Belief in God Essential for Moral Virtue?

A growing sector of world civilization is secular; that is, it emphasizes worldly rather than religious values. This is especially … Continued

A growing sector of world civilization is secular; that is, it emphasizes worldly rather than religious values. This is especially true of Europe, which is widely considered post-religious and post-Christian (with a small Islamic minority). Secularist winds are also blowing strong in Asia, notably in Japan and China. The United States has been an anomaly in this regard, for it has suffered a long dark night in which evangelical fundamentalism has overshadowed the public square, with its insistence that belief in God is essential for moral virtue. This is now changing and secularism is gaining ground.

The “new atheists” have attempted to balance the scales, for religious dissent until now has been largely muffled. They have appealed to science to criticize the unexamined claims of religion. This has shocked conservative religionists, who respond that atheists are “too negative.” Perhaps, but this overlooks the fact that there are varieties of unbelief and that secular humanists (the bete noire of fundamentalists during the Reagan years) define their outlook affirmatively in the light of positive ethical values, not by what they are against but what they are for.

Secular humanists are generally nonreligious, yet they are also good citizens, loving parents and decent people. They look to science, the secular arts and literature for their inspiration, not religion. They point out that religious belief is no guarantee of moral probity, that horrendous crimes have been committed in the name of God, and that religionists often disagree vehemently about concrete moral judgments (such as euthanasia, the rights of women, abortion, homosexuality, war and peace).

The ethics of secular humanism traces its roots back to the beginnings of Western civilization in Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific and democratic revolutions of the modern world. Secular humanists today affirm that every person should be considered equal in dignity and value and that human freedom is precious. The civic virtues of democracy are essentially humanist, for they emphasize tolerance of the wide diversity of beliefs and lifestyles, and they are committed to defending human rights.

But, “how can you be ethical if you do not believe in God?” protests the believer. Perhaps such a person should enroll in an elementary course in ethics, where there is a rich philosophical literature dealing with this question. The good is usually defined as “happiness” though there are differences between the eudemonistic, emphasizing enriched self-development, and the hedonistic, particularly American, brand of intemperate consumption. Perhaps a harmonious integration of the two theories can be achieved. I would call it rational exuberance. Philosophers have emphasized the importance of self-restraint, temperance, rational prudence, a life in which satisfaction, excellence, and the creative fulfillment of a person’s talents is achieved. It does not mean that “anything goes.” Humanist ethics focuses on the good life here and now.

Secularists recognize the centrality of self-interest. Every individual needs to be concerned with his or her own health, well-being, and career. But self-interest can be enlightened. This involves recognition that we have responsibilities to others. There are principles of right and wrong that we should live by. No doubt there are differences about many moral issues. Often there may be difficulties in achieving a consensus. Negotiation and compromise are essential in a pluralistic society.

However, there is now substantial evidence drawn from evolutionary biology that humans possess a moral sense (see Marc Hauser, Steven Pinker, and David Sloan Wilson). Morality has its roots in group survival; the moral practices that evolved enabled tribes or clans to survive and function. This means that human beings are potentially moral. Whether or not this moral sense develops depends on social and environmental conditions. Some individuals may never fully develop morally–they may be morally handicapped, even sociopaths. That is one reason why society needs to enact laws to protect itself.

There is also of course cultural relativity, but there are, I submit, also a set of common moral decencies that cut across cultures–such as being truthful, honest, keeping promises, being dependable and responsible, avoiding cruelty, etc., and these in time become widely recognized as binding. Herein lie the roots of empathy and caring for other human and sentient beings. Such behavior needs to be nourished in the young by means of moral education. In any case, human beings are capable of both self-interested and altruistic behavior in varying degrees.

Secular humanists wish to test ethical principles in the light of their consequences, and they advise the use of rational inquiry to frame moral judgments. They also appreciate the fact that some principles are so important that they should not be easily sacrificed to achieve one’s ends.

To say that a person is moral only if he or she obeys God’s commandments–out of fear or love or God or a desire for salvation–is hardly adequate. Ethical principles need to be internalized, rooted in reason and compassion. The ethics of secularism is autonomous, in the sense that it need not be derived from theological grounds. Secular humanists are interested in enhancing the good life both for the individual and society.

Today, a new imperative has emerged: an awareness that our ethical concerns should extend to all members of the global community. This points to a new planetary ethics transcending the ancient religious, ethnic, racial, and national enmities of the past. It is an ethic that recognizes our common interests and needs as part of an interdependent world.

Professor Paul Kurtz is the chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry-Transnational, Editor-in-Chief of FREE INQUIRY magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. For 40 years, Kurtz has remained the leading organizational and intellectual figure in the humanist and skeptical movement. His new book, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism is published by Prometheus Books.

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  • SpiritualMongrel

    What a great article. I am a believer but have always had a soft spot for secularists.All we need to get started on the road to good morals is to see that the world is bigger than ourselves. Whether you believe we are united through a supreme deity, pantheistic theology or simply a species living on a rock in outer space, when we believe that in some form another we are all one society can evolve.Whether you believe in judgment of God or not we can at least agree that here on Earth there are consequences to our actions. Do we need a God to tell us that sleeping around on your wife is a bad idea? Eventually it leads to the husband and wife being unhappy and likely getting divorced but it affects the children as well. Little good comes from adultery so if we are wise enough to contemplate the likely consequences a reasonable person should conclude it is a bad idea.There are many other examples that follow this blue print. I am not religious but deeply spiritual and in my world people need not believe in God, though I think he/she/it exists.I have said it before it may be the atheist who helps us believers find the “real” God. By questioning perhaps they drive us to question and contemplate new concepts on God. One thing I am certain of is if God exists, then we don’t truly understand him fully yet and there is much more we will learn. That won’t happen by standing still in our thinking.In the mean time I welcome the secularist infusion into any discussion, including morality.

  • CCNL

    The following rules/ethics that have evolved over 60,000 years of human history:”Thou Shall not Kill””Thou Shall not Steal””Thou Shall not Bear False Witness””Thou Shall not Commit Adultery””Thou Shall not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife/Husband/Children”Recent Violations and Violators: One million dead womb babies/year x 35Bill Clinton and other leadership adulterers19 million cases of STDs/yearThe Enron, Tyco, and Bernie Ebbers scandalsThe 50% divorce rate

  • sparrow4

    Hey spiritualmongrel, i agree- it is a great post (I’m sure the screaming will begin at any moment.) CCNL has already posted, as you see.In college my philosophy professor asked us to write on morality and if it can exist without g-d. I say it can and does. as an anthropology major, I studied a lot of societies, including very primitive ones. Man is a social animal- biologically, sociologically, physically. Many species are, and because they are, they function according to certain rules within the groups. You can see this especially in the Great Apes, and even Lion prides where cooperation is the key to survival.I think morality began with the need to survive, and the concept expanded to the understanding of “greater good.” Where we got off track is when we somehow came to believe that following a certain dogma would insure our morality. Once we got stuck on that, the concept of the greater good fell by the wayside. Every religion is guilty of it, some more than others. And not that I think religion is bad- I certainly don’t. But fundamentalism certainly is. I still do find it a little disturbing when someone does charitable work in the hopes of gaining goodwill in the hereafter. Makes me wonder if they weren’t afraid of G-d’s wrath, would they bother?

  • Arminius

    Hello Sparrow and Spiritualmongrel,Indeed, morality is universal and part of the heritage of all peoples.I have argued before on these blogs with benighted individuals (all conservative Christians) who claimed that only their definition of Christianity had morality. I kept urging them to open their eyes and look around them, for the world is full of people who are very moral, regardless of belief or lack thereof.

  • sparrow4

    Arminius- and hi to you too! Of course ccnl has already been posting.

  • tomsonsowonja

    Mr Kurtz, as always you have written eloquently to explain the view point of the secular humanist. Moral and Ethical decisions are best approached rationally rather than dogmatically. Empathy and understanding are essential parts of the secular humanists view point. Not to mention a willingness to find the common ground between so many disparate cultures who share the earth. These are viewpoimnts which shoudl not prove controversial to anyone who has given serious comtemplative thought to these matters. I hope many people read your words and are inspired to branch out beyond the dogmatic. Regards

  • slowe111

    The Golden Rule: Looking for a god to provide and enforce rules reminds me of a child needing a parent to explain how one should behave and someone to deliver justice, reward, and punishment in a not always fair world. Let’s all just grow up!

  • kimmsee

    my gratitude to Mr. Kurtz for his eloquent discussion of secular humanism. In the town where I live, many believe humanism is another word for immorality. For many years I have not believed in Christianity, but I have been most quiet about it. Somehow Mr. Kurtz’s Free Inquiry reached my mailbox.At last, I found out there were others who felt as I do. Most people I know ARE Christian so It’s very difficult because people do not understand what secular humanism entails. Unless I know someone well, I just don’t say anything. It’s amazing how people look at you if you say you’re not a Christian!

  • Farnaz2

    SpiritualMongrel,I think it is important to distinguish “believers” from religionistis. It is religionists, who wish to impose their particular beliefs on all of society. Believers simply believe. There is no contradiction between being a believer and being a secularist. The Episcopalians and Jews on the panel are all persons of faith, and all are secularists. Some of the others are as well, but, with the exception of Stevens-Arroyo, who waivers, but is basically secularist, I don’t read them as often, so their names don’t come readily to mind.Farnaz

  • Athena4

    CCNL, you’re one of the worst offenders of bearing false witness against your neighbors. Remember, Benighted Bagel, when you point one finger at others, there are three pointing back at you.

  • CCNL

    Athena, Athena, Athena,Hmmm, I am a false witness?? How so pray tell?? If so, pray tell is there a Wiccan spell for a cure???

  • scott_colby

    If you have a scientific view of human behavior the issue of morality is easy. People are moral and/or immoral based on an evolutionary history, environmental history, and the current situation. People behave based on the contingencies of reinforcement(consequences=natural selection). When I was helpful to someone it became more likely for me to be helpful based on the circumstances and if the right contingencies occur I am helpful, if not I am not. Atheists behave morally because they receive real contingencies for the behavior that fosters the good of society. Religious people are many times hypocrites and immoral because they are reinforced for thinking good things, but doing bad things. They have imaginary contingencies for their behavior, which causes hypocrisy. Hopefully one day we will gain a scientific perspective of human behavior and move beyond the concepts of freedom and dignity and foster morality, compassion and generosity.

  • mokey2

    “Hmmm, I am a false witness?? How so pray tell?? If so, pray tell is there a Wiccan spell for a cure???”A man who knows doesn’t speak.You have attempted to presume things about us among others without knowing. Which reveals your own ignorance.That is bearing false witness.

  • lepidopteryx

    Mongrel, Sparrow, and Arminius:I have maintained for years (and have said in many other On Faith threads) that morality does not require belief in any sort of deity, but rather simply the awareness that if an individual acts in a manner that is best for the community, then the individual will benefit as well. From there, it’s simply a matter of expanding the size of your perceived community from immediate family to the rest of the world. Sometimes we’re just too myopic to see the big picture in which each of us is a pixel.I have often quoted a couple of friends of mine whose wisdom far surpasses my own, and who have given me a couple of maxims by which I attempt to live my life.

  • DMZ1

    Mr. Kurtz:Why do you raise the issue of euthanasia in this article? It is not a contentious issue in the U.S. It’s illegal, and I know of no one who advocates it being legal. Here in Oregon (and soon in Washington), we have the Death with Dignity law which permits physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs for terminally ill patients who meet all the criteria. But, the person must take the drugs on their own – no other person may administer them. My wife had the drugs but was physically unable to take them when she wanted them. So, this is suicide not euthanasia.

  • CCNL

    Mokey, Mokey, Mokey,And pray tell what is there about pagans that we do not understand?

  • lepidopteryx

    CCNL,What you don’t understand about Pagans would fill volumes.


    “They look to science, the secular arts and literature for their inspiration, not religion.”Many non-believers interpret the stories in religion as metaphorical and use these lessons in addition to what you have mentioned to live life.

  • RussA

    I believe that brains evolved to better service feelings and that good and evil are completely natural. Social predators, such as lions, show goodness towards other members of their pride and respond territorially against neighboring prides. If one believes in evolution, it ought not be surprising that hyenas and humans act similarly.Sometimes our brains seem in charge of our behavior, but strong feelings still enslave our feeble animal minds. Our challenge as humans is to recognize when evil feelings are strengthening and move towards amelioration. One way that I do this is by driving in the slow lane, with perhaps a 99% success rate. :(In short, religious folk are just as good and just as evil as the rest of us because they come with all the evolutionary baggage, no matter how often they deny it.

  • SpiritualMongrel

    Sparrow, Arminius, Lepidopteryx.Seems were all lean towards a similar understanding. It’s good to know there are others out there.Farnza2 makes a good clarification. There is a difference between a believer and religionists and a believer can certainly be a secularist. I think it shows that secularism can coexist with spiritual belief, quite nicely in some cases.

  • downeast_ggo

    Paul Kurtz describes the views of those of us who are willing to admit that there are many things we do not know; others replace “I do not know” with the word God, without defining the characteristics of this entity. Until all who use the word God can agree on these characteristics, there can be no sensible discussion.

  • EddDoerr

    Paul Kurtz is right on target. Of course his humanistic ethic is shared by a very great many people in traditional religions. What is of especial importance now is that secular humanists and people across the religious spectrum need to work together to address the serious problems that beset our nation and our planet: global warming, environmental degradation, resource depletion, overpopulation, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, deficits in civil liberties and women’s rights (including reproductive choice), overconsumption, inadequate educational opportunities for children in the US and around the world, pandemics, etc. This cooperation is hindered by the many forms of fundamentalism, including atheist fundamentalism, and simple indifference.

  • dialogist

    Paul Kurtz rightly comments that “The ethics of secular humanism traces its roots back to the beginnings of Western civilization in Greece and Rome..” but he does not mention that Plato’s Socrates argued in the dialogue _Euthyphro_ that even the religious could not rightly claim derive their understanding of good from the gods. To do so would render their praise of a god or gods empty self-serving. Unless people have a reasoned understanding of good, they cannot begin to praise a god or anything else as good.

  • garybehun

    It isn’t that I am ungrateful for people like Paul Kurz. But who is he trying to convince, me?