Human Morality V: The secular conscience

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.

moral dummiesI 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.”

Respecting religion

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.


See Also:
Human Morality I: Religious confusion
Human Morality II: Objective morality
Human Morality III: Moral intuition
Human Morality IV: Role of religion

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11 responses to “Human Morality V: The secular conscience

  1. Also, regardless of how positive, purposeful or whatever else religious mandates can be, the fact that incompatible religions and Gods can all promote them proves that religion itself isn’t the actual root. A Christian could behave in a way generally considered to be morally sound, and then that Christian could recite a bit of scripture, or point to a faith-based concept and credit it as being the source of their morality. But equally, a Buddhist could point to their own religious teachings and say, “This is the source of my morality.” A Muslim could point to part of the Qu’ran. And so on. We have completely different and incompatible Gods and religions that can be — and are — designated as sources of morality. All religions obviously cannot be accurate (for example, if Jesus’s Dad is the “true” God, Allah would obviously be obsolete). I think we would do well to realize that morality — the ability to distinguish between right and wrong — is universally true for all people, and religion (pick one) is a kind of label that gets stuck on after the fact.


  2. 1) Morality is part of the natural world, a set of “shoulds” we agree on agree on.
    Religion, and especially a belief in God, brings in something extra, it’s Supernatural.
    So the question is, Does religion add anything, anything super-moral, that humans can’t agree on without it.
    The answer is no.
    2) Religious morals are always a human endeavor. God adds nothing to Religious morality either.
    When you ask a theist where the morality/commands come from, they answer, “From the bible, the word of god.” They then go on to state the commonly accepted morals we all pretty much agree to, with or without religion, with or without Christianity (of Judaism. or Islam or Buddhism).
    But what they are hiding, or just unaware of, is that there are moral injunctions in the Bible that must be rejected by humans. That makes morality a human endeavor again. We have to pick and choose in the Bible, sort out Love your neighbor as yourself, from Go out and kill every Canaanite (except the Virgin daughters.) or stone to death the adulterers.

    That’s a decidedly human activity, cherry picking.

    Why is it then that we need consider God, when we have to pick and choose between moral and immoral commandments and activity of the God of the Bible?


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  7. you people are so naive

    Secular consciences can just as be highly fragmented and ambigious as religious ones; Its not just life affirming humanism, that the irreligious can source their moral decisions, its one of many, de sade’s amoralism, machiavellian ethics, Social darwinist, or schoepenhauer’s pessimism like the book ‘Straw Dogs’ by philosopher John Gray. All of which are objectively possible in a godless frame of mind, it really depends on what circumstance to apply it.

    Besides secular morality cannot guarantee the genuineness of a good act, it does much to encourage ulterior motives such as creating favors out of doing good, secretly promoting egoist, elitist thoughts; being fickle in giving of charity, its all about the benefits a person can receive in giving some of their time masquarading as a selfless act, since there is no ultimate judge involved in convicting a conscience, thus no accountability. Even if you say there are wordly authorities like the police or the law, they can be circumvented, the irreligious execs at Enron is proof of that, all it takes is Education.

    And what Dacey talks about dialogue and the way he characterizes fundies for condemning sinners to hell is one-sided, his conscience is just a product of the easy-liberalism atheistic variety that spawned on the North American Continent in the 60’s A godless Maoist, North Korean, Young Turk and a National Socialist would shoot the believer on site, since their conscience is framed not by tolerance, but by loyalty to the immanent state, where they see believers as subversive, harmful to society, pretty much in agreement to the views this blog site holds to. Except, they are willing to use violence to achieve their ends, not divine violence but useful pragmatic violence.

    At least, Christians can convict and convince people to turn from their ways to God. You guys, mock, ridicule and offend christians, calling them brain-dead, stupid and infantile without providing them a way to save themselves from their delusions.

    This post is incredibly one-sided


  8. Alvin, you seem to be angry about something. And the reason is not clear to me.

    Sure both believers and non-believers are quite able to do evil things. And to justify the. Actually justification is where religion and other ideologies came in useful, isn’t it?

    However, this is a human problem. We should do our best to understand what causes some people to do evil or immoral things. That is in our best interest. The scientific study of morality and human behaviour is therefore extremely important.

    And just as the “god did it”, “god of the gaps” approach doesn’t enable us to understand life, origins or reality, it won’t enable us to understand morality and evil human behaviour.

    Similarly. you apparent attitude that there is something fundamentally wrong with a secular conscience is also unhelpful. Basically a prejudice based on the chauvinism of your own religious beliefs.

    This might be helpful for you to create a “them vs us situation”. To demonise people with different ideas to your own. But can’t you see that that sort of behaviour actually promotes evil and is the cause of much human misery?

    Your comment does, unfortunately, resonate with D Dacey’s characterisation of “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell.”


  9. another display of your naivete Ken,

    I don’t have any religious beliefs, I am a deist, contra Dacey: I don’t believe in Hell; I fell away from Christianity because of certain existential faults God possessed. Perhaps, if you would just ask, instead of making idiotic assumptions, then we can be on an even level.

    Once again you keep hyping that religious worldviews invoke typical tribalism. When that paradigm can easily take on a secular form, e.g. ideology/class/race. How you feel about the religious, is the “them” part; displaying the same scapegoating, blame-throwing and fear-mongering behaviour that religious fundies use to denounce the out-group. all of it an example of how fundy atheists like yourself can be so hypocritical as to demonstrate how cognitively dissonant a skeptic’s mind is (e.g. when atheists are bashing religious people for being deluded, out-dated, ignorant and stupid; they are not using an “us vs them” mind game, but when believers do it to atheists, the paradigm applies)

    You then delude yourself into thinking that “Us” being the skeptics, have better senses to see the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But in essence, you don’t realize that your own materialistic filter serves as a built-in blinder to ignore, downplay even discard evidence presented by religious believers out there, despite the proof adhering to the same criteria and quality that proficient scholars use

    Another thing, a scientific study of morality is a violation of the “is-ought” problem. Science cannot justify, inspire or judge human beings on the basis of an objective morality, it deals with studying, and quantifying natural phenomenon in addition to cataloguing biodiversity, so what happens then if Science attempts to grapple questions beyond its purview? it becomes scientistic

    If science where to deal with morality, it can do so on other criteria: organism fitness. It can explain evil as being useful, if a creature can kill or roughhouse or drive out other competiting organisms for a lion’s share of resources then its ‘good’ Sure it can cooperate with its kin to achieve this end, but these are just baseline sociological rules.
    Circumstances can change, where an organism can be driven to use what theologians call ‘evil’ means in order to reproduce itself (like planting one’s embryonic young onto living donors like what certain types of ants and birds do) if resources are scarce

    It can only justify actions considered to be super goods like martyrdom, caring for the sick, , if there is an added benefit to the user and kin, otherwise selfless acts like caring for a stranger, the mentally-disabled, pets in this context are considered useless and unfit for one’s survival, since you’re not going to get repaid or approval by family or kin-structure.

    It sure as hell can’t naturally obligate a sentient human being to be good. It all depends on the circumstances and situations a human being finds himself/herself. For as long as it promotes the survival of an individual’s family and his own welfare. Any means are acceptable means, whether good or evil. John Gray was talking about this in his book “straw dogs”, where he describes a concentration camp victim stealing something of value from an SS guard and then planting the evidence of the theft to one of his fellow prisoners. Next day, prisoner who got the plant got summarily executed. Nobody complained, since nobody cared about the other guy, but just surviving the next work hour. You really can’t condemn the man in your standard Ken. He was just surviving, doing whatever it takes to get his genes disseminated by making taking advantage of the situation according to what his survival instincts tell him.

    Needless to say, that Science as you understand it Ken can’t inspire people to be morally good and right; Naturalism entails that a single human life is no different than any animal in the savannah, it can make a difference in promoting its own blood line, but not any more than that; its struggles, feelings and ruminations are all useless in the grand order of things, so does any moral actions it takes while being alive. It doesn’t ultimately matter, because the cosmos and solar system obey entropic principles causing the sun to expand and destroy all habitable life on earth in a billion years from now. It will repeat this process again with other galaxies after humanity’s extinction with nobody witnessing or telling a story of how humans were like or of how each individual lived out their existence for posterity’s sake.

    Religion however, tells of a purpose to life and an eternity of meaning to come for a believer with an incentive to be good as if his/her life really did matter to God/gods. There’s the sense of community with fellow believers under belief/doctrine whether it be the body of christ, the israelite nation or the followers of mohammed and the impetus to spread goodwill and charity as typified by exemplars on religious books.

    That is why scientistic studies of morals fail, it provides a shitty, lame-ass anti-climatic story to how life begins and ends. As Atran says “Four generations of Foucault can’t compete with a generation of Yahweh” He’s right on the money on this one.


  10. Well, that’s quite a lengthy charge sheet I have to face, Alvin. I’ll have a look and see if there is anything I should comment on at any length.

    Meanwhile, just a few things I need to correct you on.

    1: I don’t claim “religious worldviews invoke typical tribalism.” Far from it. Have a look at my review (Evolution of gods, morals and violence) of Teehan’s book In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence. I think I make clear there that religion solved the problem of extension in morality and altruism . Of widening the “them” beyond kin, clan and tribe.

    I think I also make clear that the “them vs us” arises from evolved human intuitions. As such religions are not the only organisations or ideologies that make use of that – clearly. One just has to watch a school boy football game to see that.

    One of my criticisms of the book was that I would have like to see Teehan’s analysis extended beyond religions to non-believers and modern society. However, I can understand the importance of his analysis of religions because of their integration into past societies and cultures and their role in social organisation and moral law. It’s just that their role in these things has drastically declined in societies like ours and we have other ways of handling things. These deserve analysis.

    You have charged me with a number of sins – without any evidence supplied. Perhaps that is just straw mannery. But what about giving examples of this so-called “materialistic filter”? What about examples of the “evidence” of religious believers I have“downplayed?” It’s easy to make wild unsubstantiated claims. However, what about specific evidence?

    You really seem to resent the fact that science does investigate morality. It does not make moral decisions for us – it investigates how we operate as moral creatures, the role of intuitions, the subconscious and conscious moral judgements. It’s a fascinating area, and despite your wishes, it will obviously continue.

    Perhaps you misunderstand the nature of that science (your reference to “is-ought problems) suggest so. Have a look at the presentations in the Edge Seminar (THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY). This should convince you of your mistake.

    You also make charges about my own morality. Again examples are required, otherwise this is just hot air. Malicious hot air, but hot air nevertheless.

    You say “scientistic studies of morals fail, it provides a shitty, lame-ass anti-climatic story to how life begins and ends. “ Again a wild claim. OK perhaps you hate the fact that science studies morality and evolution. You can rant and rave as much as you like. You aren’t going to change that fact. Nor are you going to be able to change the reality that science reveals to us.

    Personally I think religious claims of morality have been historical failures. That is why they are almost always conservative, and have to change as humanity advances. It’s been the same with the religious attitudes towards the physical/natural sciences. Always lagging behind.

    Finally, I assume that you are angry with my post for some reason and this colours your comments. Can I suggest you stand back and try to look at my post calmly. If you believe I am mistaken in what I say – then by all means make comments. But be specific. Try to get away from labeling me or attributing moral crimes to me. Unless of course you provide the evidence.


  11. Only a few more comment on your charge sheet, Alvin.

    1: Regarding your non-belief in hell. I think you don’t understand Dacey’s comment. When he characterises your sort of response as “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell,” he is using “go to hell” with the meaning of “piss off, I won’t talk about it.” And he contrasts that with a more sensible approach of “I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s talk about it some more.”

    Your hypersensitivity has interfered with your comprehension here.

    2: I believe you are the one committing (and confounding) the “is-ought” and “naturalistic” fallacies. Just because scientific investigation finds many instances in nature which are brutal and cruel does not mean that scientists advocate brutality and cruelty. I don’t know of anyone who advocates such a “Darwinian” concept of morality, although social Darwinism has been used to advocate extreme unfettered capitalism. And incidentally some of the strongest advocates of creationism are also advocates of social Darwinism. Some of the best know scientific teachers of evolutionary science are some of the strongest opponents of social Darwinism.

    Our species is intelligent, empathetic, social and sentient which enables us to develop our own morality. We don’t simply ape other animals.

    I think you are allowing your hatred of scientific understanding and non-religious morality to cloud your vision. Consequently all you seem to be able to do on this issue is fall into the traps of straw mannery and red herrings.

    3: I agree religion can provide people with community, doctrine, doctrinal security and perhaps even purpose. This is one reason why new immigrants often rely strongly on churches. This is very evident with Korean immigrants.

    Today, in our pluralist societies, this function is less important. We find community in many other organisations, even electronically. Goodwill and charity is far more of a human concern generally and non-religious charity is surely very well known. There may be a lack of specifically non-religious communities to satisfy the social requirements of many non-religious people. This is often discussed. But I recognise that with community there often, usually, comes dogma. I think for this reason many non-believers are in two minds about forming their own groups.

    However, there are certainly plenty of social groups today which can provide community without necessarily demanding dogmatism.

    And, of course, while there are quite a few non-believers who belong to churches for social and artistic reasons I don’t think this can be very satisfying when they also expose themselves to dogma they find objectionable.

    4: In several places you have cast aspersions on my own ethics – without even understanding what they are. In fact you have completely misrepresented my moral viewpoint. Completely.

    Your should admit your mistake (an apology would be nice) and realise that if you want to understand the moral viewpoint of someone like me who does not have a god belief then perhaps you should listen. Ask questions. Try to understand. Relying on naive prejudice will not provide you with any understanding.

    That’s all I have to say in response to your comment.


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