Advocating or explaining secular moral values?

Micheal De Dora raises an interesting question in  Belief in God hinders even basic moral discourse over at Rationally Speaking.

What are the correct tactics for atheists when advocating secular moral values?

  • Should atheists critique theistic moral values and their justification that appeals to a divine being? Should they challenge god beliefs head on?
  • Or should atheists concentrate on pointing out that one can lead a happy, fulfilled and moral life without belief in a god? Rather than challenging god-beliefs should atheist restrict their advocacy to challenging the myth that life without a god “means a joyless, meaningless, selfish, self-centred life.” A myth promoted by many religious apologists.

It’s a question which often divides atheists. Some argue against “in-your-face” campaigns challenging god beliefs because they can “offend” and alienate people. However, theists will often respond to the less challenging approach by arguing that, yes – the non-religious can be moral but their values still come from a god whether one believes it or not. So, many atheist conclude that challenging god beliefs is an essential part of the debate. We can’t avoid it.Michael de Dora concludes that “There is simply no getting around the fact that belief in God makes for an enormous stumbling block in discourse about morality.” It the same time she does not deny the importance of promoting secular values. In a previous article he said: ” The critic of religious faith and dogma is on the same side as the promoter of secular values.” Internal squabbles about tactics loses sight of the main problem – overcoming “the staggering amount of uncritical thinking that is putting society to ruin.”

All right as far as it goes and in the real world different people naturally gravitate to different tactics. But I think there is a third avenue which she doesn’t mention. It’s an important one, it requires more effort but is already underway.

A third way

That is arguing for the scientific understanding and explanation of the nature and origins of human morality.

Consider the conflict over the nature of the solar system in Galileo’s day. On the one hand the Church advocated a geocentric universe. Putting aside the degree to which the Ptolemaic geocentric model could “describe” movement of the planets the Church had good theological and philosophical grounds for advocating geocentrism. The unique role of man, and hence the earth, in their god’s plan. The purity of the heavens compared with the profanity of the earth. And so on.

The fact that the Copernican heliocentric model could also “describe” movement of the planets was immaterial. The Church and philosophers remained with their own explanation based on their own theological and  philosophical principles.

Humanity’s change in understanding of the universe did not arise simply by advocating a heliocentric model to account for the movements of the planets. This would have been equivalent to advocacy for secular moral values without understanding the source of these values. Believers will resort to their theological and philosophical understandings as ultimate explanations of the universe or morality. These aren’t challenged.

And challenging these theological and philosophical beliefs was a long-term project. It wouldn’t, by itself, lead to adoption of a heliocentric model. Similarly with morality today, challenging god beliefs is still a long-term project. Far too long-term to see it as a way of justifying secular values.

It was the science which changed out thinking about the universe. Galileo’s astronomic observations provided empirical evidence supporting a heliocentric model. Sure, the Church treated him badly for this, but in the end empirical evidence and testing against reality defeated the theological and philosophical support for the geocentric universe.

(Of course things are never simple. Galileo’s scientific arguments actually included philosophical ideas. The science was also challenging the orthodox philosophy.)

An empirical basis for human morality

I believe that this third strategy is to offer an empirical basis for human morality. To explain its evolutionary origin and to offer an objective basis for the secular morality we advocate today. This is becoming increasingly possible because of progress in anthropology and social psychology. And also the progress in our understanding of human nature, human instincts and human intuitions. Our modern understanding of the brain, mind, consciousness and self-awareness is also relevant.

Yes, I know many people, including atheists, argue that morality is not an area of scientific study – rather it belongs to the realm of philosophy. After all academically that is where we place the study of ethics.

But isn’t this a bit like leaving the study of the universe to the theologians and philosophers in Galileo’s day? Personally I find philosophical considerations in areas like morality and free will rather sterile. When such philosophical discussions ignore our modern knowledge about the brain and human nature their considerations are rather artificial, even irrelevant.

I hasten to add that this is not the case for all philosophers. Some do make a point  of keeping up with the relevant areas of science and incorporating findings into their considerations.

Third approach already underway

There has been intense debate around the role of science in the area of morality of late. Much of it stimulated by publication of Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values“. Another stimulus has been discussion of recent findings by psychologists and philosophers working in the areas of human intuition and morality. See the links below for details.

So far this discussion has been largely restricted to scientific fora or debates among atheists. Personally I think these findings need to become part of the ongoing debate between the religious and non-religious about morality. This will mean that explanations for morality can be considered properly. By testing both the religious and scientific ideas against reality.

Such a fact-based testing of explanations is more likely to win religious people to acceptance of secular morality. Sure, this won’t work with all theists, and it may take time with many. But consideration of heliocentricims based on scientific evidence eventually won religious believers over, without them having to ditch their god beliefs. Similarly many Christians accept evolutionary science without sacrificing their god beliefs.

I see a time when most Christians will also accept secular morality, and understand the objective reasons for human morality. They will give up the arrogant claim that our values come from their god even when we don’t believe in it.

Similar articles

See also:
Deriving “ought from is” scientifically?
Telling right from wrong
Science and morality – a panel discussion
A physicist comments on science and morality
A philosopher comments on science and morality
Telling right from wrong – unreligiously
Secularism is important
Telling right from wrong?
Can science shape human values?
Waking up to morality
Sam Harris on The Daily Show
A scientific consensus on human morality
Evolution of gods, morals and violence
Is and ought
The new science of morality
Can science answer moral questions?
No gods required
Morality – from the heavens or nature?

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15 responses to “Advocating or explaining secular moral values?

  1. As a humanist (Ethical Culture) and an teacher of ethics (Hofstra University), I’ve had to deal with this for many years, especially when I was the Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of LI. But mainly it wasn’t an issue. What people really want to know is how to live their lives.
    This is the point of my book The Lost Art of Happiness, which I take as an implicit humanist manifesto.

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  2. Sounds like an interesting approach Ken.

    I have a couple of comments:
    1). Some philosophers seem to be stuck in an a priori rut of their own making. Using simple deductive models, without testing back to reality, seems like primarily an exercise in self delusion rather than illumination. Where is the rich tapestry of probabilities and unknowns that characterise actual human knowledge?

    2). This issue is ultimately a bit of a litmus test of how deeply people understand/accept evolutionary theory and it’s implications. If humans are the product of evolutionary forces, where else can human morality come from? When pressed on this point, people will need to posit and provide evidence for some other pathway (other than evolutionary processes) for morality to get baked in.

    One other pathway is of course: Revelation. So ultimately, this comes down again to an evolutionary argument grounded in science, versus the veracity and interpretation of religious texts.

    This is where I like Ken’s point. Concentrate on the evidence for the actual sources of human morality. This argument will only grow in strength with more research.

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  3. When I consider my own personal journey from a basic materialistic world view to that of a firm belief in the God of the Bible; I can say that The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ; speaking through the written scriptures and the witness of the Holy Spirit; that I was adopted into His family. I simply became of one His kids.Through many wonderful epiphanies, confirmations and such unearthly manifestations of His love and wisdom; I know whose I am and whom I serve. Never in my wildest dreams could I dream up a figment of my imagination of anything close to who The Living God; The Creator of all things, in fact is. The unraveling discovery of the person of who God is; never ceases to amaze me. I really was set upon by the hounds of Heaven who chased me down into submission. I did not choose Him; He chose me. Paul writes that we love God; because He first loved us. Seasons change; there are trials and tribulations, I am a frail human being, I have hang ups and silly fears; but He still loves me and makes a way for me. Thank God that He is the centre of the universe and not me. It has been purely the irresistable Grace of God that never fails; that drew me and I found myself on the Light side of Life. I profoundly abdicated egocentrism; it fell off around me like a cocoon or husk and now I get to enjoy knowing that Christ suffered and substituted His earthly life for me; and welcomes each of His brethren into the power of His ressurected and indestructible life with Him. It is a real journey with a real living loving God. In CS Lewis’s Narnia; Lucy has only just freshly popped through the wardrobe and met a few really crazy talking animals; she hears of Aslan; The Lion; and as a timid little girl at the unerving point of being confronted with the unknown; she asks, quite naturally; “Is he safe?” Mrs. Beaver; responds with;” Oh no Deary; he is not safe; but He is good.” The real life giving Christian walk is certainly not for the faint hearted. He presents us with life and allows us to grow continually out of the misty mirky unknowns of the fallen state of the Adamic man; being continually translated into a a new and living mankind born from heaven; offering us a wealth of adventures; over coming challenges, maturing in love and mercy, vanquishing villians, working through grief, multifaceted personal discoveries, servanthood, humility, dignity, empathy, wisdom, nobility, temporary rest and recooperation; and a gathering up in the victory shout to rise again to it’s call! I do not deserve this great grace and awesome love; and I choose not to spurn so magnificent a salvation. I admire intellectual endeavours and folk who try to make it happen in their own capacities. But I also pray that their true seeking will be rewarded gloriously and serendipitously.

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  4. I wonder when I get a comment like this from Les if it is not best to treat it as spam. It really is no different. Quite unrelated to the article and advertising something.

    Really it’s just a form of religious wanking. OK in private or with like minded adults but why set out to offend others with it?

    Oh well, I guess it can beveled girca bit if himour. Can’t see any other use for it.

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  5. When I consider my own personal journey from a basic materialistic world view to that of a firm belief in the God of the Bible……you feel this strange urge to burden the Intenet with your random babbling?
    Lucky us.

    I can say that The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ; speaking…

    What? A god speaks to you? Did you record it on an MP3 or something?

    … speaking through the written scriptures and the witness of the Holy Spirit…

    Oh, how disappointing.
    You really mean you just read your bible and you felt all warm and runny inside.
    Nuts.
    Hearing the real voice of a god would be so much more interesting.
    A god speaking to you is just so much better than a god “speaking” to you.
    Hmm.

    …that I was adopted into His family. I simply became of one His kids.

    Yes, you are “one of His kids”. A child that has an invisible magic daddy.
    He never calls you.
    He never gives you presents on your birthday.
    When you are sick, he never drives you to the doctor.
    He’s never there to say “Hi” to the other dads at school.
    For all the good he does you, you might as well hang out with Zeus.
    He’s invisible too.
    (shrug)

    Through many wonderful epiphanies, confirmations and such unearthly manifestations of His love and wisdom; I know whose I am and whom I serve.

    No actual telephone calls though. Nothing independently verifiable, right?
    Hmm, does sound a lot like Zeus.

    Never in my wildest dreams could I dream up a figment of my imagination of anything close to who The Living God; The Creator of all things, in fact is. The unraveling discovery of the person of who God is; never ceases to amaze me. I really was set upon by the hounds of Heaven who chased me down into submission. I did not choose Him; He chose me.

    Yes, of course. He “chose” you. Just like he “spoke” to you.

    Seasons change; there are trials and tribulations, I am a frail human being, I have hang ups and silly fears; but blah, blah, invisiblemagicman, blah, blah, invisiblemagicman, blah, blah…

    Fondle those live snakes. Roll around on the floor. Foam at the mouth as you speak in tounges and wet your pants. Can I have an “Amen”?

    (Some guy in the back wails out “Aaaaymen”)

    Thank you, brother, thank you. Thank you Jaysus, thank you.

    It is a real journey with a real living loving God.

    How do you actually know this? Is there some way you can express yourself without sounds batty?

    In CS Lewis’s Narnia; Lucy has only just freshly popped through the wardrobe and met a few really crazy talking animals…

    Oh dear. Now you’re starting to quote a fantasy novel with “crazy talking animals”.
    (It’s just not possible to do a parody of this kind of stuff. I’m going to just let it stand by itself and gaze on in horror.)

    …she hears of Aslan; The Lion; and as a timid little girl at the unerving point of being confronted with the unknown; she asks, quite naturally; “Is he safe?” Mrs. Beaver; responds with;” Oh no Deary; he is not safe; but He is good.” The real life giving Christian walk blah, blah, blah…

    Your “humbleness” and “humility” are a transparent joke.
    Every sentence you spend glorifying your god is an exercise in false modesty.
    Oh you are so unworthy but…your god has adopted you.
    Oh your life is hard ’cause you are a Christian…but you get these freaky, wonderful adventures.
    Oh you don’t deserve this magic love (you really don’t) …but you have been saved.
    You are special.

    Stomach churning.
    A nauseating exercise in self-aggrandizement with every word dripping in syrupy treacle.

    How I Know That God Exists: A Personal Story

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  6. I see a time when most Christians will also accept secular morality, and understand the objective reasons for human morality. They will give up the arrogant claim that our values come from their god even when we don’t believe in it.

    This is sadly necessary as too many Christians simply accept uncritically what they are told by Fox News, Glenn Beck, James Dobson, Rick Joyner, and the rest of the enablers of war, corporate greed, and Tea Party hysteria. Reality is beginning to hit people in the face as the USA loses its wars, its wealth and its faith in twisted flag waving consumer Christianity.

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  7. Richard Christie

    Well said Ropata!

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  8. Solid, hard-hitting stuff.

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  9. It actually makes perfect sense to me that moral behaviour should, in fact must, have its roots in evolution. The entirety of human social organisation is likely based on maximising survivability of the individual. There are always going to be outliers (mutations if you like) which don’t seem to fit the pattern, but these should be seen as the evolutionary dead-ends that they are. And of course given that conditions differ around the globe it is hardly surprising that humans have developed slight modifications to what is considered moral behaviour in their own cultures.

    One really obvious example is the social taboo against familial intermarriage and reproduction. There is really sound genetics behind this taboo, but primitive humans didn’t need to understand genetics to know through observation that the offspring from closely related parents suffered a higher incidence of birth defects, diseases, etc. Couching this in moral terms was simply a way of explaining the unknown when there was no science to explain it at the time. Today we know better.

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  10. Les I too appreciate the impact of Grace upon a troubled soul, it does help people to find peace and overcome negative habits. But morality still comes down to individual choice not subjective feelings. I am interested in making the Earth a better place rather than floating on cloud 9 all day.

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  11. Richard Christie

    This is sadly necessary as too many Christians simply accept uncritically what they are told by Fox News, Glenn Beck, James Dobson, Rick Joyner, and the rest of the enablers of war, corporate greed, and Tea Party hysteria.

    Ha, Glen Beck is being ditched by Fox, some days it is worth getting out of bed. :)

    Guardian: Why Fox News let Glenn Beck go http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/apr/07/glenn-beck-fox-news

    Newsday: Glenn Beck, too crazy for even for Fox: http://www.newsday.com/opinion/oped/glenn-beck-too-crazy-for-even-for-fox-1.2806752

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  12. Looks like the Soros-Communist-Nazi-Jewish International Banking-Atheist-Muslim Caliphate finally can declare victory.
    Don’t you see, America?
    Don’t you SEE???

    Glenn Beck blames godlessness for America’s problems

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  13. I, as a third generation atheist, will be extremely happy when this pseudoscience called evolutionary psychology stops trying to give an evolutionary biological slant to everything “moral”. Morality is a human construct and all peoples through times have displayed quite different moralities. Morality is nothing but the social code we define our social groups by. “Scientific” studies in morality remind me of biologists of the past century trying to demonstrate how animals were “so” monogamous, “just like humans”, which genetics has long debunked. Science and morality simply do not mix. The studies done which analyse brain response to various behaviours make ABSOLUTELY no comment on the heritability of anything they are studying. All the results brain scans show can be achieved through conditioning. It is time scientists stood up against this BS.

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  14. Quite right. Scientists should stop investigating human nature and behaviour, because the results might be politically or philosophically difficult to accept!

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  15. Tracey – sure there are trends withing evolutionary psychology which can justifiably be labelled “pseudo-science.” But lets not treat the babiess as bathwater. There are seem real gems which we should not dismiss. And speculation also has an important role in science.

    It seems to me youy makie sweeping comments which precude anys cientificd investigation of mroality. Such as “Morality is nothing but the social code we define our social groups by. ” And “Morality is a human construct and all peoples through times have displayed quite different moralities.”

    I Challenge you to support such claims. personally I don’t think they accord with the evidence.

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