Humanist’s call for a universal education in the skills of freethought and the value of self-examination is surely a much better prescription.On what Secular Humanism really means and really entails, see the Secular Web’s library on the subject (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ ... arhumanism). Books on it are numerous, including: Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, 8th ed. (1997); Antony Flew, Atheistic Humanism (1993); Paul Kurtz, In Defense of Secular Humanism (1983). There are also many anthologies of humanist literature, e.g. Norm Allen, Jr., ed., African American Humanism: An Anthology (1991) and Margaret Knight, Edward Blishen, and Jim Herrick, eds., Humanist Anthology: From Confucius to Attenborough (1995). There are also at least three “Humanist Manifestos” in print: Humanist Manifesto I (1933), II (1973), and III (2000).