By Andrew Brown
It is impossible even to make a cup of tea in England today without being told about the “mission” or the “passion” or, in short, the “values” of the company that sells the teabags.
Using this kind of language to sell tea — or computers, cars, or even sandwiches — is now ubiquitous and the change has been quite sudden. At the start of the 21st century, nobody thought it necessary to assure customers of their dedication to the environment, or any other higher cause. They wanted your money, and that satisfied both parties.
Nor is it just commercial. People have values much more explicitly than they used to do.
If Professor Linda Woodhead is right, this sudden interest in the values is a consequence of the collapse of organised religion in the West. In a series of lectures for the Edward Cadbury Centre, Birmingham University last week, she explored the argument that “values are the new religion”.
The story is a large one, because what has changed is not just people’s willingness to talk about their own values, and to understand their lives as the result of a deliberate choice to value certain things; it is also the values themselves.
In her first lecture, she discussed, with illustrations from research, the shift from a traditionally Christian morality, which was centred on the needs of others — especially for women — into a much more self-centred morality, summed up by the title of Rihanna’s song: Live Your Life — and so not anyone else’s. This is something that has simply happened: the Live Your Life ethic is taken for granted among most young people.
But what has caused the reversal of moral polarity?
Professor Woodhead argued that there were two large causes at work after about 1970 in England. The first was the loss of common, everyday ritual shared across society. In religious terms, the Book of Common Prayer and the authorised version of the Bible disappeared, and so did the Latin mass for Catholics.
The customs and habits of thought embedded in them, and the common frame of reference they provided, also disappeared. Even in day-to-day interactions, such common rituals as holding doors open for women have vanished, as part of a general move towards egalitarianism. The mainstream churches, she argued, were devastated by this broad social change.
The decline of organised religion did not mean a rise in secularism. Quite the opposite. Another facet of the collapse of the old ethic was a revulsion against rationality as an ideal. Belief in an afterlife is now higher than it has ever been, she said in one lecture. But it is no longer the Christian afterlife and it has no element of judgment. The positivist ideal — that only measurable facts are real and everything else is more or less illusory — is now seen as bossy, reductive, and wrong.
So, Professor Woodhead explained, religion and secularism had both supplied landscapes for the imagination, as well as ideologies for the mind. When both of them faded or broke down, it was talk about values that came to replace them, in both contexts. This is historically unusual. Explicit language about values becomes widespread only at times of confusion and social change, when the values that were implicit in a society, because everyone took them for granted, are suddenly exposed. And when that happens, we discover that they clash, both within people and between groups.
The reaction to her thesis from the Christians in the audience centred on the question of whether these values, as described, could actually replace religions, in the sense that they would carry out the social functions that religions do.
To this her first response was that post-Christian cultures still have their ideas of what “religion” ought to be shaped by Christianity. “Christianity still defines our idea of what a religion ought to be. This is misleading. We suppose that religions must combine ethical teaching with spiritual experience and that it must be clearly distinguishable from magic. But this is a definition that emerged to suit the needs of Protestant Christianity in its struggles, both spiritual and political, with other forms of religion. There is nothing particularly ethical about some east Asian religions and nothing particularly spiritual about some of their ethical codes.
The second point was that if values were to replace religions as symbols of identity, there was no reason to suppose that we would all converge on the same values. Values always relational — something is valuable to someone for some purpose — and always relative: they can be ranked, and sometimes we have to choose between them.
But these choices will differ, and there is no unifying highest value that would allow us to resolve such disagreements. This is the role that God is meant to play in Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, but history shows that He is remarkably bad at making his preferences clear to everyone.
So, if values do replace religion, they will not solve the problems that religion has failed so far to solve. Bu they may change the way we talk and think about them.