Author: Phillip Jensen


An article from kategoria magazine Issue 30.

Phillip published a number of essays of incisive social commentary in kategoria over the years. A collection of his kategoria articles was published in his book, Prodigal World: How We Abandoned God and Suffered the Consequences. This essay formed the introduction to the book.

A memory from my university days sometimes comes back to me, with a certain poignancy. I can remember being told by an earnest sociology lecturer that multiculturalism— although they used a different name for it then—was the hope for the future of the world. The idea that people could learn to live in harmony, maintaining their distinctive cultures while maintaining tolerance towards the other cultures living side-by-side, was the way forward. Assimilation was out; accepting that differences didn’t really matter was in.

What were the examples of such peaceful success stories? Yugoslavia, Fiji, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

It sounds like a bad joke, now; but it’s just one of the many let-downs of the twentieth century. Not that we often notice the effects. Certainly, living in Sydney as I do, it is easy to regard any shocking newspaper headlines as problems for other people. Australia is very peaceful. Generally, things are working: we have democracy, we have representation, we have (almost) free education and freedom of opinion. We do not die of starvation or rickets, food is plentiful, and the dollar stays more or less stable. Economically, we are better off than we were in past times, and than most people are in other places. We have gained enormous benefits from civilization, and can even advertise our country as a paradise —as, indeed, it sometimes seems to be.

But just occasionally, we notice with some discomfort that things are not as good as they might be. We seem to have lost the war on drugs, or at least we’re losing. Alcohol abuse is costing us in serious illness, not to mention lives: the World Health Organization estimates three-quarters of a million alcohol related deaths in the world per year.[1] In Australia alone, alcohol kills more than twice as many people as road traffic accidents, and accounts for twice as many patients in drug treatment agencies as any other drug.[2] 

Family and personal relationships remain vitally important for us as individuals and for the functioning of the community.[3] Nonetheless, we don’t seem to be able to prevent the collapse of stable family life. If anything, it seems to be getting worse. From 1966 to 1997, the number of couple families with dependent families decreased, while the number of one-parent families with dependents increased; and of the couple families, an increasing percentage are de facto— which, although we may not like to think it, means that they are far more likely to be unstable.[4] Children grow up in increasingly fractured families, with no models of how to conduct a successful marriage because no one around them has one. We are a people who desperately want relationships, who desperately want something real—just read the daily newspapers, or look at the plethora of magazines offering relationship advice—but it just isn’t working.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that depression is increasing. The World Health Organization predicted in 1996 that by 2020 it would be the biggest health problem in the Western world, and they don’t seem to be far wrong. By 1999, it was Australia’s biggest cause of disability; by 2001, that conclusion was considered true worldwide.[5] At a time when we are materially better off, with less disease, less poverty, indeed with so much wealth that advertisers constantly need to invent new needs for us to spend our money on, we have never been unhappier. Contrary to all our instincts, increase in wealth does not increase our happiness.[6] 

At the same time, our wealth means that we are able to be held to ransom by terrorism. The arms trade, which helped to fuel the growing world economy and brought us such wealth, has now put weapons in the hands of terrorists who were once too poor to give their discontent any outlet.[7] The ethic that put increase in wealth and the power of the West above any other consideration has resulted not only in the hatred of those we abused to gain our wealth, but has also given them the means to fight back in a war we don’t know how to win. The signs have been there for a long time; we’re just now starting to talk seriously about them.

But what is the result of all this? We don’t like the violence in the world, and we don’t like violence being used to quell it, but we can’t agree as to what we should do instead. In fact, we have little agreement in any ethical debate. Our technology has outstripped our ethical tools, and we can now do pretty much anything we can dream of. But so many of our dreams have turned into nightmares.

In peaceful Australia—as in many other parts of the Western world—we can at times feel like we’re living in paradise. But it’s a brittle paradise. Living on past capital, we don’t want to recognize that the problems still exist and are growing, and will only get worse. Like the rest of the Western world, we see the certainties of progress, growth, wealth and peace slipping away—and we need to understand why.

Roots of the problem

Historically and philosophically we are, in the West, Protestant. It is Protestantism that created the West—England, America, Germany, most of northern Europe, Australia. Protestantism is much more than simply being not Catholic; Protestantism is a different way of looking at the world, and in particular for our discussion here, having a different conception of how a society is orga­nized. It means, for instance, having a particular view of the relationship of church (being the collective activities of religion) and state. It means believing that, in practice, church and state are both secular organizations—that is, they are both concerned with and operate within this temporal world. The church looks after religious affairs in the world, and the state looks after social government in this world. The state in general upholds the rule of law, and those within the church are answerable to the law, as are all citizens. It is a workable and practical system. It is different from the Catholic system, which involves quite a different view of both church and state. The Catholic view tends to identify the kingdom of God with the church, and then seeks to give the church, with all the authority of God, authority over the state. Protestants have always held these to be different things. The kingdom of God is theocratic, ruled by the authority of God; but it is not of this world. Church and state are both secular institutions with different aims and different responsibilities; but ideally, both should conform themselves to God’s wisdom, and will work best when following God’s wisdom.

However the nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a shift from ‘secular’ to ‘secularism’. This was a part of a deliberate social movement with certain political and anti-church aims. The rationalist and atheist George Holyoak, for instance, coined the word ‘secularism’ to be a less negative-sounding alternative to ‘atheism’, but meaning essentially the same thing. He and other freethinkers like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant worked to promote an atheistic society, consciously anti-Christian in belief and morality.[8] The secularist movement, in effect, exchanged the separation of church and state for separation of God and state. No longer were church and state to be both secular institutions, one to run religious affairs and the other to run daily gov­ernmental affairs, both within a Christian framework; now ‘secular’ was defined as ‘atheistic’, and the state, being secular, would separate itself not just from the church but from the Christian reality behind it.

And so Western society, or at least that part of it that came to control public discourse, dispensed with God, and replaced God with man. Man, the ratio­nal machine, would run the world, which was rational, mechanistic and closed. This was not a world of miracles or metaphysics. It was a world of mate­rial, in which the answers to all questions could be discovered by human effort alone—and if they could not, then the question was meaningless or irrelevant. Romantics and spiritualists fought a rearguard action against such materialism, but like Christianity, were marginalised to the edges of respectable society.

By the twentieth century, the intellectuals of the West looked not just to a secularist (meaning atheist) society, but to a scientific society. The ‘war’ between science and religion—a war generated by the atheist rationality that sought to remove religion from respectable intellectual pursuit[9]—had been won by science. Science was the embodiment of useful, sensible, rational ways of doing things. It was time for the scientists, unfettered by superstition or reactionary emotionalism, to take over.

Lest I be accused of being just such a superstitious reactionary, I would like to praise the rise of science. Science is one of the best things to happen to the modern world, and it has been marvellously successful. Two things in particular about science stand out as worthy of praise. First, its resultant technology: scientific research has provided us with the continued ability to manipulate the material universe and master its forces. It has given us tremendous power, much of which has been used for good. It has given ability to understand, build, create, and protect, and billions of humans have benefited from the achievements science has made possible.

Secondly, science is praiseworthy in the honesty of its revision of ideas in the face of evidence. Science and scientists are committed to this ideal, and what’s more, keep on doing it. Science calls for us to conform our theories to the information, and not the other way around. This honesty and brutal determination to stick to reality is probably its greatest achievement.

It is not surprising that science has been seen, throughout the twentieth century, as the ideal model of intellectual pursuit. By the 1960s, it seemed that all academic disciplines were clamouring to be known as a science— history, economics, linguistics. To be considered a science was to make a sociological appeal for authority. Politicians wishing to support their policies, lobby groups with various social or environmental aims, business interests, social engineers; all appealed to science to back their claims. It was a powerful ploy; science did hold social authority, and with good reason.

Even so, the limitations of science are rarely discussed and often unappreciated by the very scientists who practise it. Philosophically, the limitations should always have been recognized (and originally were explicit)—science studies the workings of the material world, and so cannot make pronouncements one way or the other on God, metaphysics, ethics and so on; it certainly cannot declare them meaningless. These ideas have been discussed extensively elsewhere and I will not go into them here.[10] But more than that, science and its genuine claims for factual authority have been corrupted because of its usefulness in polemics of all sorts.

We are used to science being appealed to by every side in political debates. The vast business interests involved in energy production can find scientific research that discredits global warming while environmental groups cite studies that support the theory.[11] Science is used to prove any number of things about the effects of smoking tobacco, and despite all claims of honesty, there still seems to be a strange correlation between studies funded by the tobacco industry and pro-smoking results.[12] It is not surprising that, in the debate over genetically modified foods, it seems that scientific arguments are having little effect on the general public’s mood.[13] People just don’t trust scientific claims any more. The tendency of lobby groups, journalists and even funds-seeking scientists to take tentative scientific conclusions and turn them into headline-making definite pronouncements means that too many times, science has been seen to prove whatever anyone wants it to. The very power of science as an authority has led to its corruption in the public view.

Moreover, science and its consequent technology have brought us much that is distasteful: dirty rivers, industrial accidents, dangerous radiation. While time after time the advances of science have enabled us to fix some short-term problems (demand for energy, food, consumer goods), we have created long-term problems along with it (poor air quality, erosion, pollution). In the public view, science too often represents faceless, heartless, corporate rationalism with no concern for ordinary people. It is interesting that in current popular culture, the romantic and intuitive side often battles against the rationalist. Consider Star Wars, in which Luke turns off his computerized targeting system, trusting his feelings and the Force; or the X-Files, where the intuitive Mulder was constantly found to be right in his irrational opposition to the scientific Scully.

But one area in which the real value of science has been totally distorted, and by the very apologists who claim to be defending science against its enemies, is the highly irrational use of science to battle religion. Atheist ‘defenders’ of science are very quick to grab scientific hypotheses to disprove God, and rarely (if ever) retract their statements if their hypotheses are found wanting. The war against religion is in the background of all popular science discussion. Try finding a book on evolutionary theory that does not at some point deride creationism, or spend an inordinate amount of time ‘proving’ that evolution is a fact, not a theory. Has any television show on the history of science ever mentioned Galileo without accusing the church of opposing science? The polemical use of science to discredit God and Christianity is so common it is hard to imagine popular science without it.[14] 

Rejection of God

The rejection of God in science is all part of our culture’s slow move away from Christianity as the dominant philosophy of Western civilization. The eighteenth century saw the move from Christianity, with its emphasis on the special revelation of God in the Bible, to deism, which denied special revelation in favour of general revelation. It was a move that many Christians thought they could live with, for there is general revelation; it is quite true that God, the creator, demonstrates something of himself in the world. But the shift made it that much easier to slide from deism out of Christianity altogether. Within Christianity, liberal theology did its part by rejecting the old, biblical roots of the religion, keeping only those doctrines consistent with human reason—or at least, consistent with the reason of whatever human happened to be writing.[15] 

So the Western intellect gradually moved away from Christian thought. The problem was, it was assumed that we could keep Christian morality without revelation. Then it was thought that we could keep any workable morality without revelation. Reason and common sense alone would enable us to run an ethical, fair, just, compassionate society in which people’s rights were respected and evil not allowed. It was thought that, without an external authority, human thought alone could create a liveable world. We were wrong.

Cultural shifts take a long time, and they are rarely pursued rationally. People may embrace new ideas, but will keep their old assumptions. The framers of the United States Constitution may not have been explicitly Christian— their language is more deistic than Christian—but intentionally or not, they still believed in a Christian form of deism. They regarded it as self-evident that all men are created equal. They had moved far enough away from specifically Christian ideas to put their trust in a more generic God rather than Jesus Christ; but it was still ‘God’, not ‘the gods’. It was certainly not the Force (or an eighteenth-century counterpart). The Christian framework survived long after its particular tenets had been denied. Even now, in this rationalistic and multicultural age, we have debates about the separation of church and state—not the separation of temple and state, or mosque and state. The Christian idea still frames our discussion.

Nonetheless, it can’t last forever. Christianity has been overtly rejected so often, its specific claims denied and its basis criticized, that in general it is no longer a publicly accepted philosophy. Even its lingering assumptions about the value of human life and concepts of virtue are being worn away. Over time, if the basis of Christianity is denied often enough, such assumptions won’t hold water. This is despite the fact that the majority of the population probably still holds to the basically Christian worldview—but those who control public discussion, in the media, books, film, drama, art, television and so on, have rejected Christianity in favour of an atheistic or agnostic alternative.

But the alternative creates a monster.

A doomed project

Once society is set up on atheist, ratio­nalistic and scientific grounds, it must fail. It is not just that ours happened to fail, or that with different leaders or states it might not have failed; an atheis­tic society will, inevitably, fail. There are several reasons.

We are not machines

The world, and people in particular, simply do not operate on the basis of measurable, reductionist explanations. It is a wrong assumption that the methodology of
examining the inanimate can be applied to the animate (let alone the human). To some
extent, we have recognized the danger inherent in studying animate beings (such as animals) in the same way as we study the inanimate. We now reject techniques such as vivisection, cutting up live animals as if they had no more feeling than lumps of rock. But we still have some way to go in recognizing that we make the same mistake in thinking that humans can be studied, and understood properly, as animals. When researchers evaluate humans, they have a subject that can look back, and evaluate the researcher. It is not surprising that using such methods the level of certainty decreases as the subjects of investigation move from animals, to humans, and to groups of humans. And yet we still think we can use reductionistic scientific method to understand, or dismiss something greater than humans —such as God.

Utilitarianism does not work

The scientific society was bound to fail because it brings metaethical assumptions back in, even to deny metaethics. For instance, to say that humans are only animals, or that animals have no rights, or that they do have rights, is to make ethical statements. As soon as animals or humans are valued differently from atoms, ethical values have been introduced.

What’s more, such ethics are arational— where do they come from? What is the (scientific) basis for such a judgement?

Utilitarianism seems to be an easy answer because it sounds good. Its basis for ethics is quite simple: the good thing to do is that which creates happiness for the greatest number of people. Whether the issue is pornography, censorship, drugs, shooting rooms, experiments on embryos, marriage or sex, utilitarianism says we do not need to turn to religious scruples to find the right answer; we decide on the basis of what works best. What approach actually makes human lives happiest?

At face value, utilitarian ethics are hard to argue against. Of course we want to make people’s lives better. Any society that deliberately works against the well-being of its citizens would appear monstrous. But we do not need to scratch very deep to find some glaring weaknesses with utilitarianism as a theory. For one, just what is happiness? Is it really the highest good for people? How many people need to be happy to have a success? What if, for a significant number of people, torture makes them happy? How unhappy do the minority have to be before the happiness of the majority is questioned?

There have been many discussions of utilitarian ethics on various levels; I do not intend to cover all the theory here. Rather, I would like to point out a few strictly practical problems with utilitarian ethics.[16] The appeal of utilitarianism is largely in its practicality; we don’t have to work out on some grand scale what is right and wrong, just what works best for our society. But it is precisely at that point that utilitarian ethics fail.

If utilitarianism were to work properly, we would have to be free to experiment on people and on society to determine what works best, what brings about the best results. But this we cannot do, for societies are not the sort of things you can experiment on. I am not referring at this point to ethical concerns about exploiting people, or informed consent and so on—although they are a strong enough barrier. No, there are very practical problems that prevent a scientific approach to the social good, or the application of utilitarian ethics.

  1. We cannot have a control group when running tests on society. We cannot test freedom from censorship, or a change in sexual morality, on just one isolated part of society, keeping the rest of it pure. Of course, one part of society could be locked up—but again, apart from ethical concerns, this will not work, for then the society being studied would have been radically changed. Society is not like agriculture or petri dishes, where one area can be sown with one organism and another with another, and results compared. Society may be sown with a new idea or practice, but not under scientifically controlled conditions.
  1. Related to the above problem, and even more important, is that society can’t go back once the experiment is over. An experimental field can be re­ploughed, and taken back to what it was. A petri dish can be thrown out once it has been used, and a new one prepared. That can’t be done with society. Once we’ve tried a social experiment, we’re stuck with the results it has produced, no matter how disastrous.
  1. In any case, the idea that we do try out new ideas as social experiments is an illusion—for even when they don’t work, we do nothing to stop them. We don’t have a scientific attitude to society; neither do our legislators, or social engineers, or media commentators. Having discarded theological considerations in determining our behaviour, we now simply do what we like, regardless of whether it works or not. Consider the wholesale abandonment of life-long commitment in marriage, as one example. Study after study has shown that cohabitation as trial marriage doesn’t work.[17] Marriages after cohabitation are far more likely to break down than marriages conducted the traditional way. Cohabitation itself is demonstrably bad for people, on the whole; both men and women suffer more stress, less satisfaction, their children do worse at school and everyone’s health suffers compared to traditional marriages. But we are making no effort to stop or discourage the practice. Neither social education, nor peer pressure, nor public example, nor tax breaks, nor any other way of influencing public behaviour—in fact, all the ways that were used to make cohabitation acceptable in the first place—are being tried to stop this now demonstrably harmful practice.

The scientific society—the society that is meant to be run by rational, trial and error principles, not by abstract religious morality—has failed. The society that was meant to adopt ethics based on the outcome of behaviours and whether they helped or harmed people—that society has never emerged. It was always bound to fail, for the idea is unworkable. Without divine foreknowledge, we cannot know in advance what behaviour will hurt or harm society—and even when we find out, we don’t care. The scientific experiment has been pro­foundly irrational, and has not led to a better society. All it has done is unhinged the philosophical basis for a society that did work, whether we liked it or not—the theological one.

One dubious, but undeniable effect of the social experiment that was the scientific society is that it has been quite deliberately, and quite irrationally, anti-God. This has always been part of the agenda in creating a scientific, secularist society. It is an unnecessary bias, forced on science by prejudice, but it is definitely there. Evolutionists such as the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins may have been at loggerheads for years over their competing theories, but they stood shoulder-to-shoulder against any idea of creation. Science has for the past two centuries been consistently side-tracked by the anti-Christian bias of certain prominent scientists. Sometimes, after the event, it emerges that the opposition to Christianity had its root in private, personal immorality—such as the example of Margaret Mead, whose ‘scientific’ data supporting an anti-Christian view was found to be largely a matter of fraud and mistake.[18] It is, ultimately, a self-defeating attitude, for it is belief in God—the Christian, Protestant God in particular— that gave birth to experimental science, the collective effort to discover the working of an understandable and rational universe, as an activity worthy of human endeavour.[19] The universe in Protestant Christianity is something we can study, in the expectation of discovering its workings. Moreover, if we want to discover the workings of the universe, we must observe it and experiment upon it, for we cannot work out from abstract first principles how a freely creative God must have done things.

So, unlike medieval rationalism, that sought to unravel the necessary world from given first principles, and unlike Buddhism or Hinduism which see the material world as a chaotic prison to be escaped from, it was Protestant Christianity which saw the world as God’s good and orderly creation, and thus gave the Western world science.

The shape of failure

We have tried the experiment of constructing a rational, science-based society. We have created the secularist society dreamed of by nineteenth-century freethinkers, run by scientists as the greatest intellectual authority, as Thomas Huxley wanted. We have a society based on utilitarian ethics, as Bertrand Russell advocated. We have dispensed with the Christian rationale for morality, as George Eliot wished. And so we have created a just, sane society based on truth and reason, in which all humans are considered equal and treated well in a healthy, happy society. We wish.

What we have actually created is a crazy society of fractured relationships and broken people, with little hope that there is any truth or that anyone knows it.


One thing we have created is postmodernism—which is only the logical extension of a philosophy based on atheism. Postmodernism points out that if there is no external reference point against which to judge morality, ratio­nality, meaning and truth, then we ourselves—each one of us—are the ultimate arbiters of what is true for us. If there is no ultimate right or wrong, then it comes down to my judgment as to whether my actions are right or wrong. I only have my own opinion as to what is truth or falsity, or beauty or ugliness, or anything else. What else can I base it on? Your judgement? The collective judgement? Why should it be any better than mine?[20] 

Postmodernism is the implosion of rationalism, and it was inevitable once people really started thinking about the basis for their secularist beliefs. Rationalism caved in on itself—for why value rationalism above, say, intuition? Romanticism wins—after all, it feels so much nicer. Meaning becomes flexible—after all, the meaning that I perceive is the only one available to me. What you meant is a different thing entirely, and I don’t have access to that. The result can seem ridiculous, when we spend more time reading between the lines than reading them, but why should we not if we are the only arbiters of the meaning of a text? To the horror of scientists, even scientific ‘truth’ is now questioned, with its inbuilt assumptions about the possibility of objective observation and conclusions.[21] 

Postmodernism contains a profound truth, one which we can’t easily evade. Modernism was inadequate. We cannot build an edifice of truth upon reason alone, for who is to say we can trust our reason? Ourselves? Postmodernism is right—there is no foundation, no centre; if we ourselves are the only bastions of truth, then there are as many truths as there are people.

However postmodernism is only right as an analysis of the universe without God. But in this universe, postmodernists come across a fundamental problem: for there is truth; there is meaning, and we can communicate it—indeed we do so every day. Postmodernism is right in crit­icizing moderns for thinking that this daily practice of believing in truth, justice, communication, meaning and reality makes any sense without an external basis—without God. If we want to hold on to these things—and we must, for we know they are real, and we cannot live without them—then we must give up on the foolishness of atheistic secularism. It renders us, ultimately, unable even to talk about the things that really matter. We cannot have any real ethical discussion on the basis of secularist philosophy, for there is no ultimate starting point on which we agree. When is a baby a baby and not just a foetus? How do we tell? Why do we care? The most basic questions about who we are as humans must remain unanswered. If all we have are ourselves—accidentally intelligent animals in a meaningless universe—the answers to these questions are just too unpalatable. They make us into nothing.

 What is more, if there is nothing more to the universe than ourselves and our opinions, then evil is only a matter of opinion. But we know that some things are evil. The tyranny of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao—all, by the way, utilitarians trying to create the secularist scientific society—were evil. The barbarity of Idi Amin was evil. Paedophilia, pack rape, kidnapping and drug pushing are evil. But we cannot with any consistency call these evils ‘evil’ when there is no absolute, but only personal values. If we only have ourselves as the absolute arbiters of everything, then we only have individual opinions and no basis on which to judge them.

We have failed to run a just society on a utilitarian basis. We deny the existence of virtues; we insist that there are only ‘good outcomes’, and we seem incapable of producing those. Questions of life and death have no way of being decided, because the outcomes are things we don’t and can’t know. And so our society falls back to the only basis for value it is able to maintain in this material world, the only absolute way of determining what is good and bad, worthy or unworthy—economics.


The utilitarian failure has left us with the economic society. The only strategy governments seem to have in the Western world is economic; their goal is to expand the nation’s economy. It’s fairly simple to see why this is the overriding strategy, for what else is there? A President who tries to justify a war on the basis of moral right causes untold division, and not only because we can’t agree on what moral right is; he’s also just plain not believed. “Don’t tell me about sweat, blood, tears and toil; it’s all about the price of oil”, sings Billy Bragg.[22] Governments simply are not in the business of moral right and wrong any more; they can’t be, in a world where such discussions simply make no sense. But money—that’s something we can agree on. Better still, we can put a number to it, so we can know when we’re succeeding. More money is good, less is bad— that’s what we have been reduced to.[23] 

It’s an illusion, of course, not least because more money does not actually make us happier.[24] But it’s still something to cling to. It gives a nice, clear basis on which to make decisions. As economic beings, we don’t have to worry about the impossible question of good and bad, just profit and loss. It’s definite. We can understand the answers, and we enjoy the perks of winning the game.

The result is that the only things with value are the things that make money. Work is only valuable and worthwhile if it makes money. Volunteerism has been eroded as a result—we see this in the wholesale withdrawal of volunteers from charities, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, political parties, community activities and so on. The idea that a person might give his or her life to voluntary work simply because it’s a good thing to do, because of the non-economic good it does to others—that just doesn’t work any more.

In particular, the volunteer work of a mother with her family is especially downgraded. Looking after someone else’s family can, possibly, be an exception—if the child carer is qualified and, of course, paid to do so. That’s a fulfilling career. But a mother who gives up paid work to look after her own children, for no better reason than that she thinks it’s good for them—she’s looked down upon for not working. She’s not even in the running for those considered ‘successful’. For that, she has to be earning money.  

The trend towards viewing money as the only effective value is something obvious and lamentable in society. The examples are numerous: the mutual soci­eties which floated as companies because the idea of simply existing to help people, not to make money, wasn’t valid any more; the governments that are considered successful only when the
country experiences economic growth; the campaigns by environmentalists to have ‘environmental cost’ put on the balance sheet—and the problems of working out how to do so, because it’s not the kind of value that goes by numbers. Various social theorists have tried to promote ‘social capital’ as a real concept— the intangible value of things like relationships, family ties and the strength they provide people—but we really don’t know what to do with these concepts.[25] We can’t give them numbers, they don’t fit well into graphs and statistics, and they don’t fit into our pockets at the end of the day. So how can they be real?

We resent this development in society, because we know that people and fami­ lies and trust and so on do have value, quite independently of the money they have or earn; but we don’t know how to measure or recognize or even really speak about such value. The Australian Senate had to put a financial cost on marriage breakdown before it could be understood as a truly bad thing.[26] 

Perhaps the perfect example of the economic basis of our values is the inability of our governments to deal with the problem of gambling. Gambling is a terrible industry that ruins people, families and communities. But it makes money—in particular, it makes a lot of money for the government. In the only scale that counts, gambling is a winner. So here we have something overwhelmingly recognized as harmful—even by our government representatives themselves— but there is nothing they can or will do about it.

The values provided by economics are empty ones. The only thing we can agree on as a ‘good’— making money—is one not really worth pursuing. All the other things—the values we need, involving people and how to treat them, of life, love and liberty and how best to protect them, the values of community and working together and helping each other—all the things that really matter—we can’t make sense of any more. Society has gone for too long without any coherent teaching or framework on which to ground them. We are groping blindly for something to hang values on. The exodus of children from public schools to a large extent reflects this. Their parents are voting with their children’s feet—voting against the so-called ‘value-free’ secularist education the public schools provide, which is not so much free of values as free of any coherent framework in which to have them.

We do talk about other values, of course, and use them to promote some things as good and others as bad. We don’t put absolutely everything in money terms; that is just the dominant value. But the other ‘values’ we hold turn out to be just as empty, because they mean whatever we want—or rather, whatever the strongest lobby group wants. We turn to those now.

Tolerance and tyranny

While our only real and quantifiable values are economic, we still talk of certain intangibles as moral standards. They can be summarized by the catch-cry ‘toler­ance’. In itself, tolerance is a well-defined concept with a worthy history. In the absence of a coherent ethical framework, however, it is easily perverted. The tolerant society has become a shouting match between lobby groups, with the loudest voices winning.

Tolerance is a good thing to cultivate, but it only makes sense in the context of an agreed moral framework. For what is it, precisely, that we are called upon to tolerate? What are the boundaries of tolerance? When are we allowed to become intolerant?[27] 

The problem is revealed in tolerance’s opposite. As the flip-side of our pretend value, we have a pretend condemnation: ‘un-Australian’. It is a totally vacuous condemnation in a tolerant society, but it is still the ultimate put-down. But if multiculturalism, the practical clothing of tolerance, is true, then there is no such thing as ‘Australian’ to start with. If every culture in our country is to be accepted as valid, then they are all as Australian as each other. If we accept all cultures as having a right to exist, if this is how Australia is made up, then any one of them is Australian, and no member of any culture can be ‘un-Australian’. But of course, even in our world of pretend values, people don’t really believe all cultures have a right to exist. People want to exclude fascists or communists or racists or paedophiles or fundamentalists. From time to time, all of us in different ways want to condemn someone. We want to exclude certain cultures that we don’t want. But when no one culture is allowed to be seen as bad, we are driven to the meaningless criticism, ‘un-Australian’.

But what is Australian? And who decides? Is a billionaire un-Australian for trying to avoid paying taxes? In that case, any Australian is un-Australian. Are cricket players who sledge each other un-Australian? They are more likely to be representative of Australians, sadly, if they do. Just who is un-Australian? We don’t know, because we’re supposed to be tolerant of everyone. But we don’t want to be tolerant of all; and the more that certain lobby groups control our ideas, the less tolerant we all become. Tolerance sounds good; but its outworking is that the strongest and sneakiest win—the ones who know best how to manipulate public opinion.

To have tolerance as our primary ethic is a pretence, and a dangerous one. It means there is no universal basis for excluding anyone any more, and so any group smart enough can potentially grab power—and so reverse any ‘toler­ance’ they don’t happen to like. Interest groups are doing it to us all the time; affecting public opinion not on the basis of evidence, or good arguments, or reason, but simply because to oppose them is not ‘tolerant’. And so we end up with a mishmash of opinions that make little sense, and that can be utterly intolerant.

Let us draw together the threads. We have seen in general terms that the problems of Western society can be related to an underlying philosophical loss of direction. We have been travelling down this path for a long time, and we are now suffering the consequences. At this point, it is natural that I would turn to the Bible for a solution.

Doesn’t the Bible have a solution?

The Bible does indeed have a solution, which most people would be aware of, but that is not the main point I wish to make. What many would not be aware of is that the Bible said this would happen. The Bible has always accurately diagnosed humans and how they are likely to behave. In particular, the Bible has said for thousands of years that when people turn away from God, they do not become independent, free-thinking atheists; instead, it predicts, they will become confused, intolerant, close-minded peo­ple who treat each other badly.

The New Testament, for instance, speaks of people, who “although they knew God, did not honour him as God or give thanks to him”. The intellectual effect of this refusal to accept the reality of God is inevitable: “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools”. What is even more telling is what the Bible predicts about the behaviour that will follow:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator … And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.[28] 

So Christians are not surprised. In fact, while we can say our social experiment with atheism has been an horrific failure, incidentally it has been a very successful test of the truth of the Bible. What the Bible predicted has happened. As people turn from God, they become materialists and hedonists, to their own hurt. To the hurt of all of us.

The Bible also gives the solution, but until we start to see the problem, our society can’t begin to be healed. Until we recognize that the basis of our problem lies in our turning away from God, we probably will not listen to the Bible or even suspect that it has anything worthwhile to say. Nonetheless, the answer is there, and is freely available.

[1] National Drug Strategy, Alcohol in Australia: Issues and Strategies, July 2001, p. 19.

[2] National Drug Strategy, ibid., pp. 7-8.

[3] Apart from obvious personal/anecdotal evidence, some more technical studies demonstrate this. For recent studies on the importance of marriage and children, see Philip Hughes and Alan Black, ‘Social capital and family life’, paper presented to the 8th AIFS conference, February 2003; Michael Shields and Mark Wooden, ‘Marriage, children and subjective well-being’, paper presented to the Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Melbourne, February 2003; and Jody Hughes and Wendy Stone, ‘Family change and community life: exploring the links’, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Research Paper no. 32, April 2003. There are a multitude of such studies available.

[4] Data from To Have and to Hold: a report of the inquiry into aspects of family services, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canberra, 1998, pp. 6-12.

[5]  ‘The Invisible Disease: Depression’, National Institute of Mental Health, visible.cfm; see also ‘The World Today’, ABC News Online, au/worldtoday/s66594.htm.

[6]  See Ben Cooper, ‘After the wind: the pursuit of happiness through economic progress’, kategoria, 1999, 13, pp. 9-24.

[7] As John Ralston Saul has pointed out, it made economic sense in the 70s to expand the arms trade—one of the problems with basing decisions upon economics. See my review of Saul’s books in the forthcoming collection of essays.

[8] See Warren Sylvester Smith, The London Heretics 1870-1914, Constable, London, 1967, especially pp. 27-83. The coining of ‘secularism’ is similar to Thomas Henry Huxley’s coining of the word ‘agnostic’ as a nicer word than ‘atheist’ and thus helpful for his anti-Christian agenda. Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, London, 1997, p. 249.

[9] See Adrian Desmond, ibid, vols I and II; also Kirsten Birkett, Unnatural Enemies, Matthias Media, Sydney, 1998 for a summary of this process. David Starling, in ‘Thomas Huxley and the ‘warfare’ between science and religion: mythology, politics and ideology’, kategoria, 1996, 3, pp. 33-50 discusses a particular and crucial battle in the battle for scientific supremacy.

[10] See Birkett, Unnatural Enemies, op. cit. for an introduction to this discussion.

[11] As seen in the surprising furor causedby Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998. Readers of New Scientist magazine will be familiar with the political manoeuvres on this issue; for an index of many articles, see the page on climate change, http://www.newscientist. com/hottopics/climate/.

[12] See, for instance, ‘Controversy over passive smoking danger’, New Scientist, 16th May 2003, available on the New Scientist website http://www.newscientist. com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993737, along with links to similar articles.

[13] Articles such as ‘GM food safety fear ‘based on distortion’, New Scientist, 25th June 2003, http://www.newscientist .com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993874 or ‘GM food risk to humans “very low”’, New Scientist, 21st July 2003, print.jsp?id=ns99993959.

[14]  For a discussion of the ubiquity of religious discussion in popular science, see Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Darwinism, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2001, especially Part 3.

[15] To trace this kind of shift in Western thought, see books such as R. C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996; and W. C. Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God went Wrong, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1996. Danielle Scarratt reviews both of these books in ‘How strong is your faith in reason?’, kategoria, 2001, 23, pp. 65-87.

[16] The classic text on utilitarian ethics is, of course, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, available in several modern reprints. An excellent outline of utilitarian ethics with arguments for and against is J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973.

[17] Some recent studies are Michael Shields and Mark Wooden, ‘Marriage, children and subjective well-being’, op. cit; and David de Vaus, Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston, ‘Does premarital cohabitation affect the chances of marriage lasting?’, paper presented at the 8th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Melbourne, February 2003, available on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website, www. There are many more studies reported in To Have and to Hold, op. cit.

[18] See my essay in the forthcoming book on Mead; for some other interesting stories, see Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, Harper and Row, New York, 1988.

[19] See Colin A. Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions between Science and Faith, IVP, Leicester, 1985, especially chapter 4; Donald M. McKay, The Clockwork Image: A Christian Perspective on Science, IVP, London, 1974; Gary B. Deason, ‘Reformation theology and the mechanistic conception of nature’, in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (eds), God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986, pp. 167-191.

[20] For a secular(ist) introduction to postmodernism, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990; a Christian discussion is Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 1994.

[21] See the horrified responses encapsulated within books such as Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.

[22] Billy Bragg, ‘The price of oil’, on Sounds of dissent: the politics of music, produced by New Internationalist, 2003.

[23] For an excellent discussion of this, see Peter Kaldor, ‘The economic point of view’, kategoria, 2000, 17, pp. 11-24.

[24]  Many commentators, even economists, are beginning to recognize this. Ross Gittins, an economist who writes regularly for The Sydney Morning Herald, has published a number of articles along these lines. See for instance ‘More delivers us much less’, 17th September 2003.

[25]  If you are interested in the idea of social capital, see papers such as Wendy Stone, ‘Measuring social capital’, Research Paper no. 24, Australian Institute of Family Studies, February 2001; or Ian Winter ‘Towards a theorised understanding of family life and social capital’, Working Paper no. 21, Australian Institute of Family Studies, April 2000. Both are available from the Australian Institute of Family Studies website,

[26] To Have and to Hold, op. cit., p. xiv. 27 See Phil Miles, ‘Of truth, tolerance and tyranny’, kategoria, 2001,22, pp. 7-27 and 23, pp. 5-26. 28 Romans 1:18-32.

[27] See Phil Miles, ‘Of truth, tolerance and tyranny’, kategoria, 2001, 22, pp. 7-27 and 23, pp. 5-26.

[28] Romans 1:18-32.

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