Collin Boots | The superiority of secular morality

The Devil’s Advocate | Why do we think religion is required for morality when godless morality may well serve us better?

· April 30, 2014, 6:11 pm   ·  Updated May 2, 2014, 4:46 pm

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“W h ere do you get your morality from?”

As an atheist, I get this question far more often than I should. More often than not, the phrase also carries the unsettling implication that were it not for the patient instruction of my religious neighbors and parents, I would surely slip into total moral skepticism and pursue hedonistic desires with no concern for the wellbeing of others.

To be clear, only a fringe few actually declare, “Atheists have no morals.” Rather, the claim is that atheists have no basis for morality and that credit for any moral actions performed by a non-believer must necessarily be given to the gods.

Religion has claimed a monopoly on morality for so long that we infidels are forced to explain ad nauseam why we think murder is morally reprehensible. I am tired of conceding the moral high ground to religion by default. Today, I want to reverse that situation and show why secular moral systems are superior to their non-secular counterparts.

I do not mean that secular individuals generally behave better than religious individuals. I’m speaking strictly of systems of morality that claim unique access (usually via divine revelation) to an objective, transcendent and universal morality.

Such systems offer the illusion of moral certainty and the false comfort of simplicity. Consider the pronouncement “thou shalt not kill.” So simple and absolute — surely not something that could be debated as a valid moral precept, right? Why then do we find it necessary in our society to distinguish between several degrees of murder and manslaughter? What about the moral status of armed conflict, euthanasia, self-defense, abortion or the death penalty? Suddenly the apparently simple moral truth cries out for exception and nuanced reconsideration.

In truth, morality is complex and difficult. We do ourselves no favors by clinging to black-and-white statements as religious systems are wont to do.

In contrast, secular moral systems are amenable to modification. As our moral knowledge grows, we are guaranteed to encounter new confounding scenarios which challenge our moral assumptions. Secular systems readily incorporate new information, while history demonstrates religious moral systems tend to lag behind. You’ve already thought of several examples I’m sure.

Secular systems also surpass revealed morality in the key issue of moral authority. We realize as very young children that as answers go, “because I said so” is among the least satisfying our parents could offer. Yet in the case of morality, “because God says” or “because scripture says” is often claimed to be the final word on the subject. Moral authority should be internally accepted by those who are affected by it, not externally imposed by an entity that claims itself above reproach.

The last superiority of secular morality I’ll discuss is conflict resolution. When two parties are in moral conflict, how do we resolve those differences? Secular systems can attempt to work out disagreements from a framework of shared axioms through rational argument. We can start from general principles like “life is generally preferable to death,” “pleasure is generally preferable to pain” and “helping is generally better than harming” and build from there.

On the other hand, authority-based systems can only resolve conflicts by converting their opponent from one authority to another. Non-secular systems often claim to have unwitting secular adherents, but the infidel can have no say in debating the will of God without joining the flock.

Religion has been around for millennia discussing moral issues all along, so it would be asinine of me to say that religion has absolutely nothing to add to our knowledge of moral truths and values. But that’s the biggest of advantage of secular morality: Religious people can and do partake in it. Religious participants in secular moral systems have just as much to contribute to our collective understanding of right and wrong.

As an example, I offer my favorite quote from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism:

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

That’s one of the most beautiful and succinct summaries of a humanist ethic I’ve ever read. Wesley’s only error was thinking we needed God to follow it.

Collin Boots is a master’s student studying robotics from Redwood Falls, Minn. Email him at cboots@seas.upenn.edu or follow him @LotofTinyRobots.

Update: This article was heavily inspired by the work of Matt Dillahunty. I should have included that credit in the initial submission. Matt's talk on morality can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjbdWGre370

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