Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Notes on "Morality without religion has no firm foundation"

Here are some notes I used for the debate: “Morality without religion has no firm foundation”

Notice the focus of this debate is not on god. God gets no mention. The question is specifically about religion. The question before us is: can morality have a firm foundation in the absence of religion. And so it’s on religion that I shall focus.

I think the answer is pretty clearly yes – morality can have at least as firm a foundation in the absence of religion as it can with it.

I want to start by outlining an alternative, non-religious approach to morality which I think is preferable to most traditional, religious approaches.

What are the characteristics of humanism?

1. First, humanists don’t believe in a God. They are atheists, or at least agnostics.

2. Secondly, humanists, like many sensible religious folk, are secularists. They favour an open, democratic society in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion.

3. Thirdly, humanists sign up to the idea that morality should focus on achieving human flourishing in this life, rather than on achieving fulfilment in some mythical life-to-come. Obviously they deny that morality is a matter of obeying the commands of supernatural beings, or doing good because of threats of divine punishment. However, there is no specific humanist theory of moral value. Some humanists are utilitarians, but plenty are not. Some are Kantians. And some even reject naturalism.

4. Fourthly, humanists believe in the importance of a certain kind of moral autonomy. They believe people should be encouraged to think and question, and ultimately make their own judgements about what is right or wrong, rather than defer to some external authority – be it religious or political – that will make the judgement for them.

Religions, by contrast, have typically placed far greater emphasis on deference to authority – to a text, a prophet, a leader, or a tradition whose pronouncements are to be accepted more or less without question.

Of course there are plenty of fairly liberal-minded clerics around today who would sign up to the Enlightenment ideal, but many don’t.

The mainstream religions have long track record of attempting to stifle dissent, shutting down and censoring criticism. Of dissuading children from asking certain sorts of “difficult” question.

A friend of mine, no longer a Catholic, tells me that, even today, half a century after her education at the hands of a traditional Catholic school, she still feels guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief.

Many religions have, historically, focused on instilling such unquestioning, deferential attitudes among the faithful. In many places, they still do.

Visit the US Bible belt and you will find church signs that read “A free thinker is Satan’s slave”.

Indeed, Christian Churches have a long track record of attempting to stifle dissent and criticism by violent means.

Holy Inquisition last victim. Ancient history! Actually, the last victim died in 1824 – just over four of my lifetimes ago. Our freedom to question or reject religious teaching is a very recently won and precious freedom that we shouldn’t just assume will now be around forever.

And of course we’re not just talking about Christian obsession with thought-control. A poll conducted a few years ago of Young British Muslims found that 33% of them thought the appropriate penalty for anyone who leaves the Muslim faith is death.

Even today, several Muslim theocracies will execute anyone who leaves the Muslim faith.

Of course, atheists, too, have had a violent obsession with policing people’s thoughts. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were all concerned with forcing atheism on people.

But of course, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, while atheists, weren’t humanists. They certainly didn’t value moral autonomy – on encouraging individuals to think and question, any more than did the Holy Inquisition. You can’t blame humanism for the killing fields of Cambodia.

Now here’s what I think is an important advantage of a humanist approach to moral education over both authoritarian atheist approaches and traditional religious approaches.

It’s sometimes said that what motivated those who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust was their religious conviction. In fact, religious conviction had little….

Philosopher Jonathan Glover says:

If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.

Oliners: it was on their emphasis on reasoning in talking about morality with their children that marked out rescuers from non-rescuers. By contrast, the Oliners found that “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.

So, if we want to immunize future generations against this sort of moral catastrophe, this evidence at least suggest that our best bet is NOT to rely on religion, but on an approach to moral education that, as it happens, is promoted by humanism.

Evidence that in fact it’s not a religious upbringing that’s required for a firm moral foundation, but the kind of philosophical approach promoted and practices by humanists.

Of course, there are plenty of liberal-minded religious folk who would endorse humanist view. So I don’t say this is an advantage over every form of religious upbringing. But it is far better, I’d suggest, than many forms of traditional religious upbringing - those that, too this day, still tend to dominate around much of the world.

In fact, what many religions encourage people to do cannot be done. Convenient though it might be, I cannot hand over responsibility for making moral judgements to some text, or prophet, or tradition. For suppose my chosen religious moral expert tells me to do some dreadful thing – to go a blow myself up in a supermarket, or slaughter every last Canaanite, say.

Clearly, if I do as I am told, I remain culpable. I can’t absolve myself of responsibility, by saying “But I was just obeying orders”, as I could if I’d been given bad chemical or medical advice, say. Morality is different. We all have an unavoidable responsibility to think and make our own judgement. It’s worth listening to others, even to religious people, for their advice. But, like it or not, you must take responsibility for making the judgements you do.

You have to choose which religion if any to follow, which interpretation of that religion, which leader, and so on. You have to decide whether you ought to follow the advice they give you. And in making that judgement you inevitably have to rely on your own moral compass.

So, like it or not, we do all have to make our own moral judgements. The supposed “firm foundation” that religions provide in the form of ancient texts, or gurus, or prophets, or religions, or traditions, to which can turn for moral certainties, are really not firm at all.

At the end of the day, we all - religious or not - have to make our own moral judgements, relying on our own moral intuitions and sense of what is right and wrong – which are themselves open to question. Better we face up to this fact rather than pretend it is not so.

But isn’t it clear that loss of religion has caused a great many social ills? That religion is necessary if morality is to flourish properly?

No. There’s no good evidence to support that view.


1. Co-occurrence doesn’t establish causal connection. Many other changes: homes stand empty. People don’t know their neighbours or community.

2. 200 years ago 50 times more crime in UK than there is now. Yet far more religious.

3. When we look across world’s developed democracies, we find that those that are most religious – including, of course, the United States (where 43% of citizens claim to attend church weekly) – have the highest rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease (STD), teen pregnancy and abortion. The least religious countries, such as Canada, Japan and Sweden, have the lowest rates.

4. As historian Francis Fukuyama points out, China also provides an important counter-example to the view that moral order depends on religion:

The dominant cultural force in traditional Chinese society was, of course, Confucianism, which is not a religion at all but rather a rational, secular ethical doctrine. The history of China is replete with instances of moral decline and moral renewal, but none of these is linked particularly to anything a Westerner would call religion. And it is hard to make the case that levels of ordinary morality are lower in Asia than in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion.

5. To other cultures widespread Western assumption that people won’t be good without belief in God is baffling. Chinese writer Lin Yu Tang”:

To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party.

6. Our basic morality is a pretty much universal feature of human societies, religious or not.

In many societies, morality has had little to do with religion, and yet those societies, while obviously not always perfect, have hardly been less moral than, say, their Christian or Muslim counterparts. Indeed, we find much the same basic morality.

Religion, it turns out, did not create morality. Rather, religions take a basic morality that is there anyway, probably written into our genes, and then rigidly codifies it and adds a few prohibitions of its own, usually concerning some foodstuffs and sexual practices. Then it says, “Voila! Religion has created morality!”

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