Civilizing the young

Many Americans who are indifferent to faith will confess they find themselves challenged as they try to raise good and decent children without the religious confidence their parents had.

writes William McGurn, for whose sagacity I have the utmost respect.  But if I may offer an alternative perspective, while taking Bill fully at his word:  The problem for child-rearing today, if one exists, may stem less from lack of belief in God than from lack of belief in authority.  If parents are unwilling or unable to restrain their children, my guess is that it is their absorption of the 1960s ethic of authenticity, rather than skepticism towards supernatural claims, that is most influencing their practices in the home.  Jesus is not the source of the mandate to say please and thank you; a due respect for civilization is.  Self-restraint, manners, artifice, the ideal of behaving like a gentleman or a lady, these are courtly virtues, not necessarily religious ones, and they were all trashed by the pseudo-cult of “getting back to nature” (i.e., no haircuts, bathing optional, no more suits and ties, no more waiting till marriage, and, from what I observe in some of my peers and their progeny, forks, spoons, and knives expendable).  Religious zeal can in fact trump respect for authority and manners in the pursuit of holy Truth, no less than the baby-boomers’ pursuit of maximal self-expression, which latter quest I suspect is the real child-rearing culprit here (along with a hyper charged multi-billion dollar youth industry). 

Nor are Jesus or other deities the source of parental authority.  It comes with the genes.  The only question is whether parents have the commitment and ability to use that authority wisely.  You don’t need to consult the Bible to figure out whether your eight-year-old should be allowed to wallop his baby sister, nor do you need to refer to the Bible to thunder forth with a non-appealable ban, complete with dire penalties, against such walloping.  People for whom religious practice was a vital and enriching part of their upbringing may have fully understandable difficulty imagining life without it.  Going to church every Sunday with your family, buffed and polished, is a wonderful, important ritual.  But I can testify to the possibility of a civilizing childhood without religion.  No one whom I went to school with through grammar school (and to my knowledge for a long time thereafter) came from a religious family, with the one exception of a friend whose mother was a Christian Scientist, but they were “good and decent children.”   Despite the usual predilection for tormenting the class scapegoat, they have gone on to become productive citizens at the same rate as most groups of children.   To the argument that they were simply living off the capital of the Ten Commandments, I will only observe here that no society condones murder, though all make exceptions for certain categories of deliberate killing.  And self-professed Christians can make lousy parents, too.  I have noticed recently that the mothers of young gangbangers in Chicago have a tendency to thank Jesus when their sons beat the rap. 

As for non-religious family rituals, here’s just one among many possibilities: I went when young with my parents every Sunday to the Dorothy Ahmanson Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles for Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, also buffed and polished.  I cannot imagine my life being any more enriched had I spent those hours being taught that Lazarus rose from the dead or that Joseph Smith deciphered runic holy tablets with magic spectacles than it has been from early and formal exposure to Beethoven’s piano concerti.

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19 Responses to Civilizing the young

  1. Pat Shuff says:

    During a November high school lunchbreak, Frostbite Falls, canadian border circa late ‘Sixties it was common to uncase and pass around the deer rifles from generally unlocked vehicles in the parking lot, excuse in hand to take Friday afternoon off to head to the shack, the new birthday present or scope, the moving up the guncase ladder to older brother’s hand-me-down or grandpa’s inheritance, the principal or a teacher coming out or coming over to see what’s new. School shootings were as yet nonexistent, the sight of youths with an uncased rifles on school property no more alarming than a lads going down the riverbank with a fishing poles over their shoulders. A tool for a task as a hammer to a nail not for bashing in heads. Who knows what happened to inculcated, internalized restraints making the unthinkable and unimaginable so much less so. Endless bombardment from televised gun violence, urbanization, affluence, family and marriage breakdown, women entering the work force, divorce, single parenting. Whatever, the change is dramatic and not in a good direction.

    I find technological innovation a far greating driving force than generally accredited. The advent of cheap, affordable air conditioning systems rolling off the assembly lines giving rise to the modern south, it no longer being too damn hot on a summer afternoon to do anything but nap. Everyone’s doings on a given day different than before and all things must adjust accordingly….traditions, customs…because of the mindless, unintended, unlegislated, unplanned mass distribution of the unforeseen changes wrought, relatively rapidly, the AC itself spawning more changes enabled ad infinitum.

    In that vein I see the cracks radiating out from the same source, a little pill, a birth control pill. Keep your legs crossed, home by 11, no you can’t go to the drive-in, I called the library and you weren’t there doing your homework, where were you. All of which has been rendered irrelevant and archaic because the enormous lifelong commitment by some family member or another to the consequences of a coupling no longer exists, or needn’t, largely doesn’t, along with abortion in case it does.

    That changes the whole game plan, despite everything embedded in the popular vernacular and wetware between the ears oblivious to the change. Far fewer shotgun marriages, far more childless couples years into marriage without the profound psychological and emotional entanglements of biological children to tough it out,
    single women delaying marriage/children, far smaller family sizes, any sister has no or fewer brothers and vice versa for whatever that means.

    I can’t draw the lines between the dots, connections and correlations, it’s just intuitive insight that things pinwheel around a little innovative pill because it is at the heart of the most of basic of basics. Freeing and allowing and liberating but a double-edged sword not a free lunch. Whether Bowling Alone’s
    social capital premise or decline of family-centered society to uncentered or unanchored. Much of religious teachings and primary texts deal with the increasingly irrelevant issue of children, large numbers of children and family, the necessarily exended family, which consumed the whole of life. Currently there is no reason for prohibiting sexual activity at the age of maturity as was common when primitive life was a nasty, brutish and short 35yrs, yet the flywheeled momentum of customs and mores, laws and codifications, spill inappropriately into the present as if children will result if not proscribed.

    At any rate the pill is not going away nor the increasing childless or diminishing family size along with the concommitant self-sacrifice to maybe
    selfish genes. Or any sacrifice of any real sort despite sacrifice being maybe
    an inheritance twisted up in encodings needing expression and outlet and finds
    it obsessively in the planet savings or whirled peas of collective busybodies
    or in hobbies and pets and houseplants and proliferating and evolving religiosities
    attempting relevancy and market share to capture the sacrificial impulse seeking its natural object which has been chemically annihilated. Like, you can argue biology but it doesn’t listen yet must be heard. Civilizing the young? Close but upside down, as with insanity inherited from my kids, we’re now empty-nested, so too were we civilized.

    And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
    Those people were some kind of solution.

    Waiting for the Barbarians
    Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)

  2. Danny says:

    I don’t understand the fuss. People who think that bad behavior will be punished not only in this world but in the next are more likely to behave well than people who only fear punishment in this world. Of course this isn’t the only or even most important factor determining the level of civilization, but it could be one.

    Of course if one is well-off the temptation to indulge in extremely anti-social behavior is quite low, so secularism and individualism can be indulged in safely (since they have quite large benefits). For the mass of the population, I’m not so sure.

  3. Clark says:

    While I share your intuitions Heather I wonder if a belief that God is watching and a religious belief that subjection to His will is important makes one more cognitively willing to listen to other authority. Put an other way, I suspect that even acknowledging the changes in the 60’s that religionists, especially conservative ones, are more likely to teach and habituate deference to authority by default.

  4. Aaron says:

    I agree with Clark. Heather Mac Donald is right as far as she goes, but it’s questionable how much social authority you can have without a metaphysical order to back it up, whether your cosmic order is based on God or the emperor or whatever. Heather Mac Donald might have grown up in a secular neighborhood, but she grew up in a God-believing America. I’m definitely not saying that metaphysical hierarchy “causes” social authority, but they seem to go together pretty closely. They might be mutually dependent (very roughly speaking).

    If you want to restore parental authority and family values to America or Europe, I can think of only two ways to do it: either a real economic catastrophe where the welfare state just collapses, or a Muslim takeover of the culture. I don’t think either will happen any time soon, though.

  5. Dave says:

    “I don’t understand the fuss. People who think that bad behavior will be punished not only in this world but in the next are more likely to behave well than people who only fear punishment in this world”

    Or, people who think that there is no next world are more likely be afraid of punishment in this world, as this is the only life one gets.

    Two sides to the coin :-).

    As for Ms. McDonald’s thesis, while I agree, as a lapsed Catholic, I am certainly grateful for my Catholic upbringing. Could I have gotten that structure elsewhere? Sure, in an ideal world. But while I’m no longer a believer, that upbringing *did* provide me with plenty of useful knowledge, and a healthy respect for the faiths that I personally disagree with.

    To each their own.

  6. j mct says:

    Barbara Tuchman once wrote a book called ‘The Proud Tower’ which was a collection of essays about political cultural life in the various countries that were to be fighting in WWI just prior to the war. Her essay on Germany was all about the musical scene at the time, Strauss… et al, with the take away thought, at least for me, being how cultured Germany was at the time, and my take away thought is not one that I think is peculiar to me, lots of people remark how cultured and ‘couth’ Germany was at the time.

    The interesting thing, is that this is the country that all the later Nazis grew up in. One thing one always hears about the Nazis were barbarians and what they did was barbaric. Barbaric means rude and uncouth. Were the Nazis barbarians? I think not, they were up on all the latest technologies, their ideas were very ‘progressive’ in that they were forward looking and very fashionable. This is not to say that people who call themselves progressive at present were in any way shape of form like Nazis, ‘progressive’ is an empty word that means whatever happens to be intellectually fashionable at the moment and is always peculiar to time and place, and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of theme to what people who call themselves ‘progressive’ at any point in time actually think.

    One could easily imagine Ms. Macdonald going with a crowd of Nazis to a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1935, and if she was completely unaware of their politics (this is a hypothetical), and the post show conversation stuck to the performance, quite enjoying herself. AH himself supposedly had excellent taste in classical music and his table talk per the topic was considered quite erudite.

    Getting back to the ‘Nazis were barbarians’ thought, that thought is about as wrong as one can get. Aushwitz was run like a ball bearing factory, it had ‘production schedules’ … When barbarians commit mass murder they do it with knives, do their killing on sight, and let the corpses rot where they fall. Aushwitz is how men who enjoy Shubert, Italian Renaissance painting, and their mistresses clean, coiffed perfumed, and educated go about committing mass murder.

    It would seem that ‘civilizing’ someone in the manner described above is no prophylactic against out and out evil, and the Nazis are far from the only historical example of this, Rodrigo Borgia, when he wanted to be, was as civilized as anyone. Of course, this isn’t to say culturedness is bad, quite the contrary, but as the saying goes, if the devil knows his scripture, he knows his Mozart too.

  7. @Danny If you had to guess, would you say that atheism as a percentage of total population is higher or lower in prisons than in the public at large? I suspect it takes a high degree of religiosity before someone considers the hereafter when making a decision about whether to do something immoral. Other more immediate consquences come to mind first: Will I get caught? What if mom finds out? Can my conscience bear this?

  8. The problem with creating a notion of “secular authority” is that you run into what Laff referred to as the “great sez who?” Eventually, without a belief in a transcendent moral order (not necessary Judeo-Christian, a Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian one works just fine for these purposes), appeals to authority eventually are futile. Laff wrote a couple of law review articles about this, and to the best of my knowledge he has not been refuted.

    It may be that MacDonald, Derbyshire and the rest of the Secular Right crowd are right: there is no objective moral order. If that is true, however, then appeals to authority are impossible to sustain over the course of a civilization. Maybe two or three generations can feed off of the inherited patrimony of the civilization without embracing its underlying ethos, but eventually that patrimony gets exhuasted and the “grand sez who?” phenomenon sets in. That’s were we are now, I think, for a variety of reasons — technological, moral, philosophical and theological.

  9. Kevembuangga says:

    @Mark in Spokane

    So the main difference between morals with “transcendental” authority and without is only a matter of latency?
    It takes longer to uncover the bullshit when transcendental (as there will always be miscreants to spoil the party), so why not biting the bullet and trying to escape our monkey emotionalities to come up with rules which would not depend on whimsical fads of the day (or of the century)?

  10. Pat Shuff says:

    Mark in Spokane if the devil knows his scripture, he knows his Mozart too.


    The combination of cultured refinement and torturous cruelty is an ugly validity I’ve not previously seen articulated. I’ve read of German soldiers inventorying the death train contents and squaring them with the bills of lading with the same cold, chilling technocratic clinicality as war materiel or foodstuffs freight.
    In Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (2003) in several sections she attempts to delve into the psychology of the guard staff, illustrating with snips and snatches rescued from the archives which were briefly open to the outside world before being snapped shut again, in trying to understand the cruel treatment of prisoners from all walks of life and sectors of society thrust into their predicament. There were no explicit rules requiring or allowing maltreatment, rather there were penalties and punishment for the wasting of labor capital intended for the Soviet projects, wasted by the tens of millions often during the long journey enroute to a camp after sentencing if only for lack of water.

    Amongst the sweet lies we tell ourselves is that it would be honorably preferable to be amongst the killed rather than the cruelly indifferent killers.
    But men and women far better than me found they preferred currying favor with guards and collaborating if only to gain access to a survivable daily caloric intake and avoid the hard labor, harsh climate and its obvious certain end.

    Seeing in the mirror what has known by comparison only relative pleasantry and goodness and see what in very different circumstances in another place and time one could just as easily be on either side of the killing fence, either side of the train platform and it isn’t a pretty picture. Like, but for the grace of…well, amazing grace, go I.

    On that note, it is pretty thin veneer, a fragile fabric easily torn constituting civilization, the innards most recently televised post-Rodney King verdict LA, or maybe Katrina. The recent Argentinian collapse and consequences,
    along with myriad other situations are too distant for wider awareness, it wasn’t on TV in any comprehensible way, but there are personal anecdotal accounts, more often by the uneducated and inarticulate found in corners of the web in English.
    Currency, economic, social, political, financial system…collapse…are just varying faces of the same dark angel, never simultaneous but soon synchronous in random chronological order, each following on the heels of the others. In that vein,
    as the trillions, quadrillions, sextillions metastisize into an astronomical blur to paper over the cracks in the brittleness, having lost former flexible resiliency, the path of least resistance through political difficulty or impossibility.

    Returning to devils and Mozart, I find the intellectual cover for any and all
    of “forgive them, they know not what they do” being provided by the culturally refined, the educated and intellectual who also found the entire failed statist experiment to be the cat’s meow until more fully revealed by the fullness of time.
    It takes a poison Ivy League priesthood of Princetons with PhD’s in economics to be so rash and get so lost and confused in the greek-lettered formulae which forgot 3rd grade math and mere 3rd grader to understand and see through the nakedness of contrived numbers which don’t add up other than up and up the down staircase, denominated in contrived currencies anything but on the up and up,
    mere tautologies, devoid of basic textbook definitions like store of value or unit of account for measurement serving only as medium of exchange. As to exchanging what, consult a medium.

    I think it was Orwell who spoke of the struggle to see what is front of the nose. The profoundness of faith, the nigh unshakeability of belief, the necessity of Big Lies, the untruthfullness to ourselves feigning disbelief if belief in nothing avoids awkward inconvenience or confronting murderousness exchanged for food. Money changelings in a cerebral temple, like any temple, whether a there there or no.

  11. Caledonian says:

    “It may be that MacDonald, Derbyshire and the rest of the Secular Right crowd are right: there is no objective moral order.”

    But there seem to be objective ethical principles. Our goal must be to articulate and implement those principles – in the process, abandoning the idea of binding arbitrary social convention.

    Secular Right has a heavy emphasis on tradition and convention, though, which isn’t really compatible with acknowledging objective ethical truths.

  12. kurt9 says:

    Self-restraint, manners, artifice, the ideal of behaving like a gentleman or a lady…

    These values, along with future time orientation, thrift, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship are all values that anyone who grew up in an upper middle-class WASP family such as myself would learn. These values may have come from Christianity, but I hardly think that believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ is necessary to learn and practice these values.

    As long as I am willing to live by these values, I see no reason why I should accept Christianity and its theology as having any jurisdiction over my life. Perhaps Christianity is necessary because it is not possible to teach kids these values independent of Christianity. However, I seem to recall from my childhood never accepting any aspect of the Christian morality except for the “Golden rule”.

    Later, I independently “invented” libertarianism philosophy while in high school.

  13. But why follow the golden rule? This is the problem of the “great sez who?” Why not the silver rule? Why not the liebensunswertes liebens rule? Why not the Ayn Rand rule? You get the point?

    I’m not saying that Christianity is necessary for morality. But I think that a transcendent moral order is. That’s the only way to avoid the “great sez who?”

  14. J. says:

    And self-professed Christians can make lousy parents, too.

    That holds more often than not. The biblethumper sort of parent doesn’t care so much that their kids struggle with, say, Euclidian geometry. For the churchies, sunday school and the King James Bible (and maybe football, or cheerleading) counts more than does mere mathematics. Intelligent xtians may at times emphasize academics, but on the whole the usual WASP parent values obedience to Sergeant Jeezuss more than he does rationality.

  15. Aaron says:

    @Mark in Spokane
    I agree with your point about the need for a belief in a transcendent order, but I don’t think the image of running out of steam or whatever is very accurate. I see it more as a constant struggle or competition between different world views. A world view that denies the existence of an ordered cosmos will be at a disadvantage in this competition, I think. I guess we’ll find out empirically, if the Muslim population in Europe keeps growing.

    By the way, I think Derbyshire is the only contributor to Secular Right who has denied moral realism, the philosophy that moral properties are metaphysically real (e.g., the Holocaust was bad no matter what people think about it). Heather Mac Donald at least seems to believe that moral properties are metaphysically real, as do many of the commenters (libertarians who talk about their “natural rights”).

  16. kurt9 says:

    @Mark in Spokane

    The golden rule is contractual in nature. Only a contractual concept can be derived empirically. The problem with transcendent order is it cannot be proven to exist as fact. You can say its one thing and I can say its something else entirely. There is no way to prove that you are right and I am wrong or visa versa. This is why Robert Heinlein made the comment that one man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.

    A contractual system of morality is necessary and sufficient for modern civilization. Any other concept of morality is unnecessary and superfluous.

  17. Gotchaye says:

    Mark, I understand the urge to locate some unquestionable rational basis for morality, but I don’t think you can get around the “sez who?” problem. You can only push it back a step. Suppose we all agree that what’s right is right because God says. Then we’re arguing about what it actually is that God says. Maybe you say it’s the Golden Rule and I say it’s the Silver Rule. The deeper problem is that, whether or not there’s a transcendental moral order, humans can’t guarantee that they have reliable access to it (I would argue this in general, but it’s at least true when there’s moral disagreement, which is the only time we ever really inquire after morality anyway). I’m actually a bit surprised to see you advocating for belief in a transcendental moral order, since the impression I’d gotten from another thread was that you were rather big on doubting even this sort of thing.

    We don’t even need human fallibility, really. Perfect access to a transcendental moral order is still insufficient to justify a moral decision. After all, why ought I to act in accordance with the transcendental moral order? If all oughts flow from a transcendental moral order, then any argument that I ought to be moral is going to be circular. “You ought to act in accordance with the transcendental moral order.” “Why?” “Because doing so is in accordance with the transcendental moral order, and you ought to act in accordance with it.” A transcendental moral order is still vulnerable to a “sez who?” attack. Maybe it’s the case that civilizations that don’t have a widespread belief in a transcendental moral order will lose out to civilizations that do, but I really don’t think we have a big enough sample for that (and even if it’s true, it’s not an epistemic reason to believe in a transcendental moral order).

    Kurt: You’ve got basically the same problem you’re saying Mark has, it seems to me. Why should we choose “we ought to hold to our contracts” instead of “we ought never to use others as a means to an end” or “we ought to maximize the amount of happiness in the world” or “we ought to act for our own material benefit”? Do you mean this to be purely pragmatic? It’s obviously not the case that it’s always in my self-interest to hold to my contracts. I may prefer a world in which everyone holds to their contracts to a world where no one does, but it’s circular to say that I ought to hold to my prior agreement not to break my word (the obviously superior strategy is to tell everyone that I’ll hold to my contracts while intending to defect if it ever proves advantageous to do so).

    It’s also hard to see why contractarianism as the basis of morality is necessary for modern civilization. The obvious point is that most people, most intellectuals, and most philosophers would deny that contracts are the basis of morality, and yet we have modern civilization. Perhaps there’s something hiding in your claim that a contractarian morality can be derived empirically, but I’m not sure what you mean here. Supposing you mean something like “the golden rule would be agreed upon as a basis for right action by a community of equals in a state of nature”, it’s not obvious that the golden rule and only the golden rule would be what they’d settle on or that the hypothetical decisions of equals in a state of nature are relevant to real life, since we aren’t all equal and since states of nature in the Lockean sense bear only a superficial resemblance to any situation in which large groups of humans have ever actually lived. Certainly it’s not the case that all actually existing people would agree to abide by mankind-wide golden rule-ism (incidentally, “mankind-wide” is another sticking point).

    Finally, it’s not clear why a rule for action should be decided upon based on which proposed rule is the simplest or least inconvenient while still making “modern civilization” possible.

  18. kurt9 says:


    Let me clarify. The contractual concept is the only concept of morality that I accept and live by. You will never convince me of anything other concept of morality, not in a million years. This is something you must come to terms with and accept.

    I am well-aware that many people do not think like I do on this and, as such, may live by other systems of morality. That is fine by me. I get along with everyone (do realize I lived in Japan and Taiwan for 10 years and got along fine there), because I deal with others on the basis of mutual respect and rational self-interest. This make me a perfect moral being as well as “sinless” (since I am not religious, the concept of “sin” does not apply to me).

    I do subscribe to the Lockean concept of freedom and will not accept any other, thank you very much.

    The reason why I believe a “live and let live” contractual system is the only one that can work for us in the long run is because this represents a “meta” system that allows everyone to live by their own standards, Christians included. The future is necessarily a multiplicity of systems. I think that the social conservatives suffer from the same delusion as the liberal-left, that there is one perfect system that is appropriate to everyone. We are all different, with different dreams, goals, and life style choices. How can anyone claim that there is the one perfect system for everyone? This is just plain silly.

    What Mark and others are insisting on is not that they be allowed the freedom to live by their own religious code (a right which is guaranteed by the constitution, BTW), but that they somehow expect everyone else to live by their religious-based standard of morality. They have to come to terms with and accept the reality that this will never happen.

    The future, say 100 years from now, will clearly have a greater range of personal and social diversity than today, not less. Christianity will certainly be a part of the future meta-system, but there will be many other systems and modes of life that people choose for themselves. There will never be a one perfect system, or even one that predominates over all others.

    Morality has to do with how you treat other people. If you treat others reasonably and fairly, you are a moral person, If you do not, then you are an immoral person. How can anyone not understand this? Does anyone think its possible to treat others with fairness and respect and, yet, still be immoral or a “sinner”? I hardly think so.

  19. Gotchaye says:

    That makes more sense. Leaving aside the general question of whether or not a diverse society can survive with a non-libertarian system of morality, I’d like to know how you’d propose to settle disputes as to which things have rights. When you say that a “live and let live” system is the only one that can work for us, what do you mean by “us”? Only those functioning adults who we understand as being able to make contracts? Functioning adults and children? Functioning adults, children, and fetuses? What about animals? This is obviously a very large part of many moral disagreements, and there doesn’t seem to me to be a necessarily libertarian answer to these questions. There also doesn’t seem to be a viewpoint-neutral way of dealing with these disagreements – you can’t use “live and let live” to decide who you’re letting live.

    Anyway, I don’t think that Mark was saying that he expected everyone to agree with him as to what was moral. I believe he was just arguing that, in order to have a working understanding of morality, you’ve got to believe that it flows from something objective (and transcendental).

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