A Secular Ethics?
Radical secularism calls for radically secular moral alternatives to religious ethics. No one has been more vigorous in his defense of this project than Paul Kurtz.
I have claimed frequently on this site that if skepticism at a minimum, and unbelief at the extreme, is a kind of prerequisite to such a project, it’s not because either position is self-affirming. It is because whether God does or does not exist, the secularist believes that human values are made by humans and do not originate on mountaintops. Even if one believed in a God who demanded obedience to such laws, it would be the duty of the secularist to defy him.
Religious doctrine calls itself into question because it has lingered into an age where religious explanations of the world and human choice are no longer persuasive. In the long run, it is the failure of the Church, the mosque, and the synagogue to explain and to persuade that leads to skepticism and atheism, the loss of faith, and the erosion of ethical absolutism. It is the death of belief in a god whose laws rule both the universe and human choice, as Sartre said, that invites human beings to construct a system of values that deals with a world shot through with doubt about the old explanations and mythologies.
Some people continue to maintain that there is a law of God, that this law is sovereign over conscience and that all other law is subordinate to it. It is probably true that these people have a very imperfect understanding of science, history and the development of ideas. In general, a secular humanist would consider this view malignant in the sense that it is not harmless: that it has both moral and political consequences, and that when it is enforced or advocated in educational or democratic contexts it is toxic and has to be defeated.
For that reason, secularism, and secular ethics can never be quiet about religion. It must place the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of people who believe unsupportable truth claims based on the authority of faith. These people may belong to any religious group, and they exist in every corner of the cornerless world. What they have in common is the fantasy that rules and laws crafted in the first millennium before the common era have not merely historical interest but eternal force. That is the position that secularism opposes. There is a “secular moral imperative” to resist this kind of thinking in the same way that there is a duty to call attention to error in other factual domains–especially the sciences.
There are others who believe that God exists, that not much can be known about the subject, and that there is no special connection between the life we lead, or the moral choices we make, and this belief. This position might seem to make the existence of God superfluous, irrelevant or a matter of diffidence–the sum of the difference between two equal improbabilities.
Secularism, it seems to me, has no reason to quarrel with people who believe in what Kurtz has called the “common moral decencies,” and lead a life committed to the discovery of virtues and moral excellence without the dictates of revelation and divine law. For the same reason we use metaphors of love, hope and compassion to describe states that are essentially emotional, there is no additional privilege to be gained by insisting on the rejection of all conceptions of God. Yet the more personal and “described” this being is, the greater the risk of identifying it with the gods of mythology–the gods whose rules are seldom relevant to the planet we occupy. For that reason, a secularist may insist that any idea of god is an idea too far. It’s at the point of this insistence that secularism and unbelief converge.
As in all ethical matters, the primary nostrum for secularists is “to do good and to do no harm” (Hippocrates). Like other ideological systems based entirely on human wit and imagination, religious beliefs are accountable to the ancient formula. A secular ethic will always require that this interrogation take place–that religion enjoys no privileged status based on assertions of authority that are widely regarded as untrue.