Morality in secular humanism

When I’d been an atheist for no more than two years, one of my sisters put this question to the 22 year old me: “Even if you believe there’s no God, how can you not believe Christianity offers the highest standards of morality?” In the past few months, two Christian friends implied that without God, there’d be no morality. But just because many people wish for an authoritative, supernaturally dictated moral code does not mean there is one.

Some Christian apologists maintain that atheism is wrong because it leaves humans without a set code of morality—obviously a cart-before-the-horse argument. It isn’t uncommon for Christians to laud their supposedly God-given moral standards and either rage against or pity those who don’t recognize the superior source and, accordingly, the superior properties claimed for Christian morality.

Morals driven by religion are not of a higher standard, but are more flawed—some merciless enough to be despicable—than those attainable with reason.

A word on words: (1) Because “morals” in this discussion will be synonymous with “ethics,” the distinction I drew between them in a recent post [“The sin of sin,” Jan. 2, 2015] is not needed, therefore morals and morality will be used as secular humanists consider them, a product of reason, not presumed revelation and, happily, without the genital focus of religious morality. (2) For simplicity, I will not make overt references to Islam, though it is worse than Christianity. (3) I’ll drop secular from secular humanism, since unlike in past centuries humanism is now usually assumed to be secular.

Except in ways wherein there is overlap—that is, when religion and reason come up with identical moral judgments—religious morality is less elegant, less humane, and more packed with trivialities than that of humanism. Moreover, religious morality depends on continued belief in the god said to decree it. That’s why Christians often act as if in the absence of their faith, human morality would disastrously collapse.

The data do not support that frantic conclusion, of course. Religious people are not more humane, less criminal, more trustworthy than non-religious. The excuse that morality cannot be developed without divine intervention is simply a way of refusing our responsibility in the matter. Morality is severely damaged by the religious doctrine that our moral responsibility is to a god rather than to each other.

And whether we warm to the challenge of thinking rather than obeying, the actual human condition is not relieved by pretending that gods are in charge. After all, we made up what we then say gods said—an accusation believed even by Christians as long as it is applied to what others’ religions say God said.

The task of morality is to guide us in living with a world full of other people. As humanists approach morality, has no utility in a world of just you or just me (not true for religious morality), because it is not needed to appease an unseen, supernatural authority. Without that supernatural supposition, we must construct our own morality, for we are neither vassals nor victims. Depending slavishly on another source—whether man or spirit—to decide what is immoral renders us, like Nazi war criminals’ pretense, agents more than actors.

For persons indoctrinated in Christianity, it may be difficult to imagine a different morality or even where to get started in considering morality outside what the Bible decrees. (Of course, there’s a problem figuring out what the Bible says.) It’s a pity that we know of Jesus, but little of Epicurus, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Locke, Russell, Dewey, Kurtz, and other considerable intellects (there’s an extensive philosophical literature) who have struggled with this task.

But we can begin by using only the intelligence we apply routinely to other constructs, that is, begin with the overall, not the specifics. In this case, that would be what we could call a “master moral,” the overall reason for self-constraint, a purpose upon which further components of morality depend and which all further moral distinctions must serve. We must ask, in other words, what considerations of others’ lives constitute my overall social obligation, my ticket into the company of “good” persons.

Across diverse cultures, various forms of the Golden Rule have been widely accepted as this foundational moral value. I’m most recently attracted to the version of Michael Shermer in his 2013 book, The Moral Arc. His “golden rule” would have us base morality on the survival and flourishing of sentient beings. (He adds that it must be “based on science and reason,” but I will forego that part, perhaps raising it in a separate post.) In other words our moral code operates to prevent our natural self-interest from running roughshod over other sentient beings’ survival and flourishing.

However, neither Shermer nor anyone else is our morals Czar, so his and others’ thinking serve not to instruct but to influence. You probably noticed Shermer’s use of “sentient beings” instead of just human beings—thereby accepting a moral obligation to horses and dogs, but not to roaches and pre-sentient human embryos. It is unlikely that humanists of a thousand years ago would have thought through morality of so fine a delineation, but that serves to illustrate that morality is an evolving attribute, one that makes moral sensibility both more fluid and more relevant to the times, to new knowledge, and to new insights, for the pursuit of further moral comprehension is never-ending.

If, as Shermer (and I, I should add) considers, the basic intent of our morality is survival and flourishing of other sentient beings, it quickly becomes obvious that, on one hand, many religion-based morals we’ve been taught are unrelated to morality at all and, on the other hand, there are great moral considerations left unaddressed by religion-based morality. To a great extent, religion-based morals have long turned sensible morality upside down, ignoring the important, focusing on the trivial. Religion has tormented people about petting, sex outside marriage, divorce, smoking marijuana, enticing lust, interracial marriage, drinking alcohol, and countless other “sins.” To most, if not all humanists these prohibitions are absurd.

Contrast that with morals derived from dicta ascribed to gods and fixed in the time of being “handed down” (e.g., “do not kill” other Jews).

Consider a Muslim father who kills his daughter because she has refused to cover her appearance; she is thought to be immoral, he is thought to be moral.

Consider a Christian mother who instills damaging guilt in her son for masturbation; he is thought to be immoral, she is thought to be moral.

Consider the ill treatment of blacks in America even after slavery, shameful treatment of homosexuals and Jews worldwide, discrimination against persons of other beliefs and nationalities—all not only tolerated by religions, but given cover and even support.

In other words, contrary to some Christians’ understanding, humanist morality is not a “do it if it feels good” escape from responsibility. It is an earnestly contemplated code that is more incisive and often more restrictive than theirs, yet more freeing and cognitive of the varieties of human experience. Recognizing that we are on our own in figuring out morality demands serious and extended reflection, a thoughtful undertaking that begets greater conceptual respectability than religion can ever achieve. Religion-based morality is tied to Bronze Age supernaturalism and–if compared to present knowledge–brings with it a frightening load of ignorance. Humanist morality doesn’t spring from random and time/environment-specific considerations of ancients who believed the absurdities of evil serpents, living walking sticks, and talking bushes.

Those ancients and their progeny came up with a morality that made immoralities of thinking about sex outside marriage, playing cards, using condoms, going to motion pictures, showing (and certainly sharing) one’s body parts, having babies out of wedlock, cursing, and a long list of other such prohibitions. (Of course, any of these actions at one time or another might be stupid, dangerous, hindrances to other goals, or otherwise ill-advised. But those characteristics are not the same as immoral.) Constructing, maintaining, and improving the utility and integrity of morality is challenge enough without adding superfluous strictures; unnecessary behavioral boundaries dilute the effect of important ones. Thus, a stricter moral code is not, ipso facto, a better one. Religion-based morality is shot through with straining at gnats and swallowing camels, bursting with absurdities.

“Whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you commit atrocities,” said Voltaire, “And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.” Notice how frequently Christian morality (perhaps especially the genitally focused rules) is a small-minded misconstruction of what morality should be all about. Christians so often argue that this sophomoric, often silly misconception of morals puts them on the high road of morality. To the contrary, their religious moral code—dreamed up by the ancients, ascribed to a god, fawned over by well-intended persons who leave much of their intelligence at the church door—is itself immoral.

I must add that not all humanists would see the concrete manifestations of morality and immorality in exactly the same way as I, though they would of course agree that morality is of human origin and a human responsibility. Due to possible variation, however, I owe other humanists the courtesy of not presuming to speak for them, especially in consideration of issues more detailed than the Golden Rule. The need for that restraint will become more obvious in my next post on the moral issue of extramarital sex.

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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