Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six, I was an agnostic, meaning that I did not know if there was any kind of divine force in the universe. I lived my life accordingly, with no absolute moral values, no firm belief in absolute good or evil.
Most of my acquaintances were also agnostics or atheists. During my early twenties, many of us were pretty unhappy, for one reason or another.
When I finally left New York City and returned to my parents' hometown for a while, an old friend invited me to her large church.
There, I witnessed something shocking. People at this church were, on the whole, much happier than me and my friends. Many of those churchgoers radiated an inner peace that was deeply attractive to me, after the angst of twenty-something life in the big city.
I noticed something else, too. Their lives were not as messed up as the lives of the twenty-something crowd in New York. The churchgoers' lives weren't filled with "drama" caused by poor choices in romantic relationships or involuntary behavior under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Those churchgoers had trials, but their trials were not self-inflicted.
As a nonbeliever, I came to a startling realization. Vice was bad for me, and for everyone else who participated in it! That included everything from the minor vices like smoking to the more significant self-destructive habits like drugs or casual sex. Living a clean life according to absolute principles of right and wrong was actually a path more likely to help me avoid sorrow and despair.
For most of human history since the advent of Christ, and especially in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, believers and non-believers alike were told quite regularly that indulging in vice would bring them sadness and ruin. Conduct books and novels abounded in which young people could see tempters and seducers at work. Young girls were taught that many men might attempt to take advantage of them or lie to them in order to sleep with them. Literature and news sources emphasized the daily struggle of the average person against temptations that could literally ruin their lives.
These public, Christianity-laced teachings were very democratic, because everyone had equal access to them. Rich and poor alike had the chance to hear what the consequences of vice--the wages of sin--would likely be.
Nowadays, our social culture is much less democratic. Many young people never hear that a lifestyle full of vice will be very likely to lead them to deep misery. Even something as cut-and-dried as adultery is no longer understood by the vast majority of people who choose to do it. A tragically-high proportion of first-time adulterers don't realize what they're getting themselves into until it is too late. They simply aren't educated. I don't offer this as an excuse for their behavior, but I do pity them. Many of them will say in retrospect: "If only I had known what it would do to my marriage and my family, I would never have taken that first fatal step."
Back in the olden days, they would have known. Public discourse would have given them a fighting chance of understanding that vice and temptation would take away everything they held dear, and they and their loved ones would never be the same.
If there were one thing I could communicate to non-believing friends today that they could believe without having to convert first, it would be this: scriptural principles are not there to suffocate you into conformity or to blight your life. They are there to help you. And if you look around, you will find that the vast majority of the time, the cultural evidence supports my statement. Once in a blue moon, you'll find someone who has fashioned an imitation of happiness without any attempt to do good, be loyal, or serve others. But for the vast majority, vice brings people down. No matter how they try to make their lives look from the outside.