What is the most important attribute of human societies? Among the important are inquisitiveness, sense of beauty, technical cleverness, and affectionate bonding. I am musing about that this rainy morning in Atlanta; maybe that’s what rainy days are for. My unhurried reflection has yielded this proposition: The most important societal characteristic is ethics, known outside a philosophy class as morality.
Most of the other admirable human qualities would be admirable even if there were no other humans around. That’s why I specified humans in societies, whether the society is two or seven billion. At the point where you or me turns into you and me, morality becomes important to the quality of life and sometimes to life itself. Moreover, morality works best when its features are consensual or, at least, widely known—hence, moral codes.
Since it seems all human societies have rules that we would call morality, one can make the case that we have a genetic predisposition to morality. But the need is so obvious that one could credit our big, analytic brains for filling that need. I’m not knowledgeable enough to have an informed opinion on that nature/nurture issue. But whether inherited or learned, humans are in a position to recognize the need, argue the specifics, and continually improve our codes.
On this challenge, the ball is in our park. There is no supernatural source for laying down the rules. If there were, we’d have even more trouble deciding which presumed cosmic influence to heed. Besides, those ghostly powers seem, by and large, more interested in how we pay them tribute than how we treat each other. (Christians: take a look at the vaunted Ten Commandments…either set.) The upshot is that intelligent pursuit of morality is contaminated with religious beliefs.
People make up religions (religions other than one’s favorite, at any rate!) that set out rules of morality, albeit conflated with rules of piety. Having created religion, adherents then claim the rules are commandments from the supernatural. We are thus relieved of responsibility for the rules themselves, no matter how outlandish. Karl Georg Buchner, 19th century German playwright and poet, put it well when he said that religions adduce morality as proof of God, then cite God in support of morality—circular reasoning, he said, “like a dog biting his own tail.”
The Pope’s condemnation of condoms for a gay population ravaged by AIDS demonstrates the substitution of religious rules for humaneness. That is the kind of contamination I mean. When the press turns to clergy for thoughtful discussion of some morality issue, it falls into the trap of thinking religion is the best—or even a credible—source for moral inquiry. That the faithful have the temerity to present their moral judgments as God-inspired is not only ludicrous but damaging to the advance of morality. Not only was slavery blessed by their God, but so was the subjugation of women and horrendous treatment of gays. The beatification of Mother Teresa, whose reputation as a living saint, hides inhumane treatment of patients under her care. The Catholic Church boldly pretends to moral authoritativeness while in the shadows it exposed young people to abusive priests. Gott mit uns inscribed on Nazi belt buckles is silent testimony.
There’s a gravely disturbing irony in believers’ dismissive, frequently haughty labeling of nonbelievers’ morality as relativism. I’ve a friend who’s convinced his morals come from God. Actually, he goes a bit further: All real morality comes from his particular Jehovah God, despite his God’s horridly immoral behavior as reported in allegedly his own scripture. My friend recognizes that there are moral codes among unconverted souls, whether they be atheists or believers with the wrong beliefs. But those codes are like boats cut off from firm moorings. God’s code of how to behave is distinct from codes without divine provenance. It is divinely authorized and stable, not subject to the whim of mankind. To deny his God is to be forever adrift in moral relativism. His tone left no doubt he thought relativism to be evil.
But about that stability . . . To take my friend’s position requires one to disregard the changes Christian morality has gone through over the centuries and even during the past few decades. Christians of earlier ages were certain they knew God’s feelings clearly on the matter, as do Christians today. They knew so confidently that no mistreatment of dissenters was too vicious to protect their beliefs. But wait; did God change? Was all that theological confidence misdirected then, but now believers have it right? Or could that be the other way ’round? (The alleged Jesus compassionately declared that some slaves should not be beaten as hard as others, but never denounced slavery.) Are the rules relative to changing times and situations? Was slavery OK before, but not later? Or was it wrong before and the Christians who supported it misled? Could it be (gasp!) that Christians are really relativists in sheep’s clothing?
People who think they have a line straight from heaven cannot abide relativism even while they practice it. Relativism with regard to morality in their view is like walking a treacherous path with no guardrail. Viewed from the faith-supported safety and certainty of his Christian position, my friend figured that my status promotes unrestricted license. Compared to the demands of his God-given code, he thought I could do anything I wish. (I failed to ask how much worse I could get than some Christian and Muslim practices have been.) My morality must have appeared to him to be rather flimsy; after all, going assiduously by the rules is not so impressive when you can write your own rules. But there may have been an even more critical aspect of my ownership of my own morality: Since all morality comes from God, what I am doing is tantamount to playing God!
I’m not saying there is nothing to be learned or even preserved in the various moral codes religions have spawned. It is not all idiotic, though some certainly is. There are pervasive characteristics that would be wonderful to discard. In 2010, the Diocese of Phoenix punished a nun and stripped a hospital of its affiliation after doctors there performed an abortion to save the mother’s life. A substantial number of Christians have opposed lifesaving HPV immunizations because it might lead to more teenage sex. In my own life, being pressured into a religiously inspired no-sex-before-marriage commandment led my high school sweetheart and me into an ill-advised teenage marriage.
Interestingly, much of the morality propagated by Christians has a decidedly genital focus. Its emphasis on ridiculous rules about sexuality, about what one may not do with one’s genitals or even one’s healthy lust is an obsession. Christians have long disregarded long Biblical lists of sins in order to pick out a very few obscure condemnations of homosexuality (male only, by the way) to excuse near-witch hunt shunning, denigration, and even physical abuse. (In those instances, guess which party was considered immoral!) Even criticizing someone’s immorality brings to mind sexual matters more often than dishonesty, unkindness, unfair judgment, or failure to pay debts. Apart from the general morals that apply to everything, making sexuality a matter of morality at all is absurd. Despite the obsession of Christians and Muslims, there is absolutely no need for a genital morality.
The human race needs morality. But it does not need counterfeits born in bronze age ignorance and superstition. Not only is much of religious morality simply silly, by claiming a divine source it corrupts and impedes humanity’s quest to govern our behaviors toward one another in a fair and knowledgeable way. It needs to be sufficient, not overly restrictive, logical enough to command respect, and free of supernaturalism.
That would be secular humanism. For at the heart of secular humanism is commitment to and further pursuit of a sensible, just, and (where it applies) scientifically valid code of ethics.
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