Secular Ethics vs. Religious Ethics

NOTE: as I look back on this post I think it important to note that it was written in response to a religious bigot who made the claims I discuss as examples as well as the claim that there was no rights issue at stake in same sex marriage because “gays have the same rights as everyone else: Marry someone of the opposite sex”. The sole justification for these claims turned out to be certain key Biblical verses.

I sometimes hear people say that they don’t see how people could be ethical if they are not religious. This is, of course, quite absurd. Reason is just as good at ferreting out the ethical truth as any revelation. It may take a little more work but it is well worth the effort.  In fact it seems that there is a similar kind of charge to be made against the religious ethicist. The religious ethicist is one who simply appeals to some scripture as evidence for the morality or immorality of some action. Thus, as in my recent encounter with the religious right, someone who thinks that homosexuality is immoral simply because it says in the Christian Bible that God doesn’t like it is a religious ethicist in my sense.

When these kinds of people say that something is wrong they do not really understand why it is wrong. This is a corollary of the Euthyphro question. Either God has no reason for commanding it and so it is arbitrary as to why he commanded this specific action and thus there is no way to understand why it is wrong or there is a reason he commanded it and the religious person is ignorant of that reason (since God never tells us the reasons for his commands).

When the secular person says that something is wrong (and if they are a morally responsible person) then they must have a reason for thinking that it is wrong other than an authority figure. This involves doing some actual thinking, applying an ethical theory, putting oneself in the others place, etc. This is a lot more work than simply appealing to some book. The result of this is that the religious ethicist ends up saying very strange things.

So, to take our earlier example, in my recent debate with the ARZ/B the first move made was question whether or not gays could make acceptable parents. This person said that they could NEVER provide a mother and a father to a child. I disagreed. Gay couples are capable of providing everything that straight couples do (with the exception of being genetically males/female but that is irrelevant). Of course when I make this point and there is no rational response to be made the real motivation for this belief becomes apparent; the Bible dictates a male/female parental unit. But, besides being commanded in your Holy scriptures there is no rational reason for thinking that gays can’t provide parents for children.

To further illustrate this point, when I compare gay rights to the other civil rights movements in history (women, blacks, migrant workers) I sometimes get the response that skin color is not morally relevant but sexual preference is. But why is this the case? What is it that makes sexual preference a morally relevant factor? Here is a reason why it is not: these people have no control over their sexual preference. True some people do choose to become homosexual (maybe Lindsey Lohan) but the vast majority of them are naturally that way. Check your own experience to see that this is true. I am straight, but I never chose to be that way. At the appropriate age I began to notice and be attracted to and made nervousby women, but this isn’ttrue for everyone. Now, of course some sexual preferences are morally relevant (pedephilia for example) but this is because of another factor (lack of consent, abuse of trust).

Now, please bear in mind that I make a distinction between religious beliefs based solely on dogma and theistic beliefs based on reason. If a person believes in God and uses reason to confirm God’s revelation then I have no quarrel with you. But such a person cannot object to gay unions! For as we have seen, there is no reason to forbid them other than the Holy scriptures but for the theistic person reason trumps the scriptures.

At any rate what the secular and theistic ethicist have in common is a commitment to reason as a source of moral knowledge and to a true understanding of moral issues. This is something the religious ethicist lacks and is the source of all of the very poor arguments they usually give.

I have also wondered about this. A large part of moral reasoning involves putting yourself in the place of the other and ‘seeing things from their point of view’. But in the case of people with homophobia it would be very difficult to imagine how they would feel if they were gay and in love and wanted to be married. Perhaps this explains why they try to deny there is a rights issue here.

Marriage and Civil Union

As some of you may know, in celebration of the one year anniversary of Philosophy Sucks! I have been reposting some posts that I liked but that never got the attention they deserved. Well, this post was originally posted July 13th 2007, so it is not quite this day, but it is close and there seems to have been some confusion around here lately as to where this post was. So here it is.


If one looks at the history of marriage one sees two distinct traditions. On the one hand we have a pre-Christian secular contract based tradition that is concerned most with legalities and on the other we have the religious spiritual union based tradition. Now in the debate about same-sex marriage that is currently taking place in our society we see some who are pushing for these two traditions to be separated. So, surprisingly, the majority of Americans seem to feel that same-sex marriage should be banned (a sad fact: Every ballot that same-sex marriage has appeared on results in a defeat at the polls). Yet, at the same time most seems also to feel that same-sex ‘civil unions’ are permissible. A civil union is a state recognized union that grants legal rights comparable to those obtained by marriage. It seems from this that the opposition is religiously generated, presumably by what the Old Testament says about homosexual relationships (never mind that these same people ignore all of the other stuff the Old Testament says, e.g. like stoning to death women on their period who don’t leave town). These people argue that marriage is a religious sacrament and so should be controlled by the Church.

Now of course people like me, who think that all persons should have equal rights regardless of race, intellegence, religion, sexual-orientation, height, eye color, political party, socio-economic class, or shoe size tend to think that the suggestion that straight people get to be married and homosexual people have to have civil unions denies a basic human right to people who happen to be homosexuals.

But there is another inequality in the proposed split between marriage and civil unions. That is that I, as a heterosexual, can only get married: Me and my girlfriend cannot get a civil union. I am not a religious person (I am agnostic) nor is my girlfriend. If I were to get married it would not be by a priest, nor would it take place at a church. In short mine would be a completely secular affair. Nor do I think that what I just described is so out of the ordinary.

 So I say we should formally distinguish these two aspects. Let marriage be a religious institution and let civil unions be a secular institution. Let the church govern marriage and define it as between one man and one woman. And let the state govern civil unions and define it as they want; a loving commitment to partnership and family betweem two persons. That way religious people would get marriages and secular people would get civil unions.

Now I suspect that there will be those who are unsatisfied with this answer. They might insist that same-sex marriages should be allowed, that the Church ought to be forced to recognize same-sex marriage as legitimate. While I sympathize with this sentiment I think that it must be recognized that, for better or for worse, marriage has become partly a religious ceremony. It is in fact a sacrament of faith. So in so far as it is a religious instituion, and in so far as the Church has the right to run its instituions, the Church has a right to define marriage as it wants. Though there is an interesting question here. Could the Church define marriage as only between two people of the same race? Or of the same faith? If they could not then it seems arbitrary that they do get to stipulate ‘same sex’ and it does seems as though they couldn’t do the former. So maybe the Church can’t define marriage in any way that it wants.

Maybe if we press the above kinds of arguments and reason prevails then we will eventually see people with perfect equality in this respect and then every couple, regardless of orientation, will have the choice between the religious instituion of marriage and the secular instituion of civil union. But until then (don’t hold your breath!) by clearly seperating the two instituions and making civil unions available to all secular persons we can better focus on what the real issue is (i.e. one of the Church’s right to govern its instituions) and at the same time by raising the status of civil unions we address the worry that civil unions discriminate against homsosexuals; that it is somehow ‘marriage-lite’.  It is not as though civil unions are ‘less than a marriage’ it is just that they are a secular rather than religious instituion. The fight with religion to recognize gay persons as deserving equality is another fight.

The (New) Agnostic’s Manifesto: Part 1 –Preamble

There is no denying that we live in an age of religious extremism; hell even the atheists are extreme nowadays. But just what ought one to believe about this? As some of you may know, I advocate agnosticism which is the view that the most rational thing to do when one is in our position is withhold judgment. I claim that we do not know that God exists, but nor do we know if He doesn’t exist. Furthermore I claim that we have good evidence on both sides of the dispute. Some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are rationally compelling, some of the arguments against the existence of God are also rationally compelling. Given this the only rational choice, I argue, is agnosticism. To believe in God is to believe something with insufficient evidence; so too, though, is the belief that there is no God. Neither belief is supported by the evidence.  But before I try to give an argument for what I say above I want to say a few introductory things.

1. Religion vs. Theism

But this does not mean that I am, or have to be, agnostic about organized religion. The verdict is in on that one and I am in agreement with the Richard Dawkins of the world. Religion is at best silly and at worst pernicious.  Sadly a brief look at history reveals that it is mostly pernicious. It is people with religious beliefs that fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up at public places, shoot doctors who perform abortions, go on crusades, believe in talking snakes, etc, etc, etc.

This is to be distinguished from theism which is the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being who created the Heavens and the Earth. Belief in theism in not associated with any one religion. It is, in fact, the thing that unites (most of) the major religions.  Belief in theism automatically rules out (most if not all) religious beliefs. A supremely loving God would not command you to blow up innocent civilians or to go on crusades or to hate gays, etc, etc, etc.

Thus ‘should I believe in theism or atheism’ is a question that can be rationally addressed (the answer is believe neither: be agnostic), but ‘should I be a Christian or a Muslim’ is not (the answer is be neither: they are both silly). Each of the beliefs specific to these religions, aside from theism, is, in its own way, patently absurd and ridiculous and is obviously the creation of man.

2. Universal Agnosticism?

Some agnostics, like Bertrand Russell, argue that we have to be what I call universal agnostics. That is, they argue that if we are agnostic with respect to the Christian God then we must agnostic with respect to the Greek gods, the Hindu gods, etc. I do not think that this is true. I think that the evidence we have FOR the existence of God is sufficient for us to conclude that IF there is a God then it will be the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing one that the theist posits.

3. Reason vs. Faith

The question I am interested in this ‘what should a rational person conclude vis a vis theism?’ I am not interested in questions of faith (by which I mean believing in something without evidence or in spite of the evidence). Faith, in my opinion, can be a good thing in small doses but when it gets to the point where it is totally immune from reason then we have crossed into the danger zone. This way lies religious beliefs and fanaticism. So, in this sense, it is possible for an agnostic to have faith. It could happen that someone convinced themselves that they should withhold belief in theism but nonetheless wanted the social benefits of a religion. They might conclude ‘I know that rationally I shouldn’t believe but I can’t help it, I just have faith that there is a God’. This kind of ‘Humean’ faithful agnostic is strange, but according to me, possible and consistent (not the view I have or recommend, though).

The Most Ignorant thing I have Ever Heard (so Far)

Wow; I thought that “I’ll stop eating meat when animals have civilization” was the most ignorant thing I have ever heard, but I have a new challenger…

“First, please skip the “equal rights” bit. [Gays] have the same rights as anyone else. Marry someone of the opposite sex and you get those rights.  –Anonymous Religious Zealot/Bigot

Wow! I mean, just…wow! What else is there to say? Ignorance is mighty powerful!