The last three centuries have witnessed numerous attempts to replace Judaeo-Christian morality with an equally effective secular code based on rational thought. The same centuries have also witnessed a comprehensive failure of every such attempt.
Immanuel Kant was neither the first nor the last thinker who postulated that, as a rational moral agent, man doesn’t need God to come up with a valid moral code. It’s just that he was a more powerful thinker than the others, and so his failure looks even more spectacular. The greater the height from which one tumbles, the more shattering the fall.
Kant proved beyond any doubt what all those Greeks had shown before him: that, though philosophy can ponder morality from every possible angle, it can’t create it. There’s so much more than reason that shapes human behaviour that rationalism is inevitably found wanting.
Kant and other philosophers dedicated their lives to finding an intellectual justification for their loss of faith. In common with other intelligent men, at some point they began to mistake their ratiocination for reality. They thus convinced themselves, and unfortunately many others, that the Judaeo-Christian code could drop its adjective and thrive as a mere noun.
That was akin to believing that an apple tree will continue to bear fruit after it has been sawn off its roots. Kant was willing to admit that the apples would be slightly different, but he was certain that they’d still have a similar taste and texture. Yet all we got was a pile of rotting wood.
In a way, Kant and his fellow rationalists could be forgiven their mistake. They lived at a time when the fundamental moral tenets of Judaeo-Christianity looked eternally indestructible. Provided we were deft enough, we could separate morality from religion without any adverse effects – like a conjurer whipping the tablecloth off the table without disturbing the cups and saucers. Christianity was the cloth Kant yanked out, morality the cups, and they all ended up as shards of china on the floor.
Resulting modernity has since proved its ability to create widely spread riches beyond those Kant or Smith could even imagine. Yet, with the removal of Christianity as the social and moral focus, material wealth grew in parallel with spiritual poverty. Then, like a snake biting its tail, spiritual and moral poverty turned around and began to destroy material wealth. This, and only this, is the nature of our present economic crisis.
Even worse, when stripped bare of its moral and spiritual shrouds, reason begins to look pathetic in its nudity. Christianity prevented reason from overreaching itself by teaching that many things are, and many others ought to be, beyond reason’s reach. This institutionalised self-restraint prevented us from looking excessively stupid.
Conversely, when we set out to prove that reason is omnipotent, we only succeed in proving it’s impotent. ‘When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything,’ said Chesterton, and he has been proved right.
Conveniently untethered and fashionably open, the modern mind can conceive of inanities that in the past would have been regarded as telltale signs of madness. Who in his right mind would, for example, have argued in favour of two men getting married? Who could have thought that one day the state would discourage hard work and reward indolence? Who would have ever thought that talentless, subversive morons would earn millions for perpetrating unspeakable obscenities on music and other arts?
No one would have come to the conclusion that such things are desirable because they would never even have been discussed. Informed by a teacher infinitely more trustworthy than any philosopher, people just knew that some things were wrong simply because… well, because they were wrong, and that was that.
If someone like Prof. Peter Singer had made his favourite argument in favour of, say, bestiality, he would have been locked up without any prior debate. ‘But it’s victimless!’ he’d scream, ‘We’re all animals and we can love one another!’ ‘Chimpanzees are practically human!’ ‘Why deny us and our pets such pleasure!?’ The only sound he’d have heard in return would have been that of leather thongs being buckled up on his straightjacket.
When everything is valid, nothing is. As modern man holds nothing sacred, he’ll avidly destroy even everything profane. And he’ll feel good doing it, for he’ll believe he’s acting in the name of progress.
Little will he realise that he’s reverting to the pre-civilised times of hairy couples first rolling on the grass in the spirit of unbridled joy and then busting each other’s heads with stone axes.
What’s being destroyed before our eyes isn’t just a religion. It’s our basic humanity. I hope we’ll all realise this as we watch the first couple of men walk down the aisle, possibly followed by a man and his dog.