After David Cameron’s whole God thing last week, there was a discussion on the radio this morning about whether religion is necessary for morality. Clearly there’s nothing to stop atheists being as moral as religious people, and as atheism grows in more advanced, literate countries, almost by definition the least corrupt and venal societies also have the lowest levels of religious belief. But, as it is generally accepted that human beings are susceptible to the messages they are given, either explicitly or subconsciously, the underlying principles of Christianity – forgiveness and compassion – must certainly influence behaviour; likewise if people are told that they can only be happy if they make lots of money and consume more, as they generally are, then they will take that on. It won’t change human nature, but it will influence behaviour.
And if Christianity continues its decline there is no reason why the morals we currently share won’t change drastically. In this week’s magazine, Douglas Murray is asking, in light of the scandal involving the incineration of foetuses, whether the idea of the ‘sanctity of life’ can survive Christianity:
‘As Jonathan Sacks wrote in this magazine last year, atheists tend to imply that there isn’t much work to do after discarding God. On the contrary, after discarding God, all the work of establishing morals is still before you — just as after demonstrating mankind’s need for ethics, the work of proving a particular religion is true remains before you.
But this greatest challenge in the -atheist argument remains the one we hear least about. As Sacks pointed out, it is increasingly clear that, contra most atheists, -ethics are self-evidently not self-evident. They vary wildly from era to era, and many Judeo-Christian ethics may well, as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance’.
The more atheists think on these things, the more we may have to accept that the concept of the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive Judeo-Christian civilisation.’
It’s also possibly the case that ideas and moral values evolve more quickly as a population increases in size, which is partly why rural societies are more conservative than urban ones. (And what goes for memes goes for genes too – human evolution has probably sped up since the first cities 10,000 years ago). Likewise language evolves more quickly in cities, which is why the English spoken in heavily urbanised England has moved further away from Shakespeare’s speech than the English of Virginia and North Carolina (which is apparently the closest thing to Tudor English still in existence).
Morality in my lifetime has changed a great deal. In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker points to a large list of issues where public opinion has altered; some we’ve become more tolerant of, some more censorious. Consider things like drink driving or smoking around children, and how our perception has changed.
Religion puts a break on such change, perhaps in the same way that printing and literacy does – by allowing a code by which everyone can communicate rather than developing their own subcultures. But with European Christianity in steady decline these past few decades, a common moral language has gone too.
The idea that aborted foetuses would be used to power hospitals would have struck people until very recently as extremely macabre and sinister, but public opinion on this subject has rapidly evolved. And as with evolution, ideas become more popular if they can advantage the person holding them; supporting women’s reproductive rights or, to take an example where public morality has most changed in 40 years, gay rights, will generally not harm anyone’s chances with the opposite sex during the years that it matters.
Where is it heading? What change can we expect in the next few decades as the evolution of morality continues apace? Even atheists have only known societies dominated by Christian ideas; they would be foolish to assume those ideas will long outlive the faith that carried them.