The world is in an unprecedented state of moral decay. People lack the ethical guidance
So say the prophets and preachers of many religions. To many Christians, this moral decay is evidence that we're living in the last days before Christ's second coming, that the sinful world is ripening for the harvest at any moment now. Some others may not necessarily be convinced that Armageddon is quite that imminent, but agree that the moral state of the world is worse than it's ever been before. And, of course, they blame it largely on secularists. The godless and the impious, they say, are destroying the world's morality.
Well, in a way--and choosing certain definitions--they're right. And it's a good thing, too.
First of all, what immoral acts are they talking about, that are supposedly so prevalent nowadays? Violence? Murder? Well, as much as some people like to claim that youth violence, for example, is a dire threat, the statistics really don't bear that out. Despite the high-profile calamities like Columbine and Virginia Tech, on the whole it seems there isn't really more youth violence now than there was in the past. These events make the news precisely because they're unusual, because this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time--and, alarmist rhetoric to the contrary, doesn't show any real signs of increasing in frequency.
What about deception? There's certainly plenty of fraud and deceit going on today, in business and in politics most prominently. But that's always been the case, and, again, there's no real evidence that it's increasing. American history books tend to do some whitewashing of the country's past, but the truth is that earlier presidential campaigns were no more free of scandal than those today, and certainly there's always been plenty of corruption in business and industry. Here, again, there's no real evidence of any precipitous slide toward increasing immorality.
But it's not murder and mayhem, nor mendacity, that the lamenters of moral decay are really decrying. As I've remarked before, when the religious speak of immorality, usually it's sexual immorality in particular that they're really referring to. And that definitely seems to be true in this case. When the religious demagogues get down to specifics about the indications of the world's supposed moral decay, it's this kind of sin they refer to. They point to things like increasing acceptance of homosexuality and tolerance of premarital sex, cohabitation of unmarried couples, glorification in the media of sexual promiscuity. These are their signs of moral decay, and their proof that America's morals are going down the tubes. (Well, not just America's, of course, but here I'm focusing mostly on America, because that, of course, is the place I'm most familiar with, and also because most of the fiery religionists who speak of moral decay are also Americans, and focus on America themselves.)
But...is there really that much more sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and so forth today, or are people just more open about it? I'm not sure--though of course moral crusaders would argue that the fact that people engage in such acts more openly is itself a sign of moral decay. Even if there is more of such things going on than there has been in the past, though, is it really immoral in any meaningful sense, or just called so because of old arbitrary religious doctrines? While these are certainly valid questions, for the moment, let's grant, for the sake of argument, that there are more sexually immoral acts going on in America today than there have been in the past, and that it is really immoral and wrong. (I'm not saying I really believe this--as I said, I'm just granting it for the sake of argument.)
Now, it may seem I've just ceded the whole game to the proclaimers of moral decay, and that there's nothing left to argue about. But there are some important matters that are still being overlooked. Even assuming that sexual immorality has been on the rise in America over the last few centuries, and that there's more of it going on than there has been at any point in the nation's past--well, what else is different?
Let's look back to America shortly after the Revolutionary War. The preachers of moral decay would have us believe that people then were much more chaste than now, that there was much less extramarital and homosexual sex going on. Again, I'm not really convinced this is true (rather, it may have been just hidden better), but as I said, let's grant the point for the sake of argument. So there was less sexual hanky-panky. But then again--there was also chattel slavery. People kept other people as property. That seems to me to be pretty darn immoral. And even if one does hold that premarital sex and homosexuality are immoral, it's hard to make any sort of coherent case that they're worse than depriving human beings of all rights and treating them like animals. So...on balance, I don't think there's really much basis for saying that we're less moral then than we are now.
It was nearly a century before slavery ended, and even then segregation and other forms of institutionalized racism continued until only a few decades ago. It was commonly accepted that some races were just intrinsically nobler and worthwhile than others, and that was that. Of course, today racism is, unfortunately, far from dead, but at least it's no longer written into law, and we don't generally pretend that it has any scientific basis behind it. Again, even if there is more sexual immorality nowadays than before, is that really a worse evil than the devaluation and mistreatment of an entire race? And if not, then is it really true that, overall, the world is less moral now than it was then?
But of course, we may recognize slavery and racism as evil now, but back in their heyday there were all sorts of alleged moral justifications advanced for them--often from the pulpit. Preachers thundered about how God had made the black race to serve the white, and about how everyone must seek his proper place. Not all preachers, certainly--it would be a drastic oversimplification to claim, for instance, that all religious people in the late 1700s supported slavery, or that atheists opposed it. Still, to many, though not all, theists of the time, racism was considered a moral virtue--and opposition to it was considered secular immorality.
So from that vantage point, from the mindset of some of those theists of bygone years who extolled racism and bigotry as positive principles, yes, the irreligious have indeed been responsible for the country's moral decay. But if "moral decay" means greater freedom and equality for oppressed people, means better treatment of man for fellowman, then hey, personally I'm all for it.