It seems self-evident that in order for a free society to succeed, the people of that society must be virtuous. How so? Well, if all the citizens of a country are free to choose where to live, what vocation to pursue, with whom to associate and how/whether to worship, then with everyone free to make all those choices, it is inevitable that conflicts, inconsistencies and disputes will naturally arise. Members of the same family may disagree on where to live. Members of the same organization may – nay, will – fail to see eye-to-eye on how to run the organization. Business partners cannot agree on strategy to grow the company. Parents and children often fail to have a meeting of the minds on career path, social entanglements and how to pass leisure time. Co-religionists have different views on methods of worship or acceptable modes of behavior. Johnny and Sally – although married for years – may come to contrary opinions on parenting methods.
It is inescapable that free choice leads to conflicting choices. Thus the success of a free society requires that its people exhibit a tremendous amount of tolerance, patience, empathy, understanding, sympathy, reserve, deference, respect, generosity and a willingness to compromise. These are the qualities that mark a virtuous person. That is, a person of high moral character, who manifests exemplary behavior, is kind and considerate to others, a true “good person,” a paragon of virtue. But note that these are exactly the qualities taught to and urged upon us by the religions to which we ascribe.
Now this observation that for a free society to succeed, its populace must be virtuous, is hardly novel. It was made at the time that the “modern world” began to conclude that a society whose inhabitants are free is a much better way to organize said society than methods heretofore tried. With rare exception, all pre-modern societies were authoritarian, totalitarian, oligarchic, monarchal or otherwise classified, in which the average person was not free to make the choices we treasure (although often take for granted). Where to live, with whom to associate, how to earn a living, even whom (and how) to worship were prescribed for almost all individuals by others. During the Enlightenment, especially in the British Isles, but then spreading to North America and gradually to much of the globe, the notion that human beings ought to be free to organize their lives themselves became widespread. The implementation of the idea has been fitful depending on time and place over the last three centuries. Moreover, in certain places where it has been implemented (even if only partly), the requirement of a virtuous citizenry has been overlooked – with awful consequences. See for example, Russia in the 1990s, or Germany in the 1920s, or perhaps Iran in the 1970s.
I take the following two precepts as given and indisputable. First, human beings have the right to be free. Whether the right is conferred by God, Nature, some cosmic force, or even a group of men who put a few lines on a piece of paper (i.e., Founders writing a Constitution), the right is absolute and indisputable. Second, in order to successfully exercise that right, the free people must be a virtuous people. The success of free societies is directly correlated to the degree of virtuosity exhibited by its people.
Now it is not my purpose here to examine – currently or historically – how virtuous are/were the American people and how well/poorly has our free society succeeded. Perhaps in a future essay. Rather I would like to consider the question: whence the virtuosity? The title of the essay suggests an answer. Certainly the Founders (most, but not all of them) believed the answer was to be found in religion. Every major religion suggests that in practicing its tenets, its adherents will manifest virtuous behavior. Which will then play a fundamental role in the exercise of their rights as free human beings – and which, consequently, will engender a harmonious society.
Thus, according to George Washington, in his famous and oft-quoted farewell address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion, and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.“ [Emphasis mine]
And Benjamin Franklin in a letter written just before the Constitutional Convention:
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
But there are countervailing opinions. Many have believed – and many still believe – that it is eminently possible to be virtuous without being at all religious. (Thomas Jefferson was a subscriber to this idea.) Theories and movements have grown up around the idea (Secular Humanism, e.g.). The evidence for its truth is mixed. Certainly history is full of exemplary characters who did not subscribe to any particular religion. Jefferson himself might be cited as an example – although recent research calls into question his virtuosity. But without naming names, I suggest that Western Civilization has witnessed a multitude of individuals who aligned with no specific religion, but who led exemplary lives.
So here are two quotes to serve as a counterbalance to Washington’s opinion. The first is due to the late Christopher Hitchens, a well-known author, described in a NY Times obituary as “a slashing polemicist in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell…” and the latter is by Matt Dillahunty, described by Wikipedia as an American atheist activist:
Hitchens: “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
Dillahunty: “I get my limits from a rational consideration of the consequences of my actions, that’s how I determine what’s moral. I get it from a foundation that says my actions have an effect on those people around me, and theirs have an effect on me, and if we’re going to live cooperatively and share space, we have to recognize that impact. And my freedom to swing my arm ends at their nose, and that I have no right to impose my will over somebody else’s will in that type of scenario. That’s where I get them from. I get them from an understanding of reality, not an assertion of authority.”
Nasty words from Hitchens, but Dillahunty presents a measured and cogent argument for a rational morality devoid of religion. Nevertheless, I believe that a religious free society has a very good chance of producing a virtuous citizenry. That is, virtue shall follow as a consequence of religious belief, thereby enhancing the chances for a successful free society. Well Hitchens, certainly, and Dillahunty, probably, would not agree. So the question remains: Can an irreligious, but free society generate the requisite virtuosity to succeed?
Perhaps not! Consider the following. Over the last seventy years, most of the countries of Western Europe have been exorcising religion from the lives of their inhabitants. The monumentally beautiful churches of France, Britain and Germany are nearly empty on any given Sunday. Has this resulted in a paucity of virtue? And is liberty in retreat in Western Europe? I cannot answer the first question, but it seems to me that the answer to the second is ‘yes.’ The peoples of Western Europe have been gradually surrendering their freedom to an authoritarian structure in Brussels known as the European Union. By the usual measures: ability to pursue a vocation of one’s choice, etc.; Western Europeans have slowly been losing their freedoms. Thus far the people of America have not made a similar choice. But in their attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens us, we have moved in that direction recently. Perhaps it is temporary. We’ll see.
To summarize, a virtuous citizenry is required to maintain a successful free society. Virtue can come as a consequence of religion. Can an irreligious society generate the requisite virtuosity? The jury is deliberating. What do you think?