Religion, Secular Humanism and Morality

Posted: March 26, 2012 in Integral Studies, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris, Religion
Tags: , ,

A question pops up frequently on the forums that often discuss religion and atheism.  It’s about whether morality is inevitably tied to religion and the word of God, or whether morality can exist within secular humanism.  Religious people often argue that morality cannot be separated from religion and so a secular world is devoid of morality.

Many would question the morality of religion itself, before even looking at the secular.  Religion undeniably has a sketchy past, being responsible for a lot of things, both in history and in current times, that are not really very moral.  Horrible things have been done in the name of religion, but as I have stated frequently in the past, it is also undeniable that religion has functioned as a moral anchor for many people who otherwise would likely be morally adrift.  Religion served a historical role in taming the barbarians and providing moral guidance and spiritual purpose for many ordinary people.  Religion and churches in a community, whatever else one may say about them, often provides moral guidelines and hope for people who otherwise have very little.

The fact that religion has two sides to it should not be surprising and should not condemn it out of hand.  Most things have two sides to them.  Capitalism is a means to progress and a tool for oppression.  Liberalism can produce an important social safety net or can self serving unions to dominate the economy.  Science can invent wonders and save lives, or produce nuclear weapons and toxic waste.  Most things, and especially ideologies, are two sided coins, so religion should not be unduly criticized for having a dark and light side.

Religious values permeated society, with people attending church at least once a week and the church often having important, integrated roles in the local community.  Prayer were often said daily along with grace before meals.  If there is a criticism of Secular Humanism it would be that it has not permeated the psyche of people to the same degree.  We have many secular and humanistic philosophers who have written about secular values and morality.  People like John Stuart Mill, Martin Buber and Fredrick Nietzsche have done so in the past (with mixed results).  Currently we have author/philosophers like Noam Chomsky and Ken Wilber who have provided not only analysis of our moral situation, but proposals and models.  The foundation of morality in secular humanism is secure.

However, most people are not connected to these theories.  Unless you take a Philosophy course in University, or have some esoteric reading habits, you don’t really come into contact with these modern thinkers, -certainly not the way that people came into contact with religious doctrine and dogma.  Outside of the laws of the land, which often seem to have an ambiguous moral foundation, there is no codified set of rules for secular morality that is similar to The Ten Commandments or the Sermon On The Mount.  (I know that not all Christians consistently act according to these rules.  I know that many of the rules are contradictory or extremely reactionary, or are just plain bad rules.  But the rules still provide a more tangible foundation for morality than anything that exists in Secular Humanism.)

So the bottom line may be that religion and secular humanism may have the same potential for supplying a basis for morality, but religion seems to have a better delivery system.  If the morality and values promoted by secular humanism sit on a shelf, isolated and unused, that would explain why many people believe that it’s incapable of producing them, and certainly they’re not going to be of much practical use.  Education needs to address this, -but if it were to do so the conservative element in society would try to block it, claiming that liberal influences were trying to brainwash students (which is ironic).  Clearly, it is a missing link in the moral evolution of our society which must be addressed and solved.

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