Iceberg Morality: The Christian Moral and Ethical Legacy of the West


Photo: Courtesy of AWeith.

I have become an avid Twitter follower of Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, who has offered a lot of thoughtful and valuable insight into the implications of a post-Christian West, particularly in terms of how this is reflected by the State of New York’s passage of a law that would allow abortions to be performed up to the time of birth for several reasons.

I am no orthodox Christian.  As a matter of fact, I’m a nontheist and a Darwinian evolutionist. Moreover, I am by definition pro-choice: I believe that the choice of continuing or terminating a pregnancy should be left to the mother up to the end of the first trimester.

Even so, I respect historic Christian, particularly Catholic, teaching regarding the abortion issue. And I believe that Dreher is as right as rain about how the left’s enthusiastic embrace of more extreme views on abortion reflect the ongoing decline of traditional Christianity within Western society.

How is that for  convoluted thinking?

I would argue that what we perceive as morality and ethics in an advanced society reflect the culmination of centuries of informed, impassioned and even acrimonious discussion and debate.  To put it another way, prevailing perceptions of Western morality and ethics represent only a portion of all the painstaking thought and discussion that has been invested across eons and that enabled humanity to eke out a coherent moral and ethical code.

That is what we are missing, to the great detriment of America and the West. And as hard as it may be for many secular-minded people to accept, much of this moral scaffolding we take wantonly for granted today was derived through religious thought and sentiment.

Western morality and ethics are inextricably bound up with Christianity. I know of no simpler way of expressing it.

To put it another way, I would argue that Christian moral and ethical teachings could be likened to an iceberg.  Much of what comprises the moral and ethical foundations of the West is largely indiscernible, much like the bulk an iceberg.

Traditional Christian teachings are so bound up with the scaffolding of Western culture that we can’t begin to discern where Christian moral teaching ends and where its newer secular counterpart begins.

One even could argue that aside from being hatched out of Christian moral teaching that secular morality and ethics simply lack the subtle distinctions that characterize two millennia of Christian teaching.   And that is not all that surprising, considering that so much of what we know as secularism is an outgrowth of 18th Century Enlightenment thought, which was focused far more on expanding human freedom rather than on circumscribing the pernicious outgrowths of it.

Moreover, I think that the recently enacted New York law that loosens rules on abortion attests to the shortfalls of secular morality and ethics. There is no secular moral or ethical teaching of which I am aware that evinces anything approaching Christianity’s emphasis on maintaining a high threshold for life.

Those with a more secular world view invariably would argue that there are countless numbers of  “good and decent” secular people who possess moral and ethical systems just as evolved and nuanced as those of many Christians.

I don’t dispute that fact.  I know quite a few of them.  I would even count myself as one.

But I would counter with the question: How many self-identified secularists stepped up to oppose the Nazi euthanization program in the years leading up to the World War II?

For matter, how many secular ethicists evince so much as a passing sympathy for the Catholic/Christian side of the abortion debate raging throughout the United States and much of the Western world today? How many secular ethicists uphold an uncompromisingly pro-life standard amidst this increasingly acrimonious debate?

One isn’t required to be a cradle Catholic or a zealous covert to admire the historic Catholic stand on abortion as well as the church’s historic affirmation of the sanctity of human life. They reflect the church’s deep thoughts and reflections over centuries regarding humanity’s role in creation and in its relationship to God. Historic Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life has served a critically important role in refining debate in Western society, not only regarding the perennial abortion issue but also other contentious issues such as euthanasia and the long-term implications of transhumanism, to name a few.

Yes, the increasingly attenuated voice of Catholicism and other forms of dissident speech in the marketplace of ideas concerns me. It should concern all of us. And this has been widely and, I would argue, justifiably, ascribed  to the increasing ideological rigidity of much of the left.

Many on the left would dismiss traditional Catholic views on abortion and the sanctity of life merely as the ravings of “cis-gendered” celibate and comparatively privileged males. That, needless to say, is a totally uninformed view, given the fact that Catholic views not only were shaped by men but also by a number of women through the ages. Among the prominent Catholics are women who, after abandonment by a lover or facing some other contingency, terminated pregnancy and thereafter spent a lifetime reflecting on the implications of their decisions. The great Catholic social worker and Christian apologist Dorothy Day was one of them.

Honestly, if progress is to be defined in the future as the complete rout of historic Christian thought from the venues of respectable debate, then we are approaching very dark days indeed.

I will end by posting a final couple of questions: How far down the road will we be in another few decades, after the Christian scaffolding of the West undergoes further erosion? How many people will be inspired to affirm the value of life as it has been historically viewed within an orthodox Christian context?


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
This entry was posted in Cultural Evolution, culture, Jim Langcuster, Religion and Culture, Religious Faith and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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