Ethics: Religion vs. Secular

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SoSaysApollo's picture
Ethics: Religion vs. Secular

In our world, we constantly encounter people who hold various statements to be true. Regardless of religion or lack thereof, most people hold the statement "Murder is (bad wrong, evil, unjust)" to be true. Are these statements more akin to statements like "apples are fruit" or more like "I like apples"?

Religious people have it simpler (not necessarily better). Murder is bad because God (or other entity) designates murder as evil. However, is it not still God saying " I don't like murder" or is he referring to a code of ethics outside of himself. Either option is not satisfying to most orthodox religious people.

As an atheist, I have no one to designate my values for me, other than my society (which where I live claims to get its values from Jesus). I may prefer not to be murdered or prefer others not to be murdered, but I can't apply this to some metaphysical system of cosmic justice. There are various secular ethical systems (Mill, Kant, Sam Harris), but again they simply offer mostly emotional or societac appeals to express their preferences.

Atheists are divided much more than religious people on ethical opinions. So is morality objective, subjective, or meaningless, and should atheists come to a consensus like religious people?

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Nyarlathotep's picture
Well it is clearly subjective

Well it is clearly subjective, imo.

Consider the temperature of a room. The statement "it is 20C in here" is objective. Any rational person can determine that for themselves and they will all agree with each other. Meanwhile, "it is cold in here" is subjective. Rational people can (and often do) disagree on whether or not a certain temperature is comfortable.

Now lets consider the seemingly obvious moral statement in the original post: "murder is bad". Most people would probably agree with that statement, but a quick look under the hood will reveal serious problems. Consider the following cases of murder:

1) state execution
2) soldiers killing enemy soldiers and civilians
3) 'pulling the plug' on brain dead people
4) euthanasia
5) crimes of passion
6) gross negligence resulting in the accidental death of someone (like a drunk driver hitting someone over)
7) abortion

And yes, I can already hear the complaints. I'd appreciate it if people don't sideline the conversation by going on a rant that a couple of those aren't murder in their opinion, that is kind of the point. I specifically made the list inflammatory to demonstrate a point: How the hell could "murder is bad" be objective if we can't even agree on what constitutes murder?

CyberLN's picture
"...and should atheists come

"...and should atheists come to a consensus like religious people?"

There is certainly little, if any, consensus about anything among / across those who are religious.

And 'should' those who identify as atheist come to a common consensus about anything outside of sharing a disbelief in god(s)? Nope, notwithstanding its sheer impossibility.

Travis Hedglin's picture
This is what I consider to be

This is what I consider to be a "rabbit-hole" conversation. Anytime we start discussing "subjective" and "objective" and how to prove it we are mentally fellating ourselves. For the most part, anything we would point to as "objective", are "objective" in the sense of well-defined units of measure, protocols, or systems. It is easily arguable that the basis for such "objective" things are arbitrary concepts. You could easily create a unit of measure that was just as "objective" as an inch, degree, or quantity. You could create a game, or revise one, with a set of well-defined rules that would be considered "objective". Objectivity is really a concept, that we can make a system of measure or utility that all can use and arrive at the same value, nothing more.

Is there a system of measure or protocol in place to evaluate morality? Yes and no. While there does not seem to be any hard, specific, well-defined systems in place with which we can all evaluate morality and reach the same conclusion; there is still a lot of consensus in how we can evaluate it. In just about every educated and judiciary society on the planet there is secular legislation, which seems to be based off of culpability and severity. This, in its own way, can be seen as being nearly as objective as the rules of a game or units of measure. In the United States, the probate code includes a slapstick measurement as well, of first/second/third degree.

As far as whether atheist should come to a consensus, in some predominately atheist societies, they apparently have. Does that mean that all atheists can or should come to a consensus? No. Atheism doesn't promote any specific moral code, unlike religions. There are no "adherents" because there isn't anything with which to adhere, no rules or commandments, the only thing atheist have in common is they don't believe in something. I don't believe in pixies, I would be willing to gamble that Nyarlathotep does not believe in them either, does that mean we have anything else in common at all?

watchman's picture
"So is morality objective,

"So is morality objective, subjective, or meaningless, and should atheists come to a consensus like religious people?"

I'm pretty sure getting Atheists as a group to agree on anything specific is an impossibility.

For me morality is always subjective.... always adjusted by circumstances ....

I always think of any given situation ,(food shortages ,water shortages ,life and death choices etc.) then picture it taking place in one of the life boats from the Titanic ..... the ethics and morality of any crisis change considerably with the change in circumstances..

Jeff Vella Leone's picture
Yes I agree that morality is

Yes I agree that morality is subjective and in some cases it is not even possible to determine the right moral action.

"I'm pretty sure getting Atheists as a group to agree on anything specific is an impossibility."

i can agree that in most cases no group agrees on anything, there is always someone who has some differences.

I tend to look at it more of what the majority of a particular group or better; a set of people agree upon.

Some things that most(not all) atheists agree upon are:

-They are mostly Anti-Theists even if they do not realize it
(they view theism as doing more harm then good to this world)
- They mostly view morality as subjective
- They tend to be less dogmatic
- They tend to be more skeptical about the bible
- They have more confidence in science then theists
- They do not hate gays just because they are gays in most cases.

I could probably find more but I think that this concept of the only thing that we have in common is the lack of belief in a theistic claim is a bit too much over simplified and at some point someone must point out that there are some qualities that are usually in common.

SoSaysApollo's picture
I would have to agree that

I would have to agree that atheist's only commonality is a disbelief in theism, and this gives no reason to have any other beliefs in common, moral or otherwise. And by religious consensus I mean there is a consensus as to morality's status as objective. Can those who reject religion come to a general understanding regarding morality's objectivity or lack thereof?

Nyarlathotep's picture
Well some religious people

Well some religious people say that there is objective morality, and others say that whatever god says is right, is right (divine command theory); which ironically makes it subjective.

Clearly mainstream Christianity (if you take them at their word) presents a subjective morality: where it is a function of time, depending if you are living:
1) Before the fall (garden of Eden).
2) In the old testament days.
3) Or after the death of Jesus.

CyberLN's picture


Travis Hedglin's picture
"I would have to agree that

"I would have to agree that atheist's only commonality is a disbelief in theism, and this gives no reason to have any other beliefs in common, moral or otherwise."

You would be surprised how many people, including some atheists, have a hard time understanding this.

"And by religious consensus I mean there is a consensus as to morality's status as objective."

I would say that there is. Most religious people appeal to a ruleset handed down by their holy texts, church, or prophet as being perfect moral pronouncements. They call the abandonment of personal moral reasoning "objective", as it wouldn't rely on the individual, because it instead asks people to blindly accept the ruleset as moral without question or investigation. While this would be "objective" in the sense that it shouldn't rely on the individuals moral reasoning, it would still be an amoral system(because it is the abandonment of moral reasoning), and we can easily notice individual moral reasoning superseding it(working on a Sunday is not a capitol offense).

"Can those who reject religion come to a general understanding regarding morality's objectivity or lack thereof?"

This question is, in the end, a philosophy question. I have met people who were hard solipsists, and some who are gnostic concerning our reality, I don't see these two groups ever reconciling even over this question.

cmallen's picture
This is really moot because

This is really moot because morality is shown to be subjective in all instances, there is no such thing as a truly objective morality. However loud someone yells that their morality is objective, they are mistaken, delusional, lying or all of the above.

Pitar's picture
Ethics/morality is and always

Ethics/morality is and always has been relatively defined by man's time-line across his various cultural norms. Whatever goes at the moment is accepted as normal.

Secular law and religious law draw upon, support and complement each other. Where secular law defines a crime, religion defines it as a sin. The former has consequences of a physical type, the latter of a spiritual type. This covers all bases. That's how they complement each other.

SoSaysApollo's picture
I agree that morality is

I agree that morality is subjective and the very biological and cultural evolution of our species has given us preferences which tend to create what might appear a universal or objective moral values i.e. murder, theft, rape are generally discouraged in most societies, but still even what constitutes as these actions and there severity on the 'ethical spectrum' There are those who benefit from theft, yet I do not like stealing. There are those who benefit from slavery, yet it seems intolerable to live in a society which practices it. It is ultimately 'We say slavery is bad, we have the power to enforce this to our greatest extent, therefore it is (as far as society is concerned) immoral. Do we have the right to condemn the ethics of other cultures and times, when we ourselves may be doing future societies will be appalled by (slaughterhouses or marijuana incarcerations for example)? And do we have the right to criticize the wrongdoings of religious people (people in general even), when they feel they are doing the right thing?

UberCryxic's picture
I reject the subtle premise

I reject the subtle premise that atheists are divided in their ethical opinions because of their atheism. Atheism is an ontological belief; its main point is to tell us something about the fundamental structure of reality (in this case what it lacks, such as gods). It's not to teach us morality or how to live our lives. There are other sources and avenues for that purpose.

Myself I happen to be persuaded by moral realism, which says that morality can be reduced to natural properties and empirically studied. Thus I believe there are objective moral standards which can be discovered through empirical research and historical experience. For me the clearest expression of these standards is found in liberalism, and so I would say liberalism is the basis for my morality. What's morally right is what's acceptable to liberalism, and anything that isn't is morally wrong. And we can get into what liberalism means or implies for the properties of morality later, but I just wanted to mention that there can be a rational basis for morality.

mysticrose's picture
The things that we do should

The things that we do should depend on our moral values and empathy.

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