Does Secular Morality Exist?

Or, can you be good without God?

One of my former coworkers whom I’ve gotten to know more personally is a deconstructed Christian. These are people who grew up in a traditional Christian home but have reject the faith for various reasons. Those reasons can theological, sociological, or a combination of the two. However, they struggle to maintain some sort of moral framework; they might reject God and Jesus, but they still hold fast to some tenets of the Christian worldview. After all, wanting a good marriage, not murdering, not stealing, telling the truth, and raising children who are functional members of society – those values are still important.

On top of that, there are plenty of people who believe that religion is the cause of much evil, and if we didn’t have religion, then the world would be arguably a better place. The Crusades, Inquisition, the Muslim jihad, Sunni/Shia split, India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim) relations, – all can be traced to intractable religious differences, right?

I have plenty of problems with all those arguments.

Let’s start with the argument from recent history. One historian added up all the people who died from the Crusades, the Inquisition or Sunni/Shia wars. Because those wars took place over the course of several centuries, the death count actually lower than you might think. Conservative estimates would not break the 100,000 mark. By contrast, when you look at the 20th century – the century marked by 2 World Wars plus Communist persecution in the former USSR and China, the death count is measured in the hundreds of millions. Add the Khmer Rogue which killed one quarter of its own people (about 2 million Cambodians). The conclusion is clear: more people died in atheistic societies; Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin – none of them remotely religious. Well, they might have worshiped themselves.

Secondly, if you don’t look to any religion to find examples of creating a moral framework, and if you are a closeted Aristotelian observer, the next closest would be examples from Nature – the animal kingdom.

The problem of looking at Nature such as the social animals is in nature, everyone is trying to kill someone else! Do you really want a dog-eat-dog world? Where the strong make the rules and the weak is prey? Arguments are settled by violence?

You might have heard this humorous lesson in punctuation: “Let’s eat grandma” or “Let’s eat, grandma.” In that world, that joke doesn’t exist. In nature, the weak, the sick, and the elderly are prey for the predators. Forget assisted living for seniors with the nice clubs and golf courses. Instead of lunch with grandma, grandma is lunch. Now, if you always had a great relationship with your grandmother, let me ask – is that what you want?

The St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital each year spends millions in ads and even more in research to save children with childhood cancer. In a truly atheistic, Darwinian society, is there any reason to save those children? After all, it is through religion, especially a Judeo-Christian worldview, where we learn that human life has dignity because God gave us dignity. Take that away and carry your conclusions from an argument from nature to the logical end.

Thirdly, moral frameworks state what is good and bad. How do you determine what is good or bad? How is that measured? During the Enlightenment, French mathematician and philosopher Condorcet came up with a formula to determine whether an action is useful to society and therefore “good”. English Utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and JS Mill came up with their version – what leads to happiness or sadness. They were seeking that secular morality apart from God.

The problem as C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity is that however you decide, you still need standard that says what is good or bad. The only way to find that standard is to look outside of you. Take Mill’s argument – happiness or sadness. Consider this: what made you happy in 2010 is what depresses you in 2020. You might have bought a new house which you loved at first… and then the housing market bubble burst and now your mortgage is “under water.” Mill and Bentham are no help.

As for Condorcet’s formula – you still have to evaluate the values and determine whether that number is good or bad. Let’s say 50 is the cut off point; above 50 is good, below 50 is bad. You still have to determine independently of the formula that 50 is the cutoff point. Condorcet is no help either.

Here is a thought experiment to consider. Imagine there are two oranges on a table. One is the genuine item. The other is a super realistic holographic display of an orange. Without tasting, touching or smelling, tell me which one is the real orange. Left on their own, I suspect there is no real way to tell the difference. An outside actor must step in: she will have to pick up one only to find herself grasping air, or she will find her next snack. She must lower her nose to smell and find nothing – or a refreshing aroma. Again, the logical way to solve this problem is that an outside force – you – must step in to evaluate.

This is the same for all the moral decisions we make. Moral frameworks must come from outside of us.

Christian apologists have long said that atheists and agnostics must often borrow from the Judeo-Christian worldview the notions of good and bad, right and wrong. Even if you look to the east – Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism – you’ll find they still operate under “ought/ ought not.” In a post-Christian world, you’ll still find notions of “justice”, “equity” and “fairness”. When we curse, we damn people or things – as if we still care what would happen in the life to come. It’s a backwards compliment. Otherwise, why curse? Why bother getting so angry that you want to damn people?

To answer the original question – does secular morality exist?

A better question is: Does security morality even work?

Answers: 1)Maybe 2) No.


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