On the one hand, we will necessarily experience secularism as opposed to supernaturalism as involving a sort of lawlessness or absence of rules. There’s pretty good evidence (like the Princess Alice experiment) that people behave more morally when they believe that an invisible being is looking, and so we experience the absence of any such being as meaning that no one is watching the store. My description is mildly tendentious: I could just as easily describe this aspect of secularization as the liberation from an immature slave morality, or as a Nietzschian possibility of creative rebirth, or as an awakening to our place in the universe. All the same, it is naive to underestimate the latent dangers in this aspect of secularization.
On the other hand, as the decades and centuries of secular life pile up, it’s hard to make the case that it makes persons particularly violent or lawless. Steven Pinker has been arguing this for years and the main thrust of his research (leaving aside some questionable sources and an overemphasis on the grotesque) is persuasive. The cliche-for-a-reason example of Sweden also deserves to be taken seriously.
Both sides of secularism strike me as factual, and so it would be a dead end to use one to “refute” the other. Some sort of moral basis is lost, and its loss does not lead to widespread loss of moral action. What theory will work to explain this?
We could just say that the moral law is written on the heart no matter what we decide to say about him. Whatever temporary thrill or abstract feeling we might get from feeling that no one is watching the store, we’re stuck believing in right and wrong, and in the concrete experience of lived life there is no actual escape from its strictures and commands. A religious person can take this writing on the heart as God’s or a Naturalist might take it as Darwin’s, but we’re stuck with it no matter what we choose to say about its possible supernatural warrant.
Running along side of this explanation we might wonder if desire to preserve ourselves from moral chaos is a worthy basis for a morality if morality is really based on relation to a divine person. Presumably, if a person is the ultimate source of morality, he would balk at having persons only recognize him because they would collapse into social anarchy without him. Personal relations cannot ultimately stand on such motives of social utility – to think that they could makes the god seem more like a primitive idol demanding sacrifice to ward off crop failure.
For the religious person, at least, the lesson of secularism is that the loss of a moral basis leads to the loss of something more subtle and profound than respectable work-a-day social order. Given the benefits of secularization, the religious person might even wonder if it was providential. At any rate, God has not arranged things such that all will collapse into chaos if we cease believing. What now?