Secularist parents have an insufficient base for a theory of goodness so they tend to produce amoral but socially competent adults, who feel little guilt. (Whenever anyone offers the seemingly pregnant observation that religious people are plagued by guilt, my secret response is something like “duh.” Of course they do.)
By “amoral” I don’t mean they don’t act morally, but that they have no explicit moral theory. The best of these secular parents have only “kindness” as an organizing moral value for their children. They may call it other, more profound-seeming names, like “love”, but this kindness is just a residual glow of an ancient but dead Christian Agape. It comes out in practice something like “be nice when you can.”
My critic would wonder why this is not actually enough. Millions and millions of “good” people live their whole lives with no moral theory any more explicit than this, and they stay out of jail, get rich, and win Pulitzer Prizes.
Other than the obvious retort, that you can win a Pultizer Prize and be a horrendous person, there is a wider cultural reason it matters.
Virtues will live on in cultures long after their tap-roots have died. The Time Gap between the death of the root ideology and the virtue it engendered is another source of great deception.
Theists like to argue to secularists that they have no basis for morals. Secularists correctly respond that this is a silly argument, because many people with no explicit religious belief are, in fact, moral. Both sides are right and wrong. Their common error is to focus on individuals and not on cultures.
Morals must have a tap-root in a deeper (or higher, or pick your own spatial metaphor) dimension. But, like many plants, the visible plant matter doesn’t shrivel as soon as the root dies. Many plants can live on for quite a while when they have no chance of surviving.
In the moral realm, this period of residual life is longer than a human generation, or even several. So individuals can get from their parents a moral code, or what is in most cases simply a habit of conscience with no explicit code – most individuals get this conscience from their parents but do not perceive that the conscience is dying by degrees over generations. By simple entropy.
The law of moral entropy says that no parent can pass on to his child a conscience as keen as the parents’. The conscience in the child will only grow stronger if it is nourished by a tap-root innate to the child, a tap-root into the transcendant realm, which must originate in the child’s free volition. The conscience can come from nurture and can be un-examined for a lifetime; that which nourishes the conscience must be chosen and explicit.
There is no rationalistic, secular basis for morality. That we are altruistic because the species must survive, and the species must survive because, well, because the sun exists is, well, less than inspiring. It will not nourish the moral life of a culture over time. The secular or atheistic individual does not feel the lack of a moral base because he is sustained by the moral capital built up by religious charisma generations earlier.
There are rationalistic arguments for doing good, but they are pragmatic arguments. The truth is, if there is no transcendant reason for the species to exist, there is no reason for the individual to exist. If that is true, then the cumulative weight of the pragmatic arguments for altruism will collapse in the face of a political will to power. Thus, the French chopping-block, the Soviet gulag, the Nazi oven.
It is not that the secular culture has the direct seed of genocide in it; this is the common theistic debating point and the secularist rightfully rejects it in that form as over-reaching. It is, rather, that it simply has no other seed in it.
On bare ground, the weeds win.
7 thoughts on “The Law of Moral Entropy”
I suppose people would call me a secular parent, as I have not raise my son with religious beliefs, but rather a freedom to education himself and make up his own mind. He is still not religious, but does have many ideas about the hows and whys of our purpose as humans. He is 16 with a chronic illness, but he still believes in the basic goodness of man and shows a very strong moral code… based on the belief that what goes around comes around, which I did teach him. He has been taught that it feels good to help your fellow man, whether you go to church or not. This is better than living your life in fear of a vengeful God, in my opinion, and the end result is not that different.
In contrast, I was raised in the church. My family were definitely not secular people. I was still abused and exposed to examples of hypocrisy that sealed my theory that organized religion is what has been called “opium for the masses.”
Thanks for stopping by and sharing. I agree that organized religion is often, but not always, experienced as an opiate against so much of human-ness. But then, organized anything has this tendency, doesn’t it?
Umm… no. Morality is older than Christianity. The purpose of the individual is “I enjoy living”, despite whether there is a transcendent purpose or not. The French chopping block, Soviet gulags, Nazi concentration camps etc are as heinous to us today as they would be to, I’m sure, a caveman.
.. you are that bold to say that the emotion of empathy cannot develop in the brain without some magical belief in religion??”
I’m actually arguing the direct opposite.
The creator lives within each of us and suffers the reality of life and death, with every life, from its beginning to its end. That is the true wellspring of morality and the antidote to moral entropy. The “I am” spoken of so often is the very eye of the creator looking out from within each of us. That is what I have come to believe. A child is reared within a religious tradition, and those who have ears to hear move beyond the mother’s milk of literal religious stories–out of the kiddie pool, as it were. I also have come to believe that there is no distinction between the creator, the blueprint, and the creation–I guess that makes me Platonist of a sort. But had I grown up in a “secularist” home, would I have formed this set of ideas if I hadn’t had the literal religious stories to gnaw upon, to beat my head against, in my later childhood, youth, and early adulthood?