Religion, Secularization, and Morality

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With the increasing secularization of society, one of the most divisive issues is where our laws should come from. The religious would argue that in order to have a truly moral society we must have a legal system based on religious principles. In sharp contrast, the secularist would claim that such a society would be inherently unjust to those with differing beliefs and those who hold no religious beliefs. However, I am willing to contend that there is an approach to this issue that should equally satisfy the religious moralist and the secularist.

This argument essentially boils down to where moral truths come from. While the moral nihilist would contend that no moral truths exist at all, such a position requires one to admit that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with say, mass murder. Therefore, I will argue under the assumption that moral truths exist.

In the United States, the secularist will often point to the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This seems a reasonable claim of the secularist as choosing one religion to base a nation’s laws on would be a clear establishment of religion. But such an argument has dangerous implications. This argument essentially points to laws as establishing morals. Such an argument falls victim to the same short falls as moral relativism. For example, if we are to say that laws define morality, then we must also concede that harboring slaves in Antebellum America was immoral because it was against the law.

However, it does seem that the Founding Fathers were onto something when writing the Bill of Rights. Firstly, there are multiple possible conceptions of God, as well as belief systems that include multiple gods or no gods. In addition, there is no currently available scientific method to confirm or deny the validity of any of these conceptions of God. Therefore, to choose one over the other to base our moral theories on would be completely arbitrary and discriminatory to people who hold the other views. Such a policy of forced adherence to a belief system based only on conjecture and faith conjures up thoughts of Pre-Modern Europe, in which those holding views contrary to those supported by the state led one to be subject to varying degrees of persecution and civil liberties violations.

It is here that we must begin to examine the nature of the God whose moral principles the standard religious moralist in America wishes us to base our laws on. Christian theology has long held God to be a perfect being, and among these perfections are omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. It stands to reason that if God is omnibenevolent, then God wants people to act morally, whether it is to save them from the possibility of Hell, or simply to make the world a more tolerable place to live. In addition, because Christian theology teaches of the threat of Hell for acting immorally, God would clearly want people to be aware of what the moral truths are in order for them to make informed decisions on how to act. Omniscience would make God know that humans are rational creatures that will eventually question basing morality on pure faith and seek a more logical approach to finding moral truths. Being omnipotent, God would possess the power to make truths discernable in a logical way and omnibenevolence would require God to do so.
Furthermore, most accounts describe God as being responsible for the existence of humans, which would mean that God is also responsible for our rational nature. If this is the case, but God continues to only present moral truths to us in mediums unacceptable to a rational mind and continues to threaten punishment for not following these morals, God can only be described as a sadist whose disposition is wholly incompatible with omnibenevolence.

Therefore, it seems that the religious moralist, in order to preserve the perfect nature of God, must accept that moral truths can be determined through logical means. But what method should we use to determine such truths? I would contend that determining such matters is no different than how scientists determine physical laws. Through observation of our world we can determine what is and is not morally acceptable to do.

It is a common doctrine in more fundamentalist circles to claim that observations contrary to prevailing beliefs of the group in question are either a test of faith by God or an illusion created by some malevolent entity, such as Satan. However, the former cannot be true given God’s omnibenevolence. An omnibenevolent God should want to give humans every opportunity to act morally and would not attempt to fool them into doing otherwise. As far as the Satan issue is concerned, God’s omnipotence would easily prevent Satan, or any malevolent force, from trying to deceive human’s into acting immorally. If God is unable to do so, then God is not omnipotent. If God is not willing to do so, then God is not omnibenevolent.

To demonstrate this method of determining moral truths, it seems reasonable to say that most people would not want to experience physical harm, unless explicit consent is given to the person inflicting such harm. Likewise, a person is not likely to want their property taken or destroyed without giving explicit consent. And ultimately we find that people are unlikely to want another person to dictate what they can or cannot do with their own body. Therefore, we can say that it is immoral to harm or deprive a person of their body or their property without obtaining consent from that person.

This method should be acceptable to the secularist as we obtain our moral judgments from worldly observations and draw logical conclusions from the information gathered from said observations. As for the religious moralist, the outcome seems equally satisfying. We see that the types of things that we can verifiably say are immoral boil down our ethical theory to the proverbial “Golden Rule,” of treating others how we, ourselves, would intend to be treated.

As for our laws, we can conclude that laws such as those against murder and theft are justly imposed. However, laws regulating another’s lifestyle are inherently immoral, so long as that person’s lifestyle does not interfere with another individual’s liberty to exercise their chosen lifestyle. Any law preventing such free exercise of a chosen lifestyle is a clear deprivation of that person’s right to their own body and is thus, immoral.

Such an approach not only satisfies the religious and non-religious members of society, but also provides us with a consistent method through which we can determine the morality of any issue in society. If society is willing to adopt this view point, I believe we will begin to see consensus on issues as wide ranging as abortion, drug laws, gay marriage, animal rights, and the morality of taxes. It is my belief that a society governed by reason and logic is the most just society imaginable and the one we should strive for.

About Author

Leon Larkin is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studying history and philosophy.

  • Wayne Middlesteadt

    Good article. I’ve liked it in an attempt to get it out to my non-Libertarian friends.

  • Angel Annihilation

    I feel your understanding of christianity is a bit lacking. Christianity teaches that humans are totally depraved and are anything but moral creatures. We’ve been given a conscience that knows right and wrong, but given the opportunity we choose wrong every time. So really every one deserves Hell due to our carnal nature, which is why Jesus told a teacher of the law “You must be born again” meaning your nature MUST be remade in God’s image super naturally. The Bible teaches that if righteousness could be obtained thru law then Jesus sacrifice is in vain. Therefore the question i always present to Christians is this. “Did Jesus ever teach that the state would every be responsible for correcting sin?” The answer is a simple “no” the Christan’s duty to his community is to share the gospel and lead ppl to Jesus voluntarily not via force, or state.

    I do think you nailed the universal morality argument and how it does satisfy essential moral truths, I just think winning over Christians is more simple that. i think you can win over even the most fundamental Christians by simply telling them that because the Bible teaches in a God given instrument to discern right and wrong, you can reason right and wrong without betraying your personal views on God. And because the Bible teaches that humans are morally bankrupt, they should be suspect of empowering a state run by such creatures.
    Other religions such as Islam, mormonism ect that teach that laws or behaviors are what justify a person before God might have difficulty converting but the meat of your message i think works. Just finding a more universally viable argument would help.

  • Jason Neal

    Very much enjoyed this read.

  • Josh

    Right Action brings Right Results, Wrong Action brings Wrong Results.

  • 1healthy_eater1

    what we are seeing, however, is those who wish to “exercise their chosen lifestyle” in places or in ways that “interfere with another individual’s liberty” (or group’s) for example a same-sex couple wanting to get married in the sanctuary of a church belonging to a group that chooses marriage to be between one man and one woman – then taking the church to court over “deprivation of (their) right” without care that they are also depriving another’s right to their own personal chosen lifestyle. It seems as though it is headed toward a state where only certain chosen lifestyles will be defended, while others will be labeled as “intolerant” rather than simply as alternate lifestyles themselves. Laws protecting free exercise of chosen lifestyles must make allowances for ALL lifestyles and not protect just the popular ones or the politically correct ones.