Consider this demographic projection for the UK, and ponder its implications for a moment: within five years, the majority of babies will be born to unmarried parents. However, before you put this down to yet another example of Western immorality, just remember that all these babies will have the same legal rights as those born to married couples. This trend is part of the wider decline of marriage as an institution. According to a recent study, the figures for people getting married in Britain is at its lowest ever since these statistics began to be compiled nearly 150 years ago.
In 2008, only 21.8 per thousand adult men of marriageable age actually took the vow. At 19.6, the figure for women was even lower. And the average age for men getting married for the first time was 32, and for women it was nearly 30. These figures reveal not so much disillusionment with the institution of marriage, as much as they do a widespread rejection of religion. Church marriages are still favoured by the middle classes, but more for the pomp and glamour of the wedding dress worn by the bride, and the finery sported by the guests. Indeed, attendance for church services has fallen steadily, and most Brits only go to church for weddings and funerals.
A glance at the European table reveals that the belief in a god is generally quite low in all the major countries. Sweden, with only 23 per cent of the population believing in a deity, is the least observant, with the UK at 38 per cent. Germany and France are similarly atheistic or agnostic. Interestingly, Catholic countries seem to be more staunchly Christian, with Poles, Spaniards and Italians being among the most fervent of believers.
Indeed, a lack of belief in a supreme being has long been the hallmark of Western intellectual thought since the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Hence, lawmakers have tried to separate religion form politics, few more so than the Founding Fathers of the United States. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were fiercely agnostic in their views.
Scientists, too, have tended to question the belief system they were born into, as revealed by this quotation from Albert Einstein: “Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behaviour should be based on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
Many have condemned modern Western civilization for its ‘godless’ ways, pointing to widespread cohabitation between men and women, men and men, and women and women. Alcoholism, nudity and drug-abuse are also frequently cited. All these lifestyle choices are mentioned in arguments over the superiority of Eastern religions and societies. Yet the firm belief in religion and an afterlife in our part of the world do not necessarily translate into better societies.
In the Transparency International table for global perceptions of corruption for 2009, there is not a single Muslim country in the twenty most honest states. However, seven Muslim countries figure among the ten most corrupt states.
Interestingly, Sweden, the most godless state in Europe, comes in at joint third with Singapore as the least corrupt country in the world.
There is an argument that corruption is a function of poverty, and once societies have acquired a measure of economic well-being, they tend to become more honest and accountable. While there is some truth to this assertion, how to explain the fact that Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world, is listed as 63rd by TI? And Kuwait comes in at 68. Clearly, then, there is little direct linkage between religion and morality.
Nevertheless, billions around the world continue to believe deeply in the faith they have grown up in. They derive comfort from following the belief system of their forefathers, and most of them have never felt the need to question it. Indeed, the poor obtain solace for their wretched condition with the promise of compensation in the afterlife. And the rich in our part of the world try and assuage their guilt by giving alms generously, thereby hoping to buy a place in heaven. If only they would pay their taxes with the same zeal, we might be able to make a better world in this life.
In religiously inclined societies like Pakistan, we are fond of criticising Western materialism, while holding up our supposed spirituality as being superior. Even the millions of Muslims who have chosen to migrate to the West make the same assertion. However, I have not noticed any of these people denying themselves the conveniences and the advantages of these same ‘materialistic’ societies. And frankly, I do not see too much evidence of our vaunted ‘spirituality’ in our behaviour or attitudes.
These differences have been sharpened after 9/11, with more and more people in the West now seeing Islam and Muslims as being behind the rise in extremist violence in much of the world. Muslims, for their part, see themselves as victims of a rising Islamophobia. Interestingly, the trend towards atheism and agnosticism is far less marked in the United States than in Europe. Well below five per cent of Americans assert they do not believe in any god.
Indeed, some Evangelical Christians in America think they have more in common with Muslims than the ‘godless Europeans’. One reason it is so difficult for many Muslims to become assimilated into the societies they have chosen to live in is the huge cultural differences they encounter. Generally coming from deeply conservative backgrounds, they are shocked with the free and easy lifestyle they encounter. Rather than encouraging their children to integrate, they seek to insulate them from Western values, thus causing a state of mild schizophrenia in second- generation immigrants. Some of these young people become quickly radicalised, and seek clarity in the black-and-white world of religious extremism.
Unfortunately, too many of them lack the education to realise that ultimately, no set of beliefs or values is inherently inferior or superior to another. Morality, as we have seen, is not the monopoly of any faith: an atheist can be more ethical than a religious person. At the end of the day, what matters is that humans behave with consideration and decency, and avoid imposing their beliefs on others.