Morality is the universal understanding that binds human beings together, and in doing so directs the life of each and every individual. Like language, it originates in the distant past, and is slightly modified by every generation, as each cohort adjusts to life’s changing circumstances.
It is the system of values that defines in the best interests of the community what behaviour by the individual is right and what is wrong. In doing so, it reconciles the self-interest of the individual with the collective interest. To knowingly violate a moral injunction is to place oneself against the wishes and the moral and physical force of one’s entire community – not something that anyone other than a psychopath can easily do. As small a thing as our reluctance to push into a queue illustrates the power of morality over the individual.
While the natural function of morality is entirely beneficial, its emotional power over the individual has always been exploited by those individuals seeking to gain dominance over others. Given that the primary function of morality is to control human behaviour, its potential utility in this respect is obvious. Even more than violence, morality is, in fact, the principal method whereby humans are able to gain control over one another. Throughout history, it has accordingly formed the basis of ideologies or belief systems, whether religious or secular.
Aware that humans will respond positively only to a moral authority that they perceive to be legitimate, and knowing that every community has an already existing, and so legitimate moral code, religions and those political ideologies wishing to establish their dominance over a society, have first to establish their moral authority, and have it accepted locally as superior to the existing one.
To this end, each of the Western religions reaches into the heavens for their superior moral authority. They claim to be the divinely appointed agent of an omnipotent, highly moral, and supernatural being, intent on raising humanity to His universal moral level. The religion then repacks the local moral code, adding whatever novel moral injunctions it believes will assist in obtaining its objectives.
Modern secular political ideologies, on the other hand, wishing to establish their dominance over society, but in a secular era, are unable to utilise the blatantly supernatural. They are, however, able to take advantage of the fact that after 2000 years of religious indoctrination, Western society has come automatically to view morality as being transcendent, universal, and objective, as taught by the religions, rather than as solely the secular product of the earthly mind. Accordingly, in order to establish the superiority of their moral authority over that of any earth-bound moral code, each ideology encourages the assumption that their moral code is similarly transcendent and objective, out there in the universe as well as on earth, so to speak. By doing so implicitly, and deliberately not drawing attention to the supernatural assumptions underlying such belief, they are able to generate in their adherents the impression that the ideology is secular, but at the same time instil in them the moral conviction that leads them to believe that they are possessed of absolute moral certainty and truth.
By controlling and manipulating a society’s moral beliefs, an ideology controls society’s behaviour, and by controlling its behaviour it controls society itself.
To do this successfully, every ideology, religious or supposedly secular, requires everybody in a society to hold the same beliefs, so far as they relate to the ideology’s belief system. Diversity of opinion, let alone dissenting opinion, is anathema to ideologies, as it is to all authoritarian systems. Their very authority, after all, is based upon the collective public belief in their moral legitimacy. To express a contrary or dissenting moral opinion, is to not only question their dogma, but their very moral authority.
The religious demand that everybody hold the same spiritual beliefs, prevailed in Western society until the church’s authority was gradually eroded, starting in approximately the 15th century, by the rationality and the diversity of opinion encouraged by the development of science. Diversity of opinion, and the toleration of dissent was further promoted by liberal democracy in the 19th and the 20th century, together with the freedom of speech, the rule of law, contested elections, and the other constitutional democratic principles.
By the late 20th century, it seemed that humanity’s predilection for magical thinking was finally coming to an end, to be replaced by secular rationality, liberal democracy in the political sphere, and broad tolerance and diversity in the cultural. Unfortunately, this increasingly seems not to be the case, and Western society appears rather to be rejecting secularity and individualistic liberal democracy and reverting to the spiritualistic, authoritarian, and collectivistic type of belief system that characterised its primitive past.
This is signified, among other things, by the unanimity of opinion that is once again being increasingly demanded of the individual publicly. Another indicator is the highly moralistic and spiritual tone being adopted in respect of Western politics, culture, and education. The diversity of belief and opinion that liberal democracy’s secularity had encouraged, is also increasingly being closed down. Acceptance of the possibility of moral fallibility, which characterises secular morality, and which allowed modern Western civilisation to discard over time certain of its own more primitive moral beliefs, such as those concerning capital punishment, homophobia, and slavery, is once again being denied. And anyone daring to dissent from the current, publicly declared, and supposedly objective popular moral beliefs is perceived to be not only in intellectual error, but in a debased moral condition, similar to the religious concept of mortal sin.
The degree of rationality and secularity that characterised Western thought over the 19th and 20th centuries, enabling the rise of liberal democracy, was in all likelihood an anomaly, a transient historical curiosity, last witnessed 2500 years ago in pre-Platonic Greece. Humanity’s fundamental predisposition, it seems, is spiritual rather than secular, resulting in dissatisfaction with reality and a constant, idealistic search for Utopia.
Today, in a secular era, political ideologies, and above all the evangelical political ideologies, are the form that modern religion takes. The innate human preference for magical thinking accommodates them, and their demand for conformity of belief clearly identifies them.