Religions dig in against erosion of morality: Following the unbridled individualism of the 1980s, Diana Hinds looks at who is carrying a torch for ethical values in Britain's weakened communities

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The Independent Online
'THE PRIVATISATION of morality' has become a favourite phrase of the Archbishop of Canterbury this year, repeated in numerous lectures and sermons warning us about rampant individualism and the need for shared moral values.

Dr George Carey contends that public morality is 'privatised' at our peril. He is perhaps not alone in believing that 'the pendulum swung too far towards unbridled individualism in the 1980s' and that 'our commitment to each other and to community was dangerously weakened' as a result.

But if the Archbishop is right that morality 'which is not rooted in a firm religious faith will not endure', then where does that leave the unbelievers? Is society headed for a Hobbesian 'state of nature', an amoral world where life is 'nasty, brutish and short'? Do we all need religion in order to be good? The Rev June Osborne, a deacon in east London and former member of the Church of England's board of social responsibility, said it was not that individuals had become worse, but that it had become easier to behave badly - because of an erosion of the moral environment.

'Many people are worried about how to train a new generation of children in what is right and what is wrong: this sense of morality has a strong instinctive base, but we have lost agreement about what it is and where to look for it,' she said.

The Government must take its share of the blame, Ms Osborne believes. Margaret Thatcher, at the height of the 1980s boom, not only told us, famously, that 'there is no such thing as society', but also that 'no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions: he had money as well'.

Ms Osborne said: 'In the last 15 years, the Government has conspicuously ignored the question of 'moral ecology'. They have said it is not a matter for government, but for families. But you can't dump the whole of moral education on the family.

'If you expect the family to behave in a stable and wholesome manner, you have to have government policies which undergird family life - for instance, tax concessions for child care, because the majority of people who are poor in this country are people with children.'

Shabbir Akhtar, a Muslim philosopher and writer, said the Thatcher years had seen 'increasing selfishness' at all levels of society, and he believed religious commitment - to a monotheistic faith - was essential for genuinely good behaviour.

'Most people are not capable of any serious attempt at virtue without some sort of supernatural sanction, threat or reward - although that is not to say that they are not capable of decency to their family and those around them. Religions impose sanctions which are crucial, because the natural human bias is towards wrongdoing, towards moral laxity at the very least.' But Dr Akhtar added that he detected a lack of moral concern even among religious believers on questions of social justice. 'In my own community there is increasing individualism: there are some people who see themselves as quite devout Muslims, but who think that morality is just a matter of keeping one's own life pure and nothing to do with wider social obligations. They have achieved a certain level of comfort themselves and it lulls them into complacency.'

Professor Robin Gill, author of the book Moral Communities (University of Exeter Press, pounds 8.95), agreed with Dr Akhtar that there was little evidence for believing that 'goodness beyond self-interest' was an innate human quality.

'There may be a hangover for a while from our Christian past in terms of moral values, but this is diminishing capital,' he warned.

Religious faith, he believes, is the best way out of the approaching moral void because it offers a rational connection between being religious and being good.

'Jews, Christians and Muslims alike all tend to claim that we should care for others precisely because we are already cared for by a loving God . . . Christian ethics usually claim that in Christ, Goodness and Godness become fused.'

But increasing numbers of people who are dissatisfied with what they see as the 'me, me, me' ethos of modern society are looking not to established religion for a way forward, but to the ideas of the 'New Age'.

Not an organised movement as such, the New Age embraces aspects of psychology, healing and ecology, as well as eastern and western religions; it rejects religious dogma and aims, broadly speaking, to foster spiritual aspirations by focusing on the potential of the individual.

William Bloom, director of 'Alternatives', a New Age centre at St James's Church, Piccadilly, central London, does not share the Archbishop of Canterbury's gloomy assessment of the nation's moral health.

'There is a lack of morality in the Government, but I don't feel this in society generally. In each of us I believe there is a core self trying to fulfil its potential - an element in each of us that, in its nature, is generous, open-hearted and with a tendency towards 'love-wisdom' . . . My experience is that when people begin to explore and transform themselves, this organising principle is always beneficent.'

The New Age movement, however, with its 'if it feels right, it's right' approach to morality, is seen by some critics as merely another symptom of individualism and self-centredness.

Some evangelical Christians have accused New Age exponents of advocating a world where there are no fixed ethical values at all, where good and evil are merely different.

Mr Bloom, one of the Sixties' 'flower power' generation before he discovered the New Age, admits the movement can appear 'narcissistic' but argues that its concerns are deeply moral.

'Our agenda is to create the circumstances in which every single human being can realise his or her innate creativity: to do this, people must be fed, housed and not frightened. Because the New Age is still an immature movement, we've given little attention to political processes and community dynamics, to how we build communities. But this is very important and we are beginning to look at it,' he said.

New Age subscribers, together with most secular, non-religious people, do not believe that a declining Church has any chance of regaining the moral influence it once possessed. The Rev Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, argues, nevertheless, that society needs the Church to help lay down 'absolute moral values'.

'We have allowed our plurality of views on ethical matters to run totally uncontrolled. There needs to be greater debate on these issues and the Church is still best placed to orchestrate that debate because of its reservoir of understanding from the past,' he said.

Professor Gill believes that moral issues can only be adequately resolved in communities and that religious communities have a vital role as 'carriers' of moral virtue - even if they may not always be 'exemplars' of it. But he said the Church should 'stop making pronouncements on moral positions' - such as nuclear disarmament or abortion, on which Christians are notoriously divided - and concentrate on 'central moral values, like faithfulness and responsibility'.

'People do not want to be told what to do,' Ms Osborne conceded. 'As a society, we should be all working together to create an atmosphere based on a profound sense of community commitment. People need an environment where they can make their own decisions - but make them wisely.'

(Photograph omitted)