The unbearable wrongness of William Barr: Secularism doesn't destroy society or moral order
If secularism truly resulted in moral deterioration, then highly secular societies would be decaying. They're not
Last month, in what Jeffrey Toobin called “the worst speech given by an Attorney General of the United States in modern history,” Attorney General William Barr offered a lecture at Notre Dame Law School in which he denounced secularism as a “social pathology” that destroys the “moral order.” After blaming secularists for a host of contemporary problems — including depression, drug overdosing, and violence — Barr explained that without belief in a “transcendent Supreme Being” and adherence to “God’s eternal law,” the “possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.” Unless we follow “God’s instruction manual,” he sermonized, there will be “real-world consequences for man and society” — consequences that are not pretty, but quite grim. For without religion, there can be no “moral culture” and society will inevitably fall prey to humanity’s “capacity for great evil.”
Such hackneyed assertions are not new. Pious people of power have been scapegoating the non-religious for centuries, characterizing non-believers as threats to the nation, and declaring that without religion, there can be no moral social order. And like those before him who have made such claims — from Newt Gingrich to the prophet Muhammed — William Barr is wrong.
When lots of people in a given society stop being religious of their own accord, such organic secularization does not result in the evaporation of morality in society, nor national decay. For instance, the most secular countries in the world today fare much better on nearly every measure of peace, prosperity, and societal well-being — including infant mortality, life expectancy, educational attainment, economic prosperity, freedom, levels of corruption, and so forth — than the most religious countries. In fact, those countries with the highest murder rates — such as Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil — are extremely religious, while those countries with the lowest murder rates — such as Iceland, Canada, Slovenia, Norway, and the Netherlands — are among the most secular nations in the world. Heck, Singapore and the Czech Republic are among the least religious nations on earth, while Brazil and the Philippines are among the most God-worshipping, yet the latter’s murder rates are over ten times higher than the former’s, and the crime rate of never-been-Christian, strongly secular Japan is 80 times lower than El Salvador’s, a Catholic nation neck-deep in worship of Barr’s “Supreme Transcendent Being.”
Similar correlations hold within our own country: on almost every measure of societal well-being — from poverty rates to STD rates to DUIs — the most secular states tend to fare the best, while the most religious tend to fare the worst. For example, among the states with the highest gun violence and murder rates, many are among the most religious — e.g., Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arkansas — while among those with the lowest gun violence and murder rates, many are among the least religious states, such as New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.