Sunday, April 27, 2008

Does religion improve a nation's well-being? (Part 3)

Idealising the past

I was a huge Michael W. Smith fan when growing up. In the 1990s, Smith was a popular Christian pop artist, and I loved his music! One of my favourite songs was the fast paced Breakdown, from his 1995 album, I‘ll Lead You Home. Singing to background snippets of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, Smith brings across a message of social and moral decay in secular United States:

See the powder on the glass
See the pillow on the street
See the charter of a modern love
With no obligations...or promises to meet

Hear the fear of disease
Hear the baby never born
Hear a people crying out
“Somebody save us - oh, please somebody save us
From what we're headed for - from what we're headed for

In this song, Smith, like many Christians, believes that society has decayed because it has abandoned its Christian roots:

Wasn't it long ago
Wasn't it on a New England coast
Wasn't it the standard - people praying to
The Son and the Father and the Holy Ghost

Powerful words, but does Smith’s message – that Western society has fallen into moral chaos because it has abandoned Christianity – have any merit? As I wrote in part 1 and part 2 of this series, an argument can be made that religion doesn’t guarantee, or result in, a healthy or prosperous society. On page 303 of Sense and Goodness without God, Richard Carrier tackles the nostalgic belief that society was somehow better yesterday than it is today, and he and argues that Western society, despite that fact that isn’t perfect, is in a much better moral shape than just a few hundred years ago. Think of the following facts:

  • Never before have millions of people given freely to international aid, without regard for borders or religious affiliation. We now even give aid to our enemies.
  • The right to education, free speech, protest, universal suffrage – and in some countries, the right to basic services – are benefits that we enjoy in modern Western society.
  • Woman and minorities now have full political rights.
  • Crime in the USA has decreased substantially since the early 1990’s.
  • Formal slavery has been eradicated, and forms of racism are loathed by most individuals.
  • Most people now have compassion for the plight of animals.
  • In the past, children were once legally beaten and often exploited. They are also now legally protected.

Does Carrier have a point here, that Smith and others have idealised the past? In a moral sense, are we truly better off than our forefathers?


Ryan said...

To quote Hitchens, never has a society been structured on the beliefs of Hume, Spinoza, Freud, Russel, etc... So we can't really know how such a society would function.

But I wouldn't mind trying.

Roger Saner said...

Is society more moral now than in the past? I don't know - the word "genocide" had to be invented in the last century to describe a new kind of atrocity.

Kevin Parry said...

Roger wrote:
I don't know - the word "genocide" had to be invented in the last century to describe a new kind of atrocity.

Good point! Though I wonder if the potential for genocide was always inherent in human nature, but only in the last century did we finally have access to adequate technology (such as sophisticated weapons) and infrastructure (in terms of communication and transport networks) that enables us to kill on a mass scale, and over large distances.

Harmen said...

Do you really want to start looking for objectionable material in lyrics of christian musicians? You'll be busy for a while... :)

My favorite is Smith's 'Let it Rain', which passionately calls for another Flood. Probably without the genocide aspect, but I'm not sure.