Last week, Bill O'Reilly let it all out in one of his most bizarre rants of late, discussing what he sees as the moral decline of America, and the imminent fall of our empire -- much like the way of the Romans.
“Any student of history knows that when a nation turns inward toward the pursuit of individual gratification, the country is in trouble. Rome [is) the best example. The citizens there ultimately rejected sacrificing for their republic...and the empire collapsed.”
O’Reilly is certainly correct about the decline of the American empire -- the ship is sinking, but not for the reasons he seems to think. The Fox News host attributes our impending fall to a moral decline, which to him, of course, means the decline of Christian faith. In some fresh new Pew polls, it was revealed that Christian affiliation in America has continued to drop, while the percentage of unaffiliated (including atheism and agnosticism) has gone up a whopping 6.7 percentage points since 2007. Protestant affiliation dropped by 4.8 percentage points, while Catholicism dropped by 3.1 percentage points.
To O’Reilly, this signals a moral decline in America, a harbinger of our ultimate collapse. The reason for such a dire assumption is simple: O’Reilly, and a significant part of the population, believes that atheism, or any kind of doubt, is synonymous with nihilism. This comes from a presumption that religion is the ultimate moral guide, and without it, human beings are morally bankrupt. As one character famously remarked in Dostoyevsky’s novel "The Brothers Karamazov":
“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
Predictably, O’Reilly attributes the rise in disbelief to things like drug abuse, rap music and the liberal media:
“There is no question that people of faith are being marginalized by a secular media and pernicious entertainment. The rap industry for example often glorifies depraved behavior and that sinks into the minds of some young people, the group that is most likely to reject religion. Also many movies and TV shows promote non traditional values.”
This view is hopelessly naive, and once again sprouts from the assumption that atheism and nihilism are synonymous. It is inconceivable to O’Reilly that the rise in non-affiliation is more likely because of education and the rejection of unprovable myths than because of a moral decline. Even William Jennings Bryan, nearly a century ago, understood that education and scientific advancement were causes for rejection of faith, saying of schoolchildren at the famous Scopes Trial: “If they believe (in evolution), they go back to scoff at the religion of their parents.” The more one understands the natural world, the more likely they are to reject the myths of their parents.
What makes O’Reilly’s conjecture truly insulting is his assurance that non-religious people are somehow more likely to be immoral. This shows not just a remarkable measure of O'Reilly hypocrisy -- if increasingly dire reports on his personal life are to be believed -- but also his ignorance of history. Before the modern era, it was more or less illegal to be an atheist in the Western world; the further we go back, the more violence rises, as documented in Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Today, violence is the lowest it's been in documented history, while religious disbelief is presumably at its highest point. In his book, Pinker describes what he sees as the likeliest causes of this humanitarian revolution:
“The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution. The pokey little world of village and clan, accessible through the five senses and informed by a single content provider, the church, gave way to a phantasmagoria of people, places, cultures, and ideas.”
The rise in literacy and education, along with the centralized state, have contributed to the most peaceful and moral era in history -- not religion. Furthermore, studies have found that non-belief is more common in wealthy industrialized societies and that rates of the most violent crimes tend to be lower in less religious states. Another report shows that just 0.2 percent of America’s prison population is atheist, while more than half are Catholic or Protestant.
What does all this reveal? Not that atheists or Christians or Buddhists are more or less moral; but that human beings exist in a complex moral landscape, shaped by any number of factors; and that the environment one grows up in plays a crucial role in developing this morality. So, Bill O’Reilly’s fear that the drop in Christianity is contributing to a moral crisis, and that this moral crisis in contributing to the imminent collapse of the American empire, is hogwash.
But this doesn’t mean he’s entirely incorrect about that impending collapse.
Indeed, the American empire that was built up during the 20th century does seem to be heading toward a decline; but it is not because of some great moral crisis. In fact, the moral crisis that O’Reilly attributed to the lack of religion is really just a natural result of our economic system. O’Reilly says “pernicious entertainment” is causing this collapse; but in reality, this entertainment is simply the result of the consumer society, which emerged during the latter half of the 20th century, after capitalists and corporations found that all the basic needs and wants of the people had been satisfied. An entire industry of advertising and marketing was born to create new and increasingly specialized (and often pointless) needs. This grew out of the system of capitalism -- the very system that O’Reilly loves so dearly.
When O’Reilly praises the capitalism, he is praising the old Protestant ethic that Max Weber wrote about. But that capitalism is gone, and today we live in what naturally forms from that ideal. So, if there is anything that can truly be blamed for the moral ills that O’Reilly is so concerned about, it is our economic system, based on materialism and self-interest. Ironically, this O'Reilly-backed free-market impetus may very well be a major contributor to our fall.
The United States has been importing and consuming more than it has produced and exported for many years now, and this is simply unsustainable. When a country's citizens put everything on credit to satisfy their ridiculous consumption, a fall from grace is bound to occur. This happened in the late 2000s, when the housing bubble collapsed, and there is no reason to think it can't or won’t happen again in the future.
The reality is that the American empire will collapse (barring some miraculous act of God responding to the prayers of O’Reilly), and another empire will likely take its place, just as it always has throughout history. It is also possible that there will be no new empire equatable to modern America, and instead regional powers. Regardless, O’Reilly and his followers will blame this fall from superpower status on the decline of faith and moral decay, because they like to think that America is somehow special; that we are God’s chosen ones. But that is childish, and childish fantasies will only accelerate this inevitable decline.