The Claptrap Behind Religious Morality

Inspired by Ross Douthat’s book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” there’s been a debate on the justifications behind secular morality and Douthat’s charge that since there is no rule in a non-metaphysical universe defining morality for us, there is no reason for secular morality to be defined as anything and that it needs non-secular, or religious, morality in order for it to form.

Karl Smith pines on the subject and struggles with the questions here. Brad DeLong responds here, and Julian Sanchez practically mirrors DeLong’s sentiments that Karl Smith and Ross Douthat should read their Euthyphro here. Daniel Kuehn responds here, and, finally (or at least, so far), Karl Smith responds to Kuehn here.

My response found at that last link:

St. Paul tolerated the social norms of the civilization (if we can call it that by today’s western standards) he lived in. Whether St. Paul personally approved of slavery, human trafficking or the savagery of war during his time doesn’t matter; ethics is ultimately a personal decision a person can practice. The question of whether secular morality would approve of things such as human cloning is a pointless one because, ultimately, society will have its social norms that may not be consistent with either secular or non-secular morality – because these ethical and moral standards are, again, ultimately personal. What we do as a collective defines society but what society does, and what we personally decide to do within that collective, doesn’t define us. If it did, St. Paul would arguably be a monster.

The problem with these assertions that there are universal truths of morality is that throughout history, the foundations of these so-called universal truths have been used for justification for what we would consider atrocities today. What good is a universal truth given by a divine being over secular morality when, as found in the Old Testament (as an example), we find divine justification for genocide and capital punishment for seemingly (to us today) minor infractions? It seems that non-secular morality is merely justification for what we find necessary or useful at the time – whether its to justify personal decisions or social mores.

In the end, there may be a universal truth, but in the mean time, we’re speaking for whatever divine power is defining those truths and writing these commandments and codes of social morality. St. Paul may tolerate the atrocities of his time or he may have excused them or even found them morally justified; the society he lived in found justification despite (or, if you take the whole book they found their morality in, because of) that code of morality. The ancient Jews found their justification in divine truth – as did the Babylonians, Sumerians, Romans, and every believer of non-secular morality. To suggest secular moralists need to find a higher source of universal truth in morality is placing a challenge that non-secularists are unwilling to, or incapable, of taking on – because, in the end, non-secular morality is secular morality with a halo slapped on it.


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