There is a growing consensus that the West is in a period of steep moral and cultural decline. By casting off the shackles of morality, secular humanism has not delivered on the freedom and peace that it once promised. And we are dealing with the legacy of that failure today. Four out of every ten marriages in the UK end in divorce. One in every five pregnancies is aborted, and the abortion rate has hit a five year high. The rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. These statistics are tragic and those affected ought to receive compassion and practical support. And it goes without saying that there are a range of underlying factors which contribute to these problems. But we have seen that a society which removes God is left with an inescapable void making it vulnerable to a host of moral and social issues. So how did we get to this point?
Earlier this week former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron delivered an address at the religious think tank Theos in which he said, “People talk about shared values today. But when they do, what they mean is these are my values – and I will demonstrate contempt for you if you depart from them.”
The problem is that, in an age of moral relativism, there is no longer any basis for shared values. Without an objective moral standard, who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to say what is right or wrong? In spite of this, one idea has emerged as the new supreme moral value: bodily autonomy. It is the ultimate ‘virtue’ which trumps all others, which is why the right to terminate a pregnancy or attempt to change one’s gender is so enthusiastically applauded. Those who disagree with these choices as being ‘good’ were once regarded as ‘intolerant’ but have now found that this status has been upgraded to ‘hateful.’
I was discussing this recently with an atheist friend who is not (yet) a Christian. He made an appeal to Christians to restore moral values to a culture in which relativism is the norm, saying, “My hope is that Christians will fight back. Defend your faith. It could very well save our society.” The truth is that only Christ can save individuals and redeem the brokenness of our culture. Yet the fact that someone who is not a Christian recognises the value and even necessity of Christianity is an encouragement for many of us to be bolder as we live out our faith in public.
It does, however, raise the question: is Christianity merely a ‘good moral system’ which helps us to behave well? Well, not quite. Ultimately, it’s either true or it isn’t. And as the apostle Paul says, if our hope in Christ is only for this life, then we of all people are to be most pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). But the fact that the Christian faith has shown itself throughout much of human history to be the bedrock of a flourishing society both morally and culturally is another piece of evidence for the reliability of its truth claims.
The current decline of moral values could actually be a golden opportunity for Christians to engage in a bold proclamation of the gospel. As we hear more stories of Christians being suspended for ‘misgendering’ school pupils or fined for refusing to bake cakes that go against their beliefs, the temptation is to draw the curtains together, hide behind the sofa, and hope the whole thing will blow over. Some have even hinted towards this approach, or something like it, as a viable option for Christians in the 21st Century.
Yet we know that withdrawal is not the answer. We are not to remove ourselves from this present world (John 17:14-15) but to give an answer for the hope that we have within us (1 Peter 3:15) with the end goal of making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). It will be challenging, and it may become increasingly so in the years ahead. But when the culture around us becomes more hostile and alien to Christian values and beliefs, it presents an even greater contrast against which the light of the gospel can shine.
Michael Shaw is the Editor of Cornerstone Network. He was formerly a Broadcast Journalist and Associate Producer at the BBC, and is now studying Theology at Oxford University. You can follow him on Twitter here.