Societal ills, absolute morality and charity

When I initially read an article about the study of Gregory Paul in which he suggests that the societal ills in the United States can be linked to a belief in God, I was quite skeptical. I commented on this study in my post entitled "Does Religion Cause Societal Ills?" My colleague, Layman, then pointed out that the Wall Street Journal in an opinion piece entitled "So That's the Reason: A scientist blames America's problems on religion" had pointed out similar flaws to the ones I had seen in Dr. Paul's study. Part of the Wall Street Journal article noted:

Thus not even Mr. Paul would claim that he was more likely to be mugged in America by believers emerging from a Sunday service at a Baptist church than by drug-taking atheists emerging from a crack den, or that the highly religious in America are more prey in general to venereal disease than the irreligious. Nor could he very well deny that criminality in Britain, an extremely law-abiding country when three-quarters of its children still attended Sunday school, has risen exponentially in the wake of sudden secularization.

The crudity and selectivity of Mr. Paul's thinking betrays an animus not only toward religion but toward the U.S., or at least toward American society. It is true that the murder rate in America is higher than in any other Western country, but all other crimes of violence are more prevalent in Britain than America, and one is more likely to have one's home burgled in France than America.

I will admit that even though I don't believe that Dr. Paul's study has any merit due to its flaws, the idea concerns me. I am a strong proponent of the idea that Christianity, when properly taught and followed, does lead to a better society than a strictly atheistic or agnostic approach. I agree with Nietchze that if God is dead, man is dead also; in other words, if there is no god, there is ultimately no right or wrong and no reason to choose to act nobly over acting ignobly. If there is no God then man, as the highest part of God's creation imbued with the likeness of God, is reduced to another being scratching his way through a meaningless universe in which absolute standards of right and wrong are completely lacking. In such a universe, all is permitted because nothing is prohibited.

If Dr. Paul is ultimately right (even though this study does nothing to establish the truth of his claims), does that mean that man can be moral without God? In other words, does a belief in God actually cause more moral failures in society than a non-belief in God? I have four reasons for concluding that a belief is better than non-belief:

1. Without God, Morality is Relative. The argument I have summarized above still makes a reasonable argument for the position that God's existence is necessary for morality to exist at all. It makes no sense to ask whether I am acting morally if morality is simply a human construct. If morality is a human construct, what is moral today almost certainly could be subject to change over time. In fact, if morality changes over time or is culturally dependent (as many skeptics assert) then no one could argue that the destruction of the Amalekites by the Israelites in 1 Samuel 15:1-8 was wrong. Yet, skeptics often raise this issue arguing that a good God wouldn't order the "genocide" of the Amalekites. But this is a Catch-22: if the skeptics are right and there is no God resulting in morality being culturally relative, then there is no basis for contending that the Israelites acted immorally. (If you are interested in a Biblical understanding of the destruction of the Amalekites, please feel free to read my essay entitled A Reasonable Understanding of the Destruction of the Amalekites.)

2. Borrowed Morality. The idea that simply because people no longer go to church means that they are living a perfectly God-free lifestyle is naive. It is no more true than the assumption that if a person goes to church they are somehow a perfect Christian. It doesn't happen that way. Our western culture has the Bible and God as the basis for many of our institutional and intellectual foundations. In effect, people who believe that there is no God and attempt to find other justifications for the innate knowledge that such things as right and wrong exist and have meaning in society are "borrowing" from their Christian past. Atheists instinctively recognize that they cannot live completely consistently with their atheistic beliefs because those beliefs necessarily argue that there is no such thing as morality. Thus, they borrow the idea that certain things are, in fact, moral, and every culture must abide by them. But in doing this, they are necessarily borrowing from concepts developed by a faith system that they have rejected.

3. No Reason Christianity Would Increase Societal Ills. Dr. Paul's study lacks any analysis as to how Christianity could result in more societal ills. His study only suggests that there is a correlation that societies that are religious suffer more, but he gives no reason why that would be the case. I cannot think of any good reason that religion (especially, Christianity) would lead to a worse society -- it seems intrinsically obvious that any religious teaching that urges or commands people to act morally will necessarily cause an increase in moral behavior among the people who accept that religion's teaching. What reason, if any, can be offered as to why Christianity would lead people to commit more murders or engage in illicit sex? Dr. Paul offers no answer.

4. Christians and Charity. It turns out that at nearly the same time that Dr. Paul was publishing his study, the Guardian published an article by atheist Roy Hattersley entitled "Faith does breed charity". While the article does not get into statistics and deals with the author's personal experiences, it is consistent with the idea that Christianity and good moral conduct go hand-in-hand. What Mr. Hattersley says is very profound and I want to quote an extended portion of it for our joint edification:

Last week a middle-ranking officer of the Salvation Army, who gave up a well-paid job to devote his life to the poor, attempted to convince me that homosexuality is a mortal sin.

Late at night, on the streets of one of our great cities, that man offers friendship as well as help to the most degraded and (to those of a censorious turn of mind) degenerate human beings who exist just outside the boundaries of our society. And he does what he believes to be his Christian duty without the slightest suggestion of disapproval. Yet, for much of his time, he is meeting needs that result from conduct he regards as intrinsically wicked.

Civilised people do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags and - probably most difficult of all - argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment. Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists.

The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand. The close relationship may have something to do with the belief that we are all God's children, or it may be the result of a primitive conviction that, although helping others is no guarantee of salvation, it is prudent to be recorded in a book of gold, like James Leigh Hunt's Abu Ben Adam, as "one who loves his fellow men". Whatever the reason, believers answer the call, and not just the Salvation Army. When I was a local councillor, the Little Sisters of the Poor - right at the other end of the theological spectrum - did the weekly washing for women in back-to-back houses who were too ill to scrub for themselves.

It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. The Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste. Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night.

The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.

Obviously, I do not agree that the atheists are the "civilised people", that the "Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste", or that atheists have "the truth". But it is interesting that this atheist recognizes that the Christians are the ones who are out doing the charitable work -- not the atheists. He thinks that this correlation is clear, and while I don't have the statistics to back it up, it is consistent with exactly what I believe to be the true situation. This follows from the fact that in our Western culture charity began with Christian belief -- not pagan. As Christopher Price has noted in his very fine essay "Pagans, Christianity and Charity":

The pagan concept of "charity" at the time was really nothing more than politicking or an exchange of favors -- to the extent it existed at all. This does not mean that certain pagans did not act in a charitable manner, but it is clear that such was not the cultural norm and was not supported or encouraged by the pagan religions, philosophers, or the Roman government.

* * *

In sum, where Christianity spread it carried with it the teaching that charity was a religious duty and should be broadly given. When Christianity rose to prominence in the Roman Empire, new charitable programs were instituted. Through the Middle Ages, Christianity promoted wide-spread charity to those in need. Even into our modern day, the great charitable organizations in the West were founded upon this Christian ethic. Modern day polls also show that Christianity plays a very significant role in providing charitable giving and services. Accordingly, Christian promotion of charity is one of its great contributions to humanity.

Mr. Hattersley's article adds a loud "amen" to Mr. Price's thesis, and provides a good argument as to why Dr. Paul's simplistic statistical analysis is wrong.


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