After admitting that I’m an atheist (and humanist), I’m often asked “but what about morals?” Morals are very important to all of us, and many believe that throwing out their religious-book-of-choice will throw out morality as well.
A little reflection should rule this out. There are many secular countries where the absence of a god does not result in a culture of chaos and iniquity—obviously a justice system, cultural norms and instincts can do the job just as well. The result may be different to what you may wish, but still stable.
I wonder why these people ask about morality in the absence of religion. The Edinburgh University Humanist Society has
an upcoming event on “Humanist Ethics for 21st century” in February, so I thought I’d start exploring this and other aspects of morality in a series of blog posts. In starting out, I’m left with a series of questions I hope to be able to answer one day:
- Does removing religion from a society leave a gap that needs to be filled? Do we naturally feel the need to have a visible authority on the matter, traditionally handled by the priesthood? In promoting humanism, do we need to assuage any concerns about morality, and if so, how do we do this most effectively?
- Do we understand enough about our natural moral instincts? For example, here’s what the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanist principles says about morality:
Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction. If morality is intrinsic, I’d like to know more about it. What are our natural inclinations, and how do they differ across cultures? What are the evolutionary drivers for morality and what can science tell us?
In starting this quest, it’s probably worth defining just what morality is. My dictionary defines moral as:
concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character
concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society
Of course, the right and wrong leads me immediately to think about good and evil as portrayed in religious texts. Religious folk would leave the ultimate arbiter to an imagined god. Right and wrong, demands more. Who is the arbiter? This is why that second clause in the definition is so important to me: “considered right or acceptable in a particular society.” But then, is “good” simply relative?
Darn, another question to add to the list…
3 Comments so far
Leave a comment