I had an interesting discussion with Matt Hadro on EWTN’s “Morning Glory” radio show about the rising number of “nones” in our country. When asked for their religious affiliation, “nones” do not identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, but rather check the “none” box. They tend to be dismissive of “organized” religion and generally believe that it is acceptable to construct a purely personal religious view and understanding of God.
Indeed, we live in times when many people make light of the fact that others do not believe in God or relegate their faith to a solely personal and largely irrelevant aspect of life. This attitude exists even among many Catholics who, though believers themselves, don’t seem to be overly concerned that others are not. What seems to be of greater concern to most believers—Catholics included—is that a person be “nice.” If a person is determined to be “nice,” little else seems to matter.
Frankly, all of us should be concerned by the rise of unbelief in our culture, whether it is atheism, agnosticism, “none-ism,” indifference, or the rampant secularism that relegates God to the margins. We should be concerned because unbelief on a wide scale (as is the case today) is not only unhealthy for a culture, it is dangerous to it.
This danger is fairly obvious when one considers that unbelievers (and most “under-believers” such as “nones”) think that they answer to no one. When one no longer acknowledges that God exists and sees everything, “reinvents” God, selects what he likes from what God has commanded, or doesn’t understand that he will ultimately have to answer to God for what he has or has not done, it is easy to ignore important aspects of the moral life.
Realizing that we will one day answer to God is an important reminder that we are not a law unto ourselves. The knowledge that we will not ultimately escape if we treat others with contempt, engage in serious injustice, live unchastely, or indulge greed, is an important curb on sin (or at least a call to repentance).
This observation does not mean that every unbeliever or “under-believer” lives a reprobate life. There are atheists who live exemplary lives, who exhibit natural virtues, whether they do so because it is to their benefit or simply because they have some ethical sense that comports with the right reason.
But, other things being equal, having large numbers of unbelievers who do not think that they are ultimately accountable for what they do or fail to do is never healthy to good order, morality, or virtue.
Further, when belief is lost by many, so is a common moral reference point. The Judeo-Christian moral view formed the basis for modern law, justice, constitutional rights, and ethics. While sectarian differences obviously existed in the country for 200 years before this rise of unbelief, there was basic agreement on the essential moral issues, based on a biblical worldview. The rise of unbelief has caused this moral consensus to break down. In its place there has arisen a tyranny of relativism, in which numbers matter more than reason. The one who wins is the one with the loudest megaphone, the most power, and the greatest influence.
This, too, is dangerous to a culture. Without a shared cultus, there can be no real culture. The word cultus refers to a reference point (God and His revelation) that is above and outside a culture, that is bigger and more lasting. Without that shared cultus, that devotion to someone higher, there can be no culture.
Today, when we cannot agree on what makes a marriage, or even on something as obvious as whether one is male or female, the tyranny is starting to resemble anarchy and nihilism. No culture can withstand such a basic undermining. Problems of this sort are civilization killers.
Thus, belief is not only important—it is critical. We cannot go on relegating this matter to the realm of the purely personal and largely irrelevant. Being “nice” is not enough. We must be accountable to God and see Him as authoritative in our life. If we are to survive we must do this, both individually and collectively.
The First Commandment says, I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2). This is not some egocentric God, demanding worship and that He have no rivals. This is our loving Father, who knows what unbelief does to us. When we reject Him and/or turn to other gods, we are harmed immeasurably. We lose our way and inherit a lawless and confused world, in which the tyranny of relativism holds sway and no one thinks or acts as if he will one day answer for what he has and has not done.
Do not make light of the rampant unbelief in our world today. It is far more serious than most imagine. God commands the most serious things for our own well-being. The First Commandment is that we believe and that we call others to do the same. There is a reason that it is commandment number one!