Having been persecuted as a dangerous minority for centuries, in recent years the champions of atheism have achieved celebrity status around the world. Atheists have been quick to point to the evils done in the name of religion and to claim that their criticism of religion is grounded in the demands of reason. Their opponents have championed faith as a source of inspiration and as an essential aspect of the human condition. However, beyond rhetorical skirmishes, in the end, just one fundamental question must be answered: does God exist?One criticism that could be made of the speakers for the affirmative in the debate was that they didn't get past the rhetorical skirmishes and put any well-developed arguments that God (or a god of any kind) actually exists. That, I think, cost them with the audience.
But what is a fair argument that God exists? There seemed to be a view on the affirmative team that they could make their case by demonstrating that as modern Western and European societies have become more secular (in the sense that religion has increasingly become just an option) they have also become morally worse. This is supposedly shown by, for example, consumerism (whatever, exactly, that really means), greater acceptance of abortion, and the availability and common use of pornography.
We could have an interesting argument as to whether current societies really are worse, in some sense, than they were in the past. In particular, I think that greater acceptance of abortion is a good thing. In my view, most abortions merit neither legal penalties nor social condemnation. In fact, it is a censorious approach to girls and women who choose to have abortions that merits our condemnation. Trickier issues may arise with consumerism and pornography, but neither need necessarily be a bad thing, depending on exactly what is being picked out by these words.
More generally, it's unlikely that anyone could actually make out a claim to the effect that declining religiosity causes (or is even accompanied by) declining moral goodness. Judged by widely accepted standards of what we actually want in a society, things may even have been much worse in the past than they are now in Western and European societies. Violence is now less accepted than it was in past decades and centuries; people in most socio-economic strata are now less likely to experience it (at least as frequently); and we are certainly less likely than was once the case to die violent deaths at the hands of other human beings. Furthermore, we have moved somewhat beyond the old insistence that people conform to narrow roles and modes of self-expression based on sex. In general, we are far more tolerant of a diversity of thought, expression (including expressions of our sexuality), and life choices.
All in all, what we are seeing is better interpreted as the opposite of a moral decline. Based on quite plausible standards, our societies were actually worse in the past; based on quite plausible standards, things are slowly getting better. Sure, there may still be a long way to go; the process of getting there is gradual and often frustrating, with plenty of backward steps along the way; and, for example, there is no shortage of bigotry to go around. But in many ways, we've improved things. Some historical perspective is needed before we get too far into moralising about the evils of current societies, let alone about an overall decline.
I think most of us have a sense of this - whatever the faults of our current societies, it is facile, simplistic nonsense to imagine that they are morally worse than they were, say, a hundred years ago. For that reason alone, the argument that "Society is getting worse, therefore God exists" is nonsense. That's not a reason to give up on trying to make improvements: e.g., I support efforts to tackle global poverty and climate change, to go further in the acceptance of gay and bisexual people, and to rid ourselves of other irrational prejudices.
But we do need to keep our perspective on things. Consider, for example, the enormous difficulty as recently as the 1960s - and in some cases more recently still - in getting rid of criminal laws against homosexual conduct. That battle is now pretty much won, providing a foundation to take gay rights much further.
But even if our societies really were getting worse overall there could be many reasons for this other than declining religiosity: perhaps the effects of corporate capitalism, for example, or perhaps the impact of certain technologies. Since I don't believe that our societies actually are getting worse on balance - quite the opposite - I'm not interested in finding the cause of it. I.e., I'm not interested in tracking down the cause of what I take to be a non-existent phenomenon. Importantly, though, the argument, "Society is getting worse, therefore God exists" would still be very weak even if society actually was getting worse.
You'd think this would all go without saying. In fact, it probably does ... at least for most educated people. I said very little about it in the limited time that was available last Tuesday night, but I'm sure the audience grasped the point just fine. And yet, it's fascinating that this kind of argument gets run at all.