I grew up in a secular humanist home with highly “educated” parents who were very much the product of the modern age when it came to morality. My parents were good folks, and when I would ask for advice about a particular moral quandary, they would invariably tell me to “pick a course of action and make it work.” This “secular morality” accidentally lined up in several ways with Christian morality, thus making the two hard to differentiate.
Though some might deem such an ethical schema salutary from a Christian point of view, I ascribe the moral decay of this country, in part, to the prevalence of secular morality. I would argue that each successive generation degenerates in virtue where the effort to cultivate explicitly Christian virtues is absent.
We are, all of us, inevitably formed in terms of our morality by our families, and we then make our contribution to the public ethos. When infected by the assumptions of secular morality, however, our contribution to public morality is corrupted. Tragically, secular morality is being infused into our decaying culture not only by the family but also by our second most prominent means of potential cultural renewal: the teaching class.
The Great Western Tradition, where Athens and Jerusalem meet, is the torch-bearer for the “best that man has said and done,” especially where morality is concerned. The Great Western torch of truth, painstakingly kept aflame for the last several millennia by the brightest lights of the Great Western Tradition, is difficult to extinguish due in part to the resilience of the human soul and the innate drive to seek wisdom, which is inscribed on every human heart. However, the efforts to quench the torch have been in full force since the fourteenth century when William of Occam and his ilk began to use their razors to cut the strings tying the human intellect and will to universals and transcendent realities. Man is thus now cut off from his final cause, his true end and purpose. Authentic morality is tied up in our final ends. Eliminating the final cause disconnects us from our rightly-ordered bond to act morally according to objective moral standards.
The final blow, the point of no return, may have been the French Revolution. These rebels against hierarchy, truth, and order resorted to machetes and torches of their own, first to cut the final remnants of our ties to God, and then to sever the bond of philosophy to theology, and finally to enslave reason to empirical science. The revolutionaries replaced the virtues with the new values of equality, fraternity, and licentiousness (fraudulently called “liberty”). The torch of the Great Western Tradition has largely been extinguished from the public square, but its embers still burn in the families who continue to cultivate Christian virtue.
The fact is that ontological good, the ground for the objective standard of morality, is prior to and independent of all created souls. It comes not from man, but God. By contrast, “secular moralities” come from the mind of man and they constitute merely a multitude of idolatrous moral systems, which cater to the arbitrary vagaries of men seeking to advance, not truth, but their own schemes to amass power and attain control of a polis. These fetid moral codes are a reaction to a set of practical circumstances, and though intended to solve practical problems, they inevitably lead to further chaos and degradation.
Sober and sane men know that the idea of secular morality is disordered, but the majority of our citizens are intoxicated on their own high opinion of themselves. Secular morality leads to the evolution that we have seen in the Great American Experiment from rugged individualism, to radical individualism, to unabashed narcissism, and eventually to self-deification. Famed psychologist Paul C. Vitz claims that America is the most poly-theistic nation in history boasting 350 million individual gods. Goodness is unitary; evil is manifold.
With no more public ties to the authentic virtues discovered by true theologians and philosophers and modernity’s blind and full embrace of the vices, the middle of the nineteenth century saw the advent of ideology take the world by storm. Subjectivism and secularism dominated and, as Richard Weaver remarked, this made everyone his own “priest and professor of ethics.” Secularism by definition “denotes attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” Secularism seeks to develop man to the highest possible level by a purely material means. As George Jacob Holyoake said in The Principles of Secularism, “Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable.” Holyoake names as one of secularism’s most prominent principles that “science is the available providence of man.”
Secular morality implies as true the untruth that nature explains itself. It does not. Modern man foolishly believes that empirical science can answer all our most pressing existential questions. This is merely another aspect of the inversion of reality wherein the secular moralists necessarily have to give primacy of place to empirical science as the best way of knowing. To disabuse a secular humanist of his notions of secular morality is a nearly impossible task. There is no language to dissuade him because in order to cling to a notion as absurd as secular morality, the secular humanist has to proclaim that language has no universal meaning.
Despite the deconstructionist claims of the meaninglessness of language, “secular morality” is doomed by its etymology. “Secular” denotes something solely of this world; “morality” implies a transcendent standard oriented to a good–the good discoverable, not created by man. “Secular morality” is an oxymoron because secular and morality are mutually exclusive by their natures: One is grounded in the temporal, and the other is grounded in the timeless. It is an illicit marriage. It denotes the inversion of reality that accompanies the denial of the Creator’s authority. It is the attempt to make wine into water. Because moral good precedes the created man, and created man precedes secular considerations, secular cannot predicate morality any more than man can predicate God.
The idea of a secular morality improperly assumes that it is the creature–mankind–who makes the rules that govern human behavior, and as such, we ascribe to the faulty notion that “man is the measure of all things.” Being fallible creatures, we invariably measure incorrectly because there are limits to human perception and reason. The simple fact that there is not consensus among disparate claims of measures ought to demonstrate this clearly, but even this parade of incongruence is incapable of dissuading modern man. To pull off this self-deceit, it is necessary for the secular humanist to jettison the principle of non-contradiction, to decree that truth is subjective, and to make sitting comfortably with cognitive dissonance a mark of erudition.
As Fyodor Dostoevsky said “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” If everything is permissible, there can be no morality because there is no longer the distinction between good and evil. Secularism excludes God, universals, spirituality, and the transcendent. There is no theology in secularism. What a secularist might call “philosophy” is the handmaiden of empirical science; thus it is no philosophy at all, but sophistry masquerading as philosophy. Let the world deny the Creator, universals, the natural law, the divine law, the objective moral standard, the uncreated virtues, but it cannot claim truthfully that secular morality is moral, for it cannot be.
Secular morality leads to moral depravity because at the heart of these inventions is intellectual dishonesty. Dietrich Von Bonhoeffer said that “you do not believe, because you will not obey.” Like Lucifer, the rallying cry undergirding each and every secular morality is “I will not serve!” To pursue the development of secular morality is cultural suicide. The essential problem with secular moralities is that they are wholly human creations, which inevitably result in the continued degradation of civilization. “Secular morality” is an oxymoron, and if we continue down this wide and easy path it will surely lead to the end of the Great Western Tradition.
The author wishes to thank his friend Rodney Peterson for his contributions to clarifying the arguments made in this essay. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.