Sunday, July 25, 2010

Morality without supernatural origins

Is morality a gift from higher powers?  If those higher powers do not exist, is there any reason to be moral?  A movement to study natural morality (or humanistic morality or secular morality, etc.) is developing, and one group recently held a conference on this new science (some conference materials are here). 
As conference attendee and noted secularist Sam Harris  noted:
The failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and values has become the primary justification for religious faith. Even among religious fundamentalists, the defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence that God exists, but that faith in Him provides the only guidance for living a good life.
From a humanist perspective, morality is explainable without resorting to the supernatural.  There are rational reasons to behave, such as the desire to maximize the social efficiency and not be harmed ourselves.  And there are the human needs that we may call irrational:  the desire to be liked and respected, the compassion we feel for others, and the need to feel good about ourselves.  And it is up to human beings to decide what is moral and to enforce that code.  Rather than Scripture dictating morality, people have interpreted Scripture to reflect the morality of the time (e.g., slavery and stoning).  And so this naturalistic study of morality has profound relevance to our lives.


  1. Very few people in the united states today would condone slavery, stoning, cutting off hands, polygyny. Very few would sell all their worldly goods, and give the money to the poor. Very few consider it moral to beat their children and wife (or wives and concubines). Probably none would condone genocide, although the jews are commanded to practice it in the bible. Women speak in churches these days, and hardly anyone notices that the bible says they shouldn't. Couples regularly have sex, live together, and even have children together before they are married, and still go to church and consider themselves righteous enough to condemn homosexuals. Women who are raped are not forced to marry the man who raped them anymore, and some christians would even (gasp!) let them get abortions in such cases. But not if the woman had consensual sex! Why, then she must be punished by being forced to have a child! Never mind that the bible doesn't even mention abortion. How could it? There was no such medical procedure back then. But you can bet if a man beat his wife hard enough to force a miscarriage, that would not have been murder in biblical times.
    Yes, our sense of morality has evolved a bit in these 2000 years or so. Let's hope it continues to evolve. In the meantime, let's do all we can to keep 'biblical morality' OUT of our government and schools!

  2. Would it not be polite to ask for your name? I am doing a paper using your blog post and I would like to use your name in citing it... Otherwise I can just cite the blog in general. thanks.