In Memphis, Tennessee last week, about sixty miles north of my Mississippi hometown, there was a violent kidnapping, rape and murder of a young teacher committed by a man of disposition little removed from that of a feral animal. This horrific act was closely followed by a random shooting spree that was livestreamed on Facebook by another man absent his humanity. Then there was the vile reaction to the peaceful passing of a British Queen in Scotland by a Carnegie Mellon professor, Uju Anya, who tweeted she hoped Queen Elizabeth died an excruciating death.
These things are connected by a question as old as history.
What is it in the hearts of men that make them do what they do?
It seems such an appropriate question in the first two instances, but the savaging of Queen Elizabeth II and her memory would logically seem to be something different.
For a long time, I have pondered the role of morality – or the lack thereof – in our contemporary society and how morality either restrains or promotes our actions.
There are certain things civilization once placed off limits, some important enough to do by force of law (murder and mayhem) and some culturally enforced (such as restraint when condemning others).
I was reared in the South during a period when a genteel culture still undergirded small town live. Very much akin to the Victorian culture in England, from which it was clearly cloned, people were polite to a fault, and even the fallen within the eyes of the community were spoken of in polite, hushed tones, if they were spoken of at all. There was a sense that speaking ill of the dead (or those who rejected civil order and civility) should be done in private – and to a very large extent, it was.
That doesn’t mean that people didn’t recognize evil, in many ways, it sharpened the focus on it because it was so out of bounds in society.
This wasn’t a feature limited to the upper classes of my small hometown, it cut across all socioeconomic boundaries to extend to all members of the community. My maternal grandmother, the wife of a farmer and mother of six, would often chastise children and adults alike to hold their tongues when she was witness to abridgement of our informal rules.
For me, I see a tie between Christianity and morality. I was reared in a strong Christian family, with strong Christian values, so I guess that is unsurprising – but I also have traveled the world, been exposed to hundreds of different cultures and the various religions of the world, Christianity, Judaism, Islam (Sunni, Shi’a, Ibadi, Ahmadiyya, and Sufism), Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and many more variations on those belief systems and when it comes down to it, there are a very select few morals all of these religions share.
The inference I draw from that is that morality isn’t uniquely Christian. I’ve also known people who don’t have a religion, even some who reject the existence of God, who act according to moral codes equal or superior to those to which religious people abide.
I also allow it is possible to follow a moral code without being explicitly “moral” or connected to any religion.
But what I have also observed is that those without religious ties are often those most likely to transgress both moral and corporeal (human enacted civil and criminal) laws.
Humans need religion. One thing every human has in common is a search for something to explain the unexplainable or a way to unknow the unknowable, and in almost every case, these searches for meaning evolve into religions. Doesn’t matter if they are monotheistic, polytheistic, agnostic, or simply atheistic, something that fits the definition of a religion always develops.
There is a balance in religion as there is always in nature. When something is taken, something else takes its place to maintain balance. Such is true when we think about a God derived religious morality and the morality that lacks God as a basis. In general terms, the latter is called secular humanism, a religion rooted in science, philosophical naturalism, and humanist ethics.
Secular humanists eschew any reliance on faith, doctrine, or mysticism, and substitute compassion, critical thinking, and human experience to find solutions to human problems.
Secular humanism has attracted quite a following these days, not because it is a positive evolution, I think, but because secularism involves a “flexible” morality where everything is allowed based on what is popular among members of that belief system.
I’ve heard it termed “popular morality”, a fluid system subject to what is allowed or ignored.
Whether we want to recognize it, the secular humanists in our society and culture are sending a message to criminals and university professors alike that your most vile actions and words aren’t going to be eliminated from society.
Who are we to judge?
It certainly seems to me that when anything is fluid, it is meaningless.
Something the French philosopher Albert Camus said, that “’Everything is permitted’” does not mean that nothing is forbidden…” holds universally true.
A morality rooted in God’s Law is that thing that draws the line between what is forbidden and what is allowed. It is what makes taking a life evil, it is what makes lying unacceptable. Secular humanism is seen as “enlightenment”, but not only can it not draw that line, it will not.
Often, secular humanism searches for ways to approve the action that God’s morality forbids, even when that action harms both believers and non-believers alike.
As I noted, I believe people without a religious moral code can act morally. It would seem it is past time for all of us to recognize that whether one believes in God, one must believe that system of morality leads to the type of civil society and tolerant culture that protects freedoms for us all.