Morality is petroleum

I think that most people today believe that we live in a moral and existential vacuum. And I agree with them. As Joseph Campbell wrote in his work on comparative mythology, every society since the beginning of time has evolved a dynamic mythology and belief system to teach its people right and wrong; our society, therefore, is historically unique in that that we have no clear means of teaching people how they should behave, or their place in the universe, or the appropriate rituals to follow.

With the overthrow of Christianity, we raced to rid ourselves of religion on empirical grounds, but unfortunately forgot that whether God existed or not, religion served one useful purpose: it gave us a clear code of right or wrong. To my mind, a clear moral code is as essential for the correct functioning of society as petroleum or the health service.

The situation was summarized perfectly by my friend last weekend. As we sat in the pub discussing religion, Chris looked at me and said, “fuck religion… it’s all about social control,” and downed the last of his beer as if that was the end of the subject. But I saw it as the beginning. “Exactly,” I replied, “that was the good thing about religion… social control. Society needs to be controlled, the rules need to be clear, the people need to be guided.” I understand that Chris was indicating a more sinister type of control with overtones of conspiracy but there is another side to social control – a positive one.

To explore this positive side, think about the old days. In the old days there was a very clear moral code and that code was enforced with impressive collaboration by the church, parents, teachers and the wider community. This meant that parents vigorously drilled into you that… lying was bad, cheating was bad, stealing was bad, you then went to school and the teacher did the same, you went to church and the priest told you the same, you chanted prayers which reinforced this and you read bible stories that gave examples. Then, if you managed to escape this web of moral enforcers and get some peace in the street to do something bad then you still weren’t free – a neighbor or local shopkeeper would see you and shout at you and then tell your parents about it. I tell you – we think that because we have the internet we know about networks… what existed in the communities of old, that was a motherfucking network.

And that is the mistake which all twentieth century bourgeoisie made when they rushed to remove religion from the school, the family and the culture… they presumed that because the central premise of religion was wrong – that there was no God, then that meant everything to do with religion was wrong, and they extinguished the entire project – thus removing commonly shared values that linked community, school and family. A series of non-negotiable standards about right and wrong were liquidated.

The terrible oversight of that generation, and what they failed to understand, was that their very nature, the essence of their being – was created by exactly that system of social control, and that’s what made them so humane, charitable, respectful and decent in the first place irrespective of whether a guy named Jesus died on the cross.

They then robbed the next generation of the opportunity to have a similar education. This was a profoundly selfish thing to do. They had a great moral education in a united community, and then they went to university and smoked pot and met other intellectuals and rejected organized religion and morality. But they did this after they’d already got a moral education that would serve them the rest of their lives. When they went to create policy for the next generation, though, they plunged them immediately into an uncertain moral world… forcing them to do as young children, what they didn’t do til they were at university.

Now, I’m not sure how a person like me has arrived at this point because it seems like I’m condoning religion and the church. Well, I’m not; I’m not condemning it either, though; if you can believe in unproveable hypothesis well, that’s your business not mine. What I am condoning, though, is that all the people who can only talk about what we shouldn’t have – no religion, no ethical enforcement – start to formulate what we should have and what we should teach our children and how we enforce it and embed it in our society.

There are now two generations of human beings who have grown up without any strong, moral guidance. And this has serious implications for social cohesion. In our rush to teach kids ‘computers’ and engineering, we’ve forgotten that morality and ontology are subjects that are vital for the individual and society.

We must construct a new mythology, new rites of passage and new spiritual leaders for the twenty first century. The absence of these is what is causing the ‘malaise’ of western society and all its attendant symptoms: depression, apathy, obesity.

I repeat: society needs religion like society needs petroleum… it doesn’t have to involve God or anything supernatural, but we need a clear picture of our place in the universe and how we should act in that universe and how to reflect these beliefs in our institutions and families.

Social control is not a dirty word… it’s a part of civilization.

Vocabulary of religion


Downed the last of his beer: to down a drink means to drink it all in one go until it’s finished.

Vacuum: a void, emptiness, absolutely nothing.

Means: the medium by which something happens. For example… my principle means of transport is my car.

We raced to rid ourselves: we tried to remove as quickly as possible. ‘Raced’ is to run very fast.

Grounds: Basis, evidence. For example… the priest said that his grounds for believing in God was that he had seen him in a mystical vision.

Overtones: insinuations, indications of. For example… although the play was about animals on a farm it had a lot of political overtones.

Drilled into you: when knowledge is literally forced into your head by endless repetition.

Cheating: not following the rules. Engañar, hacer trampa.

Priest: a holy man of the Christian church. Cura.

Chanted: a slow, deliberate form of talking usually associated with prayers (oraciones).

Motherfucking: puta (adjective).

Bourgeoisie: the middle classes.

Premise: the idea something is founded on. For example… the premise of is that people want to look for love on the internet.

Extinguished: totally removed, nullified, killed and done away with.

Linked: related to. Vinculado.

Oversight: something that was forgotten. An error. For example… the FBI didn’t realise explosives could be carried in shoes – it was a serious oversight.

Charitable: the adjective of ‘charity’ (caridad).

Smoked pot: pot is a word for marijuana.

Rejected: didn’t accept. Negó. Rechazó.

Plunged: submerged. Immersed.

Uncertain: not certain.

Condoning. Approving of and recommending.

Unproveable: something that cannot be proved. Not a recognised fact.

Ontology: the study of the nature of being.

Rites of passage: rituals which signify the transition from one phase to another. In many cultures – from childhood to adulthood.

Apathy: a state of mind characterised by a disconnection and lack of concern (preocupacion) and interest in what’s going on in the world.

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