Commentator Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” reported in March 2004 that over 78 percent of Americans believed moral values were on the decline, and described the moral compass of the United States as “fair to downright poor.” O’Reilly’s main target for the cause of the decline of morality was secularist influence on American culture.
But I believe the blame on secularist influence is misplaced.
As secularist influences come from people who hold a secularist set of values and beliefs, I take this claim to mean that those of us who are secularist are responsible for this downfall. In other words, “Hide your children, the atheists are coming.”
I find this idea strange and confusing for two reasons.
First and foremost, while I often hear people complain of the downfall of American society and morality, I have found in my own experience that this downfall has been greatly embellished. Though it cannot be denied that there are some problems in the United States today, certainly it cannot be contested that there have been great strides made in promoting a more fair and equitable society within the last few decades. This is progress I would think both spiritualists and secularists could agree on as being morally valuable.
I appreciate the appeal to the “good old days” of the 1940s and 1950s. Life seemed stable and enriching back then. However, America in the 1940s and 1950s promoted ideas that were sexist and racist. Women were chained to the lives their husbands allowed them to have, and were socialized to appreciate dehumanization and oppression. Women were shunned for wanting to live lives away from children and independent of men. People who weren’t white were systematically abused and left unprotected by the states in which they lived. Today, women and people of all races are well on the path to equal rights and opportunities. Though Americans are not yet completely equal, among the legislatures, inequality and discrimination are actively eliminated. I for one have no desire to return to these “good old days.”
I do not deny there is some departure from traditional Christian values evident in media and entertainment. There may be an increase in accessibility to fantasy violence, explicit sexuality, and offensive language in the United States as of late. The spiritualists often cite this increased accessibility as the catalyst of immoral behavior in society.
Any sort of loss of morality in the United States, however, and any sort of increase in violence, may be due to other factors besides the entertainment industry. I believe that when we look at an aggregate gain in morality, we will find that a system of values allowing all people a chance to enjoy a life once reserved for white men seems a small price to pay for more exposure to sex, swearing, and fantasy violence. Additionally, secular icons like Britney Spears, video games like “Star Fox Assault,” and certain four letter words may not be so immoral or socially destructive as the spiritualist would suggest.
The second reason I believe the spiritualists have severely misplaced blame, if indeed there is blame to place, is the inability secularists have to influence the progression of American morality.
The spiritualist prescribes elimination of secularist influence on American society as a way to right American moral wrongs. This could only be done if a majority of those determining the laws, rules and regulations were individuals who prescribe to Christian dogma.
Currently, the spiritualists have their wish. According to exit polling from the last presidential election, 90 percent of those who voted were theists, and 83 percent belonged to some Christian denomination. Of those Christian voters, 40 percent attended church occasionally, and 41 percent attended weekly, meaning there is no shortage of Christian influence on the formation of society in the United States.
Secularists, whom I take to mean atheists, agnostics and non-believers, make up only 7 percent of America’s population. As such, the spiritualists have given secularists credit for having unrealistic power, and given there are so few organizations devoted to secularist solidarity, there is no unified secularist belief system. Moreover, most secularists, atheists included, share a morality that is quite similar to Christianity. In general, secularists believe acts like lying, stealing, cheating, murder, rape, fraud, and for some, even abortion, are morally reprehensible. Christianity has no monopoly on those values, and one does not have to be a theist to promote them.
Nor do secularists have a monopoly on committing acts predominantly held to be immoral by spiritualists. One third of women in the United States over the age of 45 have had an abortion. Of those, 31 percent are Catholic and 37 percent are Protestant.
These numbers present an interesting problem for the spiritualist. If indeed there is a belief system to blame for the alleged downfall of American society, wouldn’t it make more sense to blame the vastly predominant one? I am led to believe spiritualists use the secularists as a scapegoat for the alleged problems they themselves have created. The numbers alone suggest that the shape of United States morality has little if anything to do with the influence of secularist people, and more to do with those who promote spiritual beliefs.
Whatever the case may be, I believe that the problems the United States does face are far too complex to be the result of any particular belief system, and can be attributed to intellectual laziness and shortsightedness shared by individuals on both sides of the religious coin.
Jes Bohn is a senior philosophy major and president of the Student Philosophy Society.