Our society is in sad shape — or at least it is from what I can see. As universal acceptance of values and religion has dropped, so has the accepted standard for what constitutes a good life. Even from a non-Catholic perspective, one hears about too many crimes to remember just by turning on the radio or reading some Internet headlines. For example, I recently read about a man who was shot dead just before his girlfriend gave birth to twins. Very sad, especially regarding the fatherless twins, but not extremely unusual.
Just a few years ago, when I was a teenager, like crimes seemed substantially rarer, at least to me. Furthermore, from my observations of relatively ordinary non-religious people who are not convicted criminals, they seem selfish and inconsiderate as a rule. But, I’m not envious of their “happy” religion-free lives either. Rather, I have a simple question for people like these:
If everyone is free to live exactly the lives they want, with church and God out of the picture, then why is our society coming apart at the seams?
The World is Inherently Good…
I have a hypothesis: without recognition of morals, the world is destroying itself because it has rejected the plan that God intended for it. From the Catholic perspective, God created man to be a certain way by nature. Then, understanding perfectly what He made, He understood the circumstances in which His creation could best flourish. Actually, this is one explanation for it, but there is also another interesting way of thinking about it. God is, according to His nature, pure goodness. Thus, it is literally impossible for Him to do bad. Therefore, the world and everything in it was made according to His goodness.
…but Glorifying Evil Doesn’t Make it Go Away
So the world was made to be good, but what does that have to do with everything decaying? Is it not still good? Well God, being all-good and all-knowing, intended for all of us to live a perfect life, aided by the real, true goods He set out for us. However, when we rejected those goods through sin, we created a disorder, an evil that He never intended. That evil, in turn, served then just as now to lower human life—and the world—as a whole. I’m sure we know that every sin hurts the whole body of Christ, meaning us Christians, but, beyond that, the sins that are becoming so widespread have earthly consequences, too. This is a further illustration of why God never willed them; they hurt us in an earthly way as well as spiritually. If we overeat, we gain weight. If we do not attend to our work, it never gets done and we miss out on the opportunities that finishing it would have brought, and so on.
The bigger problem here is that, when people reject God and religion, they almost always reject the idea of evil as well. Their desires and passions correspondingly become the only arbiters of good and bad, but good and bad will still exist no matter how few people believe in them. That is why everything seems to be falling apart these days.
A secular person could dismiss this “natural order” argument, saying, “Hey, if I want to do something ‘bad’ according to you, that’s my personal problem. I’m not ‘hurting’ anyone but me.” Really not hurting anyone but yourself is no mean feat. While this idea may work as an argument for something small like overeating, how would something like getting a girl pregnant and not taking responsibility for it hurt “no one” but the guy? Some men might even push their girl to get an abortion, which only compounds the damage. In that situation the consequences for fornication are so big that even if the couple in it are responsible and get married, they are still closed off to other possibilities. Additionally, fornication can be a very public sin, and could more easily cause scandal or lead others astray than more private transgressions.
The Role of Christians in Society
Furthermore, as more and more people participate in these big sins, degrading things like the sanctity of life and the institution of the family, these terrible occurrences become less and less the sad exception and more and more the rule, a part of the culture. This means that indeed, not one man, but everyone suffers as we become desensitized to evil, mistaking it for good, rather than something that needs to be eradicated. That leaves the question: with secular society only becoming worse, what are we Christians left to do? We can always pray, but Christ never said prayer was all we needed to enter the kingdom of God; He said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That being said, you can only lead the horse to water, and most people probably would not take kindly to being told that their lifestyle is selfish and destructive.
Following from these cautions, I would think the best think for us to do is to act like Christians. After all, as St. Paul said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Furthermore, Christ died and rose for us, so at the very least we have something about which to be joyful. Thus, we need to show the inherent goodness of the Christian life and its virtues through living them out.
The Reward of Virtue is Self-Mastery…
On the other hand, it is definitely true that it is very difficult to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” as Rudyard Kipling put it. It’s especially difficult to consistently be kind and charitable and honest, especially when all societal pressures push toward the other direction. But, are the virtues rewarding? Undoubtedly, yes! Of course, each virtue creates specific joys; for example, courage gives a person the strength to do heroic things in spite of fear. Additionally, there is one great thing all the virtues share—they help us attain true mastery of self. Someone who is truly virtuous rules himself rather than letting his passions rule him.
…And it’s Important, Whether Religious or Not
I imagine most products of this culture, upon hearing this, would say something like, “Who cares? I’m happy; who said I needed to be perfect, especially if I’m being judged by your arbitrary religious distinction of perfection? Perfect is the enemy of happy anyway!” But, this is not a question of perfect vs. imperfect, or obedience to God vs. the devil, but, again, of mastery. Being master of oneself is something Aristotle extolled in the Nicomachean Ethics, before Christianity existed.
Understandably, Christians have supported this mastery too, but not always for the sake of Christianity. C.S. Lewis provided citations for a universal virtuous value system outside of religion in The Abolition of Man. Furthermore, he was able to deduce its absolute necessity, not only for Christians, but for everyone. Author Matthew Kelly calls the mastery “becoming the best-version-of-yourself,” and, though Kelly writes to a Catholic audience, there is no immediate reason outside of appetite gratification why an atheist could not desire the same thing. That seems to provide some basis for disciplining the passions.
The products of this society could just reply, “I don’t care about ‘passions.’ I just want [insert vice] and you can’t stop me from having it!” Very true, but apply the same principle to other areas of life. What about dieting? What about working toward a job promotion? This is simple hypocrisy, endorsing self-mastery in some specific areas, but backing away in most others. For the moment, though, that can be disregarded. Instead, look at the results of these respective ideologies. Self-mastery leads us to be able to do things like become healthier, cultivate a talent such as painting, and follow through with commitments. In short, it helps us to lead good lives, becoming the type of people with an ordered character worthy of imitation.
Disregarding Virtue Leads to Brutality
By contrast, what does a man do when left to his own devices? Again, he tends to make bad decisions, ranging from the small like intemperance or losing his temper to large ones like promiscuity and murder. Another point from the Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s warning against three separate levels of evil. The first, incontinence, is committing minor evils, followed by viciousness — choosing great evils — and, finally, brutality, which is when a society praises evil to the point that its members have a greater capacity and love for evil than they would by themselves. While I am neither a philosopher nor an anthropologist, it looks to me like, while our society may not have reached total brutality yet, it is definitely on the way there.
But I have commented enough for now; you be the judge. Sleep with twenty people, men and women. Eat nothing but Oreos and chips for a week. Yes, you are certainly exercising personal freedom without letting religious injunctions and alleged virtues get in the way. Now let me ask you this: are you happy? Cookies and sex are certainly good, but do you want them to be your entire reason for living? The present condition of society is as far as such a type of living has gotten us, which only illustrates that some societal quality is greatly distorted from what it should be. From God’s good order came the standard of universal morality that we all have written on our hearts. Following that standard, according to our nature, is the only way to true happiness.
We Christians, in turn, need to be the first in showing this, in order that the rest of the world can see it too.