Is a Secular Morality Inherently Superior to a Religious Morality?

This post by Stephen Hicks, Ph.D., originally appeared at EveryJoe.

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In my judgment, issues of morality are the most difficult in philosophy. They are intellectually challenging, as everything about the human condition is relevant to them, and they are emotionally gripping, as our highest values are always at stake.

So it makes sense that religious philosophies often make morality the center of their appeal, and it makes sense that disagreements about religion can easily become tense and even emotionally overwrought.

Our question in this article is whether morality is natural or whether it can only be explained by reference to a supernatural being that issues moral rules and enforces them.

Each of us as individuals decides what our core values are and how we will act to accomplish them. In selecting the content of our value beliefs and deciding our methods of action, we almost always confront at some point this complex question: Should I choose my morality religiously, e.g., (a) by seeking direct communication from the gods or a God, or (b) by accepting an established religious system’s moral code — or should I choose naturalistically, e.g, (b) by going with my society’s prevailing norms, or (d) by deciding independently what I judge to be good and bad?

Social science data can bear upon that question. We can point to many historical examples of virtuous atheists and viceful theists, and vice versa, and we can work to collect such data points into useful statistics:

  • Do theists or atheists more often end up in jail?
  • Are crime rates lower in more secular or more religious nations?
  • Are atheists or theists more likely to be psychologically depressed?
  • Are those who put together happy and flourishing lives more likely to be naturalistic or religious?

Some of the statistics are suggestive but still a work-in-progress, so let us instead here focus directly on the philosophical debate. Here is how the argument goes:

1. Humans can make choices.
2. Reality gives us a standard by which we can distinguish good and bad.
3. Therefore, morality is a real phenomenon.

Determinists, whether religious or naturalist, will deny the first premise, but in these articles our focus is on the second step: Where in reality we should look to find such a standard?

The religious position then argues:

4. Naturalism cannot account for morality.
5. Therefore, we must believe in moral supernaturalism.

The fourth premise is the controversial one, as among naturalists there are lively debates and many competing approaches. I agree with Mr. Wright that many of those non-religious moralities are intellectually weak — and that he shot a few barbs nicely at some of the weaker ones. But he has not touched upon any of the stronger contenders.

I’ll also argue below about the fifth step — that as weak as the grounding for some of the naturalist moralities is, the grounding for all of the religious moralities is even weaker.

One preliminary point about labeling, as Mr. Wright speaks too casually in listing atheism as one of four possible explanations for morality. Atheism is not an explanation, as it is only a rejection of one kind of explanation — the theist one. Being an a-theist is like being an a-fairyist or an a-gremlinist or an a-horoscopist: it says only that one does not believe that fairies or gremlins or horoscopes explain anything.

As for what actually does explain morality, many naturalist theories are contenders. What we need, according to the second premise, is a fact about reality that grounds a distinction between good and bad. With such a standard to appeal to, we can go on to make judgments about everything else involved in human life.

  • One naturalist approach notes that humans are distinctive in the power of their rationality, and that there is a fundamental distinction between living rationally and living irrationally. Just as eagles, chipmunks, salmon, and other species have a distinctive set of capacities they should exercise to live according to the kind of beings they are, human beings should live by the guidance of their distinctive cognitive capacities. Aristotelians and Kantians, for example, argue in this broad way.
  • Another naturalist approach bases itself upon a different fundamental fact: the difference between life and death. That distinction too can ground good and bad — the good is the life-promoting and the bad is the death-causing. Nutritious foods, productiveness, and certain political systems are then good because they enhance life, while poisons, chronic laziness, and certain other political systems are bad because they undermine life. Objectivists argue in this broad way.
  • And there is the distinction between pleasure and pain. Traditional Hedonists and Utilitarians will argue that this fundamental natural difference provides a basic standard for morality: that which maximizes overall pleasure is the good and that which causes overall pain is the bad.

My point is not to advocate but to note that each has explanatory power: each is based in real, observable phenomena, and each provides a standard that can be used to make decisions in life’s countless matters. Their ultimate adequacy is a matter of ongoing investigation.

Against those three, we need to compare the adequacy of grounding morality in A god says so.

* * *

Many points can be made here, but I will make only four.

The first is that if one is going to ground morality in religion, one needs to choose among the many religions and their competing moral messages. Here, interestingly, religious belief is often autobiographical. That is, all religions have many of messages and practices — some peaceful, some violent, and so on — and individuals choose among them to put together a personal religion that reflects the morality they already judge to be more or less good.

That is, in my judgment, more morally healthy than those who accept wholesale a pre-existing religious package of beliefs uncritically. For example, the major Western religions incorporate the Bible, and much in that text is barbaric and written by and for barbaric peoples.

The healthier are those who pick-and-choose. The deist Thomas Jefferson is famous for literally cutting out only the passages in the Bible he approved of and pasting them into a separate notebook for his personal reference. Most people do the same, less systematically, and one does not need to agree with all of their selections to respect that they are thinking for themselves and that they are rejecting many immoral beliefs and practices required by the religious texts. That is an honorable path to moral development.

The picking-and-choosing, though, means that morality comes before religion. One first already has a personal standard of morality, and one then selects the religion that one independently judges fits best with it.

That, of course, is precisely why orthodox religions condemn the above practice, and this is my second point. Every major institutional religion in the West and most in the East urge — sometimes by means of threats or bribes, e.g., of hell or heaven — that one accept package-deals chosen by others. In my view, this is a profound cognitive immorality. Morality is about making choices based upon independent judgment, and any belief system that undermines that core responsibility is immoral.

The key example to reflect upon here is the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac. All major versions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam uphold Abraham as a moral hero for having passed God’s severe test. Yet what Abraham is being praised for is his willingness to kill an innocent boy, without understanding why, knowing that it would cause him and his wife immense pain, knowing only that he had been ordered to do so, and deferring all responsibility to God. That is obedient faith — and that is profoundly immoral.

Only when an institutional religion explicitly rejects the lesson of Abraham can it be considered to have reformed itself minimally in the direction of human morality. Then we can discuss its credibility on other moral issues.

My third point: Sometimes in response to the above, theists ask a hypothetical question: But what if there really is a God and you find yourself in Abraham’s sandals? Mr. Wright answers that question this way: “If God is real, then by definition he is rightfully owed our adoration, gratitude, and love.”

This is to gloss over a deeply problematic point about the foundations of religious morality. Suppose for the sake of argument that there really is a god. Suppose he reveals himself to you directly and shows that he is immensely powerful and intelligent. You ask him to lift an ocean liner out of the water and put it back, which he does successfully. You ask him some really hard math questions, and he answers correctly and effortlessly. He then says to you, Now that I have demonstrated great power and intelligence, you should do whatever I say.

But why does that follow? It doesn’t follow that what the god is telling you to do is moral. The god could be very powerful and intelligent — and evil. So if you are to base your morality on the sayings of a god, you need first to assure yourself that the god is moral.

How are you to accomplish that? Religious moralities tell us that we humans are ignorant of morality until a god tells us what morality is. But if we are ignorant of morality, then we are in no position to judge whether what the god is telling us is good or bad. On the other hand, if we are able to judge for ourselves whether the god’s sayings are good or bad, then we must already know the difference between goodness and badness — which means we don’t need the god to tell us what it is. (For more on this classic problem in religious ethics, see Divine Command Theory.)

My fourth and final point is this: Religious morality is very often, unfortunately, actually based upon deep pessimism and sometimes even deep cynicism about the natural world.

Mr. Wright’s religion is a clear case in point. Witness his dark view of the natural world: “Here is the paradox of the human condition: man both wants the beauty of moral perfection, and knows he will never find it in this life” (emphasis added). Why not? Is no one ever honest or just or self-responsible or persevering or committed to integrity?

Or is it that such goodness is too infrequent and fragile in the face of depravity? This latter seems closer to Mr. Wright’s actual position — note his candid true-confession: “No one asked me, but, given a choice, I would far rather that Odin had been the High God, so that I could rape and pillage to my heart’s content.”

Here we have a man saying he would prefer to damage and destroy other people rather than create and cooperate with them. But he acts morally — not because he wants to — but because he has been ordered to. And he blithely assumes that every one else is just as depraved and so is willing to slander the rest of the human species.

I agree entirely with Mr. Wright that such self-loathing and cynicism about human nature often is the basis for religion. (Please note: I do not claim that all advocates of religion are in this category.)

And I note a connection here between Mr. Wright, theist and pessimist, and Sigmund Freud, one of history’s major pessimists and an atheist. In his Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud argued that religion was an infantile illusion that was difficult to take seriously — but that given the irrational beastliness of human nature some sort of widespread religious belief was essential. Just as Mr. Wright seems to need to believe in a God to keep himself in line, Dr. Freud wanted most people to believe so that the fear of God would keep them in line.

What this final point suggests is that much of the religion-versus-naturalism debate about morality turns on an accurate assessment of human nature. Our next articles in the series take up directly such issues of human nature and their implications for the meaning of life.

(One final side point about intellectual morality and method: If one claims that there has been a misquoting, it is important to show the misquotation so that readers can see for themselves. This is more than professional courtesy but a matter of intellectual workmanship. In my previous articles, I’ve regularly quoted Wright’s words and given links that readers can follow to their source. I take it, by contrast, as revealing that Wright accuses a lot but does not quote. For example: Mr. Wright is angry (5th paragraph) about my use of Tertullian, as I distinguished Wright’s account of faith from Tertullian’s (3rd paragraph) and in doing so used this quotation from Tertullian. By using the links, readers can judge for themselves whether I was (a) accurate or (b) “contrived,” “cowardly,” “foolish,” and the rest — or whether Mr. Wright (c) needs to be more careful and/or (d) is substituting rhetorical bullying for argument.)

This article is part of EveryJoe’s series – Theist vs Atheist, where two columnists, John C. Wright and Stephen Hicks, are debating key issues in religion.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at, and on Twitter.

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