This is the last in a series of five posts on morality. They are aimed at countering the usual religious claims for a god-given morality with current scientific understanding of how the morality of our species arose. Also, they at tempt to justify a non-theist objective basis for much of the moral decisions we make. The first post (I: Religious confusion) discussed some of the problems religion has in its understanding of morality and the second (II: Objective morality) argues for a non-theist objective basis for morality. The third post (III: Moral intuition) discussed moral intuitions and the fourth (IV: Role of religion) the role of religion. This last post discusses the secular conscience.
I have been arguing for a non-theist understanding of human morality. We can accept moral codes, and an objective basis for moral truths, without resorting to a god hypothesis. Historically religion has served a purpose in codifying and teaching moral law – but it is not the origin of these laws. In a sense, religion is parasitic on secular morality. It claims an authority in the area that it doesn’t deserve. And religious apologists often complete this takeover by claiming that religion itself, or the supernatural beings they promote, are the source of human morality.
Challenging religious claims
Today we must challenge such ideas. We no longer allow religion to get away with claims of special “revealed knowledge” about the origin of the universe, the origin and development of life and the origin and nature of our species. Similarly we should not allow religion to get away with claims about special “revealed knowledge” of, or role in, human morality.
The non-religious have no special problems in this area. We share the same human morality as the religious. However, we can give a better justification for an objective source of morality than can religion which can easily be used to justify different moral codes. That is, religion is a source of moral relativism.
However, the fact remains that religious proclamations in this area get more “air time” than do the non-religious ideas. Austin Dacey laments this in his book The Secular Conscience. Pointing out that: “on questions of religion, ethics, and values, secular liberals are strangely silent.” On the other hand there is often a strong objection when the non-religious do speak out.
“They are branded – often by fellow secularists and liberal religionists – “dogmatic,” “evangelical,” “militant,” and “fundamentalist” atheists.” Yet “If the mantra of religious fundamentalism is “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell,” the atheist credo seems to be “I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s talk about it some more.”
Some of this is tied up with the unusual “respect” granted religion. As Dawkins points out:
“A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the non-religious included – is that religious faith is specially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to another.”
So religion will often get away with claims for a role in human morality which remain unchallenged. And there is the expectation by religion that they should not be challenged. That they should just be accepted. And the public often react by paternalistically ignoring the claims, treating them as eccentric and not to be discussed in polite company. A view has arisen that religion is a private matter. Religious assertions should not be part of public discussion; they should not come into the “public square.” A situation that many religious people themselves find frustrating.
As Dacey points out claims can only get our consideration if they can be discussed.
“Unless we are willing to present others with reasons for what we say that are open to analysis by them, we are engaging in monologue, not dialogue.”
And that is the problem. Religion wants a monologue. Rational consideration needs a dialogue.
Acceptance of discussion of moral claims in the “public square” would break down this monologue. Dacey again:
”Susceptibility to public criticism is the price of admission to public debate. Religious conscience does not get in free. Many secular liberals have convinced themselves that freedom of belief entails respect for all religions, and that respect means refraining from criticism. But that is not respect; it’s just blanket acceptance, even disregard. Understood correctly, respect is not just compatible with criticism—respect entails criticism. To respect someone we must take him seriously, and taking someone seriously sometimes means finding fault with him.”
“This is not only a matter of simple intellectual clarity and honesty. It is also the only way to do justice to the significance of conscience and its proper place in the public discourse of a pluralistic society.”
Being good without God
I think there is just no basis to the claims that we can’t be good without god. The boot should be placed on the other foot – God can often be used to justify what most humans consider morally wrong. In fact, With God, anything can be permitted.
Human society needs to overcome this moral relativism. This requires overcoming the “privacy fallacy” – the idea that religious moral assertion should be accepted and respected, without normal human discussion.
Let’s welcome religion into the “public square’ – but only on the same basis as any other human institution. Its claims should be submitted to the normal intellectual, moral and legal standards we apply to other human institutions and claims.
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