Religious Vs Secular Ethics: “Where Do I Get My Morality From?”


We cannot abandon the idea of human well-being and pretend that our moral discourse make sense.” – Philippa Foot[1]

“Where Do I Get My Morality From?” This question simply doesn’t seem to suffice. It doesn’t get to the crux of the matter. I think the questions that would be better suited are “what is the foundation of our morality” and even more importantly, “how do we develop our morality?”[2] In this blog I’ll attempt to briefly summarize my argument as this topic could easily take several books to cover. Here I argue that a secular moral framework is the only way to understand and develop a proper moral system. Whereas religion (or God as the argument goes) not only cannot provide the foundation for morality, but actually undermines it.
Broadly speaking, morality has a naturalistic foundation as we evolved as a social species that can reason. And how we develop our morality is from the recognition and reasoned reflection of the human condition we find ourselves in and the states of affairs that affect it. It is the critical analysis of the various data that inform us about the correct and incorrect actions that affect the current state of affairs in such a way that is most conducive to human flourishing, thus improving the overall human condition. Then we implement these principles in everyday human interaction, so much so that they can become character traits. This is then in turn passed on to the next generation. Our actions have positive and/or negative effects on other people. And by extension, these actions affect or create states of affairs that are either beneficial or detrimental to well being, societal health, etc. that are necessary conditions for overall human flourishing. This is an objective moral fact and what we mean when we speak of “morality”.
Now a common objection to this is to say that there’s no “authority” from preventing me from doing otherwise, that may be, but we have a word for that… it’s called “immoral”. To suggest that “torturing for fun is moral” is a nonsensical statement. The word “moral” has a specific usage (which I outlined above). It’s this basis of what we mean when we say “moral”. It’s also how we can judge acts and ideologies (such as religion) as “immoral” as they don’t conform to any sense of the term properly applied.
Another common objection isn’t really an objection at all, and that is to ask “why should I care about human flourishing?” But this is a different question than what we are addressing here. However, this question when applied to religious morality does expose the real nature of the religious moral framework as being a self-serving consequentialism. Because when we pose the question to the believer, the answer is typically along the lines of “because God knows what’s best for us” or “this is God’s moral law” and by following these laws there are rewards and disobeying these laws result in consequences. Whether the consequence for disobeying God is eternal torment in Hell, the complete annihilation of the soul, or simply not being in God’s presence and experiencing him.[3]

“For our values to have universal appeal, they must be rooted in our common humanity, not in the faiths that divides us.” – Minette Marrin[4]

This shallow, self-serving consequentialism is ultimately predicated on blind obedience and thus an abandonment of our rational faculties. It destroys the very foundation of ethics and the means in which we develop them. It provides a cheap and hollow understanding of morality that doesn’t provide a means to get to the core of the issues and cuts us off from delving deeper. And this deficiency of religious morality is revealed when we attempt to apply it to real world moral problems we face today.
Religion, being an authoritarian ideology (and the most widespread and thus influential), lends itself to the forming of beliefs that have metastasized in some of the most evil acts imaginable. It’s primary fault is the psychological consequences of the beliefs it fosters. It gives justification for attitudes and worldviews that often result in actions that are detrimental and corrosive to any civilized, modern society and on a global scale.[5] Given this, the believer can no longer make any moral judgments beyond “what did god command” or “is this in accordance with God’s nature”. Within a religious framework, we are left without the ability to weigh “goodness” against other “goodness” or “evil” against other “evil” as these terms no longer have a demonstrable foundation in humanity. Good and evil become an outside standard that you cannot participate in, only obey.

“We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.” – Socrates[6]

When I use terms like “moral” and “ethics”, I am talking about something of substance, something demonstrable. Religion can’t make even this most basic of claims about morality. Whereas religion destroys the very foundation of morality and thus results in a deficient and shallow ethical system, a secular moral philosophy grounded in humanistic principles and informed by science provides us with a robust moral system with the ability to grow and develop as our understanding grows and develops. It provides the solid foundation necessary to make proper moral judgments and not a system of simply following “laws”. This makes it the only viable moral framework and eliminates the faith-based religious framework from contention. I take it as my duty to challenge such ideology as it undermines morality, and morality is arguably the most important topic we as humans need to understand if we are to continue to progress towards a better future for all of humanity, here now and for generations to come.


[1] Virtues and Vices, Philippa Foot
[2] I will use our instead of I as our refers to an objective standard that would apply to every human universally, whereas I would simply be referring to the subjective acceptance (or not) of this standard.
[3] There have been many variations on punishment as apologists have been attempting to reconcile the concept of an eternal Hell with a supposedly omni-benevolent God.
[4] Minette Marrin, Twitter, 02 Jul 15
[5] The argument isn’t about whether religion once was wholly beneficial to developing a society (which I reject) or not. Only that we see the problems that arise in today’s societies.
[6] Republic, Socrates


8 thoughts on “Religious Vs Secular Ethics: “Where Do I Get My Morality From?”

  1. My absolute favourite quote about morality. It speaks to the question Without gawd’s morality, what stops you from doing evil things?
    “The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you.”
    Penn Gilette

  2. Morality is really civility. I’d imagine our ancestors realized a very long time ago that if you go around killing and stealing and creating mayhem two things happen.
    1. Soon you’ve gotten rid of your clan so all the work falls on you.
    2. People or animals will inevitably try to kill you or steal your food etc. Better to act as a unit and defeat your foes than go it alone, so don’t be a dick and your clan will be your ally.

  3. Before you start a discussion on that clarified question, you should overtly dispense with an assumption usually lurking in the background of these conversations. That is the implied idea that if religious morality is somehow shown to be “superior” to secular morality, that gives credence to the proposition that God exists. No, it doesn’t.
    This is the fallacy called “argument from consequence.” The consequence, good or bad of believing a proposition has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of that proposition. In this case, the fallacy might be phrased, “People who believe in God behave better, therefore God exists.”
    Nope. That’s just a recommendation for belief in God, and not evidence that God indeed exists. It should be noted that recommending belief in something BEFORE showing that it is true could be seen as morally questionable.

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