Religion and moral decline, contd.

A reader suggests that one needs to examine the same society over time, rather than comparing different societies, to test whether the waning of religious belief and fervor leads to moral decay. So let’s look at the West over the centuries, which has become increasingly secular as the Church was ousted from government power and religious faith and practice occupied less central a role in civil life. It is not my impression that public norms have become more callous, predatory, or violent; that civil society has become more unruly; or that individual obedience to the law more uncertain.

Here are just a few practices that have become unthinkable in our secular times:

–Burning at the stake was not only tolerated by religious authorities, it was practiced by them.

–A whole host of cruel and unusual punishments—starving in dungeons, flogging, drawing and quartering—were carried out without opposition from the Church or the public; prison practices were reformed under Enlightenment pressure. Our Founding Fathers banned cruel and unusual punishment in accordance with their Enlightenment training. Such practices are still tolerated under Sharia law.

–Animals were treated callously and sometimes lethally for purposes of work and entertainment.

–The mentally ill and handicapped were regarded as almost subhuman, and occasionally seen as objects of amusement. Their institutional confinement was often miserable.

–Slavery aroused only the most belated and localized opposition from church leaders and was generally tolerated by society.

Has civil society become more lawless? A 21st century visitor to the fairs of Elizabethan London or the Five Points area of 19th century New York would likely not conclude so. Piracy, brigandage, and impressment were common.

Have public officials become more corrupt and self-serving? Our standards regarding public behavior and conflict of interest have only grown more exacting. Bribery is less common.

Were merchants and bankers more honest and trustworthy centuries ago? Were there fewer mountebanks foisting shoddy and deliberately fraudulent goods on the public? Did businessmen break contracts less often? I know of no evidence to that effect, but perhaps it exists.

The one area where I can see a serious argument being made for moral decline regards sexual behavior and, even more so, attitudes towards sexual behavior. Both have changed radically from centuries past. Divorce and illegitimacy have become normalized. But for all the havoc that such behavior has wreaked on the family, the loosening of the stigma upon divorce and out-of-wedlock child-bearing has also meant an increase in individual freedom, something which our society prizes highly. The penalties on women for the loss of chastity were severe. Arguably, the damage to children from looser sexual mores far outweighs any benefits from the gain in personal autonomy. But I’m not sure many people would willingly forego the freedom, including the freedom to make bad decisions, now available to them.

I do not pretend that the observations above are scientific. But I’m also not aware that the moral declinists have offered much evidence to support their thesis. Perhaps I’ve just missed it.

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