The claim that one cannot be moral without religion means any number of things, many of which are false, dubious, or incompatible with each other. But what follows is one of the few ways in which I think the claim is right.
Here’s a basic moral predicament: we’re born into a world with concentrations of influential power,* and this power uses its influence to persuade all persons of the truth of a morality that is, in fact, merely in its own interests. Since no morality can make the good of the whole be merely the good of a part, this morality will be essentially false and inhuman, and since it’s in the very nature of influential power to persuade and produce conviction, all persons will be persuaded and convinced of a morality that is essentially false and inhuman. There will always be dissent from this morality by a few, and sometimes by many, but any widespread conviction can effectively self-police itself even without some cartoonish, deliberate conspiracy to do so, since any widespread conviction makes dissenters ipso facto cut off from influence, without resources, and, of course, just weird.
All sides agree that these concentrations of influential power are concentrations of money and/or political power, but we should also acknowledge that relationships that trace back to sexual activity (spouse and family) play an important role, if for no other reason than that they are the conduits that transmit this power though time in a way that keeps it concentrated to a few.
So what’s the solution?
The Left’s solution is radical: break these power structures and diffuse their power into a democratic and socialist system. The problem here is obvious, though – all this will end up doing is concentrating power in a larger part, not in the whole. The Right’s solution seems to be to try to limit the power of large political structures (i.e. to end “Big Government”), but this seems to be little more than folly and wishful thinking. Qui custodiet custodes?
But we can’t exist as social beings without some sort of capital, political order, and sexual bonding, so what do we do?
I see no solution other than by agreeing as a society to impute moral superiority to those who utterly renounce money, political power, and erotic love. The power of politics, capital, and familial exclusivity will remain, but it will always be checked in its attempt to set up a false morality that orders the good of the whole to the part. Both Eastern and Western cultures have hit on this solution through monastic institutions.
In the West, the moral power of monasticism was torn down in the Reformation, and we can even define much of modern morality as an attempt to come up with one moral vision for everyone, such that there are no essentially higher and lower moral lives. It is in the rejection of “monkish virtues” that the Reformation, and the modern world that issued from it is at once most persuasive and – to be blunt – most short-sighted. True, as an abstract matter it would be wonderful if every man were his own priest, and all persons could be saints, and a life of dutiful industry and family life were morally equal to renunciation, but in the concrete world in which we live all this high-minded equality ends up doing is removing the one effective check to the false morality and false consciousness of partial, corporate interests. If we don’t knowingly idealize the life of monks we will end up unknowingly idealizing the interests of a corporation or a mob.
*The only difference between the Right and the Left is who gets labelled the influential power. The Left sees it as being businesses and sometimes established religion, the contemporary Right sees it as media conglomerates and universities.