Previous Page/Table Of ContentsNext Page

F . The Social Values Of Past And Present

Many values which we might now assume to be "God given" are in fact fairly recent inventions. For example, take child labor laws. Page 839 of Volume II of the 15th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1975, contains an article on child labor which reads in part: "In Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand, children under 15 rarely work except in commercial agriculture, because of the effective enforcement of laws passed in the first half of the 20th century. . . . In less industrialized countries, on the other hand, millions of children - some as young as seven - still toil in the quarries, mines, factories, fields, and service enterprises. . . . Restrictive legislation is barred largely by family poverty and lack of schools. The movement to regulate child labor began in Great Britain at the close of the 18th century, . . . ." So, in historical terms, this is a very recent trend in our system of values. For most of the rest of human history, the concept that young people needed to be protected from working for a living would have been laughed at, as it still is today in much of the world. Only the wealthiest nations can afford the luxury of banning most labor by children.
Similarly, women were considered to be virtually property, or, to some degree at least, slaves of their husbands, until relatively recently. Quoting from page 171 of Volume 7 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, above: "The emancipation of women, which occurred in many countries during the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, had a profound effect upon the family law and marital property." Previously, virtually all of a woman's property was given over to her husband, usually automatically, upon marriage.
The age for marriage has also undergone change. Quoting from page 170, as above: "Historically, the attitude of the English common law was that a person under seven years lacked the mental ability to consent to marriage, between seven years and puberty there could be consent but not a consummated marriage. At common law, therefore, the marriage of a person between the age of seven and 12 or 14 was `inchoate' and would become `choate' on reaching puberty, if no objection was raised." In point of fact, it is a return to something very similar to this value system which would seem to be appropriate at the present point in time. So, when I present my proposal in this regard, do not claim it to be unprecedented, for clearly, it is not.

Family structure has undergone a great deal of change throughout historical times. The present trend in the law is to force all but the richest of us into households consisting of a single nuclear family, which is defined as parents and their immediate children.84 But much larger extended families were common in other civilizations. For example, in Rome, the family law gave extreme power to the patriarch (oldest living father), who had the right to control every aspect of the lives of his family, including the right to kill his sons. The patriarch was the guardian of his sons for as long as the patriarch lived, and thus the custom was that each son would marry and bring the new wife and any resulting children to live at the home of the patriarch. In later times, this custom persisted primarily among royalty and other very wealthy individuals.
Regardless of structure, however, the family unit has certain basic functions which do not vary from culture to culture: 1) it provides a physical security for each individual family member because it maintains a "home" where each member is theoretically welcome; 2) it provides a similar psychological security and provides the most fundamental sense of "belonging" which it is possible for an individual to possess; 3) it provides sexual satisfaction, which is usually seen as an important reward for establishing the marital relationship (but it should also be noted that only 54 out of 250 cultures which were studied by one research team were found to forbid premarital liaisons between unrelated persons of the opposite sex); 4) a family provides for procreation and child socialization; 5) it provides a simplified way of regulating sexual behavior; 6) the family is the basic unit of social and economic life; and 7) the family contributes to social order by providing for an initial level of supervision for all of its members, primarily through discipline of the children by the parents, but occasionally in other ways.85
In essence, the family is the building block for all larger social units. It is truly symptomatic of the deep difficulties in which we now find ourselves when we are forced to admit that our most fundamental social unit is in tremendous trouble as an institution. If the family is in trouble, those difficulties permeate all of our other social institutions as a natural consequence of the family being the fundamental social unit. So it is that the pundits now decry the failure of parents to take sufficient interest in the schooling of their children. This failure is then blamed, in turn, for the failure of the schools to properly educate those same children.
The "dirty little secret" of this, however, is the fact that economic pressures have forced women to take "regular jobs" in order to earn enough money for the family to afford everything which we have declared that the family needs. If the parents fail to provide for the proper feeding, clothing, lodging, and so forth of their children, our society will throw them into jail. If both parents are gone 9 to 12 hours a day, who is watching the kids? Well, for the affluent, it is some form of day care. For the poor, it is all to common that the answer is: the kids are assigned to watch out for each other. That may be all well and good for basic supervision (i. e., baby-sitting), but how does this result in the transmission of our cultural values to our young? It cannot, because only adults can be the source of the kind of supervision and instruction which is necessary for all of our children.
In essence, the source of our social troubles today is the natural consequences of forcing our people to live as nuclear families with both (or all) adults working outside of the home. The exceptions to this are for the very affluent, who can afford to live on one income, and the very poor, where the women are forced into a role as the sole "head of household" in order to qualify for welfare. Under the welfare reform proposals which are now in various stages of implementation, we are in the process of forcing even welfare mothers into the work force. Single parent welfare families have enough troubles without having to address the problems of finding adequate day care for the kids so that mom can work.86 While welfare reform is being touted as pro-family, in fact it is just the opposite. It will tend to destroy what little family life these poorest of our citizens enjoy. As if the innocent children in these welfare families did not have enough problems, this will only add to their troubles, as we remove the only parent they know from their family.
There is no way to avoid the fact that the family was, is, and will most likely always be the basic building block of our society. The only rational alternative to having families would seem to be turning our children over to state run institutions, sort of like orphanages, which would take all of the responsibility for turning out functional citizens. However, this option is not likely to be acceptable to our citizenry for any number of obvious reasons.
If there is going to be a solution to the social ills which confront us, that solution must begin with a restructuring of our most basic social unit, the family. In essence, that is the principal purpose of this book: to foster such a restructuring. However, before we begin the discussions of that subject, we must first put it all into context, for it is only in context that the obvious answers emerge.

We often forget to mention the importance of tribal communities, particularly in the context of civilized people. While tribes are the only state form recognized by primitive people, as soon as a larger social order develops, tribes become an artificial designation, as in ancient Rome, or a forgotten attribute, as in our modern society.
But if families are the basic building block of society, that infers that there are some larger social groups into which families are organized. As is discussed below, the obvious aspects of government occur based upon residence in cities, counties, states, and nations. There are a number of other pseudo-tribal organizations, which would include churches and clubs of various kinds. Our modern churches have the most in common with primitive tribes because in each case the members are bound together by a common belief system. Also, you tend to be "born into" a particular church, and most people do not change their church affiliation during their lifetime.
A primitive tribe also has a genetic identity because its members are all related by blood to one degree or another.87 Since churches formed the principal social institution within which young men could meet available young women, churches have always been a natural meeting ground for people who would marry one another. Thus, it has always been considered "proper" to marry someone from your own church and "improper" (but still mostly tolerated) to marry someone from another church. In ancient times, when people of different faiths married one another, one of the soon to be married young people would be expected to convert to the church of the other before the ceremony could be performed. All of this is basic tribal behaviors.
Other social organizations in our society display these and other tribal behaviors in their operation, at least to some degree. A tribe almost invariably has a formal leader and a series of assistants to the leader. Each organization in our civilized society has these same things. Viewed abstractly, there are lots of tribes in modern times.
But we must remember that the basic reason for the existence of tribes is that it enhanced the chances of survival. In other words, a group of several families living together as a tribe was more likely to survive in any given set of circumstances than was a single family living alone in the wilderness. In fact, single families living alone need to go to extraordinary lengths to survive for more than a few years or a single generation. This imposes such hardships, with such a large chance of failure, that survival is not too likely for historical periods of time.
So it is that people who found pleasure living orderly lives as members of tribes found it much easier to survive, while those who rejected tribal rules and regulations were quite likely not to live for very long at all. Tribes are thus pro-survival entities, and if there is presently a lack in our nuclear families, it is a lack of organizing those families into tribes for the purposes of survival.

Each civilization has some state form which it adopts. For the ancient Greeks, it was the city-state. Modern life in the United States recognizes formal governmental units of cities, counties, states, and the nation as a whole. There are also numerous special districts, such as school districts, water districts, and so forth, that are basically merely instrumentalities of the formal government units, even if they have different governing boards.
However, the principal defining element of each of these state forms is a boundary drawn on a map. Thus, geography defines the state, not the people who comprise it. This is an essential distinction. The state has no natural relationship to its people, which makes it impossible for the state to fulfill the survival needs of the people who comprise the governed citizenry. In other words, the state cannot fulfill the needs of the individual for belonging to a tribe.
There are practical aspects of each known state form which contribute to this. The most obvious is that most of these governments manage so much geography and so many people that individualized attention is impossible. Only in the smallest of rural communities can the formal government have enough knowledge and caring to intervene in the individual families which comprise that government.
I believe that part of the longing that many of us feel for simplified rural lifestyles is really a yearning for being part of a tribe, and then finding no fulfillment of those tribal longings in our complex modern society. At its base, we crave individual attention, and we cannot easily achieve that attention as members of a large group.
The key, then, is to foster the development of groups of families into pseudo-tribes which can fulfill the needs we have for belonging to a larger community that has the time and energy available to give us each some significant amount of attention. There is a natural attraction for this buried deep within us, and if a solution to our present social ills awaits discovery, we would do well to examine a return to tribal organizations as the next social unit up from the nuclear family.

The most basic social value of our society is "law and order." What does this really mean? It means that we all agree to live our lives in accordance with a system of laws that theoretically protects us all from one another. The resulting "order" is what allows us to call ourselves "civilized."
The opposite of "law and order" is anarchy.88 While numerous anarchists have made proposals for anarchy as the basis of civilization, all such proposals are so totally impractical that most of us give them no serious thought. While the law is a thin veneer indeed, it keeps me from blowing away my neighbor in a fit of pique, and will generally also keep my neighbor from doing the same to me. By definition, anarchy has no rules, and is the absence of "order" in our society. While it gives each individual the maximum amount of freedom, and is thus attractive to those who see freedom as the paramount value of them all, anarchy also requires each individual to live in complete fear of what somebody else might do without consequence to themselves.89
We should recognize that our concepts of "family values" and "law and order" are nearly synonymous with each other. If we promote one, we promote them both. If one is failing, then probably both are failing. What our society really needs is a philosophy which can be easily transmitted to our young and which promotes these key values.

84 I am talking here about zoning laws which restrict the number of individuals who may occupy a given home based upon the number of bedrooms, the ages and genders of the inhabitants, and their status as related or unrelated individuals. It is also interesting to note that only a few communities in the most populated areas will even allow a so-called "granny flat" to be part of the dwelling unit. This type of accommodation is usually described as a one room apartment, about 800 square feet total, and with kitchen facilities included. Such simple types of dwelling units, common in historical times, are now all but banned as primary dwelling units here in the United States (except in the most rural areas).

85 For example, there was a trend for a while for kids to turn their parents in on drug charges. But any kid with half a brain knows that the kids will be placed into foster care if they turn their parents in, so this is a fairly rare occurrence.

86 Of course, this is no different than what the "single parent working poor" families face.

87 All tribes have acquired members either voluntarily or involuntarily in various ways from other tribes existing around them. This is partly related to "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" syndrome, which is a pro-survival instinct. Our genetic diversity as a species is enhanced by breeding outside of our own tribes from time to time.

88 Anarchy is defined as "1. a state of society without government or law. 2. political and social disorder due to the absence of governmental control . . . . 3. a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society. 4. confusion; chaos; disorder . . . ." (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, 1993.) It could be rationally stated that the opposite of anarchy is slavery, and that our modern system of "law and order" actually falls somewhere in between the two extremes of anarchy and slavery. Nonetheless, a total absence of "law and order" would, in fact, be anarchy, so I stand by the sentence in that context.

89 If I killed my neighbor, would anyone care enough to retaliate? Kitty Genovese would probably argue in the negative. Of 38 neighbors within earshot of her brutal murder, none of them even called the police. The fact that 38 of them heard her being killed was only discovered as a result of the police investigation which occurred after her dead body was found.

Copyright 1994-1999 by the Agnostic Church

Please send us your feedback!

Previous Page/Table Of ContentsNext Page