I constantly hear about how America has changed since my peers were young. While some changes are good – few complain about improving racial and gender equality, for example – most people complain about the increased hatred, violence, sexuality, and political intolerance. Most people attribute these changes to the nation becoming more reprobate, that is, immoral or condemned. Recent statistics appear to support this interpretation.

In this year’s Gallop Poll, only 81 percent of respondents said they believe in God. This is down 6 percent since the last poll in 2017 and is the lowest since Gallop began asking this question in 1944. In fact, the percent was consistently above 98 percent through the 1960s and above 90 percent until 2013, when the number declined to 87 percent. The largest percent of those who have stopped believing in God are young adults (68 percent). The younger generation is increasingly being brought up to not believe in God or at least to not believe faith matters. As more of our youth comes of age, they will bring their atheism and moral ambivalence with them. In other words, there has been a change in our national religious life, and there can be little doubt that this is impacting our moral life as well. People are embracing hatred, violence, sexuality, and intolerance because they increasingly have fewer moral restraints that most religions provide. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that fifty years ago, there were almost no school shootings despite much wider access to firearms. One of the factors that has changed is people’s belief in God.

This is not to suggest that all atheists are immoral or violent. Most atheists claim that they are very moral people, but their morality is based more on reason and voluntarism than on religion and fear. This is true as far as it goes, but there are three problems with a morality on this basis. First, the source of their reason may be unwholesome. Take Ayn Rand, an atheist who promoted a philosophy called “objectivism” that she believed was based on a scientifically objective reality. Applying Adam Smith’s view that an “invisible hand” guides economic activity when people pursue their own self-interest, she argued that selfishness was a virtue and that charity of any type leads to dependence. In short, her philosophy led her to reject all efforts to help our fellow human beings. Second, if your morality is based solely on human reason, it will change with the times as people discover new rights or emphasize new protections. Fifty years ago, there was near universal acceptance by people from both ends of the political spectrum that the first amendment was sacrosanct; today, many believe that the dangers of “fake news” should limit our right to free speech; in another dozen, unwelcome speech may result in punishment. Third, morality that is voluntary is quickly abandoned. When there is peer pressure, when faced with conflicting values, when a new moral imperative arises, it is only too easy to abandon the old if the only thing that was keeping you is your own willpower.

One of the benefits of religion is that its morality is more consistent and objective, especially for people of the book (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). If the source of holy books was divine inspiration, then their moral laws came from God, a source that we can trust. They are immutable and inarguable. Other than the slight variances in interpretations, the words of the Bible never change, so the morals it teaches will be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Faced with judgment and eternal reward or punishment, it is much less likely that those who are dedicated to the faith will abandon their morals. Of course, not everyone who follows a religious creed is fully dedicated to it and may try to reinterpret scripture or be willing to abandon its morality. This is especially the case for those who are cowed into obedience by fear, which provides poor motivation to follow creeds precisely. Those who are moved by love, who spiritually experience God, are more likely to be obedient without being hypocritical.

If, then, our religion and morality has declined, what are we to do about it? Some have argued we need merely vote the other party out and implement different laws. According to Gallop, more than 90 percent on the political right believe in God, compared to less than 70 percent on the political left. Yet these numbers are deceptive because of the overall cultural impact that disbelief in God is having. There have been mass shooters from both sides of the political aisle because the problem isn’t just with party or political ideology. Even many who believe in God have stopped believing in the Bible and thus may accept a voluntary, evolving, and politically expedient morality. Rather, the problem is cultural and must be addressed culturally as much as through the law. By this, I don’t just mean movies, books, television, and games, although these do have an impact on what young people believe. Primarily, it means families, churches, and schools, which are the largest purveyors of culture. If we are not teaching our children that faith is necessary, that God is good, and that His commands are unchanging, both by our actions and by our words, we will continue to get the same results we have now – the increasing reprobation of America.

Most of all, we should remember that God not only provides us with a morality we can trust; He also gives us the freedom to choose and the power to overcome. My mother used to say that an atheist is someone with no invisible means of support. Without faith, we cannot change ourselves, let alone the world, and our moral decline will continue.

© 2022 J.D. Manders