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Debate: Is Britain a moral wasteland?

Or is it still a civilised, Christian country that leads the way on many moral issues?

By on Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Houses of Parliament have passed laws that are anti-family and anti-life (Photo: PA)

The Houses of Parliament have passed laws that are anti-family and anti-life (Photo: PA)

Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at Westminster archdiocese, said in an interview with Zenit that Britain was a “selfish, hedonistic wasteland” and the “epicentre of the culture of death”.

His comments were picked up by the Independent, the Telegraph, and the Guardian. A spokesman for Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster said they did “not reflect the archbishop’s opinions”.

Yet most people would agree that Britain is a fairly selfish, consumerist and sexualised society. All Catholics lament the high rate of abortion. And the calls for legal euthanasia are persistent and growing stronger.

Last year Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor urged the Government to create a national moral council “to rediscover the things that make for a healthy society”. He was backed by Abbot Christopher Jamison, who said consumer culture had “taken over our spiritual world”.

On the other hand, as Joan Smith said in a column for the Independent, Britain is a marvellously tolerant and civilised place when compared to countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China.

So, is Britain a moral wasteland? Or is it a reasonably ethical society with a deep Christian heritage?

  • Ed West

    selfish, yes
    hedonistic, yes
    wasteland, maybe not.

    I wouldnt compare us to Saudi or Iran. They're barbaric. We're decadent, at the other extreme. But of the developed word there is a fair amount of evidence that Britain has the most dysfunctional society

  • Martha Bux

    Edmund Adamus's interview has provoked the proverbial storm in the tea cup. I feel sorry that the Director for Pastoral Affairs for Westminster archdiocese should be so attacked in the secular press for making, granted with a certain amount of hyperbole, points which are not only valid but raise serious questions about British society. Of course Catholic are not persecuted here as they are in Saudi Arabia, India or in Iraq and it would be absurd to believe it; but there is a relentless agressive and prevalent anti-Catholicism in this country which is evident even in the outrage Mr Adamus's comments has provoked.

    Aggressive secularism must, always, be at odds with Catholicism–healthy secularitee on the other hand is something to strive for. I would argue that this country never had the latter, instead living under a generally benign theocracy where Church and state coexisted happily. This has led to indifference, apathy and amorality, lapsing into the immoral as a society at least where the question of abortion is concerned.

    Take for example the other day, the Newsnight interview with Lord Patten was asked about the Pope's stance on “abortion and gay marriage” as if these were such acceptable cornerstones of society that anyone who could question them must by definition be an unenlightened monster. Now whatever your beliefs about homosexuality and the validity of “gay marriage”, to accept, without question, the morality of killing innocent life is simply monstrous. And in that sense, yes, Britain is a moral wasteland.

    Take for example the UNICEF study last year which showed that British children had the lowest rate of well-being in 21 industrialised nations. How can a society which has a high moral compass have so failed its future?

    Our children are miserable, have high teen pregnancy rates no matter how many condoms we throw at children, no matter how many sex ed classes we give at ever earlier ages, no matter how easily we make accessible both contraceptive pills, chemical and mechanical abortions. Drug abuse is rife in all levels of society, child abuse in families.

    Of course this happens in tight knight deeply religious communities as well–as no doubt some of the readers of this post will argue–one need but look at the Amish communities in America where in recent years drug rings have been discovered or the Mormon cults where incest and child abuse were part of course. We've had our own share of drug abusers and child abusers in the Church.

    Many of our laws are good. Much of the progress we have made is good. The poor no longer need to starve or die because they are unable to pay for physicians. The homeless need no longer live without shelter. But we have become self-indulgent beyond the point of common sense and are lapsing into the arena of the unwell.

  • Athanasius Kircher

    The neuropsychologist AR Luria wrote that “words are the basic tools of thought”.If our use of language reflects our thinking, then – remembering Wittgenstein's dictum that “what we cannot say, we cannot think” – then it is certainly noticeable that the words “moral”, “immoral”, “evil”, “ethical”, etc. have all but disappeared from public discourse in this country, even in the last five years.

    Britain just doesn't talk about morality; we discuss the cost and practicality of medical situations, the emotional impact, the psychological effect of these things, but not their ethical meaning. We talk about “dignity”, and “rights” and “equality”, not good and bad, right and wrong, ethical and unethical. “Conscience”, too, is unfashionable. Ethics now only comes up in very proscribed areas – in questions of possible medical misconduct, and in matters of ecology, where environmental ethics is a term which still sometimes comes up.

    But otherwise, we don't talk about ethics. We talk about impact and effect, cost, rights, and the duties of government. Terms to do with ethics and morality are now perceived as the tools of extreme religious cranks, attempts to excuse the inexcusable and weasel-words for those that have lost the argument.

    In Britain, we're more interested in the statistics and the cost to the state. Arguments on issues of public policy are purely pragmatic; the “public good” is a phrase that is almost unknown, and when it is used (or cognates thereof), its definition is in terms of vague terms of personal liberties.

    For not only do we not discuss questions of ethics, we do not truly understand them. Public understanding of the meta-ethical and the metaphysical discourse surrounding questions of morality is all but nonexistent, and the concept that there are different value-systems through which morality can be understood is certainly not well-known. Indeed the idea of an ethical system is deeply unpopular; we live in an age of vaguely defined, relativistic Benthamite utilitarianism, an unquestioned adherence to the idea of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” as the summum bonum.

    Ed West's comment is indicative of this confusion; he declares that Saudi Arabia is “barbaric”, but doesn't bother to define the meaning of barbarism, or the ethical standard by which he makes this judgement. He assumes it is manifest and universally acceptable that Saudi Arabia deserves the epithet “barbaric”.

    Part of the reason for this confusion is the repudiation of intellectualism in British public life; to be seen as a specialist is to be seen as withdrawn from reality, aloof, a waster who sits around fussing over irrelevant details. Just look at the sneering dismissal of scientists and experts by the likes of the Telegraph's James Delingpole.

    In our post-Romanticist Britain, we worship the personal, the sentimental, the individual; the logical, the rational and the “cold” is seen as alien and undesirable, even by supposed rationalists, who fall into the same trap of sentimentalist argument. This can again be seen in public discourse and in the newspapers – we obsess over children who are found dead, but the war in Iraq has scarcely gained column-space in the last few years.

    This affects legislation, too, of course, with kneejerk responses like the post-Dunblane legislation taking root on the basis of emotion, and not of the balance of argument. Which is not to say that the Dunblane legislation was necessarily wrong; only that the way in which it was brought into force, on the wave of emotion following the Massacre, was wrong.

    What is good, according to current British public discourse, is what is emotionally or physically satisfying to me; what is best is what I want, what I like. When we speak of “rights”, we often use the term in a way which seems to mean “fulfilling my desires”.

    What is wrong is what we find personally emotionally repulsive. Public discourse on the subject of ethics has been denuded of any positivism and been reduced to that which AJ Ayer might have called “Boo-Hooray ethics”: “Boo to murder!”, “hooray for free love”, coupled with a cold pragmatism about economic and material success.

    In this sense, then, Britain is indeed under what Pope Benedict referred to as the “dictatorship of relativism”, bounded as it is by a discourse circumscribed by money and emotion, but into which questions of the spiritual are excluded.

  • The Catholic Herald

    It might be helpful to quote Edmund Adamus at greater length. Here are some of the key quotes:

    “Whether we like it or not as British citizens and residents of this country — and whether we are even prepared as Catholics to accept this reality and all it implies — the fact is that historically, and continuing right now, Britain, and in particular London, has been and is the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death.

    “Our laws and lawmakers for over 50 years or more have been the most permissively anti-life and progressively anti-family and marriage, in essence one of the most anti-Catholic landscapes culturally speaking than even those places where Catholics suffer open persecution…

    “There is a fundamental truth underpinning John Paul II's adequate anthropology — one might call it theology of the body in shorthand. It goes something like: the calling of every man is the dignity of every woman; the vocation of every woman is the integrity of every man.

    “So it is incumbent upon men to rejoice in this very masculine charism to see in women their intrinsic worth and beauty, precisely because they are women and no other reason.

    “Thereby in small actions and greater ones they exhibit countercultural signals against the selfish, hedonistic wasteland that is the objectification of women for sexual gratification.

    “Britain in particular, with its ever-increasing commercialization of sex, not to mention its permissive laws advancing the “gay” agenda, is such a wasteland.

    “The evil of pornography is something that must be addressed urgently, pastorally here, as elsewhere, as its levels of use by men and women is slowly being accepted as normative.”

  • Michael Petek

    Edmund Adamus aays Britain has become “selfish, hedonistic wasteland” and the “epicentre of the culture of death”. A spokesman for Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster said they did “not reflect the archbishop’s opinions”.

    Why not?

  • Carver1

    Travelling frequently to many countries world wide I see England as probably the worst in the West to visit. It is almost pagan with very little morals, disgusting behavior, very anti-catholic, high crime, little respect for one another or for self. The land of my birth shames me and I wonder how further into the dark it can sink? Sadly because this has crept up slowly on people in England most are blind to how bad it really is.

  • Pedrotti

    That fundamental truth of which John Paul II spoke and for which we must not be afraid to bear witness with others in relation to the ever increasing erroneous misinterpretation of Newman on conscience and sexual ethics is adequately summed up in Veritatis Splendor n103-104:

    “Only in the mystery of Christ's Redemption do we discover the “concrete” possibilities of man.” It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church's teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”. But what are the “concrete possibilities of man”? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ's redemptive act, but to man's will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God's command is of course proportioned to man's capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit.” In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God's mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances.”

  • louella

    Britain is a dying society – because it is a degenerate society. If it was morally healthy it wouldn't be demographically dying with an aging population – and that's even with mass immigration.

    Britain need Catholicism again – Or Islam will quite rightly have it.

  • TheBlueWarrior

    Being in a quoting mood, I thought I'd add a quote from C.S. Lewis here: ““We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

  • TheBlueWarrior

    I thought I'd add a quote here from Pope Benedict XVI: “Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.”

  • TheBlueWarrior

    Because Mr Adamus's views would not get the imprimatur of the BBC

  • Brentgoodman

    I have never seen it all put down so clearly.It say it all

  • John

    Edmund sounds like a CATHOLIC to me. It is a pity that
    Archbishop Vincent Nichols will not speak up like a Catholic.

  • Visitor

    Debate: Is Britain a moral wasteland?
    Answer: More or less, yes.

  • Tim Harper

    Surely the question of whether Britain is moral or not depends on how you define the idea of morality? In terms of looking out for your neighbour and upholding a sense of social responsibility I would tend to agree that Britain perhaps scores lower than it once did, although I cannot compare this to other countries around the globe. however on other measures Britain is surely one of the most moral places in the world to live. We accept people into society despite their race, sexual origin, disability etc. We are truly a multi-cultural society and one that I think we should all be proud to live it. The idea of freedom is great in this country, and on that measure of morality, I think we can hold our heads up high. Morality does not have to be defined as following the teachings of the Bible, nor should a definition exclude these things. Surely a debate on this needs a clear understanding of what we are actually discussing?

  • AmericanOutsider

    Im an American living in New York but from what I’ve seen in London over the internet and the culture of the younger people in Britain as well as the muslims taking over I can safely say I would never move to England even if you paid me. im an athiest liberal but Britain epitomises everything that we are misjudged. its sad to see that Britian and so many other european countries are losing their identity. not that I would know too much but thats what I see as an outsider