Western culture grew out of Jewish and Christian ideas about the unity of God and the fundamental importance of each person. Democracy, capitalism and Christianity are three strands of the fraying rope of Western values that eventually evolved out of these ideas.

Each of these systems places the highest value on every individual – and empowers him or her with ultimate decision-making authority while also imposing on each person clear responsibilities to others. The individual may buy and sell at will, she may vote for the candidates and policies of her choice, and she may choose to behave well or badly. Each decision has direct consequences for her and for society – she may go broke, her government may govern badly, she may go the Hell.

Because of the gradual replacement of a broadly Judeo-Christian ethical framework with moral extemporizing, together with governmental policies that de-emphasize individual responsibility and stress group, rather than individual, rights, our society is losing its moral bearings. It is also losing steam economically and demographically for the same reasons; but those are the topics of other posts.

Religions consciously or unconsciously play important roles in our daily decisions and in what behaviors we deem acceptable. Sociologists have posited that religions grow as a way of establishing bonds of trust within communities, thereby facilitating mutually beneficial behavior – so, the fading of our religious traditions means that there are ever fewer universally accepted rules other than laws, which are a poor substitute for trustworthy behavior or a well-considered and broadly accepted system of ethics. The result is an every man for himself world; the measure of success becomes what you can get away with rather than what is seen as right or wrong.

Many, perhaps most, now believe that traditional religions are fairy tales that we share with children and those who are grieving. Rationality and science have cleared away the fog of superstition so, as Nietzsche proclaimed, “God is dead.” To people who think this way, at least consciously, there is no God, and no moral compass other than the ones that we make up as we go along.

You may see the proposition that “murder is wrong” as self-evident – I hope you do. But those who have no yardsticks beyond their own vague theories do not necessarily think it wrong. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and lots of lesser madmen, have murdered innumerable fellow countrymen in furtherance of Nazism, Communism and other bizarre, power-hungry ideologies.

Indeed, what’s so sacred about democracy, if nothing is sacred? Nothing.

Why should we care about others? What, or who, puts the “should” in a sentence (I mean: besides our mothers)? The answer is: each of us individually, generally with reference, by way of our consciences, to God, however we consciously or unconsciously conceive of Him.

We believe in objective reality – and that the world beyond the self matters – because we have faith. How we understand our faiths evolves; but faith in something is universal. Indeed, faith is even necessary to prove a tautology because how do you know that logic holds always and everywhere? You don’t – but that’s how you bet.

By this definition of faith, many people’s God is not called God; their summum bonum may be the Environment (a kind of revived Eden myth), or Communism, or Science or Secular Humanism.  Everybody believes in something.

Religions, organized or inchoate (as are the newer, less coherent ones), are all approximations of the reality beyond ourselves. Which idea of God we choose makes a big difference in how we weigh the ethics of our decisions; some faiths are much better than others. What God actually is, is beyond our knowing.

Jesus said: “Ye shall know them by their fruits”. When I look at religions, and “non-religious” belief systems, I consider the behaviors, and cultures, with which they are associated. God would want a happy and just society, right? So if we look at the fruits of the various religions, and see which one looks best to us, shouldn’t we take that one as being most reflective of His will?

In my view, the great flowering of knowledge and human welfare over the last couple of centuries is the result of the efforts of innumerable individuals, most of whom were empowered and incentivized by the values that have defined the West.

If “God is dead”, meaning that the traditional Western values have been supplanted, His place will be taken by madmen or the State, and chaos or totalitarianism will be the result.


Thoughts on Christianity (originally posted in January, 2013)

Generally speaking, I am a big fan of Christianity. The American perspective on individual rights and responsibilities has its foundation in Judeo-Christian teachings. Christianity’s emphasis on individual salvation is the corner stone of western culture’s conception of human rights. Christianity, capitalism and the democratic vision of individual human rights all depend on freedom of choice being exercised by each individual.  In religious terms this is described as the sanctity of life; in political terms as the sovereignty of the people; in economic terms as the free market.

Many of my close friends are adamantly anti-religious. They believe that only through rational thought can we find our ways – and, most of the time, they are right about that. But rationality alone cannot confer a sense of values or form a basis for mutual trust. Game theory sets no limits.

People need religion – by which I mean a structure of meaning into which they can frame their lives. Religions also play an essential role in forming the boundaries of expected behavior for their adherents; by setting such boundaries they build the bonds of trust that allow civilizations to grow.

The great traditional religions form – and reflect – distinctive cultures. Communism and environmental extremism are newer faiths that vehemently deny their own religious status; both of these allegedly science-based modes of thought lead to end-justifies-the means, command and control societies because they are based on the collective good, as defined and imposed by some elite.

The best evidence of the soundness of the Christian moral framework is the culture that it has produced. I am of that culture, so maybe I can’t be an impartial judge; but it seems to me that the world that Christianity has helped foster is both more scientifically, economically and culturally forward-moving and more broadly equitable than those of the other major faiths.

Sure, I know that numberless horrors have been perpetrated in the name of Christianity – as they have been in the names of other faiths. But if you actually read the gospels, I think you’ll agree that slaughters perpetrated in the name of Christianity have no basis in Jesus’s teachings. Some faiths explicitly sanction war as a means of spreading the faith; others – like Communism – justify all kinds of murder in an ends-justify-the-means, it’s just science kind of way. Not Christianity.

On the occasions, now less frequent, when I go to church, I find myself in a congregation of young and old, rich and poor, WASPs, immigrants and the descendents of slaves. In our atomized world, it is the most truly diverse group that I regularly experience – and thus the most representative of life as a whole. Think about it: in school, children see mostly other children. At the office, I see only clean, well-mannered (well: reasonably well-mannered) and well-fed grownups.  In the world of entertainment – and on the Internet – people see what they want to see. But at church, you see the ailing old lady who comes every week until she dies. You hear the brand new baby screaming during prayers. You watch the teenage kids, trying to figure out how much longer they’ll have to sit there, and the older folks looking for a little spiritual comfort. Life and death are present, in all their glory. And there’s a real sense of community.

In Christianity, you are important, no matter who you are. You make choices that have moral weight. Your choices are made in a context where it is understood that God loves your neighbor just as much as He loves you, and you are expected to try to do the same. So you have rights, but you also have responsibilities to others, and to God.

There is much about Christianity that I don’t understand – the miracles, to begin with, and the idea that only by believing in Christ can one be saved. Even God is too difficult a concept for me to begin to understand; but I don’t take my own lack of understanding as meaning that He is just a figment of our imaginations. I believe that there is a meaning to the cosmos and that we are more than electronic impulses; and if there is meaning, it seems to me that Christianity is the best way to understand it.


M.H. Johnston, January 2013 and 1/26/14

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