Do Secular Humanists Have Morals?
The short answer is yes. Of course. But lets talk about the layers of this question.
So I was doing radio interview. In one segment, the host had on a secular humanist to offer some opposing points to someone ‘religious’ like me. Although I detest the term ‘religious’, I get it for the sake of rhetoric. The secular humanist was offering some things that he thought those from the faith perspective should know. One of his counter points was this:
Don’t assume that because I am a secular atheist I don’t have morals (or that I am immoral).
I don’t (and didn’t). But if I’m going to be honest, I do have one concern.
Humans tend to go in cycles. One cycle (and I know this to be true personally) is to become more permissive and loose in many areas of our lives. For example, we tend to gradually spend a little more money, eat a little more, experiment a little more, etc. Personally, I snap back because I have a set standard of principles and absolutes that guide me. Because these are not sourced in me and are above me, I can never change these. I can bump up against them, get mad about them, disregard them, but they don’t change.
For example, I make the rule that my kids can’t drink directly out of the milk jug in our homes. But because I made that law, I frequently decide when not to obey it. With regard to the absolutes I believe in, I cannot do that (or shouldn’t).
My concern is that, if morals are relativistic or you (as a human) are the supreme authority on your moral standards and code, where do you snap back to (if ever).
At this, I have been told that we have a type of social contract with society that guides all of our morality. It is an agreed upon moral code that we as a society have made law (this would be our Constitution and Bill of Rights).
I understand this, and agree to a degree, but basing it solely on what we all agree upon (or me/us) has it’s limits. For example, in ancient Roman culture pedophilia was common. So if society were to eventually agree that pedophilia is not a big deal for some reason, would that be okay? If this was reflected in the social contract, would it then not be immoral?
Now since I believe in absolutes, this would never be okay with me. Jesus held children in very high regard, so I do. I also believe in the dignity and sanctity of human life. Another reason pedophilia would never be okay. These standards are above me, so I can never change them to fit my particular emotional whim (not that I would with regard to this disgusting example, but you get the point).
So I do not think secular humanists are immoral. And I don’t think atheists don’t have morals. I also don’t believe all secular humanist are going to become pedophiles. I know many who are very good people. That’s not my point.
But I guess I do wonder, can a moral relativist have absolutes? And what do you base your absolutes on if you do not believe in a Creator or believe that there are inherent absolute truths out there? And will they change?
This entry was posted by Jason Berggren on May 19, 2010 at 10:06 am, and is filed under Touchy Subjects, Unauthorized Blogs. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.
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I think that was very well said. I like your distinction between rules and principles. I frame it a bit differently in my book (I go into this). I make a distinction between rules and personal guidelines. Rules are strongly supported (Biblically speaking) and guidelines are something we make up to protect our personal devotion. I’ve also heard it put as timeless principles vs special circumstance. I think they all work well.
And yes, I believe Jesus spoke much to legalism–the idea that the religious people (who were supposed to be the representatives of God) thought they were okay with God because they were doing all the right rituals. They totally lost sight of the relationship and true devotion.
Thanks for the comments!
This discussion is almost starting to touch on an area that I have thought about a lot. I may not express it well, but I’m going to give it a shot.
Is there a difference between rules and a principle? I say yes. But also, there is a close but often misunderstood linkage between the two.
One of my favorite NT verses, and my very favorite among the less-quoted verses is “Ye tithe mint dill and cumin but know not righteousness!” To me, that kicks butt. But what does it mean?
As I see it, ththing is a rule. Righteousness is an expression of principle.
To my mind, a principle is only imperfectly expressed or described in words. It is actually grasped whole – as a direct mental image. Trying to describe it in words is like having been on a very tall mountain peak, and coming back down and trying to describe the experience to somebody who has not been there. It can’t adequately be done. If you’ve ever encountered the experience, you know what I mean. If not, I obviously can’t adequately explain it. Go there, do that, and you will know. It’s no accident that the mountaintop is a near-universal metaphor for spritual insight.
It’s a little like what happens when you’ve been struggling to solve an intellectual problem, or understand a difficult explanation of some point. At one moment all is confusion, and you’re struggling to put the pieces together. Then suddenly with a “flash of insight” the “light bulb” comes on in your head and what was a mystery is now clear. Could ypou explain to somebody how you got from “before” to “after”. I say not. It’s not a matter for explanations. The best that can be done is to put them in a situation where they can experience such insight themself. Supposed;ly this is the hallmark of truly great art, poetry, music, etc. It does not “explain” – but it can take you there.
I say that this is the realm and nature of principles.
What then of rules?
Rules are guideposts for the blind. The people who habitually have such a grasp of a principle that they can look at a situation in the light of that principle and directly distinguish sense from nonsense is, IMO, usually pretty small. (and making it larger is the best hope of civilization). Jesus obviously knew the principle of the Sabbath. And he expressed it poetically in his famous response to his critics – which is the only way it can be expressed.
But what of those who are “blind” to the principle, but still want to “do the right thing”. For them we have rules. Are rules useless or stupid? (Well…. sometimes). But in general they are useful and even necessary. Drvivng with respect for safety of all on the road is a principle. Obeyiing traffic lights is a rule. Knowing whan to disobey them is wisdom. Worshiping them is the sin of the Pharisees.
I was going to try for a bang-up summary, but I think I’ve said it all.
P.S. The one thing I missed saying is that I have come to see Jesus’ polemics agaist legaalism as a major focus, if not THE major focus,
There’s an important distinction that needs to made in what you said.
The context for the situation you mention in regard to Jesus was him healing on the Sabbath. This is something that the rabbis had decided was ‘work’. But this interpretation was a break with the actual Scriptures.
What Jesus took to task was the Oral Traditions that the rabbis had added (totally immutable) vs. the actual law as revealed in the Scriptures (not immutable). Every time Jesus seemingly broke a rule, it was always the oral traditions. Never did Jesus break a commandment or aspect of the law as revealed by God to Moses.
In that, I would depart from what you say. Although I agree that we must always contextualize as we (followers of Jesus) live under the New Covenant, we must be careful of not to dispense with the essentials and absolutes for our whims.
That’s my 2 cents.
Steve makes some very good points thanks!
Jason, you said: “Let’s add when Jesus challenges us to love others in the way we want to be loved (the Golden Rule).”
In that statement you basically put the golden rule in the category of being an clear immutable moral standard from which to make moral judgments.
Let me first say I agree with Jesus on this point! this is a good basic “rule”.
But.. (and there’s always a but) it truly is subject to the interpretation of the individual applying it. And thats the part that rubs. Even the best Christian standard for behaviour is open to interpretation. I assert that Jesus demanded that we interpret and apply moral decisions by making that statement. Jesus also asked,”was the sabbath made for man or the man for sabbath?” and in doing so removed the immutability of one of the commandments. a little research shows this process to be in place for every single one of these immutable standards.
Jesus essentially did what a humanist does, he looked at the situation and made a judgement based on culture, the “rule” and came up with something different dependant on the circumstance.
And thats not immutable. In fact scientists would call this a “rule of thumb” or a heuristic. A common sense rule that increases the probability of solving a problem.
It does not guarantee a solid result, it only increases the probability. All humans have done this for millenia.
Well, God is expressly against plural wives in both the Old and New Testament. He specifically says this. Just b/c its recorded doesn’t mean he approves, like with many other sins.
So that is an absolute, regardless of how some choose to ‘interpret’ it.
Besides the fact that more than one wife would be quite stressful!
I would like to suggest that this problem has an inverse form for professing Christians. A Christian may profess a belief in an “absolute” – but any statement of a principle leaves room for interpretation of exactly what does that principle means in practice. For example, someone, professing Christian beliefs, who is inflamed with lust and has the talent for rationalizing, may well convince himself that underage plural wives are in accordance with God’s will. (Some precedent can be found in the OT, if I’m not ,mistaken).
It’s a sticky problem all the way around, IMO.
Thanks for the clarity.
Yes, Christianity as a religion has many faces. I still believe there are many essentials that should remain unchanging. These are the absolutes.
To me, what Jesus taught was very clear. So I try to let that be a guide.
For me, I did not convert to a religion (Christianity). I made a commitment to follow the teaching of Jesus and continually seek God’s purpose for my life.
Also, can you define ‘enlightenment’ as you refer to it?
Also also, it is sad to hear that you left you faith because of man’s interpretations. I have a motto: Just because people are jerks doesn’t mean God isn’t real.
I apologize for not being clear.
We secular Humanists do not have a clear immutable moral standard from which to make moral judgments. We follow the Humanist Manifesto and other documents mentioned above but they are crafted by us and have definitely changed over the years. We think they should change as the enlightenment grows over time.
But my assertion of that reality is not just limited to secular humanists. As a secular humanist I assert that Christianity was crafted by men and has also definitely changed over time. Research how different sects look at the doctrine and moral judgment making on issues like baptism, other sacraments, communion, how to deal with marital infidelity, divorce, abortion, how to deal with apostasy, women’s rights, separation of church and state, abortion, women’s leadership within the church, the rights of those who have different religious beliefs, the rights of livestock owners and much more. The moral definition for all of them has changed greatly over the millennia and most of that is due to differences of opinion over moral matters from WITHIN Christianity. Examine these issues and you will definitely find diverse opinions within Christendom.
It is for that reason that I assert that there is not just one Christianity, but many. I do not see Christianity as having a clear and immutable moral standard to go by. That’s why I left it.
I am heading out so I cannot post any more to day, but look forward to further chatting!
Yes, so let the fun continue.
I think there are some things in Christianity that are set. Perhaps we might say there are certain essentials that we all agree on (or should) as essential Christian doctrine. And there are non-essentials that tend to change with time.
For example, let’s take the basic 10 commandments. Those principles are absolute for me.
Let’s add when Jesus challenges us to love others in the way we want to be loved (the Golden Rule). This doesn’t change, but we do have to contextualize in certain circumstances. Like if someone breaks into my house and is armed, I will love my children and spouse more the than the burglar as I try to detain him forcibly in order to protect them and call the police. But that does not mean the absolute has changed. It means that I have to exercise wisdom and discernment as I apply it.
Now a non-essential might be what type of music is appropriate for worship at church. Some prefer hymns set to organ music and some prefer a rock-and-roll style. I say whatever. Message is key, not method. Yes, this preference changes with different Christians across the spectrum, but it is not really an absolute and a basis cannot be found in the Bible for any type of enforcement or doctrine.
So I disagree, Christians do (or are supposed to) have set doctrines on certain essentials. The point is, most Christians do (or should) believe in certain absolutes.
Sorry to be redundant, but back to my unanswered question: Do you, as a secular humanist believe is certain immutable absolutes?
I think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an absolute but not immutable, I’ll explain. (Of course I do not see it as a rule handed down by a perfect God, so right there is a big difference because I think it can be changed for due cause.) Such changes were made when they added sexual orientation to many countries human rights codes.
Again, I do see it as negotiable when there is a just reason for it.
Then again, I also see Christians negotiate what they think church doctrine should be. This is ocurring each and every day all over the world.
Some see this as a failure of a church but from my experience as a former priest it is just humans trying to work out what is best for themselves as they reflect on scripture and thier current culture. This struuggle to align scripture with “life” results in wide spread differences between the beleifs of christians from one part of America to another.
To summarize: Christians do not seem to have a set doctrine per se. There certainly is a doctrine that is “widely accepted” but it is by no means universal to all of christendom.
Neither fo Secular Humanists.
This is a fun conversation by the way!
Actually, Jeff, I thought of a question.
So do you believe in inherent absolutes of some sort? It didn’t seem that you answered that.
Great comments, Jeff. I appreciate the input. Certainly a valuable perspective that adds to the dialogue.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
I like this article. You seem to be very “understanding” of secular humanism and those that follow that ethical system.
I also agree that as humans we do tend to get lost in the “moral forest” once in a while on our journey through life.
Where I draw a distinction between my own experience and yours (as expressed in this short article, and I realise those limitations so don’t read any of this as judgement it’s only discussion) is that I think you have forgotten to account for the fact that we learn from exeriences, temptations and moral mistakes.
I got caught stealing when I was a 11 year old kid and I saw how hurt the shop owner was. He expressed so much more than anger. I don’t need a commandment to remind of how stealing
can genuinely hurt someone, I know it.
I am now almost 50 years old and have learned from seeing others make mistakes too. I never want to do to others what they have done.
I think that the moral standard you refer to is a means to account for how you are doing today. Sort of a check in or self audit. The fact that you ‘snap’ back to it, has more to do with what you have learned as you journey through life. Your experience has taught you that the standard is more or less correct.
When I was a Christian and a minister I always loved Richard Hookers model of theological examination. Reason, experience and scripture formed the three legs of the stool that I sat upon as I studied the scriptures and examined my life.
Today, I still use that three legged model except that I use the Humanist Manifesto and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (written in large part by humanistic people working through the UN) to replace the “scriptures” that once meant so much to me.
In the same way you do, I see that paedophilia is abhorrent but I also see that discrimmination against others based on religious beleif is also wrong. There is so much more that scripture does not account for.
I wish you the best on your journey! Live and learn!