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.

Hammurabi receives his law code from the god, Shamash

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.

20 thoughts on “A Secular Ethics?

  1. I wonder whether secularism really does itself a disservice by always focusing on ethics. It plays straight into the hands of the secular vs religious debate – and ultimately, I think, misses the point.

    Secularism, particularly in the 21st Century, is more akin to oxygen; it is the atmosphere within which we live, breathe and have our being. It is a not a specific focus on ethics, state, law or whatever comes under the microscope. It just *is* the horizon within which people live and think. Within that they start to work out what that *means* in terms of how they live their lives, etc. In that respect, a good secular ethic is deeply pragmatic.

    What worries me about “secular ethics” is that is actually ends up being no better in status that “religious ethics” and two ideological parties slogging it out with each other. Time for a new strategy. Forget “secular ethics”. Much like the end of Candide, it is simply time to tend the garden. Then secularism will find its voice among the other gardeners who tend their gardens and allotments every day of the week. It’s not something ‘above’ or something ‘different’.

    • Rob: It may–and this worry is probably reflected in old divisions as between the NSS and the BHA and RPA and the Ethical Society (rip) in the UK and equivalent fissures in American humanism. I do think the situation is “peculiar” in Foggy Bottom however because of its weird religious beginnings that still have it by the throat and where most of the battles are still over morality. So I can’t quite persuade myself that the definition of secularity is constant. Here it is so governed by preposterous claims that religion and morality are convertible terms, which in Europe would be an eighteenth century battle and here wins elections.

      • I repeat a comment which was not published. It constitutes a formadable alternative approach to the Rational and the Mytical.
        It is stated in the thought of Wolfgang Pauli one of the 8 physicists named as the world’s greatest (Ouantum Questions by Ken Wilber) all sharing the belief that both science and religion, physics and spirituality were necessary for a complete and full integral approach to reality. In terms of sheer itellectual brillance Pauli was probably second to no physicists of this or any period (according to Max Born, Pauli’s genius exceeded even that off Einstein): “Repeatedly, we encounter in Pauli an indeavor to breatk out of the accustomed groves of thought in order to come closer, by by new paths, to an understanding of the unitary structure of the world. (To embrace the Rational and the Mystical)
        It goes without saying that Pauli, in his wrestling with the “One” was also continually abliged to come to terms with the concept of God; when he writes in a letter of the “theologians to whom I stand in the archetypal relation of a hostile brother”, this remark is certianly seriously intended. Little as he was in the position of simply living and thinking within the tradition of one of the old religions (Christianty), so equally little was he prepared to go to a naive, rationalistically grounded atheism. Pauli writes in the concluding section of his lecture on science and Western thought:
        “I believe, however, that to anyone for whom a rationalism has lost its persuasiveness, and to whom the charm of a mystical attitude, experiencing the outer world in its oppressive multiciplicity
        as illusory, is also not powerful enough, nothing else remains but to expose oneself in one way or another to these intensified appositions and conflicts. (the Rational and the Mystical). Precisely by doing so, the inquirer can also more or less consciously tread an inner path to salvation. Slowly there then emerge internal images , or Ideas to compensate the outer stucture, and which show an approach to the poles of the antitheses to be possible. Warned by the miscarriage of all premature endeavors after unity in the history of human thought, I shall not venture to make predictions about the future. But, cotrary to the strict division of the activity of the human spirit into sparate departments – a division prevailing since the 19th century – I consider the ambition of overcoming opposites, including also a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, to be the mythos, spoken or unspoken, of our present day and age.”

      • Ed said “..synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity.”

        Very Hindo-European, of course, and t’was always thus, Wolfie notwithstanding. IMHO what is missing on our ship of state is the rudder, an awareness and dedication to our species – yes, Humanism.

        We shall dance like dervishes until we find partners.

    • I completely agree, Rob. Let’s take a thousand years to tend our planet garden, and harmonize with it, ourselves and our prospects.

      There is no need to chase religion all the way to its lair, better to lure out its children with dreams of our/their own. I prefer the approach of assuming our religious beliefs to be private, and of enforcing the separation of church and state. Religion is then twice removed from discourse.

      Maybe we can quote the privacy regulations – my address is sacred but my beliefs are yours to proscribe?? Seriously, religious acrimony should be honored in the breach – lift up thine eyes.

      Ethically, assume that we are a species, and by definition that we are natural and loving kin to each other, as we are. Ethics do not exist, but responsibility and character most certainly do, and therein lies our fate, as Heraclitus was wont to advise us.

    • Here is an example of Humanism in full cry, remaking the old constructs and appellations. Could this happen in the USA? In the Churches?

      The Lisbon Treaty has retained most of the institutional changes of the failed Constitutional Treaty. However, all references in the treaty text to symbols of constitutionalism, including flag, anthem and motto, have been removed. Furthermore, legislative acts will not be called laws and framework laws, but retain the old names of regulations and directives.</i?

      (from http://tinyurl.com/68ayzw9 )

  2. Interesting how you cite Paul Kurtz but always use the term secularist and not Humanist. Mind you, if you depart the train simply at the point of non-belief and add nothing further to the conversation, the secularist is apropos, granted, as it was for Kurtz in this instance.

    Yet just as an American politician dare not cite non-belief, it is so hard to get a modern intellectual to embrace or avow the notion of Humanism and run with it further down the line. It is as if we are caught up in a binary star situation wherein one always rotates about the other.

    Thus we are deprived of any competing vision for their religious imagery and dreams – it is as if that camp decried our heathen lot and centered on our apostasy and did little else, such as enjoying their own fellowship, ritual, family structures et alia. Which they do not.

    Why is Humanism a truth that dare not speak its name? Where is the inspiration and synthetic concepts that will drive their imaginations?

    • Good point. Shuttlecock? I think that the concern here is with secularism per se. Secular humanism has acquired an unfortunate/restricted meaning as a circumlocution for atheism. That is not its genesis, or what Paul Kurtz meant by it. I think its a little like hybridizing roses, Dwight: you takes your red, you takes your white, you gets neither in return. Just to stick with the gardening theme.

      • Granted, the hijacking of Humanism by atheists for its cachet and finery has been very damaging, yet secularism may signal the day H clears their prison gates. Rob claims that day has come for some time now, and I do agree.

        From dungeon rags we can then assemble something that is (again) of our own cloth and tailoring.

  3. More years ago than I would like to admit, I stumbled across a definition that I have recalled many times since. It says very simply: “An Intellectual is someone who wants to change everybody’s life but his own.” (I say “his” because back in the day, women weren’t allowed pronouns.)

    It’s the intellectuals, after all, who besiege us with their ideologies. But unless the ideology is specifically directed at filling some need, and has sufficient crowd appeal, it ain’t going nowhere.

    At issue in Secular Ethics, to me anyway, is and always has been that the leaders of the movement, Kurtz included, fail to account for and develop a workable strategy for dealing with the visceral, tribal, multi-generational attachment that believers have to their religion, especially of the theistic kind. Case in point, the Roman Catholic Church. Yes they have lost some of their flock, and many of the clergy are leaving too (and are not being replaced,) yet the Church is still standing. This, in the face of blatant betrayal and glaring hypocrisy, and even outright criminality. But, the tribal instinct is too strong, the belief in magic too great. 1.2 billion Catholics are just simply not going to descend on the Vatican to turn in their rosaries. Not that they don’t get it, it’s just that they don’t want to get it. It would be like asking them to give up their most comfortable pair of shoes for a pair of beach sandals. (OK, make up your own damn metaphor.)

    I agree with and support everything you say. But, saying it won’t change anybody’s life unless the anybody, like the addict, is willing to change, and come to realize that the benefits of doing something outweigh the costs of doing nothing. It’s a hard sell. But, if we could get some 2 x 4’s . . . .

  4. @ Dwight: Re Lisbon: No, couldn’t happen. Re Humanism. Just want to stress that this is the way I think of myself, as a humanist: but along with (many) others, I don’t want to muddy the term. It seems to me that in society and in choice making we are secular, and that in terms of affirming life. loving, feeling, seeing and appreciating art, music, and ideas we are humanists. If secular humanist works so be it. If it doesn’t feel a bit too cramped, terrific. I suggest the “phrase” has been hijacked and needs sorting out, and that what is worse, has been hijacked in a devalued way by people who think that simply not believing in God is an end in itself. In other times, the movement Paul Kurtz started was all about avoiding that superstition.

  5. The trouble for me with ‘secular ethics’ is that it seems to be a term without a referent. As a secular humanist of long standing, I can’t find any vestige in myself of any kind of ethical or moral code. I make all my decisions the same way, on the basis of their consequences for me and the people I care for, and that goes for whether I am deciding to accept a new job or to poison the neighbour’s dog. Both have positives; both have negatives; both will have consequences that I have to live with later. I simply don’t see the line which so many people want to draw between them which allegedly makes one a ‘moral’ decision.

    So my view is that talk about ‘secular ethics’ is talk about nothing, and for the sake of meaningful communications it should be replaced with something like ‘rational decision making’ or ‘evidence-based behaviour’. Just as in other areas of atheist activism, all I really want is for people to behave consistently across the board, not to divide up their activities into ‘religious/moral’ and ‘secular’.

    • I like your suggestion, Jon, of starving out the concept of secular ethics. Ethics is a quasi-religious term, suggesting authority beyond one’s self.

      A good place to start might be to teach Greek and Renaissance Humanism as a subject in schools. Start in the private schools, perhaps. If that takes hold, others may follow.

      Instill notions of civic duty, character development, personal responsibility. Review the history of the Spartans, and their unadorned passion.

      The decency that was found in earlier generations of Brits may not have been forged on the playing fields of Eton, but rather in their rooting in the classics. No need to understand Greek to see what purity of thought and emotion they had long before the arrival of churches.

  6. If a ninety year old poverty stricken, Irish peasant woman went into a church to light a candle for her recently departed husband, the atheist would blow out the candle…the humanist would give her a hug. There’s your difference.

    • Priceless, Aren’t stereotypes useful. If a twelve year old boy walked into the same Church, what would the priest do?

      • Well, as Nietzsche once observed..”It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book”

  7. This may sound a little sophomoric here, but has anyone thought about what the world would look like with NO religion? Is this possibly a case of being careful what you wish for? Would we eventually end up like Mr. Spock with his somewhat cold but highly refined Vulcan intellect, while painfully struggling with his emotional, human side that he got from his mother? Would our right brain begin to atrophy? Would our left brain start bulging out of our heads? Would we get pointy ears and be able to make a four-fingered “V”?

    Or, do we somehow need the baggage that comes with religion? Would we be able to make progress with a completely homogeneous worldview? Would the effort to establish secular ethics on a global basis be a reasonable objective or something of an overreach? Is there an acceptable middle ground?

    Huh? Anybody? Huh? Huh?

    • I push the idea of 1000 summers as a human project, assisted by cloning to help out with mortality, which can be an irritation. Next, we lift up our eyes to the heavens, all the way to Venus, and terra-form another Earth, now a project in Japan, IMHO. Work with me here…

      Finally, we replace the military cartels with pensions for all, sort of like reverse defense budgets. We keep contributing as demes and cantons to a common pension fund, which is universal. Your clone continues it. So we’re dollar-driven.

      Money, after all, is the one true old-time religion, common to all. Ask his Holiness if a pension is right for you…

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