Can Morality Exist Without Religion?
©2017 Vernon Miles Kerr
In the late 19th Century, “Liberal” teaching threw out religion, along with religion’s moral guidelines, replacing those guidelines with moral relativism and situation-based ethics. Since then, the world’s diminishing moral conscience has been claimed and dominated by its religious organizations, whose abuses and excesses have further given morality a bad name. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, well-meaning liberals could have salvaged the good parts of traditional morality, admitting them as absolutes, but they have dared not touch the third-rail of philosophy — morality — for fear of being ridiculed by fellow liberals and the academy from where most of them sprang. But why should religious organizations with their conflicting “holy books” and even more conflicting interpretations of those books have a monopoly on any kind of moral absolutes? They should not.
But wishy-washy moral relativism isn’t working either, is it? Unhealthy behaviors — unhealthy to the individual and to society — such as drug abuse, promiscuity, bullying are overlooked, or even excused, based upon the surrounding circumstances. Saying that drug abuse, promiscuity or bullying are just plain bad is criticized by the liberal as being “preachy” or “judgmental.” But one can say that those things are bad without condemning the one who perpetrates them. A current, rather trite, but true saying in Christian circles applies: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Sin, as defined by the religious, is simply violating a command of God, a prohibition or duty, — purportedly the word of the supreme being — from one of those holy books. But since those books are only accepted as authoritative by the followers of each particular sect of religion, they can never serve as a moral touchstone or baseline for humanity in general. That is why the liberal world dropped the ball so severely when it threw out religion in toto, without sifting out the moral gold nuggets available from the various schools of religious thought. They threw the hated oars overboard and condemned the world to drift aimlessly, for all these years hence. But can humanity now replace the good part of what was rejected with a secular list of “do’s and don’t s ?” Maybe.
Any secular list of moral prohibitions or duties, as hinted at above, should be composed of things declared “healthy” or “unhealthy” to oneself and, by extension, to society in general. The scenario of a homeless person sitting in his own urine on a city sidewalk with a hypodermic syringe hanging out of his arm is obviously bad. The situation satisfies the test: is it unhealthy for that person, and by extension, society in general? Of course. Not all moral issues are that clear cut, but the test can still be applied. Argument will arise over the definition of “unhealthy.” My suggestion is that health is prolific, it supports the continuance of life. To the extent that each individual affects the continuance of human life and society, his or her health affects the ultimate health of everyone else, either negatively or positively. Another worn saying “No man is an island” comes to mind.
A recent search on Twitter under the hash-tag
#SecularMorality returns hundreds of Tweets but — tellingly — most equate Secular Morality with moral relativism. For the purposes of this essay, Secular Morality means a generally-agreed-upon set of moral absolutes that have passed the test of “healthy-or-unhealthy” and have been codified into a succinct list. No such list currently exists. The reader is encouraged to leave suggestions in the comment section of this article. If a list did exist, we could call it something like “The Moral Code.” If an act were to violate that code someone critical of that act could simply cite which article of the code was involved. Such as, “This politician accepting favored treatment in exchange for a vote favorable to the giver, violates Article 11 of The Moral Code.” Or, “This company or (person) providing favored treatment for a politician in order to obtain a favorable vote on an issue, violates Article 12 of The Moral Code.” The proof of the alleged facts would result in sanctions of some kind, even if those sanctions were only public ridicule and public ostracism. The facts could be argued but the moral rule would be absolute, not relative or ameliorated by situational considerations. Humanity could have a new moral compass, untainted by religious conflicts, unencumbered by religion’s abuses and no longer obscured by liberal relativism.