Secular Morality and Dreams
Why religious people who think they are so right are so wrong
This essay discusses two topics: the assumption by so many religious people that nonreligious people have no morals, and the assumption by so many religious people that a materialistic view of the universe leads to a hollow, unfulfilling life. Both of these views are preposterous and reveal more about the inner bigotry of these people's religious beliefs then they reveal about the nature of the nonreligious people they refer to.
This essay discusses two different topics. I have decided to blend them into a single essay because, while these topics are not directly related, they derive from the same origin, which is the common religious viewpoint that nonreligion must inherently have no moral underpinnings and must inherently be depressing, small, and unfulfilling.
I have heard and read the following statement many times: Nonreligious people are immoral because they have no religious set of moral doctrines. There is nothing to prevent them from ranting off into immoral depravity on a whim because there is no set of moral rules to guide them under such tempting circumstances. I have also heard and read the additional following statement many times: Since nonreligious people think that no part of a person's being exists beyond their physical body, they must have a sad, vacuous perspective on life, a perspective that yields little hope for rewarding discovery and satisfaction at marveling at the nature of life.
These statements reflect absolutely nothing about the true inner beliefs and dreams of nonreligious people. In fact, I would propose that the last people in the world qualified to define the beliefs of nonreligious people are people who are not nonreligious themselves. How can they possibly know that it is like to have a nonreligious view? How can they possibly judge it if they do not understand it to begin wiith? They are operating on a self-deluded premise, and therefore any judgement that follows is intrinsically flawed.
The problem with religious morality
How can a nonreligious person have a set of moral rules? Morality must be handed down from God, right? Without God, there is no morality. I find it odd that religious people would assume this because they obviously believe that nonreligious people are at least reasonably moral. They don't pass a nonreligious person on the street and wonder if they are about to be shot without reason or cause. At least, all but the most paranoid religious people don't operate on this assumption. Anyone who fears random unsubstantiated anarchy would lock themselves in the basement. Most people don't act this way, they assume that the people around them will act in a reasonaly moral manner, even though they know some of those people aren't religious. So they do acknowledge that nonreligious people have morals, even while they denounce the existence of any such morals from the pulpit.
I have two major problems with religious morality. The first is that it is incredibly arbitrary, thus leading to many horrific acts on the belief that those acts are moral. A classic example is the Spanish inquisition. The participants believed they were acting morally, which is to say they believed they were following moral rules handed down to them by God. The mere belief that a moral principle is Godly is proof enough for most people that the moral principle is correct, when it clearly may not be. A more modern and less extreme example is that a lot of religious people don't think nonreligious people should be allowed to hold positions in government. They believe very strongly that nonreligious people should have absolutely no voice in their representative government. This, of course, originates from their assumption that nonreligious people are immoral, but the ironic thing is that such a denunciation of democratic rights for nonreligious people is itself deeply immoral. It is one step up from requiring religious people to register with the government and wear badges on their clothing so everyone knows who they are, which is one step up from slavery. The denial of basic rights to all people on an equal basis is a slippery rope indeed.
Further evidence that morality from on high is arbitrary is the fact that many religious have opposing moral viewpoints, thus there is no root morality at the center of religion. For example, many Christians believe it is immoral to be Muslim and many Muslims believe it is immoral to be Christian. How arbitrary is that? They are in direct opposition. Clearly, morality from God is arbitrary. The reason it is arbitrary is that it is circular. Morality doesn't actually come from God at all. It comes from people, but they make up their own moral rules to justify their actions and then perform actions as directed by those moral rules. It is circular, and therefore has no external objective root cause, which makes it prone to error and capriciousness.
The second problem with religious morality, deriving from the religious attitude that nonreligious people are basically wild animals with no sense of right and wrong, is that such a view is basically an open admission by religious people that the only thing preventing them from commiting erratic acts of atrocity is the fear of retribution from God. When a religious person accuses a nonreligious person of having no moral basis to prevent them from committing murder, they are basically admitting that they, themselves, would happily go out today and shoot someone in the head on a whim, were it not for the fear that God would be angry at them for it. Religious people are basically admitting up front that they can't think of any reason not to kill someone besides the fact they selfishly don't want to be punished. Is immorality just some fun game that religious people wish desperately they could play, if only their mean daddy, God, wouldn't get so mad about it? If they thought they could get away with it without being punished, they'd do it just for laughs. This admission is an innate consequence of their moral basis, which states: don't perform such and such an act because if you do you will be punished for it. This view is implicitly selfish in that it is focused on the consequences suffered by the actor, and not by the slightest consideration for the victim of a would-be immoral act.
While it seems fictional on the surface to suggest that religious people have some deep inner need to go out and steal, rape, and murder without restraint, it is quite telling to notice that they will do exactly these things when they believe that it is within the purview of their religious morality. The Spanish inquisition is a dramatic illustration of this fact, as are other examples such as the conquest of North and South America or the attempted conquest of Africa and India. Since religious morality at the time stated (presumably directly from the mouth of God himself) that it is a moral directive to murder and enslave native Americans and Africans, this is exactly what was done, and without the slightly concern that it may be wrong, because the religious morality under those circumstances promised that there would be no religious punishment for such actions. In fact, religious morality practically directed people to perform these acts, as if not performing them might have been worse (might have been punishable by God for not going along with it).
Religious morality just doesn't work. The circular arbitrariness of its root cause yields a morality with no true underpinnings, thus it vacillates and wanders aimlessly through time, leaving a trail of history's most deplorable acts of hate in its wake. And yet, many religious people remain convinced that they possess a superior morality to all nonreligious people. The hypocrisy is astounding.
One could argue that while many religions have conflicting moral codes there are some common themes as well. The Golden Rule is a common example, which states:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I hate the Golden Rule. The main problem is it is a selfish rule. This has yielded dreadful mistakes throughout history. It assumes that everyone wants to be treated the same way you want to be treated, but this is patently false. A crystal-clear example is Christan evangelism. Many Christians believe that trying to convert nonChristians to Christianity is a moral way to behave. The believe this because they readily admit that if they weren't Christian, they would want someone to proselytize to them. Thus, Christians sweep the world in a long-term quest to eradicate and erase all religious diversity from the face of the Earth, believing this is moral behavior. If it weren't for the Golden Rule underlying this "cultural genocide" as I have called it in other mind ramblings (topic Evangelism), Christians wouldn't believe this was moral to begin with and presumably -- hopefully -- wouldn't do it.
I have a varient on the Golden Rule in mind. I invented it completely on my own, including the clever little name I gave it, the Platinum Rule, meaning it is better than the Golden Rule because platinum is wildly regarded as "better" than gold in the same way that gold is "better" than other precious metals. I have to defend my invention of this new rule and its coined name because it has in fact been independently invented (with the same name for the same reason) by other people (I guess it is and idea that just follows naturally from an objective meditation on the Golden Rule). My rewording, the Platinum Rule, states:
Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.
So you don't treat people the way you want to be treated. You treat people the way they want to be treated. It's that simple. This is more moral because it focuses on the wants and desires of the people being acted on. It is their wants and desires that will either be met or missed by the action in question, so focusing on their wants and desires is the moral, nonselfish, point of view.
A proposal for secular morality
An argument about the arbitrariness and failings of religious morality does not, in itself, necessarily answer the claim that nonreligious people can be moral. It only suggests that possibly no one can be moral. Here is how I handle the issue of morality with a secular underpinning. It follows from the Platinum Rule, stated above, but I restate it without the Golden Rule style prose in the following way:
You have the right to do anything you want and to not be the object of any undesired action up to the point where the action you are performing imposes on the the same right of another person.
In other words, you start out with the default assumption that you have infinite rights. You can do absolutely anything without limit. Then you chip away at this infinite list of rights by removing rights that violate other people's right not to be acted toward in an undesidered way.
Let's look at some examples. Is taking something from another person moral? Well, the target of the action is the person being taken from. Do they want you to take something from them? If not, we use the word "stealing" to describe the action. Since their right not to be stolen from is violated by the act, stealing is therefore immoral. What if they don't mind if you take something from them? We use the words "receive" and "borrow" to describe such an act. These actions aren't immoral because the target of the taking is in compliance with the act. Conclusion one: stealing is immoral, but receiving and borrowing are moral.
Let's try a slightly more complicated example. Is killing another person moral? Well, the question is, does the person who is going to be killed want to be killed by you? If not, then killing them is immoral. The word we use for this act is "murder". What if they do want to be killed by you? The word we use for this act is "euthanasia". Is it moral? According to the moral rules I stated above, it is. Conclusion two: murder is immoral, but euthanasia is moral. Some people disagree that euthanasia is moral. The reason is that they don't follow the same moral rules I follow. They follow the Golden Rule, not the Platinum Rule. They don't want anyone to kill them, so they assume it is immoral to ever kill anyone else. The Golden Rule selfishly leads them to force a person to live against that person's will, regardless of whatever suffering the person may be going through. Whether or not a person lives is their business, no one elses's, ala the Platinum Rule.
Let's try a fairly complicated example. Is suicide moral? The person receiving the action is also the person performing the action. Therefore, the person being acted on must in agreement with the person performing the action. One could assume that suicide is therefore moral. On the surface this makes sense, since it strikes a strong resemblence to euthanasia, which we already concluded was moral according to my set of moral rules, but it is more complicated than this. In order to properly evaluate the desires of the person being acted on, it is assumed that the person being acted on is capable of judging what their own desires are in the first place. If they lack this ability then one cannot easily determine whether an act performed on them is moral or not. Are suicidal people capable of deciding whether they want to die? That is the question, and the same question arises in the case of euthanasia of course. Since each individual case is unique, I cannot speculate beyond this point. In each case, the ability of the person to "know what they want" must be determined. It is often assumed that depression prevents a person from knowing what they want but that a treadful physical ailment does not. Thus, many people conclude the suicide is immoral while euthanasia is moral.
We must be careful not to assume too easily that anyone who's desires seem strange to us is simply insane and that their desires can simply be disregarded as a result. Consider how this could be abused. A religious missionary, attempting to follow my moral rules, could conclude that any person who is not a member of their religion must be insane, and therefore their desires are incorrect and can be dismissed, at which point evangelism seems like a moral path to follow. The choice to disregard a person's beliefs about which actions they are willing to be on the receiving end of must be made with only the greatest possible reservation. A person's desires cannot whimsically be disregarded simply for the conveniences of justifying an action against them.
Furthermore, the discovery that someone is insane does not, in itself, resolve the issue of how to morally act torward them (the missionary in the example above would be incorrect to conclude that proselytizing is de facto moral simply because the person being proselytized to is assumed to be insane). All a diagnosis of insanity does is illuminate that, at present, there is no way to determine precisely how to act toward the person in question, and further study on a case by case basis is necessary before performing any action that may have serious long term consequences.
Abortion is the most complicated example for many reasons. First, although two people are involved, their role as object of the action is intertwined (one is not merely actor and the other acted on. Instead, one is both actor and acted on, while the other is acted on). Second, not only is it impossible to assess the desire of a person we can't interrogate (such as someone inaccessibly located inside a uterus), but we cannot even say with any clear confidence that a partially developed human has the mental capability of having fully human desires at all. Let's consider the woman's point of view first. With the caveats just stated, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that unborn, partially developed humans are the people that pro-life advocates assume they are, that they are mentally capable of wanting and not wanting things and that they don't want to die. Where does this leave us? In such a case, we have a pair of perfectly intertwined rights and desires. The rights of the unborn person violate the rights of the woman and the rights of the woman violate the rights of the unborn person. Specifically, the right of the unborn person to live violates the woman's right not to undergo pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing against her will. Likewise, the woman's right to not experience these things against her will violates the unborn person's right to not be killed. The situation is inseparably enmeshed. Remember, this discussion assumes that unborn people have the mental capabilities of fully developed humans, which is not actually very justifiable anyway. Thus the conflict of rights may not even exist (the unborn person may not be mentally capable of having rights). Regardless, assuming that unborn people do have rights, there is no perfect resolution. Someone's right will be violated by someone's else's right, there is no way around it. A pro-file stance violates people's rights at least as much as a pro-choice stance does (possibly more since the humanhood of the woman is beyond dispute while the humanhood of the unborn person is, at least, debatable). The only distinction is that the two points of view choose to favor a different person's rights and discard a different person's rights in diametrically opposed ways. The way I resolve this particularly hairy issue is discussed in detail in my other mind ramblings topic, The Abortion Debate. To quickly summarize that entire essay here, I believe some rights are of greater "rightness" than other rights. If an unborn person's right to live depends on another person's unwilling bodily participation, then that right is of lesser value than other rights, such as a woman's right to control her own body. This follows directly from my moral rule above. Observe: the unborn person has the right to live up to the point where that right invades the woman's rights, but not beyond that point, a perfect restatement of my moral rule above. With rights placed on a hiearchy, the issue is readily resolved: the woman's rights supercede the unborn person's rights. Like I said, someone's right are going to get violated, there's just not way around it.
Note: This essay is mainly philosophical, and as such, grants assumptions that are only assumed to be true for the sake or argument, and not which are necessarily truly true, to coin a term. Namely, I seriously doubt the full humanhood of unborn people and I seriously doubt the mental capability of unborn people. As such, the moral analysis of abortion is quite a bit simpler. A full person's rights supercede a partial person's rights, especially when a partial person may not even possess the mental faculty to discern its own desires. I provide the more complicated analysis above merely to explore the philosophical moral implications if one grants full rights to an unborn person.
Almost as an afterthought, I would like to approach the common religious accusation that nonreligious people, who generally have a materialistic view of the world, must lead a depressing, pointless, futile existence with no glorious aspirations for their own future. I have recently discussed this topic in great detail in a related mind ramblings topic, My Religion, which is an essay with a fairly tongue-in-cheek title targeting this very same accusation. However, that essay focuses more on describing my personal dreams without defending the fact that is possible to have dreams while possessing a materialistic worldview.
People who believe the universe has some magical essence to it, and especially people who believe that humans have some magical essence to them, see materialism as cold and harsh. From their persective, if a person is just made out of matter, then they have no consequence, no reason to exist, no purpose. I would argue that they are only half correct. They are correct in that there is no external source of meaning, there is just stuff, just matter, just atoms. But they stop short of the truly remarkable revelation, which is that matter that is organized into particular arrangements can yield behavior that far supercedes the ostensible banality underlying its component atoms. The human mind emerges from the physical brain, which is just made out of matter, but that statement in no way detracts from the beauty and awe-inspiring mystery that the mind represents. Humans are incredible beings. Our art, our passion, and our fascination with nature are real, demonstrable qualities of significant value, regardless of their derivation from a gooey sack of neurons. This ability for beauty to emerge from matter, for magnificence to rise from austerity, is the single greatest trademark of life. That a combination of simple elements, ejected from the explosions of dead stars, which is in itself a mere trait of physical nature, can self-organize into a living organism is the most significant achievement in the history of the universe. That some living organisms, having emanated from coallesced star dust, can then yield passionate, emotional thoughts, that they can love, that they can ultimately dream, is equally prodigious. We humans, both in our qualification as living organisms, and in our condition as intellectual beings of immeasurable aspiration and yearning to grow beyond our present existence, represent one of the most wonderful achievements of the entire universe. Nonreligious people do not believe that an external godly force is necessary to give their lives meaning and importance. Rather, they see that importance in their understanding of the intricacy of life and in the grandeur of the human mind.
I invite religious people to have the whatever religious views they want and I grant them their perceived necessity to believe that their own personal lives would be void of any significance if they did not believe God imbues them directly with that significance, but I would also suggest that religious people consider that there are other people in the world who have learned to see that same degree of importance and splendor in the natural world, in the organization of life and in the depths of the human mind that derives from the otherwise meaningless lump of matter we call the brain.
In other words, I suggest that religious people apply a nonselfish perspective, a Platinum Rule ideology instead of a Golden Rule ideology. Instead of assuming that since their own lives would be vacuous and pointless without God, the same must be true of all other people as well, I am suggesting that they nonselfishly realize that other people have found meaning in places that are of equal portent to those illuminated by a belief in God.
I would really like to hear what people think of this. If you prefer private feedback, you can email me at email@example.com. Alternatively, the following form and comment section is available.