Morality without Religion

GM Humanist No. 6. October 1994.

Socrates asked. "Do gods love holiness and morality because they are holy, or is morality holy because the gods love it?"

Put simply: if an existing god says something is good because he sees that something objectively is good, then the goodness of that thing is intrinsic in that thing; the good is independent of the god. In other words, if the god recognises that murder is wrong, then the wrongful act of killing is wrong even if the god doesn't see that. Morality or immorality in any action is not dependent on the god; god's will is determined by what he sees, not the other way round. God no more invented morality than Newton invented gravity.

Imagine you're God. Make a world where circles have corners and two and two make five. If there are laws of physics that put finite conditions on God, then maybe there are moral restraints and restrictions on his alleged omnipotence and supposedly infinite power. Christian moralists can't accept this. It says that there are things that God simply cannot do.

If however, actions undertaken with the desired consequence of improving life are right only because God says so, then what is right is what God says, 'cos he's bigger than us, right'? We often use such a reply to avoid answering a child - "ask your mum; because I said so." It's a cop-out. Think of a professional football referee. He's impartial; he's trained to follow certain football league regulations; he knows what offside is; offside is independent of the referee; he doesn't blow his whistle on a whim or award goals when a goalie makes a save, even when he does need his eyes testing. The Christian notion is that God can act on a whim. What's right isn't what is objectively right, but what a subjective god says. The Bible says Do not kill, but if God wants, he could say Do kill, and we'd be obliged to, because if right is just what God says, then we really are at that kind of random mercy.

Morality exists independent and irrespective of God. But we must be careful. Right must never be just what we desire, any more than it should be what some

airy-fairy god wants. Moral rules, like football rules, grow from social interaction. People meet and compromise their freedoms to get a mutually acceptable situation going. Philosophers call this natural process the "Social Contract". Selfish immorality is taking without giving back to the contract. Morality in society depends on equality in the contract - democratic public access. This can be achieved only through human rights education and legal procedural reform.

We mustn't judge human action from pulpits or confessionals but through the courtroom, public votes and a non-secret media society. The best moralists are human rights activists. Many people do not yet get involved in social interaction and having a very poor part of the social contract. Many are blinkered by religions into thinking that their misery is a punishment from a god who will give everyone his final judgement after the last trump. Such believers forget to judge for themselves; they have no sense of government by the people for the people; they are governed by blind dogma. Their sense of morality is what someone else tells them to do. But morality isn't not killing, it's knowing why you shouldn't kill, and that requires real personal wisdom. Top of the school education syllabus agenda shouldn't be RE but social interaction skills. Morality can survive: for that to happen, we as humanists and humanitarians need to relearn how to negotiate the social contract.

References: Plato - Euthyphro, as in The Last Days Of Socrates, Penguin 1969; Rousseau - The Social Contract, Penguin 1984; Peter Singer - A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell 1991


Copyright. Arthur Chappell