Attorney General William Barr spoke on religious liberty in America this fall at the University of Notre Dame. He said, “In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.”
Barr rightfully claims the necessity for a moral order in order to provide the conditions for freedom, but regrettably he would have us believe the old Christian conservative canard that only theists, people who believe in the existence and intervention of a supernatural being, possess a foundation and reason for moral living. This is nonsense and should be refuted whenever it’s uttered, especially by the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, a secular nation that has denied a religious foundation from its founding. (“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” John Adams)
Non-believers, whether known as humanists, anti-theists, secularists, or agnostics, are just as capable of living moral lives as believers, perhaps even more so. More so, because they exercise moral choices arrived at through both reason and experience, not through fear or the dictates of an authoritarian institution.
Western man recognized the value and social necessity of ethics four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Socrates and Plato acknowledged that the health of the soul was of primary importance to the good life and Aristotle determined in “The Ethics” that “the well-lived life”, synonymous with happiness, was not possible without moral virtue. The evidence is overwhelming.
Barr rhetorically asks, “how does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free government?” He answers that “the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man.” If that is indeed the case, then why do we need it? If we already have “the nature of man” to guide us, why do we need an institution which only corresponds to it? Humanism, by definition, celebrates the nature of man, that we are free, rational, and autonomous individuals who can pursue excellent, creative, and noble lives.
Barr and I are looking at the same world, the same America in “moral upheaval”. He says, “Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground …Along with the wreckage of the family (the illegitimacy rate), we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.” He says the cause is “the growing ascendancy of secularism”.
There is indeed moral upheaval in America and there is a movement away from organized religion and toward non-belief, but that does not mean that one caused the other. Correlation is not causation. One could just as easily posit that the American malaise is caused by anger, resentment and despair caused by searing social inequities, rampant materialism driven by a rapacious capitalistic system, or even by the malignant influence of an immoral autocrat who is, ironically, worshiped by the most pious Christians in the country.
We don’t need religion to be moral. The cardinal virtues of the Catholic Church were enumerated by Aristotle five centuries before Christians co-opted them. Of the commandments that deal with ethics (loving parents and renouncing murder, adultery, stealing, and lying), all are very old and have been considered virtues in every civilized culture in history. Moreover, they are all found in man’s nature. Man’s reason and experience have shown us over the centuries that injustice, cruelty, and dishonesty are harmful to both the practitioner and his prey, and that altruism, integrity, and love enrich our lives and communities and ought to be practiced