Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  9: Religion, Morality and Ethics

Section 7 Secular Morality as Inferior ?

    There are those who argue that any attempt to arrive at a philosophical ethics or a basis for morality that is independent of religion is bound to failure. This is so because with secular ethics there is no fundamental motive to be Good.  Others disagree and argue that a morality based on fear of punishment is a less effective morality.

    Religious Morality over Secular Morality

    George Mavrodes:

    Mavrodes holds that secular ethics is too superficial. It lacks metaphysics and a basis for values and obligations. He holds that secular ethics can not answer the questions:

Why be moral all the time?

Why ever consider sacrificing personal welfare?

Mavrodes holds that humans experience a sense of obligation, which if followed would result in no net benefit in a Russellian world with no after life and no spiritual realm. There exists a sense of sacrifice and gift that serves as the basis for a moral life. This sense can become part of the pattern of life itself.

Religion makes sense of morality by teaching and supporting the idea that Morality is not absurd or for naught.

Religion also suggests that Morality is Not the DEEPEST thing that exists or that can be experienced. Morality is a transitional phase for the individual and the species. It is transitory. Morality will pass away for something even deeper and richer. Religion supports the feeling of obligation to that which makes sacrifices worthwhile. Religion supports the hope in something better or richer which is to come and makes being Good and sacrificing worthwhile.

Religion supports that which enriches life.

    Religion and the Queerness of Morality” by George Mavrodes 

    Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)

In his essay “Religion and the Queerness of Morality,” George Mavrodes uses Bertrand Russell’s description of a Godless world in which men occur as accidental atomic collections and exist only until the point of physical death as a basis for claiming that secular morality is an inadequate method for providing reasons for people to be moral.  Mavrodes refers to this world as a “Russellian world” in which there are, what Mavrodes refers to as “Russellian benefits,” such as a long, content life, sexual pleasure, a good reputation, etc.  These benefits exist even if the world is not a Russellian world, but unlike the non-Russellian world, the world as set forth by Russell does not have spiritual benefits such as life after death or ascension to heaven.  Thus, in a Russellian world, the only benefits and losses are of the Russellian variety.  Mavrodes then points out that it is quite clear that some moral obligations would result in a Russellian loss, such as paying off a debt.  Considering that there is no higher form of judgment and no afterlife as an incentive, Mavrodes argues that there is not much reason for citizens of the Russellian world to be moral.   

Mavrodes points out that one might argue that it is in everyone’s best interest for all persons, including oneself to be moral, and from that statement one can draw the conclusion that it is in one’s best interest for everyone to be moral.  However, Mavrodes goes on to point out that in a Russellian world, it is only in one’s best interest to be moral if everyone else is also being moral.  He also points out that while one might or might not act immorally, others are bound to do so, independent of one’s actions.   

Mavrodes asserts that in a Russellian world, morality and obligations cannot be deep.  Since man ceases to exist beyond the grave, everything in the Russellian world is superficial when compared to a world in which there is religion and an afterlife.  Thus, goodness, obligation and morality have no lasting effects in the Russellian world.  Mavrodes concludes by stating that religion (although his focus is on Christianity) gives a deeper meaning to morality than is possible in the Russellian world.  Rather than the view of Dostoyevsky that “If there is no God, then everything is permitted,” that would be present in the Russellian world, the world that embraces religion would have an outlook that because God exists there are prohibitions, but also because of that very existence of God, eventually there will be “no cause for prohibition.”   

Mavrodes, George I.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.”  Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment:  Essays in the Philosophy of ReligionEd. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1986.

    Secular over Religious Morality

There are those who think that a morality based on a negative motivation is inferior to one based on positive motives.  To avoid doing wrong based on fear is far inferior to a morality based on well reasoned principles and the desire of the autonomous moral agents to act in a manner that is in accord with some set of basic ethical principles that resonates with some core values.  Religious morality appears to rest on fear.  There is the fear of reprisals from deity or deities .  There is fear of punishments from a deity.  There is fear of a next lifetime being set under conditions that are not favorable.  There is the fear of the loss of salvation and eternal damnation and punishment.  Opposed to such a motive secular ethics is based on the well reasoned conclusion that certain conditions for social life that a valued are better achieved by adherence to some set of guiding principles for decision making.  

There is much criticism of the moral foundation of Western Civilization located in the proselytizing religions of monotheistic tradition.  The morality of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions have all at one time or another supported many heinous human actions and organized violence against others, even within the same tradition.   Many atrocities have been committed in the name of those religions. 

While it is often argued that religion despite whatever may be its shortcomings or flaws or faults does at least instill a morality or a community ethos without which social life and civilized life would not be possible.  Against this claim there are a growing number of people who would argue that a morality resting on a religious faith that is founded on nothing but faith in the hope of securing a better life after a life on earth is a morality that fosters within people a sense of meanness towards others and even a selfishness in a concern for personal salvation.  Such a morality does its worst on humans when it encourages a faith upon which it rests that is a faith that is held without or beyond reason and evidence to support it.  Such a morality is inclined to be one that is without a degree of sensitivity for nuance and for critical and reflective thought.  It is a morality of literal interpretation and simple minded applications.  It is a morality of tradition that finds it very difficult to adapt to changes in the physical and social environments and to incorporate advances of science and technology into its moral schema.  This morality is one that resists adaptation to progress.  Slavery, the subjugation of women, just and holy war theory, the inequality of social classes are all supported by such morality.

Morality founded upon the hope of survival of the death of the body and eternal life is a morality that has at its base a number of difficulties.   It is founded on a reward-punishment approach to morality that is rather simplistic and childlike.  If there is a situation for which there is no punishment does that make it permissible?   If the motive for doing what is morally good is the hope of eternal life then what happens when a) there is no proof that there is such a life?  b) the idea of an eternal life becomes less positive and more negative as people realize that an infinite amount of time is an idea that drains meaning out of the value of human life?

It is sometimes thought that the religions of the East are more spiritual and contemplative and thus more innocuous and perhaps more humane than those of the West.  The record indicates otherwise.  There are cases too numerous in the East of atrocities and of human insensitivity to match those in the West.  Even within the traditions of Buddhism there have been tales of physical violence on massive scales for over two thousand years.

In the light of the horrors perpetrated by or in the name of religion alternatives are sought for the ethical principles found in religious traditions.  The non-religious or secular alternatives are sought through the use of human reason, a universal resource.  A view of morality that is founded on reasoning and a naturalistic worldview is thought to be more dependable and more capable of being universalized than is any set of principles that are dependent on religious worldviews.  There are people at work on developing or applying such secular ethical principles to their lives and attempting to develop and maintain a social life under such principles.  Secular humanists are such people along with those who make their moral decisions based on principles such as those developed by philosophers like Mill and Kant and Rawls.

Some might argue that for the most part secular ethics have already replaced religious ethics in everyday practice,  It could be concluded that most people who claim that their ethical principle is one that is rooted in some religious tradition are actually in practice operating from another ethical principle altogether.  One of the most common such principles is that of ethical egoism whereby decisions are made based on what is thought to be in the best interests of the person making the decision and one that most satisfies the interests of that actor whatever those interests may be.

This is most true of people in developed nations with advanced information technologies and communications and entertainment systems.  There has been a "secularization" of daily behavior in such locations for some time.  The operative moral base or ethical principle employed in such settings by most people is not a religion based ethic nor does it come from a deity.  It is the secular principle of ethical egoism.   Philosophers and moralists such as secular humanists have been working on the promotion of an alternative ethical base, such as based on caring for other human beings.

Caring to produce the satisfaction of the interests of the greatest possible number of humans when making moral choices is at the base of the ethical tradition known as Utilitarianism

READ about Utilitarianism here >Utilitarianism or here Utilitarianism

Recently there has been the growing movement of secularists (non-religious peoples) to develop a moral foundation for a social order that is progressive and life affirming.  The Council for Secular Humanism  has its The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles available for examination and consideration.   There are other such groups as the Ethical Culture Societies promoting ethical principles that are not based on any religion as a basis for ordering social life. "Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society."

For more on Humanists and Atheists and Secularists see this listing

There are therefore examples of societies and cultures that have moral codes without a belief in a deity and there are efforts to establish a moral order that is not founded on religion.  Their efficacy as compared to moral traditions stemming from or dependent upon some religious tradition remains to be determined.

Here is one study that indicates that secular societies may have less violent crimes.

Less Societal Dysfunction  in Secular Societies

Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies:  A First Look   by   Gregory S. Paul, Baltimore, Maryland Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005) ISSN 1522-5658


Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the
developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Societies worse off "when they have God on their side"  By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent  The Times, UK   September 27, 2005

 RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards  high  murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to  research  published today.   According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only  unnecessary  for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.  The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to  provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

 It compares the social performance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.  Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that  religious  belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its "spiritual capital". But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

 The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US  academic journal, reports: "Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.

 "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator  correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

 "The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the  developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so."

 Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research  bodies to reach his conclusions.   He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide  and teenage pregnancy.  The study concluded that the US was the world's only prosperous  democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic  countries. The US also suffered from "uniquely high" adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

 Mr Paul said: "The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most  indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America."

 He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared  with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries.   These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

 Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because of Hurricane  Katrina.  He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills. "I  suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal
performance of the Christian states," he added.

 He said that most Western nations would become more religious only if  the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God  scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

 "The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

 "The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."

Proceed to the next section by clicking here> next

© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.

Return to:   Table of Contents for the Online Textbook