Morality in a Secular World
by Paul Hazelden


•   Introduction
    Different kinds
•   Morality and Values
•   The Bones of the Argument
•   The Evolutionary Argument
•   Passing on Values


(Work in progress)

Every society needs some form of moral code. But you cannot derive morality from a set of scientific principles or logical deductions - it must, somehow, be 'given'.

There is a widespread view these days that religion has passed its 'sell by' date. It is, depending on who you speak to, 'no longer credible', 'disproved by science', 'not required', 'a crutch', and 'a source of bigotry and irrationality'.

The interesting thing is that all these viewpoints claim 'rationality' or 'logic' is on their side, and then go on to affirm the need for morality. They sometimes go on to claim that people become more moral when they are freed from the shackles of religion. They often speak from personal experience as people trying to live good lives without any belief in a god 'peering down from the clouds', and without any fear of a god who will punish them if they sin.

What is the connection, if any, between religion and morality? Do you need to believe in a god or eternal damnation in order to be able to distinguish between right and wrong? And why does it matter anyway?


To give the game away right at the start... I do not think you need to believe in a god in order to be able to distinguish between right and wrong. You certainly don't need to believe in eternal damnation. You don't need to have any obvious faith or belong to a religious group.

But... morality has to come from somewhere. And where it comes from is religion. You don't have to believe in the religion in order to affirm its moral values. The person who passed those values on to you may not believe in a religion, either. But my personal research suggests that it is very likely that the person who passed those values on to them probably did believe in a religion.

  Different kinds

The fact is, there are different kinds of religion, just as there are different kinds of morality and different kinds of civilisation. The differences between them are as important as the similarities. For most people, each word means something quite specific, and it is often hard to grasp that the specific meaning it has for me is not the same as the specific meaning it has for you.

If somebody steals, we tend in the Western world to put them in prison. Other places would be more likely to cut their hand off. These are both examples of morality at work. Are they efectively the same, simply pavlovian conditioning to discourage unwanted behaviour? Does it make any difference which is adopted? Is one course of action better than the other? How do you judge between different moralities? Is it a moral choice or a practical one?

It is clear to me that different religions produce different moralities and thus different civilisations.

Morality and Values

What we understand by 'morality' is mostly a set of values.

We can understand 'morality' as (1) a set of beliefs about the nature of the world we live in; (2) a set of values which tell us what things matter, and how much they matter in relation to each other; and (3) guidelines which tell us how to apply the values to the real life situations we find.

Take the example of the beggar in the street. Most of us hold a value that says people should not be made to go hungry. But you may believe that people choose to be beggars, in which case there is no obligation to give money. You may believe there is sufficient hostel accomodation, so all the money given will be spent on what is not provided in the hostels - ie., alcohol - so there is an obligation not to give money. Or you may believe that people are made destitute by forces they cannot control, and that the state fails to care for many of them, in which case there is a moral obligation to give some money. Whether or not you do so. These are all beliefs which can, to a certain extent, be tested, and hence can be used equally by believers and non believers.

Other beliefs, such as reincarnation, also affect the nature of morality. If you believe that this person is suffering as an inevitable consequence of their past behaviour, there is no point in helping them: you would simply be postponing the pain. This is why charities have been started by Christians and not by Buddhists. You cannot form an opinion on such matters without delving into the area of the spiritual.

You certainly cannot have any sort of morality without a set of values. These values are of necessity not things which can be proved or demonstrated by science. In this area, the non believer is at a distinct disadvantage in attempting to claim rationality. The believer has a rational basis for adopting a set of values, the non believer has very little.

If man is just a biological machine, what does it matter what happens to him?

The Bones of the Argument

The following points seem reasonably clear to me:

The Evolutionary Argument

Some people believe that morality is hard-wired into us by evolution.

A good presentation of this idea is provided by Professor Marc Hauser. He has written about it in his book, External link - <i>Moral Minds: How Nature Designed  
      Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong</i> Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, (Ecco, September 2006) and has spoken about it at Harvard, in a talk he gave on 26 April 2007. Harvard published a External link - review of his talk review of his talk, if you are interested.

To quote from a review on the Amazon web site:

Altruistic impulses and behavior can be proved to have a far-reaching cross-cultural statistical homogeneity. On request we come up with moral judgments and decisions, spontaneously following [our] intuitions. Rational deliberation and justification limps behind - as far as [we] are able to provide it [them!] at all. Thus we are allowed to assume a universal moral grammar in analogy to linguistic universal grammar. From the fact that we are natural moral beings Hauser concludes that the "marriage between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out for a divorce."

One part of the research underpining his understanding is the 'External link - Moral Sense Test Moral Sense Test', which captures responses to a series of ethical dilemmas.

To External link - quote quote one reviewer, a Peter Singer:

... In one dilemma, you are standing by a railroad track when you notice that a trolley, with no one aboard, is heading for a group of five people. They will all be killed if the trolley continues on its current track.
The only thing you can do to prevent these five deaths is to throw a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill only one person. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that you should divert the trolley onto the side track, thus saving a net four lives.
In another dilemma, the trolley, as before, is about to kill five people. This time, however, you are not standing near the track, but on a footbridge above the track. You cannot divert the trolley. You consider jumping off the bridge, in front of the trolley, thus sacrificing yourself to save the five people in danger, but you realize that you are far too light to stop the trolley.
Standing next to you, however, is a very large stranger. The only way you can prevent the trolley from killing five people is by pushing this large stranger off the footbridge, in front of the trolley. If you push the stranger off, he will be killed, but you will save the other five. When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say that it would be wrong to push the stranger.
This judgment is not limited to particular cultures. Marc Hauser, at Harvard University, has put similar dilemmas on the web in what he calls a 'Moral Sense Test', available in English, Spanish, and Chinese. After receiving tens of thousands of responses, he finds remarkable consistency despite differences in nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, and sex.

This is not too surprising, when you think about it. The way he frames the question, it would be difficult not to get the answer he is looking for.

If you take out all culturally relevant details, how would you expect to find cultural differences? All you know about these people is that they are strangers. Offhand, I don't know of any cultures in which killing strangers is considered to be a good thing. Now, if you had to choose between strangers and parents or siblings, you might have found some cultural differences. Or if you had to choose between children and old people. Or if you had to choose between respectable people and criminals, or educated and uneducated.

And this is before you start to look at all the questions which have a high probability of cultural and religious relevance. To pick an example at random: "You return home unexpectedly to find your unmarried younger sister in bed with a stranger. Do you (a) throw the stranger out of the house, (b) make them both breakfast in bed, or (c) kill your sister?" Try asking that in Swindon and in Saudi Arabia, and then tell me that culture and religion do not affect our moral judgement.

If all you have to do is choose between five strangers dying, or one, it is not surprising that most people choose to save the five. And if you are faced with the prospect of killing someone with your own hands, then I am glad to see that most people are reluctant to do it.

In any case, the logic is absurd. If you take two different groups, measure one detail and discover they are the same, you would not normally conclude that the two groups are identical in all aspects. But that is exactly what Hauser is doing in his measurement of 'Moral Sense'.

Similarly, the conclusion that morality has nothing to do with religion cannot be derived from the premise that "we are natural moral beings." If you believe in evolution, then it is obvious that morality is hard-wired into us by evolution. But if you believe in God, then it is obvious that the Creator built this common moral sense into the human race. C S Lewis, along with many others, has argued for the rationality of this interpretation, as the External link - <i>Wikipedia 
      article about Lewis</i> Wikipedia article about Lewis observes.

One of the main theses in Lewis' apologia is that there is a common morality known throughout humanity. In the first five chapters of Mere Christianity Lewis discusses the idea that people have a standard of behaviour to which they expect other people to adhere. This standard has been called Universal Morality or Natural Law. Lewis claims that people all over the earth know what this law is and when they break it. He goes on to claim that there must be someone or something behind such a universal set of principles.

Passing on Values

Working backwards from the people I have known and talked with, it seems that there are three fundamental concepts relating to the passing on of moral values. They are:

Children with a religious faith tend to pick up on all three concepts, even if the faith is not one shared with the parents. Children without a religious faith tend to pick up the first two concepts:

Their children often succeed in picking up the first concept:

But they don't know why, and they cannot pass them on to their own children. You need to have an answer to the child's inevitable question, "Why should I?" - even if you can't put your answer into words.

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