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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Society is getting worse, therefore God exists."

The topic of last week's IQ2 debate was "Atheists are wrong" - and this was given a gloss as follows:
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.


Spencer Troxell said...

"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."

Consumerism: you mean people are engaging in trade with each other across cultures and nationalities? Good! Common use of pornography: You mean a benign (and often quite nice) human impulse is no longer being repressed and stigmatized, but rather is becoming widely accepted? Good!

My moral compass is a little shakier on abortion, but overall I agree with your assertion that we're getting progressively better as a whole, even if progress is slow. Better medicine. Better understanding of the cost of war and the benefits of education. Globalism makes empathy with 'the other' easier...

The 'society is getting worse' thought is one that is typically had by formerly dominant groups as they lose power. It's happening right now in the U.S. to the tea partiers: middle and upper class white folk who feel their place on the hierarchy is being challenged, and are suddenly developing a victim complex. It's happening to the religious too.

I know you've got a beef with people throwing around the word 'privilege', but--in general--the dominant classes don't have to think about things folks in other classes do, and when they have to start thinking about those things, some of them are going to get highly grumpy.

NewEnglandBob said...

It is so obvious that societies today are vastly superior to previous times and that the quality of life has dwarfed that of the past. The conclusions that your post raises cannot be rationally disputed and those who do prove the point that religion corrupts minds and skews thinking into irrational and counter-moral thinking and actions.

MH said...

I was going to write about how the accusation of "consumerism" is tosh, but I think this theme actually ties in with a more general discussion in sociology about the consequences of modernity.

There are at least two ways of looking at the thesis of moral worsening. You could look at measures of justice and societal well-being, and it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that societies are in a better shape than they have ever been. However, when people are throwing this idea around, I think often what they really are thinking of is the loss of what Lyotard called "metanarratives": a loss of commonly shared goals, a loss of noble ethical aspirations for a virtuous life and the replacement of these with anomie, atomism, ennui, decadence, and other fancy words. It is then assumed that this would lead to unfortunate social outcomes. If you wanted to, you could find some social ills that might indicate a corrosion of values, such as the increasing numbers of people suffering from depression and the increased numbers of divorces and children raised in families without two parents. Perhaps low birth rates could also be mentioned.

Concerns such as these are constantly raised by people who have a tendency to be pessimistic about modernity. Whenever something that used to be the norm gets changed, it is always a possibility that the result will be a lack of social cohesion and a corrosion of norms and values. Commonly modern maladies get juxtaposed against some fictitious golden age or a utopian religious or ideological vision. Sometimes people who raise such objections are right and sometimes they are not, but the objections are invariably made in any case.

If one should take the problem of social cohesion as an argument in favor of religion, I think it should be noted that anomie never happens because of a lack of any particular institution. Having norms and values is a social function that needs to be fulfilled in one way or another, but there is no reason the job should be given to the same institutions that used to take care of it in the past. Also, there is no obvious need for uniformity. Pluralism works just as well, as long as the issue gets sufficient attention.

BTW, in the expression "modern Western and European societies", are you saying that Europe is not a part of "the West"? Is this some Aussie thing that I should know about?

steve oberski said...

Of course when an objective, measurable metric* is used to measure the quality of life, as opposed to the incoherent concept "morally worse", it can be seen that in western society the quality of life has been increasing and is negatively correlated with religiosity.

Steven Pinker has discussed# the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.

* The Human Development Index, where life expectancy, education and income are used to measure well-being, especially child welfare.

# http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ramBFRt1Uzk

Sean (quantheory) said...

"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."

It's worth pointing out, in this vein, that this process wasn't concluded in the US until 2003, and that in many developing countries, harsher punishments for gay people are often proposed as part of a strategy to establish religious values over secular ones.

The supposed decline of Western societies is an idea I generally find mind-boggling. The political, legal, and financial rights of women have freed them from being vassals of men. Outright racism has gone from a part of daily life to taboo. Some features of society may have gotten worse, but to say that we are less moral in general? Towards whom?

Speaking from an egocentric point of view, if I had been born a generation earlier, my parents would have run afoul of anti-miscegenation laws in much of the US. My mother would have had trouble supporting us in the way she did when I was young and my father out of work for a year.. And I would be at a high risk of persecution and violence for being openly bisexual. Before the internet, it would have been harder to connect with people I could identify with and get support from when I was hormonal and an emotional dunce. And that's only one generation. I can't imagine feeling nostalgia for all that.

K said...

I think it's a good argument for the non-existence of God:
1. If God doesn't exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.
2. It's necessary to invent Him.
3. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

Russell Blackford said...

On the Europe and the West thing - the trends we're talking about now affect parts of Europe that are not usually considered parts of the West (Slovakia, etc., etc). Conversely, the West is generally considered to include the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and perhaps (though this might be a bit of a stretch) even Japan. The two concepts overlap, since France, Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, etc., are obviously in Europe as well as being part of the West. But neither subsumes the other.

I suppose I could have just said "developed economies" or "industrialised nations" or some such thing.

Darrick Lim said...

PZ Myers skewers Scott Stephens and his "society is screwed without God" arguments in this blog post.