“The slide into a secular society” – Is atheism really to blame for the lack of a moral code?

Twice in as many weeks I have heard someone bemoan ‘the slide into a secular society” – That’ll teach me to hang around with Christians I hear you say. Fair point, but this using atheism as a scapegoat for societies ills is intellectually lazy and potentially disastrous.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a boys night in over the road at my neighbours house. ‘Boys’ was ambitious description for the group, my neighbour is a mature QC not so far off retirement age and the rest of the gang were of a similar ilk. Still, there was beer, curry and the promise of intellectual debate, so who was I to argue? The topic for the evening was ‘Is Money Evil?’. (For the theological scholars amongst you, it was selected in honour of Timothy 1:60 – ‘The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’). The debate started OK, though there was a little too much blaming of ‘poor people irresponsibly borrowing money to buy things they don’t really deserve – like houses’ and not enough spanking of the bankers who lent the money in the first place and then packaged it up and sold it on in ever more abstract bundles. When suddenly the person next to me interjected with a (version of the) history of capitalism.

I’ll spare you all the details, as this was a man who had a beard and open-sandals with socks, but put simply he said this.

“In the beginning there was protestant capitalism – driven from a desire to work hard and provide for God and your family. There was a moral code to it. Over the last 30 years or so there has been a rapid slide into a more secular society – with all the lack of morals associated with it. It is this that caused the greed and the ultimate failing of the banking system and society more generally’

Well I nearly choked on my dukan-friendly chicken tikka. I retorted with a few staple arguments – Did he really think that morality had begun with the teachings of a book only a few thousand years ago? If so, could he explain the interactions of animals such as monkeys, dolphins and even penguins? Was he really bold enough to assert that the ‘moral’ protestant capitalism he talked about was
really that ‘moral’? And if so, how did he explain slavery, workhouses and so much more. He smiled almost pityingly at me and said no more. I think he suspected I might not be a regular church-goer.

Fast forward to this morning and a Radio 4 interview about poor nursing standards. Evan Davies was interviewing the wonderful Joan Bakewell when I was sure she said ‘the lack of care and human empathy in nursing is linked to a slide into a more secular society’. And there it is, encapsulated in a single sentence. Religion (specifically the Christian one) = Morals, Atheism = the inevitable slide into gluttony, greed and despair.

Except it really isn’t true – You and I can argue all day about the origins of Morals (though, on this I am right and you are wrong), but when you have a look across society it seems to me that the inclusion or absence of faith has very little to do with how ‘good’ a person is. On my side of the debate I could talk about the greatness of Stephen Fry, or the compassion of Richard Curtis, the TV and Film writer who started Comic Relief, on yours let us talk about Martin Luther King or Archbishop Tutu. Alternatively we can talk about Hitler and Stalin, atheists both or pedophile priests and every suicide bomber there ever was.

The truth is that morality comes from a collective understanding, and then policing, of what is right and wrong – religion has very little to do with it, apart from being another vehicle for these accepted morals to be discussed and promoted. The real problem we face is not the slide into secularism, but the death of community. Without cohesive and well functioning communities in which all have a stake there is nowhere to discuss what our collective boundaries should be. The failings of successive governments to control the widening gap between the super-rich and the rest of us has exacerbated this, as has the failings of former trusted institutions – including the church. Whether we call it the ‘Big Society’ or ‘ a promise of a generation’ I don’t care – but we need to create a new movement, within our political institutions, in our hospitals and schools and in our workplaces – one that recognises that nobody succeeds on their own, we all need support from the wider community and therefore we all have a responsibility to give back. How we do this I haven’t quite worked out yet, but when I do I’ll get back to you all – in the meantime try just being a bit nicer to each other.

Much Love



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