thoughts on the secularization of civilization
First of all, I'm coming at this question as an "atheist" in the Bertrand Russell sense, and this post is aimed more at the atheists here, though religious people are welcome to present non-trivial thoughts and arguments as well.
Basically, I'm concerned about the moral breakdown of the US. Historically, the US had some really strong ethical fiber, which was key to the growth of its prosperity, and I *think* it was largely reinforced amongst the masses by its particular brand of religion (feel free to challenge this assumption if it's not justified). Basically, the majority of Americans have tended to reject the idea of using state coercion for personal gain. Of course there were always a few who had no problem with state coercion, but the vast majority had a strong desire to behave ethically. This is no longer the case, and the US is now in a terribly vulnerable economic situation -- completely, utterly incapable of dealing with the long-term cost of the vote-buying schemes that now enjoy massive support from the people, effectively selling every newborn child into $200k of debt in the process.
We're now at a phase where people are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that "compliance with an iron-age holy book" is in fact a terribly weak basis for morality, and "believe it or burn forever" is a really terribly weak supporting argument. However, there is a basic problem -- it is far easier to spot weaknesses in an ethical theory than it is to construct a solid one. Thus, although I think there are some good (far, far better, anyway) basis for ethics out there, it is very, very far from common knowledge.
What results is an ethical vacuum. Although religious ethics is weak from the point of view of first principles, the final ethical guidelines can actually be good ones -- and I think this was historically the case in the US.
So the question that has been bothering me lately is this: Is it possible for a society to transition out of arbitrary-but-excellent ethics (religious guidelines) into a reason-based ethics without first going through a nasty ethical vacuum?
The West has become a great pity where suicidal lemmings run toward a cliff disguised as a voting booth. - James Miller
Few men desire liberty; most men wish only for a just master. - Sallust