Where is society’s moral authority in the absence of religious belief?
There’s something going on in local politics that’s been bothering me for a while because I really can’t figure it out. I suppose I’m speaking here more about politics in terms of the Greek idea of the polis, which came to mean the body politic or the citizens of a city.
I’m trying to puzzle out what this recent rhubarb over District 51 school children seeing a church video on a school outing signifies.
I understand the immediate problem for local atheists and freethinkers — as they refer to themselves — about the situation. Schools are predominantly for the purpose of giving children the tools to make up their own minds about things and religious instruction, unless sought out by the parent for the child’s benefit, probably doesn’t directly belong in the school curriculum.
I don’t think children should be subjected to any particular religious dogma, like say, global warming — I mean global climate change — I mean global climate disruption. OK, weather.
What puzzles me is not so much the negative side of the argument, which is pretty easy to make if you take the position that the First Amendment Establishment Clause about religion means a complete separation of any religious-based anything from being passed through the public sector.
Personally, I don’t believe the Establishment Clause was meant to prevent any reference to religion, no matter how slight, from taking place as part of government discourse. The danger the framers feared was the establishment of a state religion and a requirement of adherence to it in order to hold office or conduct public business. This had been the case in England and in much of Europe at the time.
I know all about Thomas Jefferson and his letters discussing the separation of church and state, but I don’t think any serious-minded and fair person can say that Jefferson believed religion had no place as a principle of moral and ethical behavior in government. He may have been a deist, a pantheist or a Manichaean, for all I know, but he was not spiritually adrift.
I also am of the belief that he would be a bit shocked at the vehemence some employ to attempt to root religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, from the fabric of American public life. I wish these champions had half the zeal about some other amendments and their importance to the Constitution, such as the Second, the Ninth and the 10th. These are written on the same paper, yet they don’t seem to inspire the same fervor from First Amendment religious-exclusion enthusiasts.
So, that leaves me with a puzzle. What’s the guiding star for our republic’s ethical and moral behavior? What is it that we should believe to ground our understandings of right and wrong? Zoroastrianism? Buddhism? The teachings of Confucius?
This is the harder question because it’s always easy to say no to moral and religious thinking but considerably more difficult to come up with an alternate roadmap for behavior.
I think many atheists and unbelievers in anything eternal would be surprised, if they really examined their ideas of right and wrong, to discover most of them are established on a cultural norm that is basted in Judeo-Christian philosophy.
Other cultures for instance, which worship their own foreign gods, often have very different ideas about issues like the taking of human life or the existence of a natural right of an individual to manage his own destiny.
I say other cultures and foreign gods because I’m having a hard time thinking of any successful culture that wasn’t based upon some overarching belief in a being or force greater than humans that helped formulate the standards for their society.
Communism has unsuccessfully tried to eradicate this need for as long as it has existed, and has, at best, tried to substitute quasi-religious dictators for God. These societies have learned that no matter how big a painting of your leader du jour you hang in the capital square, it never creates moral authority, only compulsion.
So, the questions are: If groups are successful in untethering a nation from even vaguely religious underpinnings, where do the rules come from? What is right and wrong? What is a society that is bereft of belief?
Rick Wagner writes more on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.