Moral and Political Secularism

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Consider this: Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods? (Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro)[1]

Genuine morals and morality are not dependent on any religion, although every religion sanctions them and thereby affords them support. (Arthur Schopenhauer)[2]

In Chapters 2 and 3 I dealt with freethought. My claim is that the secular outlook manifests itself primarily in the attitude of the freethinker. In contrast to atheism, freethought is a public doctrine. It has great significance for the furtherance of culture. Characteristic of the freethinker is: (a) the conviction (or at least acknowledgment) that religions also have darker sides and (b) that freedom of speech is an important principle in questioning and criticizing those darker sides.

As one of the most prominent manifestations of the evil side of religion, we have analyzed lack of sympathy for important civil rights and civil freedoms. In the theistic traditions there are several manifestations of the aim to suppress freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, sexual freedom, and many other values held dear by many people nowadays. There even seems to be a revolt, in a violent form, against modernity whose freedom is interpreted by fanatics as licentiousness:[3] religious terrorism. In Europe religious terrorism has also manifested itself as an assault on one of the core principles of the secular outlook: the principle of expressing your own view of life, even if this view of life is radically different from the view of religious orthodoxy or religious fundamentalism.[4]

One way to understand the secular outlook is to see it as the worldview that is diametrically opposed to the worldview of religious fanaticism. The secular outlook is based on the individual right to freedom of conscience, but also on the freedom to express our ideas in a public context.

That last principle is well known under the name of freedom of speech or freedom of expression and closely connected to freedom of religion in the broad sense of the word. By “broad” I mean that freedom of religion also comprises the freedom to reject religion or the freedom to change from one religion to another. This is acknowledged in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (italics mine).[5]

In the present chapter I will engage in a further analysis of the presuppositions of this attitude. This is necessary because religious criticism is based on presuppositions that are not self-evident. One of those preconditions is the institution of free speech as analyzed in Chapter 3. But religious criticism is also premised on the condition that the human mind can, as a matter of fact, free itself from religious tutelage. In other words: the critic must be able to place himself or herself over against the religious tradition (“ought implies can”). That presupposes what may be called moral autonomy.

Here we touch upon a new feature of the secular outlook, viz. the capacity to justify moral ideals without reference to religion. The adherent of moral autonomy claims that it is possible to live a morally just life without religion.

The movement or mode of thinking that favors moral autonomy may be provided with a separate label. The label I propose is “moral secularism.”[6] Moral secularism is intimately connected to the growth of secularist ideals in the modern world. The philosopher Paul Kurtz (1925– ) writes: “The modern world has witnessed the widespread secularization of life. This means, first, that morality could be freed from religious authorities.”[7] Moral secularism manifests itself also in Samuel Porter Putnam’s poem, already quoted in Chapter 1. In the first part of the poem the poet comes back to the same question several times: “Why don’t he lend a hand”? But suddenly there is a turn: “We look in vain to find him / Upon his throne so grand, / Then turn our vision earthward – ’Tis we must lend a hand.” At that moment the focus shifts from criticism of God and religion to man; from theism to humanism. Not God, but man is the centre of attention. This is also made manifest in the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), whose “the supreme evil, God” has already been quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1. Swinburne published poetry that was acclaimed for its style but often criticized as containing many radical ideas. His Poems and Ballads (1866) is one long glorification of paganism and a rejection of Christian piety. In his later Songs before Sunrise (1871) we find the Hymn of Man. The often quoted last line “Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things” is considered to be one of the most impressive statements of the humanist position in English literature.[8]

By thy name that in hellfire was written, And burned at the point of thy sword,
Thou art smitten, thou God, thou God, thou art smitten; thy death is upon thee, O Lord.
And the lovesong of earth as thou diest resounds through the wind of her wings –
Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things.

In an earlier poem, Hymn to Proserpine (1866), he meditated on the condition of the Roman Empire “after the proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith.” As a nineteenth-century Julian the Apostate (331/332–363), Swinburne deplored the rise of Christianity:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.[9]

Swinburne was perhaps extreme in his anti-Christian slant, but such a position was not completely uncommon. The historian J.B. Bury (1861–1927) wrote: “All the great poets of the nineteenth century were more or less unorthodox.”[10] Wordsworth (1770–1850) was a pantheist.[11] Shelley (1792–1822) called himself an atheist.[12]

Although many shied away from openly accepting pantheism, atheism, paganism, and other indications of secular thought, the idea of moral autonomy had gained much ground during the nineteenth century. And moral autonomy does not go together easily with theism. Militant theists, like Paul Johnson (1928– ), introduced in the first section of Chapter 1 during a discussion of the various definitions of atheism, vehemently deny that morality can stand on its own feet. If there is no God:

This life then becomes the only one we have, we have no duties or obligations except to ourselves, and we need weigh no other considerations except our own interests and pleasures. There are no commands to follow except what society imposes upon us, and even these we may evade if we can get away with it. In a Godless world, there is no obvious basis for altruism of any kind, moral anarchy takes over and the rule of the self prevails.[13]

Moral secularists claim that the whole worldview implicit in this quote from Johnson is misguided. Nevertheless, Johnson has a point as long as he moves within the framework of the theistic worldview. It may be possible to reconcile moral autonomy with certain interpretations of Christianity, the Jewish religion, and Islam, but there certainly is a tension with the classic orthodox theistic conception of God. To make this clear I have to take up a theme we dealt with Chapter 1, where it was argued that “atheism” can best be understood as “a-theism,” viz. the denial of the theistic position. In the first four sections of Chapter 1 we saw that this “negative approach” to the concept of atheism was – although well justified – not very common and that brought me to the proposal that the term “atheism” should be relinquished altogether. To avoid misunderstanding it may be better to use the term “non-theism” as an integral element of the secular outlook.

A number of writers have put forward arguments in favor of this “non-theism” (or “atheism” in the restricted sense). Thinkers who subscribe to the secular outlook usually think non-theism is preferable to theism because it is easier to reconcile with important values. One such value is human freedom. As Jean Paul Sartre and Eduard von Hartmann argued, consistent theism would amount to a complete denial of human freedom. Therefore they rejected theism. It was also rejected by Susan Stebbing and Bertrand Russell, as we saw in Chapter 1, because it conflicts with “spiritual excellencies” (Stebbing) and the “Liberal Decalogue” (Russell).

Chapters 2 and 3 of The Secular Outlook can also be understood as criticism of the central claims of theism because this seems hard to reconcile with the two fundamental pillars of freethought, to wit: religious criticism and freedom of speech. The biblical injunction to slay apostates and the story of Phinehas both dealt with in Chapter 2 testified to this.

(Credit: Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures / Flickr)
(Credit: Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures / Flickr)

Chapter 4 continues this line of argument and is dedicated to an important metaethical principle that has great significance for the secular outlook: moral autonomy (and insofar the state as a whole is not based on an official religion: political autonomy). But before I can characterize the aim of moral autonomy as a positive ideal, I first have to explain how this is related to the central claim of theism. That brings me back to the analysis of theism as begun in Chapter 1.

Pope Benedict XVI on the Apostles’ Creed

In 1968 Josef Ratzinger (1927– ), now Pope Benedict XVI, tried to present a delineation of the essence of the Christian creed. What he wrote here about Christianity is also relevant for theism in general, as we will see. The Pope started his reflections with reference to the Apostles’ Creed.[14] This early document (which, in its current form, dates back to c. 550 CE) professes to outline the core of the Christian doctrine and reads as follows:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died and buried,
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead,
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholic Church;
The communion of saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.

Today, The Apostles’ Creed may strike some as “too detailed,” while others may feel it is “obsolete.” Feminist scholar and theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936– ) presents a devastating critique of this “official concept of God”[15] as it gradually developed in Hebrew thought indicting it for androcentrism – or male domination over women; anthropocentrism – or human domination over nature; ethnocentrism – or the domination of a “chosen” people over other people; militarism, asceticism, and the dualism of mind and body and the hierarchy of the former over the latter. “Christianity,” so Ruether contends, “has a problem with God or rather with its ideas about God.”[16] Ruether holds the idea of the oneness of God responsible for much of the trouble with the theistic god. It is hard to untangle universalist monotheism from imperialism, she writes. The idea of the oneness of God is deeply entrenched in the idea of the election of one people and one religion. The notion that one people and their religion have a right to conquer all other people, obliterating their cultures and religions, naturally ensues. This has to be changed and Ruether makes a plea for a different position. She says: “Different religions point in different ways to divine mystery as the source of life and renewal of life. We need to affirm the divine in and through the many gods or even lack of gods, as in Buddhism, of diverse religions traditions, rather than trying to make the ideas of one religion universal by destroying other religious cultures.”[17]

One may, of course, sympathize with some elements of this feminist critique of the theistic concept of god without being impressed by what it proposes to put in its place. Ruether proclaims “God must be seen as present in the diverse expressions of life on earth, rather than seeing humans as the unique image of God called to rule over the earth…. God is manifest not just in humans, but in wolves and insects, trees and flowers, the waters that fall from the sky and waters that well up from the earth.”[18]

Whatever we may think of this, such a broad concept of god is not the focus of this book.

Here is another characterization of “God,” this time by the American philosopher Charles Larmore (1950– ). Larmore writes: “God is so great, he does not have to exist. This is the essence of the process of secularization that has so profoundly shaped modern society.”[19] Larmore contends that a “respect for God’s transcendence” and a “repudiation of idols” has led to “relieving God from the task of being the ultimate explanation for the order of nature and the course of history.”[20] This also has important implications for the bond between God and morality.

A similar unburdening of God seems appropriate in the domain of morality. When the validity of a moral imperative is understood in terms of being God’s command, the motive of the moral life becomes the desire to please God, as though we could help him or should fear him. Such a conception of God must appear as an all-too-human projection, if we assume that God must transcend such human needs and passions. We respect God as God, when we learn to value the moral life for itself, without appeal to God’s purposes (though we may still believe that God loves what is good and right).[21]

The reason why I present these heterodox god-conceptions of Ruether and Larmore is to illustrate that there is an enormous variety of ideas about the concept of god. In Ruether’s approach, god is completely immanent in the sense that almost everything is “god.” The divine is to be found through the many gods and even “lack of gods,” as she says. God is manifest in humans, but also in wolves, insects, flowers, and the waters that fall from the sky. Larmore’s God on the other hand evaporates in complete transcendence and all the usual characteristics of god are here removed to leave us with the idea of complete transcendence.

It will be clear that I do not want to contest anybody’s good right to project all kinds of god-definitions, but this is not what I am concerned with in this book. I am concerned with what Ruether characterizes as the “official concept of God.” We are informed about this official concept in the writings of the Pope on the Apostles’ Creed or (as far as Catholicism is concerned) in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[22] The Apostles’ Creed is what many Christians see as the core of Christendom, in particular as regards one of its essential elements, viz. belief in the existence of God. What is the nature of this Christian god? He has the following characteristics.[23]

Unity. God is one. The god of the major theistic religions is one, thereby distinguishing theism from the polytheism of classical antiquity and other global cultures.[24] It is therefore unnecessary (because it is tautological) to refer to “monotheism” (meaning belief in the existence of one god). The theistic god is by definition singular.[25]

Self-existent. Secondly: God exists independently and has not been caused by something else. God is self-caused: causa sui.

Eternal. God is outside time. He always has been and always will be. He cannot “die.” As such, Nietzsche’s famous announcement of the “death of God,” also the basis for Fritz Mauthner’s monumental history of atheism, cannot therefore be anything other than a metaphor.[26]

Creator. God is the creator of all things and he governs all things by his providence. The theistic god has created the world from nothing (“ex nihilo,” which was impossible for the ancient Greeks, since “ex nihilo nihil fit”: “from nothing comes nothing”).

Transcendent. God is distinct from his creation. The world is not identical to God.[27] Eduard Von Hartmann (1842–1906) wrote that we cannot have a religious bond with a purely immanent idea which we know lacks a transcendental–real correlative.[28]

Omnipotent. God is the creator and governor of the universe. God can do anything he wants to do.[29] There has been some discussion as to whether God can do something contradictory. Can he square a circle? The philosopher G.W. Leibniz (1646–1716) believed he could not.[30] One could argue, however, that this does not limit God’s omnipotence, as omnipotence means being able to do things that are not self-contradictory.

Omniscient. God is also omniscient. He knows all things that have happened and all that will happen. There are no secrets for him. He even knows our innermost thoughts.

Personal. Like human beings, God is a creature with intellect and a will. At the same time, God transcends biological categories, being neither man nor woman (although he is referred to as “father”).

Perfectly good. God is perfectly good as well as the source of all morality. People may not always understand his actions, but they are always perfectly good.

Holy. God is holy and worthy of our adoration.[31]

Interventionist. As a rule, theistic religions also claim that God intervenes in history.[32]

Judge and remunerator. Finally, God is a judge and he rewards us for what we do, so some scholars have defined “faith” as “the desire for the approval of supernatural beings.”[33]

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[1] Euthyphro 10d, Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1997, p. 9.

[2] Schopenhauer, Arthur, Parerga and Paralipomena. Short Philosophical Essays, Vol. II, translated by E.F.J. Payne, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1974, p. 392.

[3] See on this: Rorty, Richard, “Religion in the Public Sphere: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 31, no. 1 2003, pp. 141–149.

[4] See on this: Bawer, Bruce, Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, Doubleday, New York 2009.

[5] See for a critique of this stance: Sapir, Gidon, and Statman, Daniel, “Why Freedom of Religion Does not Include Freedom from Religion,” Law and Philosophy 24, no. 5 2005, pp. 467–508.

[6] For the vocabulary used in Chapter 4 I am indebted to my colleague Floris van den Berg, director of the Center for Inquiry, the Netherlands.

[7] Kurtz, Paul, What is Secular Humanism?, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2006, p. 13. See also: Kurtz, Paul, The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism, Praeger, Westport, CT 1997.

[8] See: Stein, Gordon, A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1987, p. 166.

[9] Kermode, Frank, and Hollander, John, eds., The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, New York 1973, p. 1445.

[10] Bury, A History of the Freedom of Thought, p. 208.

[11] See on poetry and freethought: Gordon Stein, A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1987, pp. 345–369; Rosenthal, Peggy, The Poet’s Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000.

[12] See: Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Necessity of Atheism And Other Essays, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1993; Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Essay on Christianity,” 1815, in: Shelley’s Literary and Philosophical Criticism, ed. John Shawcross and Henry Frowde, London 1909, pp. 86–117.

[13] Johnson, The Quest for God, p. 1.

[14] Ratzinger, Joseph, Introduction to Christianity, translated J.R. Forster, Ignatius Press, Fort Collins, CO 1990 (1968); and McGrath, Alister E., Theology: The Basics, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA 2004.

[15] Ruether, Rosemary Radford, “The Politics of God in the Christian Tradition,” Feminist Theology, 17 no. 3 2009, pp. 329–338, p. 330.

[16] Ibid., p. 329.

[17] Ibid., p. 336.

[18] Ibid., p. 337.

[19] Larmore, Charles, “Beyond Religion and Enlightenment,” San Diego Law Review, 30 1993, pp. 799–815, p. 799.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, revised in accordance with the official Latin text promulgated by Pope John II, Doubleday, New York, 1995.

[23] On this subject, see the still eminently readable Harnack, Adolf von, History of Dogma, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR 2000 (1889). A list and analysis of the characteristics of God are also presented in: McInerney, Peter K., “God,” in: Introduction to Philosophy, HarperCollins, New York 1992, pp. 9–22; McGrath, Theology: The Basics, pp. 16–34; McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford 1994, pp. 205–246.

[24] Haeckel, Ernst, Die Welträtsel. Gemeinverständliche Studien über monistische Philosophie [The Riddle of the World. Studies in Monistic Philosophy for the Layperson], Akademie Verlag, Berlin 1961 (1899), p. 354: “Gott und Welt sind zwei verschiedene Wesen. Gott steht der Welt gegenüber als deren Schöpfer, Erhalter und Regierer. Dabei wird Gott stets mehr oder weniger menschenähnlich gedacht, als ein Organismus, welcher dem Menschen ähnlich (wenn auch in höchst volkommener Form) denkt und handelt” [God and the world are two distinct beings. God stands in relation to the world as its creator, upholder, and ruler. In this regard God is thought of as more or less similar to a human being, as an organism that thinks and acts in a human way (if in a highly perfect form].

[25] See: Wainwright, William, “Monotheism,” in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in: http://plato.stanford.edu, 2005, pp. 1–23, p. 4.

[26] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science; Mauthner, Fritz, “Gott” [God], in: Fritz Mauthner, Wörterburch der Philosophie: Neue Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache [Dictionary of Philosophy; New Contributions to a Critique of Language], Erster Band, Diogenes Verlag, Zürich 1980 (1910/11), pp. 448–458, p. 455: “The old Jewish god is dead.”

[27] The Spinozist conception of god as “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) is heretical.

[28] See Hartmann, Eduard von, Die Religion des Geistes, Zweiter systematischer Teil der Religionsphilosophie [The Religion of the Mind. Second Systematic Part of the Philosophy of Religion], Verlag von Wilhelm Friedrich, Leipzig 1882, p. 6.

[29] The object of the religious sentiment, Eduard von Hartmann writes, can “nur ein solches sein das dem Subjekt überlegen ist, und zwar nicht bloss relativ überlegen, wie ein Mensch dem andern, sondern unvergleichlich überlegen, wie ein höheres Wesen einem niederen” [only be something that is superior to the subject, and not simply relatively superior, as one human being to another, but incomparably superior, as a higher being to a lower one] (ibid., p. 4.).

[30] See the discussion of Leibniz’s position by: Kolakowski, Leszek, Religion, Fontana Paperbacks, Glasgow 1982, p. 20.

[31] For an outline of theism, see the sections “Theism and modern science” and “Theism and values” in: Quinn, Philip L., and Taliaferro, Charles, eds., A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, Oxford 1997, pp. 419–525. Also useful are: Mautner, Thomas, The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London 2000 (1996), p. 561; Brightman, Edgar Sheffield, A Philosophy of Religion, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New York 1946, p. 157; and the articles on “Theism and Divine Attributes” in: Taliaferro, and Griffiths Philosophy of Religion.

[32] Swinburne, Richard, Faith and Reason, second edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford 2005 (1981), p. 233: “God has intervened in history to do certain things and to reveal certain truths.” See also: Stark, Rodney, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2001, 1.

[33] See on this: Amis, The Second Plane, p. 49.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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